The Free-Will Dilemma: Skepticism or Atheism?

One of the most hotly debated questions in Christian theology is the question of human free-will. There are essentially two options- Determinism and Libertarianism. Determinism argues that events are determined or fixed by some external force- be it the natural laws of the universe or the will of God. Libertarianism claims the opposite- no external force compels us to make the decisions we make.

The logical implications of both views seem to lead to a rather unsettling dilemma.

I have previously argued that determinism leads to a radical skepticism. If all things are fixed, this includes my thoughts and my beliefs, which raises an important question: what reason do I have to trust that my beliefs are true if they have been, in effect, chosen for me? If determinism is true, I cannot even objectively wrestle with this question because the thoughts engaged in such a process will also be determined! This leads to a radical skepticism in which I have no reason to trust my mental faculties to tell me anything true.

Some determinists try to argue for a view known as compatibalism, which is an attempt to preserve some semblance of free-will within the structure of determinism. Such a view argues that our actions are free if they coincide with our desires. This view attempts to show that we can be held morally responsible for our actions even if determinism is true. However, compatibalism only pushes the problem back one step: desires are not self-existing entities anymore than thoughts are, they too originate from somewhere.  If the source of our desires is external (ie, God shapes our desires in some sense), then the same critiques of determinism can be applied to compatibalism. If the source of our desires is not external to us (we determine them, in other words), then determinism is not true.

Libertarianism has its own set of philosophical problems. The question to be asked is: do we really have equally available options when we make a decision? On face value, it seems that we obviously do not- there are always things that influence us to decide one way or another.  And that, it would seem, implies that there may be external forces influencing our decisions.

Some have argued that to say our options in any decision really are equally available, we have to say that we have the ability to go against our strongest inclination. If this is even logically consistent (wouldn’t the final choice we make turn out to be our strongest inclination?), then truly having equally available alternatives seems to require the elimination of causality (at least in terms of our decisions). These critics claim that once we have denied causality we find ourselves on a quick slope to a form of atheism in which there are no reasons for anything that happens.

So it seems we are faced with a dilemma: skepticism or atheism.  To get out of this dilemma will require one of two solutions: either (1) a way out of skepticism for the determinist, or (2) a definition of libertarian freedom that allows for causation.


5 thoughts on “The Free-Will Dilemma: Skepticism or Atheism?

  1. I appreciate you writing out all your thoughts from an objective standpoint (if that is a logical possibility). Reading through this, I see just in your last paragraph you mentioned that either side lead to skepticism at some point. So there is either determinism leading to theistic skepticism or libertarianism leading to atheistic skepticism. Now, I’m not a big thinker, but I was just wondering if you had thought of it being put that way… If it is going to lead to skepticism either way, should that be more likely to look like theistic skepticism or atheistic skepticism? Especially looking at this from a Christian standpoint, since you said that the latter is not a viable option for the Christian theist… The only thing I can come to from this is that if compatibalism is not good enough, I would have to go with determinism, because there would always be something that affected your decisions. I think I could almost reason some form of compatibalism being the solution for libertarianism as well. Correct me if I have an incorrect view of libertarianism, but I’d like to get my thoughts across. The fact that one can have a struggle over two thought patterns and two finally make a decision about one says that the decision is not free. I don’t know if that makes sense. However, maybe coming to no solution to this proves even more freedom of the will. Now, on desires… Can desire come from within us or are they external? Natural hunger seems to come from within, since there is no experience of eating food needed for one to know that they need to eat something, they would just need to know the means by which they can fill their hunger. Thoughts, however, seem to always be based on some sort of experience (external). Once we are old enough, we have the experience to be able to do something to meet our desires. If we are hungry, we will eat, because that is what was how we learned to meet that desire. We can make a decision to not eat, but our hunger, our desire, will not simply go away. If we can make a decision to not eat, then we should be able to make a decision to eat, but either way, that desire of hunger was there to begin with. If we could simply decide not to be hungry, then libertarian freedom truly exists.In my mind, I don’t think that I could say anything is truly internal, including this hunger. God created our bodies to react a certain way, and He has determined that we would hunger for food, therefore, we must eat. Any thoughts we have originate from outside ourselves, whether God gave them to us or our experiences gave them to us, or a combination. If you would argue that it is God who determines our thoughts, then you have determinism. If you might say that our thoughts are more based on our experiences, while our desires are determined by God, you have compatibalism. Even free thoughts (those you have based on your experiences) must lead to actions that meet your desires. Concluding Example: If our desire of hunger is given to us by God (which we know that we cannot “choose” to be hungry or to be not hungry), then either He makes us eat, or by experience, we know that eating will fulfill this desire. If we accept the latter, that we have free thought, we still HAVE to eat in order to meet this desire. There is no other way of fulfilling the desire of hunger but by eating, therefore, I would have to say that libertarianism cannot work. This leaves us with determinism or compatibalism, which hangs with the question of in what way are our thoughts and actions determined? Are they directly ordained by God? Or, are they indirectly ordained based on the desires which God gives us that MUST be met? Are these pointless questions?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. The problem is I’m not sure a Christian theist can really be a skeptic either. We want to claim to know that God exists, that Christ died for us, etc. You can’t make such claims to knowledge (even on a very lenient definition of knowledge), or even claim to have a reasonable belief about them. The entire basis for your building these beliefs is swept away if this form of skepticism is true.So I may need to clarify my post a little bit. The dilemma it seems needs one of two solutions: either (1) a way out of skepticism for the determinist (and I’m arguing that compatabalism doesn’t work for that, but maybe you can see a way that it does), or (2) a definition of libertarian freedom that allows for causation.I think your discussion of desires and thoughts is interesting. However, when a compatabilist talks about desires, I don’t think they normally mean our biological drives. Typically (especially since compatibalists tend to be Calvinists), they are referring to more moral desires- the desire to do good or evil in a particular situation, the desire to love God or be his enemy, and more specific desires along the same lines. If those desires are internal, I don’t think they could just occur like hunger. They seem to require some-sort of conscious decision (but maybe I’m wrong), and if that is the case then their being internal would imply libertarian freedom.The libertarian wants to say that our thoughts are based on experiences and not determined by God. The problem is whether that can be said to be truly free or do we then have to say that our experiences determine our thoughts? And if they do determine them, what makes this determinism any different from compatibalism?

