Saturday, July 28, 2007

Calvinists vs Arminians



It might seem strange that I would offer up an internecine squabble on these pages, but the Kirk house is currently debating the issue, and it gave rise to a couple of appropriate thoughts regarding the debate herein.

Calvinists and Arminians disagree on several things, but the meaty part is over predestination vs free will. "Did God decide 'in the beginning' which of us humans would be saved and which condemned to hell." If he made such a decision, and there is plenty of solid scripture to back up that POV, then how can there be such a thing as free will. If no free will, then how can we ascribe personal responsibility to any act or person. If no free will, why even contemplate the issues of good vs evil or God vs no God? Last element of the set up: Both sides of the C vs A debate pretty much agree that there is no way to resolve the scriptural conflict this side of heaven. You pretty much select free to choose or God already chose by faith.

By now you are probably miles ahead of me in thinking how this applies more broadly to question posed here. Hopefully, however, I will surprise at least 10% of the faithful readers of this blog with my main epiphany. The Bible stands alone among all resources produced by humans in that it claims to provide us with Truth. Other religious texts might come close, but none make the audacious claims about being a depository of all Truth that the Bible does. As a result, the OT has proclaimed Truth for 4000 or so years with the NT now adding to (but not subtracting from) OT Truth for over 2000 years.

One of my other blogs is humbly titled "The Truth About Everything." I intended that to be audacious, over the top, intentionally rediculous, etc. Having named the blog thus, it would be fair for everyone and anyone who visits there to challenge every assertion, including the name. Some might say that I have created a lightening rod. If I had entitled it "Randy's Musings," it wouldn't have been such a direct challenge to visitors.

Fast forward 1 year or 20 years or 50 years, my postings of the Truth would likely seem silly, off kilter, or even have proven to be the opposite of truth. If I were still writing Truth, readers would and should point to my past error in evaluating my current assertions.

Back to the Bible. It is an easy mark for those who wish to comment on its postings. There are so many postings written by so many people that many deem it remarkable that there are no contradictions (or at least none that can't be overcome by sometimes tortuous means.) But on the whole, I think a fair jurist would say that the lack of (whoops) significant contradictions is rare for a work of this magnitude, scope, authorship, etc.

When compared to any other source of truth claims, the Bible is the only one who doesn't have the option of changing its words or statements. We humans may change our interpretation, and like any observable thing, humans will have different takes on what they see, hear, read, smell, taste, etc.

Which brings us back to Calvin and Armin, and to free will and predestination (insert also omniscience and determinism.) We either choose one or the other by faith, or we have been predisposed to our destiny regarding these issues by God or by wiring. And if this isn't the most complex philosophical question facing humans that has real consequences for living, I don't know what would be more so.

15 comments:

Cordin said...

And if this isn't the most complex philosophical question facing humans that has real consequences for living, I don't know what would be more so.

If predestination is in fact true, than there can be no "real consequences" but simply an unfair script unfolding.

How could the purposeful creation of a hell as punishment after death - with the verdict decided before you were even an egg in your mother - ever be reconciled with "God is Love"?

A universe with a God that predestinates souls to eternal punishment is worse than no God at all.

The most violent, cruel criminals can now claim that -not themselves, nor the Devil- BUT God made them do it.

A very dangerous teaching indeed.

We must believe in freewill. It is a definite wager:

If determinism is true, then we had no choice but to incorrectly choose freewill as a philosophy.

If freewill is true than it would be the greatest error to remove responsibility from our actions.


"We must believe in free will, we have no choice." - Isaac Bashevis Singer

Hey Skipper said...

Which brings us back to Calvin and Armin, and to free will and predestination (insert also omniscience and determinism.) We either choose one or the other by faith ...

As a joke based upon the Lone Ranger goes "Hey Kimosabe, what you mean 'we'?"

There are two other options: the question has absolutely no meaning; alternatively all life-after-death stories that have nothing to do with either Calvin or Armin.

Notably, good works. Does it not strike you as surpassing strange that [insert title of revealed text here] doesn't stipulate an ethical code, while treating fealty as irrelevant?



And if this isn't the most complex philosophical question facing humans that has real consequences for living, I don't know what would be more so.

