A Primer on Free Will

Saturday, 23 April 2016 05:40 pm
cjbanning: (The Bishop)

Many discussions about human free will often find themselves mired in confusion. Much of the difficulty stems from the fact that the phrase “free will” itself can mean different things in different contexts. In particular, philosophical and theological debates over free will tend to take place on related but nonetheless very different semantic territories.


Here are some different basic descriptions of free will we will discuss:

  • Causal free will: more commonly known as “libertarian free will,” the ability to make a decision whose outcome is in some sense independent of the causal history of the universe, i.e. to have one’s deliberations be uncaused by any factor outside one’s own will.

  • Theological free will: the ability to make a decision  whose outcome is not predetermined or preordained by a theistic deity, i.e. God.

  • Logical free will: the ability to make a decision whose outcome is not restrained by the truth value of given propositions concerning the future.


A large, but not all-inclusive, part of debates about free will is determining which, if any, of these or other formulations of free will must be descriptive of the situation in order for “true free will”--what I will refer to as free will simpliciter--to be present. If a given formulation doesn’t hold in a situation, we say that the situation is deterministic in regards to that formulation. Thus we can have causal determinism, theological determinism (predeterminism), logical determinism, and so forth.


To hold that a given formulation of free will need not be descriptive of a situation in order for free will simpliciter to be present is to hold a position called compatibilism. For example, some Calvinists are compatibilists in that they believe that humans can have free will despite their actions being in some sense preordained by God, while I, as well as most professional philosophers, are compatibilists in that we believe that human free will does not require human decisions to be physically uncaused by natural antecedents.


Contrariwise, to hold that a given formulation of free will must be descriptive of a situation in order for free will simpliciter to be present is to hold to incompatibilism. To be incompatibilist in regard to causality, for example, means that one believes that either causal determinism is false (allowing libertarian free will to exist) or else human beings do not have free will. Theologically, some Calvinists are incompatiblist in that they deny the existence of human free will, while Arminians and Catholics are similarly incompatibilists in that they reject the doctrine of predestination.


One might, quite reasonably, conclude that these debates are largely about semantics. Unless free will simpliciter exists somewhere as a form in a Platonic heaven, then this is only really a debate about how we, as language-users, ought to define the morpheme pair “free will.” To a large degree, this is correct. That is not to say, however, that all definitions are created equal. It is certainly not to say that all definitions match equally well with our intuitive understanding or ordinary use of a given phrase.


cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in God's image; in the image of the gods, God created them; male and female God created them.
Needless to say, the interpretation of Genesis 1:27 I give in my recent post On Being Straight is not the only interpretation which exists in the cultural sphere. All too often, I think people read it as actually affirming binary gender as something which is somehow divinely ordained--that God personally, actively, and deliberately separated the human species into male and female, all by Godself. But I think that's a bad interpretation.

Now admittedly, the hermeneutic criteria I take with me to Scripture--that an interpretation of Scripture is true (good? correct? best?) if and only if it is empowering to oppressed classes (women, queer people, the impoverished, etc.)--rules out the "divinely ordained binary gender" reading right from the get-go. But I don't think you need to be actively seeking to re-vision the text as I am in order to recognize that that interpretation doesn't really make sense when viewed in the greater context of what Genesis 1 is attempting to accomplish.

Some background: the reference to the imago dei in Gen. 1:27 comes towards the end of what is the first of two creation narratives in Genesis. Gen. 1:1-2:3 is called by scholars the "Priestly" account; Genesis 2:4-25ff is called the "Yahwist." Both stories represent the result of many generations of oral tradition which were ultimately compiled together in the work that would come to be known as the Book of Genesis.

The primary purpose of both narratives, but especially the Priestly account, is etiological: it explains how and why the world came into being. I don't think it's intended to explain what came into being at all; the ancient Hebrews simply could look around to see that. Of course, the "what" needed to be described in order to discuss the how and the why, and the ancient Hebrews did so in the languuage which was available to them, but I don't think the Priestly account is really making an ontological point at all. The Priestly account doesn't tell us that God created birds on the fifth day in order to explain that there is a such thing as "birdness" which all those flying things have in common (leading one to wonder whether non-flying birds like ostriches, and fying mammals like bats, were created on the fifth or sixth day); it does so to explain where all those flying things (whatever we want to call them and however we wish to classify them) came from. Trying to force metaphysics onto the myth seems to be doing it a great disservice, especially if one believes (I do not) that ideologically-neutral "textualist" or "functionalist" readings are available to a reader.

I'd argue that the mention of gender in 1:27 is functionally equivalent to the mention of avians in 1:20-24: "men" and "women" were categories which were already experientially present to the ancient Hebrews. That men and women existed was already stipulated, rightly or wrongly; they didn't need oral tradition to tell them that. The creation narrative would thus have functioned to explain where both genders came from--from God--rather than to assign them some type of eternal, unchanging essence.

If we assume the opposite, that Gen. 1:27 is detailing some sort of deliberate "creation" of gender and/or gendered differences (prominent marriage equality opponent Maggie Gallagher describes it as "the idea that God himself [sic] made man [sic] as male and female and commanded men and women to come together in a special way to image the fruitfulness of God"), then we're left with the uncomfortable question of just what was the deal with all those birds and fish that were created (the story goes) on the fifth day. Did the ancient Hebrews assume they just sort of existed genderlessly until the sixth day?

