Thursday, January 15, 2015

Freedom and stability

All these Christian thinkers argue that free will requires an environment of natural laws, predictability, risk and ability to do evil. In other words, even God cannot create a world that includes genuine moral free will and responsibility and constantly interfere to stop gratuitous evils from occurring. 
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Although I commented on this statement yesterday, in connection with his general post, this is worth discussing in its own right. It merits an expanded analysis. 

This is sometimes called a natural-law theodicy or stable environment theodicy. C. S. Lewis (in The Problem of Pain) helped to popularize it. Here's one formulation:

A final important theodicy involves the following ideas: first, it is important that events in the world take place in a regular way, since otherwise effective action would be impossible; secondly, events will exhibit regular patterns only if they are governed by natural laws; thirdly, if events are governed by natural laws, the operation of those laws will give rise to events that harm individuals; so, fourthly, God's allowing natural evils is justified because the existence of natural evils is entailed by natural laws, and a world without natural laws would be a much worse world.
And this, in part, is how Lewis put it:
But if matter is to serve as a neutral field it must have a fixed nature of its own. If a "world" or material system had only a single inhabitant it might conform at every moment to his wishes "trees for his sake would crowd into a shade". But if you were introduced into a world which thus varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would thus lose the exercise of your free will. 
If fire comforts that body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced. Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibres in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit. 
If a man travelling in one direction is having a journey down hill, a man going in the opposite direction must be going up hill. If even a pebble lies where I want it to lie, it cannot, except by a coincidence, be where you want it to lie. And this is very far from being an evil: on the contrary, it furnishes occasion for all those acts of courtesy, respect, and unselfishness by which love and good humour and modesty express themselves. But it certainly leaves the way open to a great evil, that of competition and hostility. And if souls are free, they cannot be prevented from dealing with the problem by competition instead of by courtesy...The permanent nature of wood which enables us to use it as a beam also enables us to use it for hitting our neighbour on the head.  
We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free-will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void.

Up to a point, this theodicy has some merit, but it's quite inadequate as a stand-alone theodicy:

i) It doesn't select for freewill theism. For instance, Calvinism refers to this as ordinary providence. It includes second causes. So Calvinism can also invoke the value of "natural laws" as part of a Reformed theodicy. For instance, Calvinists are fond of quoting:

While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease (Gen 8:22; cf. Jer 31:35).

ii) Moreover, the argument either proves to much or too little. Carried to a logical extreme, this is an argument for deism. It precludes the destabilizing principle of miracles or petitionary prayer. For once you leave the door ajar for miracles or answered prayer, that interjects a degree of unpredictability into the outcome. 

For instance, when a natural disaster is predicted (e.g. hurricanes, tornadoes), Christians pray that God will avert the disaster. But by Olson's logic, it's misguided for Christians to pray in that situation. Natural evils are an essential part of a stable environment, which is–in turn–a precondition of freedom and responsibility. 

iii) That's aggravated by the fact that petitionary prayer is, itself, highly unpredictable. Sometimes God grants your request, and sometimes he doesn't. You never know ahead of time if he will answer your prayer. And if you did know in advance that your prayer would go unanswered, you wouldn't bother asking in the first place. 

It that respect, it's hard to plan for the future based on prayer. Yet prayer is a fixture of the Christian life. 

iii) There's an ironic, fundamental tension between the appeal to libertarian freedom and the appeal to the stability of our environment. On the one hand, the freewill theist needs a stable environment to form the backdrop for his choices. To make meaningful decisions, his decisions must have predictable consequences. 

On the other hand, the fact that his decisions are indeterminate destabilizes the very environment which forms the backdrop for his choices. Unpredictable choices have unpredictable consequences. There's a circular or dialectical relationship between our choices and our environment. The environment acts on the agent and the agent acts on the environment. By acting on his environment, he changes his environment–which, in turn–affects how the environment acts on him. A mutual alteration. 

To the extent that the choices of libertarian agents create the future, indeterminate choices make the future unpredictable. We step into the future we made, by our collective decisions. 

That's aggravated by the fact that our environment includes our social environment–and not merely our natural or physical environment. We make choices in large part based on our ability to predict how other people will react to our choices. Our free choices interact with the sometimes countervailing free choices of other free agents, in a vast nexus where the consequences of one agent's choice can neutralize the consequences of another agent's choice. Of course, that raises the question of how people can be so predictable if the outcome is truly open-ended.  

Risk assessment is a common feature of decision-making. A cost/benefit analysis. But libertarian freedom introduces unforeseeable consequences, due to the destructive wave interference of competing free agents. 

So the freewill theist is caught in a dilemma. If you demand a stable environment, that undercuts the ability to manipulate the environment. If you demand freedom to manipulate the environment, that undercuts a stable environment. The more freedom, the more fluid the environment. These principles tug in opposing directions. 

iv) Consider attempted suicide. Some people deliberately overdose on drugs, then regret their rash act. They seek last-minute medical intervention. That makes the consequences of attempted suicide less predictable. By Olson's logic, a world which includes genuine freedom and responsibilities disallows second thoughts about attempted suicide. Once you overdose, no attempt should be made to save your life, for that trivializes the finality of our choices, without which we cannot make meaningful choices in the first place. Examples could be multiplied. 

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