Theological determinism and free-will... can they both exist?
April 14, 2016 6:01 AM   Subscribe

Greetngs - I am not a philosopher (and that may be evident from my question) nor a mathematician (perhaps even more evident): Can theological determinism and free-will co-exist, and is there an example or analog in mathematics which could illustrate this?
posted by brownrd to Religion & Philosophy (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Raymond Smullyan has a nice dialog that addresses the philosophical part of your question:
posted by xris at 6:37 AM on April 14, 2016

I'm not a philosopher either, but this concept is known as compatibalism and there's lots of literature out there, but I doubt there's an actual, specific answer anyone can give you.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 6:37 AM on April 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

From the Catholic perspective my understanding is no, determinism and human free will cannot coexist. We draw a line between divine knowledge of what will happen and it being determined by God.
posted by brilliantine at 6:47 AM on April 14, 2016

Not quite mathematics, but an analogy I hear a lot is a comparison to a computer game - the programmer knows all the possible choices and outcomes, and therefore whatever you choose, your path is predetermined (make it a well-informed programmer who knows the choices a player will make whenever put in specific scenarios, and the player's whole gameplay becomes essentially pre-known and therefore predetermined). But the player can still choose whatever moves they want to make.
posted by Mchelly at 6:51 AM on April 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

At the risk of sounding like a stereotype of a philosopher, it's probably important to say something like 'it depends what you mean by ...' twice here: it depends what you mean by 'theological determinism', and it depends what you mean by 'free will'.

For instance, one question which distinguishes different accounts of free will is whether 'the ability to do otherwise' is a necessary ingredient in free will. Some accounts think that you count as freely doing the laundry even if you were to lack the ability to have done otherwise – other accounts deny this: freedom without the ability to do otherwise isn't freedom at all.

Another decision point: when you talk about freedom of the will, is this supposed to be the same as or different from freedom of choice, or freedom of action? For instance, do you think I am able to act freely in buying Sprite (rather than 7-Up), by taking it off the shelf and paying at the check-out, even if my choice (or my desires) were not things that I could be said to have determined myself? Is 'free will' here more about my choices, or my powers to enact my choices?

What gets packaged into 'theological determinism' is also really significant here. So yeah, a short answer is: it depends what you mean. The link between this issue and mathematics isn't immediately obvious (or at least, if there is a link, it's going to depend on what you mean by 'determinism' and 'free will').

I don't mean to suggest that the problem just goes away if only we define our terms properly, or something like that. I'm just flagging up the point that lots of different accounts concerning the compatibility or incompatibility of free will with determinism usually depend on which features are taken to be at stake. Susan Wolf, a 'compatibilist', thinks that an act can be free if it accords with decisions which we make on the basis of some sort of deep rational reflection (and regardless of whether we might have lacked the ability 'to do otherwise'), since she thinks that the important thing about freedom is to do with this connection between our actions, our desires, and our deliberations about what's correct and right. In contrast, some 'incompatibilists', who think that some sort of determinism rules out freedom, think that a significant feature of freedom is precisely caught up with the question of whether there were any other possible courses of action that you ever could have done. There are lively and interesting discussions about which (if any) of these features of freedom – rationality, alternative possibilities – are more or less significant.

You might enjoy Galen Strawson's piece in the NYT, 'Your Move: The Maze of Free Will', here. (It concerns the link between freedom, determinism and moral responsibility, and I know you didn't ask about the connection with moral responsibility, so perhaps it's not a good recommendation).
posted by Joeruckus at 6:53 AM on April 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

Sticking to math, in some ways Kurt Gödel's famous theorem in a very deterministic way allows for the potential for free will.

I don't have references but recent chats with bio oriented folks about the determinism of genes I've a much stronger appreciation that although the genetic code is powerful, essential the complexities of the interactions of other forces of the environment and the complexities of the body and the mind makes what seemed to be a hard genetic marker more of an indication of possibilities. Thus deterministic with varied possibilities.
posted by sammyo at 7:44 AM on April 14, 2016

An omniscient god could know what choice everyone was going to make in the future by exercising their own free will. (Had a professor back in the day who said this was the right way to understand Greek tragedy--prophecies like the one given to Oedipus were accurate "predictions", not destiny the gods were intervening to cause. Oedipus could have avoided it but didn't.)

If you buy that ability to predict then an omnipotent one could presumably even design a world so the choices made were consistent with its divine will and thus determined. Joeruckus' point that this may no longer count as "free will" is well taken, but I'd still say it matches most people's working definitions.
posted by mark k at 7:49 AM on April 14, 2016

From the Catholic perspective

Not that I have any qualifications to refute this observation but I expect one could find not a few Jesuit's that would have a merry old time arguing the topic, switching sides occasionally just for fun. :-)
posted by sammyo at 7:51 AM on April 14, 2016

Let's say I have 10 rows of 6 marbles. I can re-arrange them in 3 rows of 20, or 5 rows of 12, and there are still 60 marbles, even though the marbles are rearranged according to my own whim. This is the closest analogy I could think of, and I bet there's a mathematical principal there. I hope that's clear, and if it is, I hope it can be applied to the question.
posted by brownrd at 9:01 AM on April 14, 2016

I asked a similar question a while back and the answers may be of interest.
posted by biffa at 11:21 AM on April 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I do work on these issues and teach them pretty regularly. Very short answer: check out Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on this stuff. I can't write a ton right now, but if you memail me, I'll type out a proper answer for you.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:20 AM on April 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here's my own simple analogy:

Imagine that I just baked some fresh cookies. They are chocolate chip, which happens to be my three-year-old's favorite kind of cookie. She came over as soon as she smelled the cookies and I shooed her away, saying "You can't have any of these. They aren't for right now."

The cookies have cooled off enough to not be dangerous, so I transfer them to a plate and leave the room to go take a shower.

What are the odds that my daughter will eat a cookie while I am in the shower? Having raised five kids, I can say that the odds are 100%. She doesn't really have a firm grasp on right and wrong yet, she doesn't have a concept of "these cookies are for later," and she probably thinks I won't notice if she just eats *one*.

But it is still her choice. She can choose not to eat a cookie. She can choose to obey. She has free will. Even still, I know that when I get back from the shower there will be crumbs on the floor and chocolate smeared on her chin. It is a foregone conclusion.

The variables involved in more complex situations are more ... complex ... but an omniscient being would have no problem seeing the outcome of our decisions, even with us having free will.
posted by tacodave at 3:23 PM on April 15, 2016

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