The Case for Free Will

I never realized how intensely debated the topic of 'free will' is in some philosophical circles. I have an entire class this semester, entitled Person & Freedom, in which we have done nothing but seek to understand the notion of freedom of the will, and its implications in the larger scope of philosophy. Amongst the contenders for status of the human modus operandi are, of course, the free will theory, compatibilist theory, and straight-up determinism. All three—despite the initial shock that the latter could be plausible—indeed have a leg to stand on. Defending one and rejecting the others is no easy task. Defending free will theory, as I've found out, is perhaps the hardest of all...

I've spent a bit of time preparing my assigned presentation for this week's class on determinism, in which I must select the most probable defenses of determinism from the annals of history and present them, as convincingly as possible, to the class. Although I volunteered for the assignment, I'm still not sure why. I do firmly believe in hearing all sides of an argument (so long as they are pertinent) before establishing a final judgment. This presentation has certainly heightened my awareness of determinism's place in modern thought. Before too long ago, I had always more or less equated determinism with predestination; although the two can coincide, though, it is not necessary. In fact, they have nothing to do with one another. Determinism is focused on the predictability of individual acts based on the residual effects of previous acts (i.e. conditioning), whereas predestination is more of a fatalism, in which no matter what one does the result is ultimately determined.

Enough with the philosophy lesson. The real question I wanted to raise was this: How often do we consider the true freedom of our daily actions, especially in light of our fundamental desire to see God in the beatific vision. In other words, how do we as Christians recognize the innately free character of truly moral activity, insofar as what is moral will ultimately bring us to the perfection of the moral life in an encounter with God, as he truly is. (That was really more than one question, but considering freedom per se and freedom in the moral life are intimately related, and can hardly be separated for one seeking to understand the Catholic position.)

On the free will side of things, a few weeks ago I began to attend the "school of community" meetings for the campus' Communione e Liberazione group. The topic of discussion has been the nature of freedom in the Christian life: the wonder, questioning, seeking and finally acceptance of faith in Christ as what is truly best and most liberating for man. In this context, freedom is something truly divine—a human participation in the fullness of God's essence, which is per se free. Reconciling this theological freedom with a philosophic view of freedom, though, has been difficult. Of course, philosophy can provide theories of how free will functions which hold water. But I'm beginning to find that the more I think about it, the more free will just simply makes sense. We know we're free. We act like it. We feel like it. Other people treat us as if we are free. We merit praise and blame from others, depending upon our actions. In the end, free will seems to be something entirely self-evident, and often over-thought. The world is constructed as if free will exists, and the world still exists. That's a pretty good case.

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    # by Suzanne - September 14, 2008 at 4:22 PM

    Hi Andrew! So nice to see you today. I thought of these Giussani quotes after reading this post:

    "If the human being were to come into the world solely through the biology of the mother and father, as a mere brief instant in which all the flux of innumerable prior reactions produced this ephemeral fruit; if the human being were only this, then we really would be talking about something ridiculous, something cynically absurd when we use expressions such as "freedom," "human rights," the very word, "person." Freedom, like this, without any foundation, is flatus vocis, just pure sound, dispersed by the wind.
    ...There is a "something" in me which is not derived from any empirical phenomenon, because it does not depend upon, does not originate in the biology of my father and mother. It directly depends on the infinite, which makes the whole world. Only this hypothesis allows me to proclaim that the world can do what it wants with me, but it cannot conquer, possess, grasp on to me, because I am greater than it is. I am free. In only one case is...this single human being free from the entire world, free, so that the world together and even the total universe cannot force him into anything. In only one instance can this image of a free man be explained. This is when we assume that this [person] is not totally the fruit of the biology of the mother and father, not strictly derived from the biological tradition of mechanical antecedents, but rather when it possesses a direct relationship with the infinite, the origin of all the flux of the world..., that is to say, it is endowed with something derived from God...So here is the paradox: freedom is dependence on God. It is a paradox, but it is absolutely clear. The human being – the concrete human person, me, you – once we were not, now we are, and tomorrow will no longer be: thus we depend. And either we depend upon the flux of our material antecedents, and are consequently slaves of the powers that be, or we depend on What lies at the origin of the movement of all things, beyond them, which is to say, God." (Father Giussani, The Religious Sense, p. 91)

    Take Care!

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    # by Andrew Haines - September 14, 2008 at 8:45 PM


    It was nice to meet you today as well. Your hospitality was remarkable, and your family was a great glimpse of what Catholic family life should be modeled after.

    The Giussani quotes are also quite remarkable. I think he is hitting on that whole 'self-evident' idea when he talks of the paradox of freedom: it is natural yet something dependent upon the supernatural. We can't look past it, yet we can rationalize it to the point of denial, if we're not careful. Definitely an insightful position, and one that I'll take to heart in my studies!

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    # by annina - September 15, 2008 at 10:24 AM

    ciao! ma quando sei stato ad Assisi? bello! io sono anni che non ci vado, spero di tornare presto.
    Ho cercato il crocefisso che dici tu, è quello che parlava a San Francesco! se guardi bene l'immagine però noterai che è molto diverso da quello di Giotto, infatti è ben più antico!il Cristo di Giotto è morto, mentre l'anonimo pittore di Assisi lo raffigura vivo, perchè soltanto a partire dalla fine del '200 si comincia a rappresentare il "Cristus patiens"! qui c'è una bella spiegazione del crocifisso, copia il link per andarla a vedere...non so però se riesci a capirla tutta!

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    # by Suzanne - September 15, 2008 at 5:30 PM

    Hi Andrew!

    Nice speaking with you today. I'm looking forward to more conversations in the future. Fr. Giussani also has a ton on Freedom in The Risk of Education. Take care...

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    # by annina - September 16, 2008 at 4:21 AM

    ah ok adesso ho capito. Non mi ricordavo che ci fosse un altro crocifisso in Santa Chiara, avevo 10 anni quando ci sono stata. Dall'immagine assomiglia moltissimo ad un crocifisso di Cimabue, maestro di Giotto, che si trova però in san Domenico ad Arezzo! sei sicuro che il riferimento sia giusto? ho provato a cercare in Artcurel ma non ho trovato la pagine col crocifisso. Comunque sì è abbastanza simile a quello di Giotto, ma se lo guardi bene il Cristo di Gotto è più naturale nella sua posizione, l'anatomia è segnata diversamente e anche il panneggio è diverso. Il crocifisso di Giotto è più recente ed è proprio attraverso la sua pittura che l'arte raggiunge una maggior naturalezza.

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    # by Catherine Nolan - September 16, 2008 at 9:08 AM

    Good luck with the presentation! I've linked to you in the "Catholic" links of the blog. It's so funny to be reading stuff on a blog that I recognize from real life.