Why mention gender in 1:27 at all, then? Part of me thinks this question is wrongheaded--we might just as well ask why 1:20-24 mentions birds specifically. But insofar as we read Genesis as making a more profound point about men and women than it is about fish and sea creatures, I think the point is to make it explicit that men and women shared equally in the imago dei. Granted that the overall culture would have been a patriarchal one, I don't think this reading is in any way anachronistic, or at least not inherently so. Since Genesis is a compilation of often contradictory oral traditions, we shouldn't be surprised to find a proto-feminist sentiment lurking among the patriarchalism. Furthermore, there's plenty of patriarchal notions which are simultaneously deeply sexist but still (arguably) compatible with the notion of equal participation in the imago dei--for example, the notion of two separate but equal spheres.

Of course, as moderns and postmoderns we do not look to Genesis as etiological in the same way as did those who were actually shaping those oral traditions. For us, the spiritual truth testified to in Genesis 1 that all of creation is God-breathed is in some sense divorceable from any sense of Genesis 1 (or Genesis 2) as historical or scientific fact. But the spiritual truth is still a truth about a relationship between God and the world--that God is the ground and source of all being--and not one about the contents or structure of that world.

We don't construct our taxonomies of nature based on a division between "flying birds," "sea creatures," and "land animals," but based on (if you accept evolution, which I'm hoping you do) DNA and evolutionary processes and so on or (if you don't accept natural selection) fundamental similarities in anatomic structures, so that (for example) bats and whales are both mammals, ostriches and penguins are birds, etc. We recognize that the storytellers which passed down the Priestly creation story were expressing a profound spiritual truth using a pre-scientific language.

Furthermore, we don't consider even our more scientific classifications to represent ontological essences, but simply convenient ways of structuring our knowledge of the natural world. That the platypus is a mammal which happens to lay eggs isn't something that many lose all that much sleep over, nor should they. It's an example of the limitation of human systems of categorization, not a transgression against some law of nature, be it divine or scientific.

It seems to me that the same approach is appropriate in terms of gender. Male and female are categories which we use, for good or ill, to structure the way we think (and which the ancient Hebrews certainly used to structure the way they thought) of human (and non-human animal) diversity, in much the same way that "bird," "fish," and "mammal" are used to structure our understanding of a different type of animal diversity. But these are no more divinely-ordained categories than are "bird," "fish," and "mammal," and nothing in Genesis 1 should make us think that they are. Rather we recognize that they were using their own flawed patriarchal language, lacking the concepts of "intersexed" and "genderqueer," to express a powerful truth as best as they were able, that every human being--male, female, intersexed, and/or genderqueer--is reflective of the divine.

On Being Straight

Monday, 16 August 2010 07:43 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
From Ross Douthat's blog:
The interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships is, for want of a better word, “thick.” All straight relationships are intimately affected by this interplay in ways that gay relationships are not. (And I do mean all straight relationships. Because they’ve grown up and fallen in love as heterosexuals, the infertile straight couple will experience their inability to have children very differently than a same-sex couple does.)
Blech.

I accept the labels "heterosexual" and "straight" because I recognize that the contingent fact about the actual world that the set of people I find attractive exists almost without exception within the larger set of people who in this (sexist, patriarchal) culture identify as, and/or are interpellated as, female, that the most homosexual activity I could imagine myself participating in would be phone sex with David Tennant (although seriously, David, call me now)--these contingent facts about the actual world results in my inhabiting a position of power and privilege which is simply not possible for me to escape.

But I refuse to let those labels identify who or what I am.

It is of course true that the fact that I have, as a straight person, inhabited this position of power and privilege pretty much my entire life (at least since I was say, fourteen, which is when I consciously began being attracted to women), so much so that it takes an act of will not to take it for granted, this has influenced me--if I'm honest about it, has wounded me--is going to leave me with a radically different understanding of myself and the world, with different experiences, than someone who grew up ashamed of their sexuality or wondering if they would need to keep secret a basic truth of their condition in order to preserve their friendships, their family relationships, perhaps even their life.

But I fail to see how Ross Douthat, or anyone else, can celebrate this fact.
The marital ideal that justifies calling gay unions “marriage,” by contrast, is necessarily much thinner, because it’s an ideal that needs to encompass not two but three different kinds of sexual relationships — straight, gay male, and lesbian.
This is just wrong, of course. There's either just one type of marriage--human marriage--or a lot more than three, once we remember the truth of the existence of intersexed and genderqueer persons. But no, we must all be trapped into our little, oppressive cages of male and female.

Genesis presents us with an alternate truth: "So God created human beings in God's own image. In the image of God, God created them; male and female, God created them" (1:27). Gender difference is revealed by Scripture to ultimately be a superficial difference in the face of our common similarity: the imago dei, our inherent dignity which is a reflection of God.

It's probably overly facile to simply say that if the ancient Hebrews had the concepts "intersexed" and "genderqueer" in their vocabularies they would have included them in the oral tradition which became compiled in the Genesis narrative--the ancient Hebrews were, no less than we today, flawed humans subject to sexism and heterosexism and cisgenderism, and there are plenty of places where Holy Scripture reflects that, a fact with which every principled, progressive Christian must wrestle. To imagine the concepts of "intersexed" and "genderqueer" to exist in their vocabularies, meaning what they mean to us today, is to imagine a radically different ancient society. But that doesn't meant that the wisdom of Genesis doesn't present us with a call to recognize that we all, male and female and genderqueer and intersexed, share a basic commonality before the LORD that renders all other differences ultimately meaningless. As St. Paul writes in Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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