Freedom. Few words conjure up more abstract connotations. Like love, in the name of freedom people have killed, been killed and moved to Portland. Enshrined in countless songs, ballads and stories, to be free, it seems, is a universal good. However, as fruitful as it is as a source of motivation and inspiration, and as much as we all want to “live free or die,” behind the scenes, philosophers and theologians have always doubted whether it exists at all. At the heart of the debate lies a very simple question: who is responsible? Are we more William Henley or Alexander Pope, the captains of our own souls or hapless “bubbles on the sea of matter”

Over at The Stone, the NY Times philosophy forum, this very question has been discussed over the past week in two different ways. In Your Move: the Maze of Free Will, Galen Strawson found himself compelled to present a rather intricate argument against the existence of free will. Based upon a variation of Rousseau’s “society corrupts,” argument, Strawson presents his “Basic Argument”:
  1. You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are.
  2. So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain mental respects.
  3. But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
  4. So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.
In other words, only those who have had complete control over their own cognitive formation can, in any meaningful way, be considered free. Since we all have parents and were picked on in middle school, we are all products (victims) of our environment; therefore, we are not free. 
In response, William Egginton, in an article entitled The Limits of the Coded Word, opens his by recounting a recent experiment done with monkeys in which “researchers were able plausibly to claim that the computer could successfully predict the monkeys’ reaction.” Despite the questions this raises (see the article) about the existence of free-will, he assures us—by way of Trent, Luther, Calvin and Kant—that these arguments about free will vs. determinism, both in philosophy and religion, are a result of overextending our conceptual/epistemological reach with regards to what can be known. In conclusion, he argues: 
As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it. The dictum from Sartre that Strawson quoted thus gets it exactly right: I am condemned to freedom. I am not free because I can make choices, but because I must make them, all the time, even when I think I have no choice to make.

Indeed. With Egginton, theological questions over the “bound will” have rarely been about what actually transpires on a day-to-day basis, because most of us are clearly neither robots or puppets; however, Swanson’s argument over where to place blame in the absence of free will comes closest to the beating heart of the enduring argument, because as inveterate moralists, and as the literature can attest, the only question of any importance to people is how to make sure that everyone (except for me) gets what they deserve.

As he notes, the Reformation brought this issue back to the forefront of theological discussion, and it has, in many ways, remained there ever since, because all of the arguments you’ll hear about imperative vs. indicative, law vs. gospel, participatory vs. forensic, angels vs. demons, inclusive vs. exclusive, etc ad naseum, (almost always) have their root in the same moral, law-infused soil.

As you might expect, there is a lot to say about this issue, because the existence, nature, limits and constraints of our freedom affects just about everything. In light its complexity, and because I wore braces for 3 years in Middle School, I am forced to break this post up into three sections: God on the Hook; the Law of Freedom; and Bound and Determined. Stay tuned!

Until then, you can read some of the other posts we’ve done on this issue, watch this YouTube video and/or otherwise entertain yourselves:)