Determinism and freewill
In the August 7, 2018 archive on this blog, I made the case that belief in free will is reasonable. Here, I am dealing with questions that have come up in recent discussion. I contend that free will is the result of the fact that consciousness precedes matter, and free will constitutes the best reason to believe that this is the case.
Do we really have free will?
Or is free will an illusion while the molecules of our brain act according to fixed laws?
This is an old but I think most important philosophical question.
In this blog, I have been trying to make the case that consciousness presides matter, while the materialist hold that consciousness totally depends on matter.
Materialism implies reductionism, the belief that consciousness is nothing but the result of a particular arrangement of molecules. And materialism implies determinism, meaning that the molecules follow laws of probability and that free will is an illusion.
I have called the belief that consciousness precedes matter a teleological view meaning that it involves purpose, and that the mind can determine to some extent, what our brain does.
I follow William James’s definition of free will as attention with effort. This means that if we can with effort turn our attention to a chosen idea, instead of whatever idea would grasp our attention without the effort, then we can make our future different from what it would have been, and to that extent are free.
When I was teaching I would tell the students that within a year they could make their lives noticeably better by their own standards. This might mean making the dean’s list or at least clearing probation, developing better study habits, stopping smoking or binge drinking, shaving time from their 5k road races or strokes from their golf scores, reaching a healthier weight, or whatever they though a better life might be. In the longer run they could prepare to work in a career that enhanced whatever was their most cherished value. All of these meant deliberately turning their attention to that which required effort. It takes no effort to eat a cheeseburger; a lot of effort to turn down a cheeseburger for healthier arteries in the future.
The above paragraph describes a good way to live, but it implies free will. If there is no free will you can only watch and see what the molecules are going to do. Maybe, because you have been taught a good work ethic, you can postpone immediate pleasure for a greater good. But you can only hope that this is what happens. Actually you cannot hope, or if you do, the hope itself was determined by something material. One person’s molecules might determine her to prepare for a career creating cleaner energy; another may plan to get rich scamming elderly people out of their life savings. There is no praise or blame in either case. Molecules do not act for a purpose and there is no real basis for good or evil.
Of course, you may decide, or watch your molecules decide, that since the question cannot be answered conclusively, you can be an agnostic – not knowing the will is free. Then you can straddle both sides. When writing philosophy you can take the deterministic view; when living your life take the free will view. Then you can live a good life having what you, or your molecules, consider the best of both worlds.
I have not posted here in a while because I did not receive any response to my previous question.
I do not give up easily.
Do you wish to read more? Please answer yes, no, or or say " I don't care."
Another question: Does matter precede consciousness or consciousness precede matter.
Is this a question you are interested in?
Are there other questions that you are interested in?
what questions do you want to talk about? Please post them under comments. Thanks.
Josiah Royce on the Christian Community
Philosopher Josiah Royce (1855 – 1916) saw the credibility of Christianity to lie beyond the historical and accidental features that it acquired during two thousand years. He said that if the Church could speak she would say “Create me.” He means that the Church exists as an ideal but an ideal that remains unrealized. He argues that although Christians believe in the words of “The Founder,” Jesus, the beliefs and theology of Christianity stem from the interpretation of The Founder that were made by the early Christian community.
The most essential belief is that the community, the Body of Christ, subsists as a reality that transcends the collection of the individuals who compose the community. Further, the individuals find their salvation only in their membership in the community. Royce argues that the experiential discovery of the early Christians constitutes a universal human need. The need is for individuals to realize that their lives are meaningless as long as they remain separated, and that they find their meaning and salvation, only in community.
The communities themselves, however, might be separated from each other leading to strife and disintegration. Therefore the ultimate goal of individuals as well as their communities consists in moving toward a universal community.
