If every effect has a cause, how can there be free choice?
The most common argument given in defense of determinism is that it’s implied in the nature of causation. Every event has a cause, and this cause accounts for the event being the way it is. This cause must itself have had a cause that accounts for it, and so on ad infinitum. Hence, everything must have been predetermined from the beginning (if there was a beginning), and so there is no room for freedom or spontaneity.
Now, I don’t think anyone can dispute the claim that every contingent event must have a cause. The idea of a completely uncaused contingent event is absurd. (Notice, I say every contingent event must have a cause, since I see nothing unintelligible in the concept of a necessary being, such as God, being uncaused. That’s what it means to be necessary, in contrast to being contingent). What is disputable, however, is the claim that every cause necessitates one, and only one, effect.
It’s one thing to say, (a) “ X is the cause of Y,” and another thing to say that (b) “Given X, Y had to happen” and/or (c) “Given X, only Y could happen.” There is no good reason to assume (b) and (c) are universally true. This is nothing more than a philosophical dogma. It is, in fact, the dogma of determinism.
The fact is that, as David Hume argued centuries ago, we don’t even know what a “cause” is. It is simply a word we use to say “When we observe X, we observe Y after it.” But there’s nothing in the nature of causation itself that says Y must always follow X. So there’s no basis for the assumption that “Given X, Y had to happen, and only Y could happen.”
If we look at the world as a work of art instead of a deterministic mechanism – as western science up until recently has been imagining it – we can see this more clearly. Imagine that we are all artists invited to paint a segment of a grand mosaic, and we paint with our free decisions. Now let’s think about causation in this context.
Imagine Van Gogh’s famous hallucinogenic painting, “Starry Night.” We’d all agree that every riveting detail of this work is explainable by referencing the aesthetic vision that was inspiring Van Gogh to paint this painting. Nothing in the painting is capricious (that is, without a cause). Yet, can’t we imagine a slightly different painting being explainable by referencing this same aesthetic vision?
If the church steeple in the painting had been a centimeter taller or shorter, for example, would it alter the aesthetic achievement of the painting? If it had been a centimeter to the left or right, would it have been inconsistent with the vision that was behind this painting? If one particular stroke of yellow or purple or black had been a centimeter longer or shorter, couldn’t we explain it by appealing to the same aesthetic vision we would appeal to now to explain the shades that are presently in the painting? And so for a trillion other details in this painting.
My point is that a given cause can explain more effects than one, as artist works illustrate. But our own free decisions reveal this as well. So do quantum particles. And so does every aspect of creation! There’s causation everywhere, but there’s also an element (however slight) of spontaneity everywhere.
This dance of order and freedom, structure and spontaneity, is what makes the creation beautiful and an adventure.
So, determinism rests on an unwarranted assumption about causation. It runs against our experience of free decision making, of creating works of art and many other things. And it’s inconsistent with some recent advances in science (as my forthcoming book The Cosmic Dance will attempt to prove). Every effect does have a cause, but its not that case that given that cause, the effect had to follow.
While the supremacy of God is never qualified in the Bible, this supremacy is not strictly autocratic. Other “gods” or spiritual entities like angels and demons are not mere puppets of the God of the Bible. Rather, they appear to be personal beings who not only take orders but also are invited to give input…
Greg is going to be spending the next several blogs talking about the idea of free will. In this first reflection, he discusses whether it is coherent to speak of a decision that is not determined or exhaustively caused.
Greg discusses the free will of demons and speculates on whether God is ever violent towards spiritual entities. http://traffic.libsyn.com/askgregboyd/Episode_0163.mp3
Question: I’m an Arminian-turned-Calvinist, and the thing that turned me was the realization that if salvation hinges on whether individuals choose to be saved or not, as Arminians and Open Theists believe, then we can’t say salvation is 100% by grace. If we have to choose for or against God, then the credit for our…
This particular video was recorded last week when the forecast called for a high of -4F. Greg makes light of the freezing conditions before he settles into the topic of how a mostly determined world is actually the needed context for free will to operate. Stay warm out there!
Question: What do you mean when you refer to God’s omni-resourcefulness? Can you support this with Scripture? Answer: I and others use the term omni-resourcefulness to highlight a feature of God in Scripture that the classical theological tradition consistently overlooks. Part of the greatness of the God of the Bible, we argue, is that he…