Freedom and Responsibility: What Does Science Indicate?

May 24th, 2018 by

One plausible implication of a thoroughly physicalist understanding of human beings is that humans do not have the sort of robust freedom that libertarians about free will suggest is needed for moral responsibility. Libertarians believe that, minimally, a person performs a free action, A, in a specific circumstance, C, only if she could have done otherwise (i.e., chosen not-A) within C. The motivation for this claim is that: necessarily, a person is free only in so far as whether she acts or refrains from acting is up to her. Now, consider what some think the findings of “science” entail: humans are nothing other than physical organisms, the movements and actions of which are traceable ultimately to the fundamental “laws of nature.” Gluons and protons, quarks and atoms, and so on behave as these sorts of things behave, in a mindless, law-like, manner owing what they do at any given time t to the laws of nature and the events of the past. Since humans are nothing other than various assortments of fundamental physical particles behaving in the ways that they do, what happens is that human actions are explained fully by the events of the past and the laws of nature; what humans do is a product of what their individual material components, in combination, do. That’s a rough gloss on the matter, anyway. And it looks like there’s a puzzle here: is what “science” says about the human being true and, if so, does this undermine moral responsibility?

To address this question, Dr. Timothy O’Connor, Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University (though, soon to be again at the University of Indiana, Bloomington) came to speak at our Analytic Theology Seminar on April 18. In so doing, he offered at least two points of worry. The first is what I understood to be a riff on the so-called “Consequence Argument,” a sketch of which is as follows:

Assume that physical determinism is true: the conjunction of the laws of nature and the events of the past entail all of the events of the future.

  1. A human person is not responsible for the laws of nature. [Assumption]
  2. A human person is not responsible for the events of the past. [Assumption]
  3. If a human person is neither responsible for the laws of nature nor the events of the past, then neither is she responsible for the conjunction of the laws of nature and the events of the past.
  4. A human person’s actions are entailed by the conjunction of the laws of nature and the events of the past. [Entailment of determinism]
  5. A human person is not responsible for her actions. [From 1 – 4]

O’Connor points out the worrying implication: if we want to take moral responsibility seriously, the Consequence Argument puts us on the horns of a dilemma: either we accept the purported deliverances of science (that physical determinism is true) and find some way to hold morally responsible people who are not responsible for their actions or else we assume that (5) is false and find some premise that’s false. But, given physicalism and physical determinism, the premises seem unassailable. To what, then, shall we object?

I understand O’Connor to have argued that the arguments for physical determinism, the assumption driving the direct argument, are unconvincing. And this is for at least two reasons. First, it’s not clear that the physical sciences do suggest that future events are entailed in the way physical determinism suggests, even if it is a majority report among physicists. Second, in the explanation of human actions, qualia are, at least sometimes, a part of the explanation of human actions. ‘Qualia’ are phenomenal experiences: the “what it’s like” of human consciousness. For example: there’s a “what it’s like” to being drowsy enough to decide to get up from one’s chair to make coffee. The felt experience of drowsiness, so goes the argument, features in the explanation of why one might make coffee. Importantly, qualia resist bottom-up physical explanation. Indeed, they are a central and load-bearing difficulty in the physicalist’s so-called “Hard Problem” of consciousness (though van Inwagen might remind us that it’s not easy to explain consciousness for non-physicalists either). And if this is correct, if qualia—things that aren’t reducible to physical events—are part of the explanation of human actions, then physical determinism is false. It’s not the case that every future event is an entailment of the laws of nature and the events of the past. And that’s because some events aren’t physical events. Here’s the upshot: perhaps some of these undetermined events are human actions for which humans are morally responsible.

For my part, while I have theological motivations that lean me away from libertarian accounts of freedom—that is, there’s something about compatibilist accounts (wherein determinism of some variety and human freedom are compatible) that don’t strike me as theologically counterintuitive as they do for many thinkers—I find the Consequence Argument persuasive. It’s hard to deny its premises, given physical determinism. Add to this that O’Connor provided some reasons to think that even the purported scientific evidence for determinism is underdeterminative. If so, I’m inclined to think that physical determinism, at least, is false.

J. T. Turner is a Research Associate on Fuller Theological Seminary’s Analytic Theology Project for the 2016 – 2017 academic year. He holds a PhD from The University of Edinburgh, a ThM from Erskine College and Seminary, and an MA and BS from Liberty University. Turner’s current research projects include writing a book on the metaphysics of afterlife in Christian theology, and work on constructing an analytic theology of what some biblical theologians call “holistic eschatology.”


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