Some readers of Royce have been repulsed by this idea thinking it means universal conformism, or worse, totalitarian authoritarianism. However, although both of these evils have a long and prominent history, especially in the twentieth century, they do not constitute what Royce means by a universal community. Rather than conformity in the sense of sameness, the community requires and fosters individual uniqueness. An analogy can help. If bricks are stacked in a pile, each one is essentially like the others. But when they constitute an architectural work of beauty, each one has an absolutely unique place, similar to others, but not the same. So in our communities, each of us has a set of relations and a role to play that is unique to each individual. Others may replace us in performing tasks, but they will not duplicate the place that we have in relation to others.
In an authentic community as opposed to a mere collective, each individual takes on a supreme value precisely as a member of the community. A tyrant who imposes a total control, ignores the uniqueness and freedom of the individual and thereby cripples or kills the development of community. This holds true whether the tyranny be in government, religion, business, education, or any other field of human activity.
Christianity and the Need to Reform
The history of Christianity shows a constant need for reform. The fact that those who consider themselves to be Christians cannot seem to get it right might lead to the conclusion that the enterprise is essentially futile. Maybe those who cling to the notion of a true Christian community should recognize the futility and try something else. In fact, many people in our time have done just that. They turn to secularism, Eastern religion, or spirituality without religion. Those options or a myriad of others might work – work in the sense of providing meaning to life. But the perpetual need for reform does not mean that the Christian promise is futile.
The awareness of the need for reform indicates a judgment that there can be something better than the status-quo. We sense the need to reform our religion, or any other human institution when we sense that the reality falls short of what the institution professes to be or what it can potentially be. We cannot think of a need to reform without a vision of the good. To draw a parallel from our secular culture, anytime racism rears its ugly head in the United States, we are reminded of the ideals set forth by the founders of our country, even though they themselves did not live up to their own ideals. American reality has always clashed with the ideals of moral equality and universal liberty, but the ideals show us which way we ought to move.
The pull of integrating and dis-integrating forces that run through evolutionary creation also exert themselves in the church as elsewhere. The integrating force is the spirit drawing individuals into a community of love. But members easily slip into idolatries of power and wealth and ethnic exclusiveness. These anti-communal forces then lead to religious wars and persecution and oppression.
In every generation, reformers have shown up to remind Christians what their faith is all about. I will not try to prove this point and I am not doing church history. But I will give some examples to illustrate my point, namely that reformers work against the idolatries that nourish anti-communal forces.
Christianity and the Evolutionary Struggle
In previous posts I have argued for the feasibility of believing that consciousness precedes matter and directs its evolution. In the evolutionary process, matter itself becomes more and more conscious. This development consists of a process of composition in which the infinitely divided elements are becoming integrated. The process takes place in the formation of elements, molecules, stars, and planets.
On earth, and probably a multitude of other planets, the process culminates in living organisms, consciousness, and intelligence. In the most recent posts, this process was applied to human religious consciousness. At every step we find the opposition of integration toward greater being and disintegration, which is the tendency to fall back into nothingness.
The next several posts will consider the historical Christian church as a microcosm of the evolutionary struggle. While the goal of Christianity consists of the universal beloved community, for two thousand years Christians have frequently fought among themselves or with outsiders. The creative action to produce universal harmony and the tendency to slip back into the all-in-division of nothingness. The first aspect stands out more explicitly in the church than any other institution. The Church claims to be the Body of Christ, and therefore the social embodiment of Universal Consciousness. In Christian terminology the highest is called God, and Christ is called the “Word of God” incarnate. On the other hand, the human individuals who constitute the Church, whether they be hierarchs or lay people, weigh themselves down with all of the disintegrating forces that plague the whole human race.
The problem specific to religion stems from the human tendency to slip into forms of idolatry. The idols include power, wealth, and ethnic exclusiveness. Each of these expresses what I have referred to as forms of disintegration.