Actually, this is symptomatic of the true philosophical question, which is: why do people treat as Truth that which is really pure ignorance, and all too often insist upon enforcment on the pain of death?

NB: a system of ideas containing a contradiction can be used to deduce any statement whatsoever, no matter how absurd.

All revealed texts are rife with contradictions.


cordin:

"We must believe in free will, we have no choice."

True, even though free will is very overrated.

bernardo said...

What exactly is free will, and why must it be incompatible with determinism?

I equate free will with pragmatism, intelligence, and deliberately-made choices. In other words, free will is the ability to go "Based on my models of how the world works, I think that course of action A will lead me to X, and I think that course of action B will lead me to Y, and I like X better than Y so I will take course of action A". A computer can do this. And I see no reason to believe that our minds are anything but fancy computers, pretty much deterministic and algorithmic although very complex and hard to understand. So my definition of free will is not incompatible with determinism, or with naturalism (which makes sense, since I'm a naturalist). If you think that what I am talking about is not "free will", then please supply your own definition. (The biggest problem with discussing free will is that each person seems to have their own definition of what free will is. And that's fine, as long as those definitions are honestly explained).

As for the issue of responsibility... I don't believe in an afterlife. But I do think that it's important for us to figure out how and why to do good, and for us to be motivated to do good. Many people negate naturalistic determinism, theistic determinism, and even non-deterministic naturalism, by saying "But if determinism is true, then what is right and wrong, and what motivates us to do the right thing?". This is not very different from asking "But if there is no God, then what is right and wrong, and what motivates us to do the right thing?". The answer to all these questions (Humanism) is simple: Define suffering and injustice (which is not easy, but any guess is better than no guess at all, and one can refine their guess over time), and then decide whether it's important to you to minimize them. Whether or not there is free will, suffering is a real thing, and injustice (people not getting what they deserve, what opportunities people have as far as property and services and health given how hard they work for other people) is not an impossible concept to grasp or formulate. Philosophers have been working on non-supernatural theories of justice for centuries.

If you are a normal human being, with some amount of compassion, then you should feel something that tells you that actions which do not minimize suffering and injustice are wrong and should be avoided. Naturalism, determinism, or any other "no free will"-ism, do not change the fact that most people feel bad when they hurt others and feel good when they make others happier. So the question of how to go about doing those things is the same as before, except your motivation is to be good because you dislike hurting others, rather than to be good for the sake of your imaginary friend in the sky. (And if you don't really feel bad when you cause suffering, then you're a psychopath, and I'm not sure how much that could be changed by a non-naturalistic world view. In any case, both naturalists and supernaturalists should be able to agree that keeping psychopaths out of jail tends to be detrimental to a population's well-being).

I just got back from three weeks of vacation. Duxford, London, Fairford, Kleine Brogel, Solothurn, Paris, Seattle, and Dayton. Did you miss me? ;)

Randy Kirk said...

Actually I miss all of you guys. My fault, of course, for not being as active. I'll explain it all in another week. Then I'm off to Hawaii for the annual trip to visit my folks. When I return from that trip I hope to get back to 4 posts a week. More than that and I get feeling overwhelmed by the comments and responding.

In any case, I love the mind numbing stuff above. I seem to remember in College reading entire books on just the meaning of be.

My definition of free will here stated will not be well thought out or based on anything some smart guy has said. I want to wing it for now.

Free will: The ability to make a choice, choose a direction, or act on my own volition, not because it was foreordained by any being and not because of any series of causes and effects. Such freedom would need to come from a part of me which is independent of chemistry and electrical impulses. Thus one would need to think of words like soul, spirit, essence. These would be the very kinds of things that science would say "no" to, because they can't be disproved. And to the extent that they could be scientifically detected, measured, and explained, we would almost certainly conclude that free will was explained away.

It is not unlike our earlier discussions of things like beauty, love, and such. If the love I feel for my parents, wife, kids, friends, is just the result of my very sophisticated computer making computations, there is a very huge loss, in my opinion. If Sachmoe blows the way he does because of things that can all be explained away, it messes up the poetry.

bernardo said...

So, to Randy, free will means a mind that is non-naturalistic, and a mind whose decisions God could not fully predict. I have heard this from other Christians as well, and these properties do seem to be necessary for the (often very poorly defined) Christian model of the relationship between the soul, physical matter, and God.

