Freewill - a theological problem
Letter to the Editor of Philosophy Now sent in under one of my pseudonyms

Published in Issue 114

Dear Editor

Free will is an age-old conundrum, but the difficulty is a theological one. Without some alternative to decisions made as a result of the chain of causes and effects of the physical world, religion cannot meaningfully blame us for our sins. In a deterministic world the causes and effects leading up to my decision to kill someone mean that I am constrained to do what I have done, and so it is argued that I should be excused. But the law is not religion. It is there to discourage us from doing things which would disadvantage society. Through the threats it makes to those thinking of criminal activity, it becomes a part of the chain of causes and effects leading up to our actions. It can do so in the explicit knowledge that we are the consequence of our nature and nurture, whilst making allowance for the inappropriateness of punishment in the case of mental illness affecting our ability to reason and foresee the consequences of our actions.

Our everyday moral code is likewise a part of the cause and effect chain. It usually has the effect of promoting cooperation and so the functioning of society in a general sense. Steven Pinkerís analysis of the reduction in war and violent crime over the centuries shows that it all seems to be doing a pretty good job. Clearly it is an evolutionary adaptation.

Religion, as distinct from secular morality, however, has to claim a different modus operandi. It has to claim that our choices can somehow be made independently of deterministic constraints and that we should be judged accordingly. When the theologians come up with a cogent explanation of how that happens, I shall be interested to hear it. But in the meantime, I am happy to say that free will is simply not my problem.

Thomas Jeffreys,
Coleshill, Warwickshire

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