In the secular world, a person may legitimately acquire and even accumulate wealth if the purpose is to promote the common good. The wealthy philanthropist can achieve results that the poor philanthropist cannot. Even aside from philanthropy, a wealthy capitalist can promote the prosperity of many through the production of products, jobs, and tax revenue. But those who seek wealth for themselves, regardless of the effect that their action has on others, leave behind dislocations such as lost jobs, environmental deterioration and an imbalanced use of resources.
So with church leaders, wealth can be, and usually is, used for religious, educational, or charitable purposes. But when Church leaders slip into the idolatry of wealth and accumulate money for themselves, or to live in a grand style, they present themselves on the wrong side of the evolutionary struggle. Their actions destroy rather than enhance the community. If the persons in power, such as bishops, make power itself their object of worship and make obedience to themselves the ultimate virtue, they are also destructive of authentic community. Most destructive of all might be the tendency to use religion as a cover to exclude those who are not members of their own community such a people of different religions, ideologies, or sexual orientations.
If the whole evolutionary creative process is to craft a universal community out of an infinitely divided reality, then the duty of religion is to show the way, mainly by example. When religion itself become the source of divisiveness, then it has distorted its purpose and becomes an evil factor.
Christian Scriptures and the Evolution of consciousness.
The Gospels depict the highest consciousness becoming incarnate in an individual who teaches crowds about the Kingdom of God, which in the context of the thesis of these posts, would mean individually conscious beings sharing to some extent the universal world-forming consciousness. The incarnate presence of God was not seen in a warrior king or emperor, but in Jesus, a person of no political, economic, or even religious significance. He appealed to the lowest rungs of society. According to the Magnificat, or Hymn of Mary, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly” (Luke 1:52) The message seems to be that compared to the universal consciousness, whose essential characteristic is love and compassion, power and wealth fall into insignificance. Lust for power, wealth, and pleasure continue to plague society including the Church. The struggle of evolution as described in chapter two goes on in every aspect of human history.
The theme of evolutionary integration struggling with the force of disintegration in the development of religion, can best be shown by examining the Fourth Gospel, “The Gospel According to John” and the writings of St. Paul. To clarify the method of my approach, since I am writing a work of philosophy and not theology or Scripture study, my approach does not begin with Scripture as a source from which we can draw conclusions. Rather, I am beginning with the idea stated in Chapter I, that consciousness precedes matter. The explicit point of this Fifth Chapter is to show continuity between traditional religion and an idea that does not depend on Scripture or on any religious authority. That idea, namely, is that consciousness precedes matter, and in the course of evolution, matter is becoming conscious. If my project is successful, those who study consciousness from the point of view of biology, psychology, neurology, can also look to religion as a source of insight. It would further mean that those who begin from a religious or theological perspective can find another link to the sciences mentioned here.
St. Paul describes the Christian community as one body and he emphasizes that the community persists by love for Christ and a mutual love of the members for each other. Paul was well aware of the dissension that worked against the communal sense and spent many of his letters instructing the newly converted Christians to avoid such disunity. For Paul, the acceptance of Christ and his community created a “New Man,” But the old habits have a way of returning and exerting themselves. In terms of the theme of this work, the expansion of consciousness to a higher level of love and community co-exists with the old tendency toward egoistic narrowness.
In John’s Gospel, the force of light, love, and unity struggles with darkness, hate, and division. Given what we know today about the evolution of our species, we can legitimately interpret these themes as a break-through in consciousness. The development of consciousness requires a greater integration of our brain, which is experienced as a growth in light and love.
The first chapter of John announces that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” As we become more conscious, the previous states of consciousness, individually and collectively are judged as darkness. As the popular hymn has it, “I once was blind, but now I see.” In Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night – night connoting darkness. Jesus tells him he must be born anew. At this stage of his life, Nicodemus could understand this statement only as the absurd task of returning to his mother’s womb to be born again. Jesus teaches him about being born of the Spirit. This rebirth involves a break-through in consciousness that ordinary consciousness cannot comprehend.
