“I set out to write an anti-philosophical book; a “come on, get real, cut the crap and just look at this” sort of book; very nearly a “this isn't philosophy, this is common sense” sort of book. My intention, above all, was to bring the subject down to earth, in the hope that people who may know nothing of philosophy, but are open to reason and willing to think for themselves, will see the nonsensicality of what we call free will.” (Preface, P xii)
What Does the Bible Say?
And that's where I come in. What about religion? I will make the attempt in this essay to show that virtually everything Oerton says, far from being opposed to religion, is actually supported by the bible. Of course this is of no interest to the Calvinist, who already does not believe in free will, but still defends hell. For the Arminian, however, the remarkable way that the bible resonates with Oerton's view is something that ought to raise concern.
Now, I'm aware of the fact that one might see this exercise as nothing more than proof that my particular position, as with any position, can be supported by certain verses in the bible when they are presented a certain way. Surely an Arminain could take a book written in support of free will and compile and construe bible verses in such a way that they seem to support that position. So let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the bible neither expressly confirms nor denies free will. Let's assume it leaves the matter open. What, in this instance, is the most logical position to take? Should we say: The bible doesn't deny free will; therefore it exists.
Should we say: The bible doesn't affirm free will; therefore we should assume it doesn't exist.
I would suggest that if the bible neither affirms nor denies free will, that we ought to take the view that makes the most sense. The question is: Which makes more sense? Not which one is more instinctive, more ingrained, but which one makes the most logical sense? Oerton notes:
If we could manage for a moment to detach ourselves from our feelings about free will and determinism, and look at these two concepts objectively, wouldn't determinism seem a pretty unsurprising, natural and ordinary idea, and wouldn't free will seem a very strange one? (p 83)
Free will and determinism are a pair of alternatives: free will is indeed incomprehensible, but determinism is not, and the sensible conclusion to draw from this is that free will doesn't exist and determinism does. The fact that you can't make sense of free will is not a problem unless you can't bear to stop believing in it. The fact that we cannot comprehend it is attributable, not to limitation of our intellect, but to its intrinsic incomprehensibility. (p 64)
You don't need explicitly to accept determinism—a determinism which perhaps still seems to you an unwelcome, arid, scientific doctrine—in order to see that free will makes no sense. A simple acceptance of the human condition is enough to do the job. The way . . . in which I framed my own early vision of determinism, a person acts as he does because he is what he is; and he has not made himself what he is, is perhaps more a simple statement of an obvious state of affairs than a strict description of determinism. (p 160)
Why wouldn't God emphasize free will if it were true? If the bible teaches hell, and bases this on a mysterious, invisible, spiritual force called free will, then you would expect that the existence of this force is everywhere asserted. If God doesn't send us to hell, but we send ourselves there, then surely this fact ought to be established—and without the confusing and completely misleading distraction of a large set of verses that seem to imply the exact opposite. Hence, if Oerton's views can reasonably be supported by the bible, it constitutes presumptive proof against the existence of free will. With that in mind, I will now compare what Oerton says with what the bible says. In the Introduction, Oerton writes:
“I can remember the moment when I became a determinist . . . Whatever train of thought I was idly pursuing led me to see, suddenly and without warning, that I was inescapably the product of a complex chain of cause and effect stretching back into the past and ultimately to a time before I was born, and that because I was a product of this chain so, too, were my thoughts and feelings and actions. In my mind's eye I saw existence as something like a patterned carpet slowly unrolling, its size unimaginably great and its pattern unimaginably complex. The part of it which has already unrolled is the past, the pattern now exposed but most of it lost beyond recognition. The part still rolled up is the future, and although its pattern is not yet visible it is already fixed because it follows ineluctably from the pattern if the earlier part.”
“They gathered to do everything that you, by your power and will, had already decided would take place.” Acts 4:28
“Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure.” Isaiah 46:10
“Known to God from eternity are all His works.” Acts 15:18
What is Determinism?
Here are a few excerpts that help explain Oerton's understanding of determinism.
