Saturday, November 17, 2012

Freedom, determinism, and alternate realities

Freewill theists typically assume that determinism disallows alternate possibilities. However, Don Page is a Calvinist who not only deems determinism to be consistent with alternate possibilities, but goes that one better by combining determinism with alternate realities!

Page earned a doctorate in astrophysics from Caltech. After that he was Stephen Hawking’s postdoc assistant at Cambridge for three years (1976-79).

Here’s a part of his overall position, which also includes elements of a natural law theodicy.

Science reveals the intelligibility of the universe;
The Bible reveals the Intelligence behind the universe.

I have often said that nothing I have learned in science has challenged my faith so much as the problem of evil, which confronts everyone and which has been discussed at least as far back as the Book of Job in the Bible. For me the problem of evil is perhaps somewhat exacerbated by the fact that I do not believe in human free will in what is called the incompatibilist sense, meaning free will that is incompatible with determinism.

Free will in the contrary compatibilist sense means the freedom to act according to one’s wishes and decisions, which I believe does exist. I would agree with Arthur Schopenhauer that “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

Here if I speak of “free will” without an explicit modifier, I mean it in the libertarian or incompatibilist sense, the ability to make choices that are not fully determined by causes outside the person, such as God. However, I do not wish to contradict beliefs or doctrines of the existence of free will, since if it is interpreted in the compatibilist sense, I have no opposition to that idea.

If libertarian human free will were to exist, one might say that the ultimately responsibility for the actions of a person would lie in the free-will choices of that person, perhaps absolving God of the ultimate responsibility for the evil the person were to commit. However, there still might be the question of why God would permit a person to carry out an evil libertarian free will choice that hurts others. As Steven Weinberg notes, “It seems a bit unfair to my relatives to be murdered in order to prove an opportunity for free will for Germans, but even putting that aside, how does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of freewill for tumors?”

On the other hand, if free will does not exist, then one might say that the ultimate responsibility for a person’s actions would lie in the ultimate determining cause or causes outside the person, that is, God, if God is indeed the ultimate cause. This might seem to heighten the problem of reconciling evil with the idea of a perfectly good God.

Lest people think that they would be absolved of responsibility for their actions in a world without free will, I should hasten to say that I believe that the person would still have responsibility in the sense of respond-ability–the ability to respond to moral demands placed on him or her, even if the response is completely determined by external causes (which include those moral demands). Therefore, he or she can be held accountable for not obeying those demands. I do not believe that a lack of free will means that one can be justified in expecting not to be punished for one’s evil deeds, or that society does not have the right to carry out such punishment. Indeed, such punishment can be viewed as a good cause for improving society and the welfare of its individuals.

In Romans 9:19-21, the Apostle Paul essentially says someone may ask how God blame us if He determines our actions. Paul does not take this opportunity to deny determinism by God and say that we have free will, but rather he defends God’s right to do what He chooses. I think this passage shows that God can hold us responsible even if it is His will that determines what we do.

Part of my scepticism about free will comes from my belief that the simplest theories of physics consistent with our observations are deterministic, though this is controversial. For example, quantum theory is often considered to be indeterministic. Some interpretations of quantum theory give probabilities of possible events, but then which event actually happens is a matter of chance and is not determined by the theory. (The random choice of which event actually occurs is called the collapse of the quantum state or wave function.)

However, there are several different interpretations of quantum theory. One that appears simplest to me and which seems to have become adopted among a majority, though not by all, of my theoretical cosmology colleagues (but perhaps only among a minority of all physicists) is the so-called Everett “many worlds” view. This model postulates that all possible outcomes that quantum theory predicts as possible really do occur, so that the totality of outcomes evolve deterministically, with no random collapse of the quantum state. It is true that one cannot predict uniquely which individual outcome will occur (since there is not just one). So each particular outcome may seem random, but if indeed all outcomes occur, the totality is not random but instead is uniquely determined by the initial quantum state and its evolution. Of course, this does not mean that it is determined apart from God, but rather in a theistic view one might postulate that God creates and determines the entire quantum state and its evolution.

For me an even more convincing reason for not believing that humans have free will is that I personally think the simplest belief, and the simplest interpretation of the Bible (such as Romans 9:19-21), is that God completely creates, causes, and determines everything other than Himself from nothing outside Himself. (By everything, I am excluding logically necessary truths like theorems of mathematics that I believe can be neither created nor destroyed. Here I also exclude God from “everything.”). The meaning of creation from nothing (other than God) that makes most sense to me is that what God creates, He completely causes and completely determines, though many theists disagree with me.

I see at least these two mutually exclusive e possibilities for the world:

1. God creates and fully determines everything

2. There occur free-will choices not determined by God.

Most theists appear to believe the second possibility, but to me the first possibility seems simpler and more in accord with what I see the Bible says. Thus it seems to me that the simplest biblical view of God is that He completely creates, causes, and determines everything from nothing outside Himself. That is, I believe that all causal chains ultimately go back to God.

I essentially follow the viewpoint of the great seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, in his book Theodicy, that this is the best possible world. The idea is that it is the whole that is the best possible, and not necessarily each part in isolation. One can see creation as a tapestry, and our view of nearby threads does not show the entire pattern that God creates. One might wonder why God does not make each individual part the best possible, but this might not be logically compatible with optimizing the whole. The good of the whole and of a given part may logically compete. Even God is not immune from logical necessity, so in order to create the best, He may need to have some of the individual parts not appear best if they were viewed in isolation.

I agree that there probably must be a trade-off between competing goods, even though I find the idea of libertarian free will implausible. Therefore, the free-will theodicy does not satisfy me intellectually. It also does not satisfy me morally in that I do not see that the value of free will would justify the evils that supposedly arose from it.

In the Everett “many worlds” version of quantum theory, a person is continually branching into many copies (each copy in a different Everett “world,” which should not be confused with the entire world of all that exists). Even with exactly the same genes and previous experiences (the same “nature” and “nurture”), the outcomes in the different Everett “worlds” will be different. In ours Hitler was an evil monster. But I suspect that in most Everett “worlds” with the same early “nature” and “nurture” for Hitler, he was not nearly so evil. (Of course, there is the slip side: in most Everett “worlds,” Mother Teresa also did not turn out so good as she did in ours.)

I believe that it is a consequence of the laws of physics that when a person is faced with a moral choice, in some Everett “worlds” in which that choice is made, an evil choice is made, one that reduces the total happiness of the conscious beings in that Everett “world.” There will also be Everett “worlds” in which a good choice is made, which increases total happiness. (One might postulate that Jesus was an exception, choosing to incarnate Himself with no quantum amplitude to make any evil choices).

D. Page, “The Superb Design,” D. Marshall, ed. Faith Seeking Understanding: Essays in Memory of Paul Brand and Ralph Winter (William Carey Library 2012), chap. 15.

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