After much study, I have concluded that often times disagreement on the issue comes down to emphasis. Libertarians (very basically, the belief that we could always choose otherwise) fail to acknowledge constraints of the will and the importance of a grounded will, and determinists (there is no choice, and everything is determined by outside factors) fail to acknowledge agency. In order to explore the will, I want to explore two examples of free will put forth in the media. I think both highlight some popular ideas, and both come up short in accurately displaying what they intend to display.
The Adjustment Bureau:
When I saw previews for the “Adjustment Bureau,” I couldn’t wait to see it. I love movies with twists, and I absolutely love exploring ideas on free will. When I saw the trailer for the movie, one of the lines was, “For those who believe that free will exists…” The whole premise of the movie is that there is this big question we all have about the will. We see a lot of what appears to be determinism in nature and actions, but we don’t want to get rid of free will because we believe it will remove purpose, responsibility, and love.
Towards the middle of the movie it is revealed that in an earlier blueprint of the universe, the two lovers were in fact supposed to be together. These two individuals were originally created in the mind of God for the purpose of loving each other. However, plans changed, so their love was scrapped and was never to proceed into existence. However, the bond between the two was so strong and so fused into their natures, that even when the overarching plans for their meeting and continuous love were altered, their natures absolutely compelled them to choose each other. No amount of experience or nurture could rip their original natures and design – to love each other – from choosing to seek out and love the other. So really, the love that we see at the end of the movie was a direct result of these two lovers’ original nature and character composition. Their love wasn’t just an arbitrary choice or something they simply willed out of nothing. It was based in how they were designed. This design in them was so strong, that a new course for them couldn’t compel them away from each other. Rather than saying that these individuals were free to choose anything, as the movie attempts to say, in reality they couldn’t help but choose to love each other because of who they were in their natures.
I have absolutely no problem with this. In fact, what sense would this movie make if they didn’t put in an explanation like that? What would explain why a love was so strong that despite memories being erased and plans being altered, it persisted? It’s only when there is deeply rooted nature and/or causality that such a movie, and choices in general, make sense. This is exactly why I am repelled by libertarian notions of the will. They seem so arbitrary. I understand that it's hard to stomach that we are all in our natures sinners who are hell bent against God and won’t choose otherwise because our natures despise such a thought. But it is harder for me to stomach the idea that there is no rhyme or reason for everyone’s rebellion, and some people just choose one way or the other because they’re weaker/stronger, have a particular set of experiences, or are more/less inherently flawed than others. Just as the unwavering love in the “Adjustment Bureau” was not grounded in an inherent betterness or a particular set of circumstances, but rather a core nature, so I think it is with humanity. And what is more free than choosing from who you are – from your nature? Isn’t this exactly what God does - the one who not only won't sin, but can't?
Rush's "Free Will:"
To extend the media discussion a bit more, I want to explore Rush’s “Freewill” song. It seems to me that they extend the conversation because they show the alternative option to the “Adjustment Bureau.” The movie couldn’t escape grounding choices in nature, but Rush attempts to ground the will in something else. And what we find is extremely unpalatable – even more so than thinking that we are constrained by our natures.
[Religious determinism is] A host of holy horrors to direct our aimless dance.
A planet of playthings,
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive
“The stars aren’t aligned,
Or the gods are malign…”
Blame is better to give than receive.
There are those who think that they were dealt a losing hand,
The cards were stacked against them; they weren’t born in Lotusland.
A prisoner in chains
A victim of venomous fate.
Kicked in the face,
You can’t pray for a place
In heaven’s unearthly estate.
According to Rush, if determinism were true, it would mean that 1) life is pointless, 2) we are victims of some deity or process, and 3) we aren’t responsible. That’s pretty much the basis of every libertarian’s condemnation of determinism. Honestly, I understand where that comes from emotionally. I’ve grown up in the Western world as well, and I’ve been inculcated with a particular definition of what it means to be an individual and what it means to have rights and be free. But Rush shows us an alternative that, to me, is more abhorrent than putting tighter boundaries on the will.
To make my point, let’s look at some of the lyrics I left out of Rush’s song above. Now, I realize that the band members were most likely not philosophers. I’m not attempting to claim that what is written below is the cumulative case of all libertarians. But I think it’s a pretty concise and accurate representation of most who believe in popular notions of free will.