  3. So, if we have crossed out determinism and libertarianism as options since they both lead to some sort of skepticism, which cannot be accepted by a Christian theist, then we must be left with compatibalism. Even your last statement left libertarians with the end result of compatibalism, which was a thesis out of the end of my first paragraph. I think our desires are given to us by God, or by nature through the fall. We will either desire sin or desire to please God. However both of these desires cannot be met, although they co-exist within us.In the case of sexual desire, which most people have, this conflicts with the desire to please God for the Christian (particularly for those not married). I don’t see how a Christian could truly have a greater desire for the former, however, they seem to choose to meet this desire on many occasions. It would seem to me, that to really have free will, one would be able to meet two conflicting desires. I am not sure if that is logical, but its just my thoughts. I’m not sure how the reformed view of Hamariology works, but to me it doesn’t make sense that would God would ordain one of His own to fall in to sin. As far as thoughts being determined by our experieces, I think that this crucial, not leading so much to skepticism. Without experiences, what are we? Experiences are what make us who we are, so how can we be skeptical that our experiences determine our thoughts. I could not see any other option… What are thoughts without experiences? For a baby in its mother’s womb, he or she could not have any thoughts beyond being in the womb. They are not looking forward to the day when they will go into the world because they have never experienced this. Does this make sense? You say that desires seem to come from a conscious decision, but I would argue that your response to that desire, rather, is the conscious decision. It would seem illogical for us to think up two conflicting desires at any time, when we could not meet both desires at any one time. However, our thoughts lead us to make decision about which desire to meet. Maybe this clarifies my points more…

  4. Unless I am seriously misunderstanding it, I think Compatibalism is the same thing as Determinism. Its a solution employed by determinists to answer the question of how we can be held responsible for our actions under determinism. I’m not sure it really answers that question either… but most people would disagree with me there, I think.Point being, compatibalism isn’t a third option left when we eliminate determinism and libertarianism. If we eliminate determinism, we have eliminated compatibalism.As for our experiences determining our thoughts, the question is are our thoughts determined by our experience or are they influenced by them? And where does that line get drawn between influence and determination? I don’t think punting to experience necessarily helps with the problem of skepticism,though, because as many philosophers have shown (Descartes, Hume, etc.), experience can be seen as completely unreliable. We can get around that problem for experience, I think, but that doesn’t help us to in any way explain why determinism doesn’t lead to skepticism.I think we can definitely have conflicting desires. That’s probably not a problem for compatibalism, though, because they can say we choose based on our greatest desire, not every desire.I hope that makes some semblance of sense. It was all written about one in the morning, so please forgive me if its garbage.

What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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