My view of free will is also a consequence of how I think the universe as a whole works. As a naturalist, I think that the simplest and most elegant explanation is that thoughts are just chemistry. There is indeed a "loss" here: The loss of made-up, unverifiable dimensions to thinking, the loss of our theoretical inability to model, understand, and replicate it.

In fact, this may be a prime example of how religious faith gets in the way of progress and of science education, since religion causes so many people to believe that the mind - arguably the most interesting and intricate phenomena in the universe - is "uncrackable". That sounds like tribespeople who believe that some mountain cannot be climbed since the gods' magic will impede or destroy anyone who tries.

But even if you do have faith in God, I don't think this makes a lot of sense. It's one of those contradictions you can only get out of after a lot of work. What it comes down to is; Can an omniscient God create a species so unpredictable that even he cannot predict its actions?

Assuming that the mind is naturalistic does mean that God should be able to predict it, unless he throws in some randomizers (or some intelligent supernatural spirits (souls) whose sole ability is to interfere with the non-deterministic quantum behaviors of brain particles) and turns a blind eye to their mechanisms.

The problem is that most theists are convinced that intelligence is more than just a pattern of stuff, more than just interactions that follow rules. They want to think that intelligence is more fundamental in the universe than matter itself, that God and souls came before protons. They want to think that their brains' behavior is somehow caused by things other than what causes physical phenomena - it is not enough for them that the causality in the brain is more intricate and interesting than in any other phenomenon. However, there is no good reason to believe that anything doesn't follow rules. Stuff doesn't come from intelligence; Intelligence is just a particularly complicated pattern of stuff. And even if you do believe in a theistic universe, where intelligence did come before stuff, there is no reason to believe that HUMAN intelligence is any more than just a neat pattern of stuff. Unless that's what you want to believe, in which case you have to define "free will" in complicated, supernatural, and non-verifiable ways, which is a shame, I think.

Randy Kirk said...

So I suppose it then comes down to a question of who am "I?" Cordin's quote above:
"We must believe in free will, we have no choice." - Isaac Bashevis Singer
seems to so clearly state the paradox.

I don't think that it is anitintelectualism that results in folks (not necessarily just Christians) believing that there is more to our being than mere interaction of matter and such. I would agree that there is a real sense in which I don't want to know if my choice of Pam to be my wife was because some chemical reaction triggered a response in some organ or other, and was influenced by someone I knew when I was three. It really, really kills the romance.

bernardo said...

I don't think that it is anitintelectualism that results in folks believing that there is more to our being than mere interaction of matter and such.

I never said it's anti-intellectualism. I agree with you that most people have a sense that people are special, that we are not like the rest of the universe, that our emotions and consciousness can't just be chemical reactions. First people thought that we were created especially in God's image and put in charge of earth by God, then they thought that living matter was fundamentally unlike non-living matter, then they thought we are at the center of the universe, but each of those layers of "we are special" have been taken away as we realize that we are just a particularly smart kind of scum, living at the surface of a speck of mostly-metallic stardust, orbiting a medium star, in the outskirts of one of many many galaxies. Wanting our emotions and consciousness to be more than the interactions of particles as dictated by physics is the last layer of "We are special", but I don't see any reason to cling to it any more than for clinging to the idea that the earth is in the center of the universe.

It really, really kills the romance.

Well, sorry. But even if it does kill the romance, it opens up a new romance, a new exciting idea that the mind can be understood and even replicated, that the mind is not a black box. We can think about how we think and feel, and see those thoughts and feelings not only by experiencing them, but also in terms of neuroscience. Maybe this could give you the sense that you have some control over your own brain, that the forces that motivate your brain are not mysterious spirits but particles sitting right there between your ears. Knowledge is power. Even the uncertain and tentative knowledge that science offers.

Even as a naturalist, I agree that the human mind is unlike pretty much any other phenomenon we have observed, and our best hardware and software is incredibly crude at trying to "think" when compared to a human brain or even a mouse brain. I don't see why we need the supernatural in order to feel that we are special, unlike anything else. We are a pattern of stuff driven by causality that is more complicated and more interesting than that in any other system, allowing our brains to do stuff that nothing else can do. Is that not enough? For most people, I guess not.

