Thursday, 28 February 2013
The Primacy of Human Will

by Rebecca Bynum (March 2013)

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. – Revelation 3:20

Material determinists continue to argue that human free will is a weird kind of cruel illusion. Sam Harris, for example, argues that whereas we are not our own creators, and did not create all the myriad factors of our environment, do not control all the factors of influence that go into our genetic and environmental make-up, that therefore no decision made can be said to have been truly free. All the evolutionary factors of our make-up going back to the beginning of life on earth (indeed beyond, since why this planet and not another?) would have to have been consciously decided by us to make our decisions free since all of those factors influence our decisions at least to some degree now. Hence, our decisions are limited; therefore, we are not free will beings.  more>>>

Posted on 02/28/2013 1:24 PM by NER
28 Feb 2013

 Harris's argument is very weak.  It is obvious that "all the myriad factors of our environment" limit our choice.  For example, we can't fly by flapping our arms, no matter how much we might like to.  Similarly, we can't choose our bodily wants.  Even the thoughts that occur to us are at least to a large extent determined by the physiology of our brains.  None of this is seriously disputed: our decisions are undeniably "limited."  But this is not the same thing as saying that THERE IS NO FREE WILL.  To prove THAT, one must show that every psychological phenomenon is completely determined by physical or other forces, and that's not something anyone has ever managed to do.  (No one *to the best of my knowledge* -- but if someone had done it, Harris would surely make use of it and make a much stronger argument.)

Unfortunately, I can make no sense of Bynum's reply at all.  How can a "merely material construct," in the ordinary sense of these words, have any perception at all?  If human beings were "merely material constructs," like statues, then talking about "will" would be absurd to begin with.  The difference between men and statues is that men have inner lives; not even Harris denies that.  (If having consciousness is compatible with Bynum's definition of a merely material construct, then one would have to know what that definition is before one could follow the argument.)  Then Bynum states that human beings "act" on "spiritual value."  But it would seem that, in order to "act" at all -- to be an actor -- you have to have a will.  If you have no will, as Harris believes, you are only seemingly acting, while in fact you are being compelled by external forces.  If you assume that human beings "act" you are begging the question.  The same criticism applies to the numerous statements about men making decisions and distinctions, which are only special kinds of acts.  Perhaps there is something that can be called a "spiritual realm" where human beings act freely, but by assuming it you are not refuting Harris but only contradicting him.  Failing to give a cogent argument for the existence of free will, the article quickly degenerates into religious mysticism.
I think these errors come from failing to distinguish the two questions of determinism and materialism.  Bynum notices that strict materialism or "physicalism" fails to account for phenomena for which we have the most direct evidence of all, those of the mind, and she hastily concludes from this that determinism must be false.  But determinism doesn't logically depend on strict materialism.

1 Mar 2013
Send an emailRebecca Bynum

I didn't mean this piece to be a specific refutation of Harris. I simply thought that in regards to free will there are aspects which have not been addressed. 1) God must be self-limited as evidenced in the very nature of reality. For if God were all-absolute, there would be nothing else. Space and time are the precursors to creation and they are limiting factors. 2) God self-limits to allow free will as evidenced in our every day spiritual experience and the demonstration of God's nature by Jesus. I don't think that line of reasoning is particularly mystical. It's just observation.

8 Mar 2013
g murphy donovan

Good get, Rebecca. The persistence of 'free will' skeptics has always been a mystery to me. If there is no free will, dare we say 'choice,' how can we rationalize lawyers, courts, or personal responsibility? Free will is the basis for the entire cannon of common law. If we are not free to choose, we are living in a house of cards.

8 Mar 2013
Send an emailFamously Unknown

Assuming God is good, along with granting us free will, He must have also  demanded of us to gain wisdom and courage to resist evil -- our neglect in  correcting/preventing the abuse of innocent 'others' is an evil too.

To speak of 'others' is to miss recognizing that we are one -- in being created in the image of God. Therefore we are obligated to behave in a manner recognizing this oneness; even when we wisely restrain evildoers.

14 Mar 2013
Garrick Tippett

I am not sure that