Jesus further explains that light has come into the world but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. Recognition of the light would expose the evil of their deeds. By the time of the New Testament, the consciousness of the human species had developed far beyond anything else on earth. But there was, and is, the tension between the integrating power of consciousness and the disintegrating force of a bodily based individualism. People act out of greed, pride, anger, and hatred in ways that thwart the unifying power of the spirit of consciousness. This idea runs throughout the Gospel, but culminates in the prayer that Jesus offers in Chapter 17:21 of John. “That they all may be one even as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they all may be one in us.” The ultimate goal of the Gospel is the same as and an expression of what I am arguing is the goal of evolution, namely the overcoming of chaos and division and the creation of harmonious integration.
The Greek tradition
In the Greek tradition, Homer depicts gods and goddesses who were supremely powerful and beautiful and who controlled events on earth from weather conditions to the outcome of battles. These deities were clearly the projection of what humans aspired to or at least wished to be. Most especially, they were immortal. The notion of the gods and goddesses reveals that human consciousness had developed to where people were aware of the tragedy of their mortality, their imperfections, and what they would be if they were not so limited. Significantly, the gods and goddesses did not exhibit a superior morality, and for humans, morality consisted primarily of keeping the deities happy.
The philosopher Xenophanes (570 - 478) exhibited a breakthrough in the development of consciousness when he was appalled by the depictions of sleazy morality among the deities and in their treatment of mortals. First, this criticism shows a moral awareness that is not dictated to by mythology. Secondly, it shows belief in a non-material consciousness. The gods and goddesses were made after our own image and likeness. Not only were they made to look human, but each ethnic group depicted the deities as looking like those who made the images. Xenophanes argued that God has no body nor is He multiplied according to the multiplication of nations. Aristotle writes of Xenophanes: “with his eye on the whole heaven he says that the one is god.”
In the Republic, Plato (428 - 438) described “The Good” as the source of all good and beautiful forms, which in turn were the source of good and beautiful images in the physical world. The Good is not only above material things; the good is “beyond being.” Plato’s view represents the complete inverse of any materialism. In the Platonic understanding, the non-physical and invisible reality serves as the source and model for physical reality, which is being called out of chaos into cosmos. In the dialogue Timaeus, the title character explaining the reason for creation states:
God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the other. Now the deeds of the best could never be or have been other than the fairest, and the creator, reflecting on the things which are by nature visible, found that no unintelligent creature taken as a whole could ever be fairer than the intelligent taken as a whole and again that the intelligent could not be present in anything which was devoid of soul.
Timaeus makes it clear that his story should not be taken as an exact account of how the world was created, but only as a probability, which is the most a mortal could hope to achieve. Plato’s view of creation, as expressed in Timaeus, while not exactly the same as that of a Christian theologian, has much in common with it. Further, Plato’s view would fit compatibly with a contemporary religious view of evolution, bringing order out of chaos and seeing intelligence as an essential component of order. The materialist of course sees the ideas of Plato as an illusory invention rather than a discovery of reality.
Aristotle understood God as being above and beyond the natural world, hence the term “metaphysical.” For Aristotle, thinking is the highest form of being. Therefore, he describes God, who is pure, fully actualized being, as pure thought thinking of itself. We, as rational animals, are born with the potential to develop the power of rational thought. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle set out to define the highest good for human beings and the means to attain it. At the beginning of the Ethics he stipulated that the good is that at which all things aim. Some things are good because they are a means to a higher good; but the greatest good is that which is sought for its own sake.
The good of any being consists in achieving its specific telos – fulfillment, and since humans are rational animals, our telos consists in fulfilling our potential of rationality. In Book X of Nicomachaen Ethics, Aristotle recaps the meaning of the best way of life. In Book I, he had identified the good as happiness, defined generally as living well and doing well. Some identify happiness with pleasure, others with honor. But Aristotle contends that the highest happiness consists of contemplation.