And just because we have a physical model for a feeling, does not make the feeling any less intense. We understand how adrenaline and endorphins affect the brain, we know what chemicals and hormones are released when we fall in love or ride a roller-coaster or eat chocolate, but this knowledge does nothing to diminish the intensity and pleasure of those activities. Just last Sunday I was treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen, and I happened to not have my camera at the time, which I guess was a good thing so that I could appreciate it intensely, like a painting or a symphony, rather than trying to capture it. I know all about diffusion and refraction, about what kinds of light the sun produces and what happens to it as it goes through the air in different conditions, but this did not get in the way of my enjoyment of the sunset. To be honest, it might have enhanced it, since I saw more dimensions to the sunset than someone who has not studied optics might have. And I could and did put all those models out of my mind so that I could simply enjoy the colors and the immensity of the phenomenon. People are afraid that once science explains something, it is explained away, no longer thrilling. I still don't see why people think that.

Hey Skipper said...

randy:

Free will: The ability to make a choice, choose a direction, or act on my own volition, not because it was foreordained by any being and not because of any series of causes and effects. Such freedom would need to come from a part of me which is independent of chemistry and electrical impulses. Thus one would need to think of words like soul, spirit, essence. These would be the very kinds of things that science would say "no" to, because they can't be disproved. And to the extent that they could be scientifically detected, measured, and explained, we would almost certainly conclude that free will was explained away.

Your definition eliminates any possibility of free-will: how can any decision you take be absolutely non-contingent (that is to say, what have you ever done that didn't spring from some preceding cause?)

Secondly, you assert free will must not be the consequence, in any way, of naturalistic processes. There are two problems here.

First, presuming some god is behind all this, isn't it a bit hubristic to put that god in a box of your own choosing?

Second, it appears you equate naturalistic with deterministic. That is simply wrong, even at the level of extremely simple systems. E.g., if you dribble sand grains from a rigid tube just one sand grain wide, the resulting pile will build to a critical slope angle before slumping.

The system is extremely simple, yet it is impossible to build that sand pile time after time -- no matter how strictly you control the variables -- and know which sand grain will be the one to cause the pile to slump.

So, detect, measure, and explain the human decision process to the farest of thee wells, and you will still not be able to predict the outcome of mental processes. What's more, insisting on eliminating a naturalistic basis for free will means ignoring, or somehow explaining away, the wide variety of brain injuries that, by interrupting those processes, do drastically effect the exercise of free will.

More fundamentally, though, the closer you get to defining free will, the further away it gets. Certainly, you must account for contingency. Once you do, in all its manifold variations, the scope for free will narrows considerably.

For examples: you are not free to think like a woman, nor, presumably, an elite mathematician or artist. No amount of free will would allow you to blow like Sachmoe

It is not possible for you to choose to be a homosexual, nor, presumably, an alcoholic. (If I presume incorrectly, you have my deepest sympathies, and you must know choosing not to be an alcoholic is impossible; one can only choose not to drink).

Indeed, it seems likely you are not able to choose the degree to which you are inclined towards religious belief, since it is very likely to be heritable. Should that be true, then Christians are in a real bind: would a loving God purposefully make people who are condemned to an eternity in hell through rules of God's own making?


Cordin's saying "We must believe in free will, we have no choice." is also less evident than meets the eye.

In fact, we don't (entirely), and do (to some extent). For instance, our criminal justice system does not treat bona fide schizophrenics guilty of murder the same way it treats murderers not suffering from any obvious mental disease. Beyond that, the whole Christian jeremiad against homosexuals collapses into incoherence should it (this qualification is practically unnecessary) turn out not to be the consequence of any choice whatsoever.

The presumption of free will allows society to imprison people without further justification. However, disallowing free will does not stop society from putting people in boxes for society's protection -- they will just be different, and possibly less unpleasant, boxes.

I doubt anyone thinks John Hinkley was free to not pull the trigger in the same way you are.

Didn't stop us putting him in a box.

bernardo:

Interesting itinerary -- any reason you chose those particular places?

bernardo said...