"There are those who think that life has nothing left to chance take"
The first line I left out of the song was the very first line in the song. What you’ll notice about the issue here is that Rush is attacking determinists because determinists don’t believe in chance. So what Rush is essentially affirming is that the major difference between those they oppose (determinists) and the viewpoint they affirm (libertarian free will) is a particular foundation - a foundation of chance. Figuring out that chance was essentially the alternative to the will being grounded in something is what really helped me to distance myself from a libertarian stance. For as hard as it is to believe that I was born with a nature that grounded my will to despise God, it is harder for me to believe that my will was arbitrary and groundless.
You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose freewill.
The next portion I left out was the chorus. This section is a little more nuanced, but I still think it’s pretty clear. If you follow Rush’s logic through the majority of their song, they’re juxtaposing their notion of free will, chance, and freedom to a determinism they portray as archaic, mystical, and irrational. The very first stanza is reminiscent of ancient Greek theo-philosophy, as they strongly clung to fatalism as is hinted at earlier in their reference to the loom of fate, being puppets on strings, etc.
But notice the setup of Rush’s whole argument here. They are largely playing on emotion and are drawing a huge caricature of certain forms of determinism (in fact misidentifying it as fatalism). They are arguing that determinism doesn’t make sense, and here’s why. Then, in their chorus, they say “I will choose the path that’s clear.” Their whole basis for decision in the end is not chance, as they distinguished in the beginning. Their basis was that there is rationality and cause in this world. They essentially say “you can believe whatever you want because you’re free to do so, but you have no basis for doing it.” Now if the world were free and chance was an integral part of that world, don’t you think there would be more of a basis for clinging to false notions in a libertarian world? If chance is around, of course some people will believe in the wrong things. What would cause them to change their minds? But if humanity has a nature endowed with the capacity for reason and logic, and reason and causality actually do exist, then we can point out truth and expect that truth can change someone. In fact, we actually do expect change when we discuss something with another human being because we believe they are endowed with rational capacities which can be impacted by outside forces (like reason and logic). We should only have such expectations for individuals if our natures are such that we all have certain capacities and streams of logic, and where it is not chance that determines decisions, but relationships, interactions, and stimuli. Not only should Rush, on their viewpoint, expect dissension, they should embrace it as part of their world and stop wasting energy in an attempt to use reason as a causal tool of conversion.
Each of us
A cell of awareness
Imperfect and incomplete.
With uncertain ends
On a fortune hunt that’s far too fleet.
The final section I cut out of Rush’s lyrics is their last verse where they more strongly assert what they believe. Now it is here that many of the libertarians I am hoping to persuade would break off from Rush’s viewpoint. Rush seems to be coming from an understanding that the world is completely unguided, and atheistic. Nevertheless, I think they do point out some important things. With the rise of determinism in atheism, many Christians are particularly fearful of accepting anything that has similar characteristics to determinism, just as they are wary of accepting anything with any hint of evolution. Rush seems to be asserting that due to our awareness and incompletion, we are just wanderers in the universe, set to explore it and evolve. Life is short, it’s all up to chance, and it all goes too quickly. From this sort of notion stems the idea of hedonistic carpe diem, live and let live. Our free will, according to Rush, is our ability to be who we are, take in what life brings our way, and be surprised by it. To me, that doesn’t seem like freedom. That sounds a lot like purposelessness.
In the end, I think that’s what the concept of free will boils down to for me. My Western heart loves the idea of utter freedom, but absolute freedom and lack of constraints would entail chance, randomness, and a will without grounding. Pure chance is devoid of purpose. But to go to the other extreme and believe that we are causally determined – that no matter what we do, we can’t change anything – that is fatalism and purposelessness. Rather, I think the “Adjustment Bureau” shows us the importance of grounding freedom in our nature, though they have no idea that's what they did. God is free because he is always who he is. We are free in this same sense, though for us our freedom is in being who we were created to be (not who we are now). We make free decisions as we act out of our natures and desires. Unfortunately, many libertarians view a grounding in our nature as just another constraint, and are left with no options for grounding that I can see except chance. But that isn’t freedom, that’s just determinism grounded in circumstances or randomness. If the grounding of the will in our natures is taken away, in what sense can our actions be attributed to us?
I believe our natures are the grounding for the will, and I believe all of humanity has the same nature. It is not by chance, circumstance, an inherent characteristic of good, or an inherent will-power which saves me. Rather it is God who saves me from who I made myself to be, and helps me not only to be who I am, but who I was truly made to be. God has begun a good work in me. He is making me a new creation with a new nature. And one day, I will not be anything less than what I was created to be. That is true freedom.