To the extent that we actualize our potential for thinking and living rationally, we become friends of God; and acquire a virtue that survives the death of our bodily nature. Leaping ahead to the Christian Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas absorbed much of the Aristotelian philosophy and integrated it with Christianity. His synthesis remains a strong force in Catholic thought up to the present.
The Biblical Tradition - Hebrew Scriptures
While Christian philosophy derived from Aristotle, Christian religion descends from the Hebrew tradition in which God is active and caring in human history, unlike the aloof god of Aristotle. The Hebrew God was revealed to Moses as a mighty warrior-liberator who would force the Egyptians to free the Israelites. But Moses did not understand God as merely a more powerful warrior god among many. God, as revealed to Moses could not be depicted in an image nor could he be invoked by calling his name.
In Moses’ understanding and teaching, God made a covenant with his people that begins with their liberation from Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land. The duty of the people required exclusive worship of God, who transcended images and names, as well as observance of the required acts of justice to each other. Set-backs, both before and after the chosen people’s entry into what became their land, were seen as the result of failing to live up to the covenant.
If the evolution of religion, specifically biblical religion, can be seen as the evolution of the human awareness of a transcendent consciousness, the leading edge of this awareness can be found in the person of each of the prophets. In one of the crucial breakthroughs in the history of religion, the prophet Amos upended the notion that we can live a good life simply by placating God with ritual and sacrifice. Amos railed against evil immoral acts and attributed the suffering of the people to God’s punishment. But the reform that Amos demanded did not involve pleasing God with rituals. Rather it meant justice toward the poor. Amos, voicing what he believed God said through him, warned:
I hate, I despise your feasts
And I take no delight in your solemn assemblies
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them….
But let justice roll down like water
And righteousness like and ever flowing stream.
Hear this you who trample on the needy
And bring the poor of the land to an end. (Amos: 5: 21, 22, 24, 8: 4)
American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855 - 1916) summed up the breakthrough of Amos in the context of mediating ideas, which bring together apparently incompatible thought processes. In a previous paragraph, Royce had illustrated the mediating idea of Malthus on the thought of Charles Darwin. Arguing that the same creative process that works in science also works in religion, he showed how Amos reconciled the self-righteousness of religious leaders with the grim reality of the neglected poor. As Royce states it: “Amos introduced into the controversies of his time the still tragic, but inspiring and mediating, idea of the God who, as he declared, delights not in sacrifices but in righteousness. And by this one stroke of religious genius the prophet directed the religious growth of the centuries that were to follow.” The Problem of Christianity, 307.
So the insight of Amos does not constitute merely another idea in a pantheon of religious ideas. Rather his insight shows real progress. The idea of the need to take care of the poor as central to religion runs through the history of Judaism and Christianity. The tendency to return to a smug selfish attitude remains, but the arrow of religious history shows a constant attempt to overcome greed and selfishness in favor of justice and charity.
The prophetic vision of Amos was carried forward by the prophet Isaiah.
As Daniel Berrigan, in his book Isaiah, quotes the prophet speaking in the voice of God:
Of what import, what value
These sacrifices of yours,
Innumerable---useless, repugnant !
Turn, turn, turn !
Succor the oppressed,
Cherish the defenseless !
Berrigan observes that the religious sense itself is declared perverted. When religious sense moves forward, the old religiosity, which had been understood as prescribed by God Himself, becomes an obstacle to true worship. This state of affairs can lead to despair. But Berrigan shows the hopeful meaning of this sea change in religious consciousness:
But just as despair is the ignoble stock-in-trade of the world’s systems hope is the noble stock-in-trade of the prophet. For “my people” some breakthrough, a personal and social change of heart is possible, the prophet is compelled to state this possibility and also to show a path.
Worshiping the supreme reality no longer means placating an angry, jealous, and vengeful despot. Rather it means caring for all human beings in whom consciousness is embodied. To the best of my knowledge, the biblical tradition did not extend compassion to non-human animals as did some forms of Buddhism. This extension is only now coming into western religion.