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Bioethikos: Bringing Life to Bioethics

Archive for February, 2010

 

Do We Have Free Will?

Friday, February 26th, 2010 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

Now wait a minute, you may say. That’s a silly question. Of course we have free will — we all make choices, and we are accountable for our actions.

Hmm, not so fast. Some claim that only physical and naturalistic forces are at work in the universe. What we perceive as free will is merely an illusion, since every effect has a purely natural cause. The mind, even our consciousness, is nothing more than chemicals, neurons, and electrical signals that obey physical rules. Nothing else matters, so it makes sense to deny the existence of free will.

The debate between free will and determinism is an ancient one, dating back to an era before Socrates and Plato, and has continued up to the present day. My engagement in this discussion will take place at a Debate Summit at Grace Community Church on March 13, 2010 (7:00 p.m.). I will have a lively conversation with Dr. William Provine of Cornell University. Although I have not previously met Dr. Provine, I am familiar with his work and his views.

The title of our debate is: “Free Will: Does it Exist? Does it Matter?” Dr. Provine is an atheist and hard determinist, who claims that free will is illusory and unintelligible.  For my part, I am a Christian theist, who holds that created beings are endowed with the ability to exercise an independent will. Not only is this possible, but it is essential for society’s good and for ultimate meaning in life.

So our debate will contrast two views. Dr. Provine’s hard determinism claims that everything in the universe is either random or caused by pre-existing conditions, leaving no room for any higher purpose, and no room for free will. Therefore, our views of law and ethics should change to accommodate the idea that our choices are constrained, and no one should be held morally accountable for his actions. He states, “Every biological organism is determined by heredity, environment, and their complex interaction. No organism has any trace of freedom . . . Moral responsibility is crucial for human social interaction, but this we must teach to humans.”

My view is that of free will libertarianism (not to be confused with any political theory). There is order, meaning, and purpose in the universe, that ultimately comes from a Creator-God. While determinism is true to the extent that many events follow law-like principles, this does not mean that human nature is necessarily constrained by physical or chemical forces. Our free will is a reflection of God’s volitional nature, who has given us the capacity and the responsibility to act for our own good and for that of those around us. Therefore, moral censure and moral praise make sense, and help to define our ethical lives.

Dr. Provine has countered,  “The myth of human free will, promulgated by all religions in the world, has caused more harm in this world than any gods . . . [This myth] is the true fangs of religion.”

This is going to be a lively exchange of views! For more information, go to the Debate Summit website.