Like I have mentioned a couple times, I am writing a book about most of these topics. Since the free will issue has come up a couple of times in my conversations about relates topics, I decided to add a chapter on that as well (free will, consciousness, the soul, etc - basically trying to summarize a couple of Hofstadters and a couple of Dennetts into five or six pages). Lucky for me this post then came along so I could try out some of the thoughts I am developing on the subject. Anyways, what I wanted to say is, while I was writing about free will, I discovered that making the distinction between naturalism and determinism is indeed VERY important. Still, Skipper, to a lot of theists, even non-deterministic naturalism is not mysterious enough for them...

I had very good reasons to choose that particular itinerary, but to explain them would go way off topic for too long. Expect a link in a couple days that will reveal why I went to each place (and contain lots of nice pictures) - you know, a "What I did during my vacation" essay ;]

Hey Skipper said...

Bernardo:

Did your itinerary by any chance have something to do with aviation?

... even non-deterministic naturalism is not mysterious enough for them...

Well, of course not, because theism completely collapses, leaving nothing but deism in its wake.

For the same reason that no religion says good works alone satisfy G-d

bernardo said...

Did your itinerary by any chance have something to do with aviation?

How'd you guess? ;]

I have an aunt who lives in Solothurn, and I have always wanted to visit Paris and London (and other European cities, but you can only get so many in, per trip). Duxford, Fairford, Kleine Brogel, Seattle, and Dayton were all aviation-related. (And the Science Museum in London, and the Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace in Le Bourget just outside Paris, have lots of really cool planes too).

Hey Skipper said...

I flew F-111s in England (RAF Upper Heyford, to be exact) for seven years from the early 80s to the early 90s.

I have landed at Fairford and Kleine Brogel; Duxford and Dayton have aviation museums, and Boeing lives in Seattle.

I just connected the dots.

Randy Kirk said...

I'm glad you gents changed the subject for a while. The last few posts made my brain hurt (in a good way), requiring some time to ponder.

Preface - Hopefully we are all allowing for some thinking out loud here. That would be the only way to potentially break new ground.

I don't discount all cause and effect. That would be clearly redic. I acknowledge all kinds of a priori elements to decision making: chemical, hormonal, environmental, generational, etc.

I appreciate Skipper's concept that the combination of so many potential causes and effects combining in limitless ways results in extremely random decisions. However, as Skipper goes on to point out, no matter how random, the ultimate conclusion of any 100% cause and effect system the result is -0- responsibility for actions. This obviously has massive consequences far beyond the comfort level of the prison cell or how we deal with homosexuality (Some folks won't be able to help the fact that they want to beat up on the gayer folks.)

I know the naturalists will not be predisposed to add any supernatural element to this equation to allow for a true free will of the kind that means we are responsible for our actions.

Bernardo, other than your issue of simplicity, what is wrong with something being so completely off the chart from what we currently know that it would be "virtually" supernatural?

In other words, many naturalists suspect that there are other planets with life and/or other universes. Why not a universe that is spiritual and interacting with ours? At least there is "some" "evidence" for that.

I realize that at the end of any such exercise, we end up back at the beginning with the spirit guides being the cause of our effect. But, if we posit something that is close to unknowable, it isn't too much of a stretch to conclude that we can't know yet how to understand pure free will in a world where science is explaining so much naturalistically.

One last thought before I forget. Do your actions feel like they are arrived at by your free choice, or do you feel like each action you take is merely the consequence of actions taken in the past?

bernardo said...

Duxford and Dayton don't just have air museums, they also organize really huge airshows which gather many rare and extremely interesting airplanes you are likely to see nowhere else, since many are the last of their kind, or brought especially for the occasion from another continent. And I don't think I need to tell you how huge the Fairford airshow is. How lucky for me they all happened within a 3-week period of time (which also included the Kleine Brogel international spotters' day).

I am in the process of composing a nice long reply to Randy about free will, naturalism, humanism, and responsibility. I was going to put it here but Randy then wrote a new post that addresses those issues more directly, so I'll just put my reply as a comment to that newer post.

bernardo said...

And since we have gone off-topic into my hobby of going to airshows... In case you want to know what I look and sound like, I'm the one who appears 3 minutes and 5-15 seconds into this video, wearing a bright yellow soccer jersey. (Original WMV on Globo site, YouTube version). This was the first time I've been on TV, it just aired tonight, so I'm pretty pleased, even if I'm only on screen very briefly.