The essence of determinism is that the complex causal chains which bring a human being into existence run on so as to create, through the interaction of hereditary characteristics and environmental influences, his or her character, with all its motivations, its desires and constraints, and that they run on through that character to cause or determine his or her behaviour. But the belief that this is so cannot be reconciled with a belief in free will. Free will demands that the causal chains do not run through us to determine our actions. Our actions are instead the result of something called free will and they cannot be predicted even in principle. (p 12)
Human beings, according to a believer in free will, manage somehow to stand outside the natural laws which govern the rest of the universe and, despite being inextricably a part of it, are somehow exempt from the inter-dependent causal relationship of its other elements. Despite being a product of these things, we have the capacity to detach ourselves from them. Quite at which stage of human evolution this capacity arose—and how it arose—is not clear. Nor is it clear at what stage it arises—and how it arises—in the development of an individual human being. But arise it has, and arise it does, at least according to those who believe in free will. (p 12)
Before we look more closely at the idea of free will, let us look a little further into the idea of determinism. One day you might turn on the kitchen tap and find that nothing happens. It's a bit of a shock, but it doesn't make you doubt causality: on the contrary, you feel confident that there's a causal explanation for it somewhere. ( p 13)
“Just when we are driven finally to biblical statements about Satan, we are driven to the conclusion that there is no explanation for the origin and reality of evil in God's world. The Genesis story is very profound in its simplicity at this point. It makes no attempt to explain where the Tempter came from or how he could exist at all in God's world. Satan is a hideous intruder who does not belong in the picture but is nevertheless there. Logically, evil is impossible in a world created and ruled by God, for it is just what God did not create and does not will. That is the parasitical power of evil. It is not the truth about what we are and what the world is like; it is a lie, a contradiction and denial of the truth.” (182)
“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace and create evil . . . ” (Isa. 45:7)
“ . . . his hand hath formed the crooked serpent.” (Job 26:13)
“I have created the waster to destroy.” (Isa. 54:16)
“For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:36)
"All things are of God." (II Cor. 5:18)
Now, this of course opens a whole new can of worms—namely, who and what is Satan and how did he come to be Satan. That subject is beyond the purview of this essay. Suffice it to say that sufficient biblical evidence exists for the idea that evil did not spring into existence either by itself or by man's free will, but by the will of God. In other words, the bible can be reasonably interpreted to support Oerton's view of causality. Given the fact that the traditional explanations explain nothing and pose logical absurdities, we ought to favor the explanation that God caused evil.
What is Free Will?
In the attempt to rescue free will some philosophers have claimed that as long as an act is not coerced, it is free. Those who make this claim are Compatibilists. It's their assertion that free will is compatible with causality. An action may be caused, but as long as it's not coerced it is still free. Of this defense Oerton writes:
“The free will with which this book is concerned . . . isn't a compatibilist free will. If determinism is true, then the way I choose to act is determined by the heredity and environmental forces which have created and shaped me, and the absence of coersion serves only to ensure that nothing stops me from acting in this way.”
The trouble with the question, “Could he have done otherwise”, is that it ignores human motivation. Before you can answer it in any particular case, you have to imagine or suppose an attempt to do otherwise fueled by a wish to do otherwise, and then you have to decide whether or not the attempt would be successful. And of course it's perfectly true that it would always be successful (unless it was prevented by some outside circumstance) because determinism acts through our wishes, not against them . . . imagine that I re-phrased the question and asked, “Could he have done otherwise if he didn't want to? The only answer to this is, “What sort of a question is that?” The wish which was implied in the original question has now been subtracted from it and the result is a nonsense. If the answer, “Yes”, to “Could he have done otherwise?”, seems to contradict determinism, this is only because determining factors have been excluded from the question . . . If you are looking for a simple test for the existence of free will, then the question to ask, surely, is not, “Could he have done otherwise,” but rather, “Might he have done otherwise?” In other words, given all the circumstances, and given the personality or the character which he had when he did the act in question, might he nonetheless, in the real world, actually refrained from doing it and doing something else?” This is a very different question because it takes account of his motivations, and the answer to it is not, “Yes, of course”, but, “No, of course not”. (p 29)
A recurrent character in this book is a hypothetical burglar called Burglar Bill.
“Our Burglar Bill is a habitual burglar. At this stage of his life, he makes his living by breaking into houses and other properties after nightfall and stealing what he finds inside. He has emerged not very long ago from a miserable childhood which has left him with strong anti-social tendencies. And sadly, although he has no mental illness which a psychiatrist would recognize as such, he has a serious drug addiction which he has to pay for. When we meet him, Burglar Bill has run out of money and is standing, in the small hours of the morning, in a dark and deserted road outside a large house which he believes to be currently unoccupied but by no means devoid of valuables and which looks quite easy to break into. He has no qualms about burglary: if the truth be told, he gets rather a kick out of it. So it certainly looks, from what we know of him, as if Bill is going to break into the house. (p 14)
“Consider finally the possibility of two Burglar Bills. Perhaps they are standing in different but identical streets outside different but identical houses, or perhaps, if you are very imaginative, you can picture them standing outside the same house in parallel universes. Either way the point about these two Bills is that they are exactly the same—identical in personality down to the minutest detail—and there is no difference in the external factors which might influence their behaviour. In all these circumstances, do you think one of them might break into the house and the other might go home to bed? If you don't, you are a determinist.”
The central problem about any act done in exercise of free will is that it must both reflect our character, our nature—show us for the people we are—and yet at the same time allow us to divorce ourselves from that nature and rise above it (or fall below it), doing so for no ascertainable reason.
So, why did Adam sin? Why would anybody who ever lived, if put in his place, have also sinned? Well, to this the bible gives a perfectly clear, concise, and unambiguous answer. “Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by its fruit.” (Matthew 12:33) Adam sinned because he was a sinner. Period. The bible understanding of sin, as demonstrated by its imputation to all men, is the strongest evidence we could ask for that Scripture does not support free will.
Why Does the Bible Seem to Uphold Free Will?
Now, I realize there are many objections to the points I have made that I did not explore here. An exhaustive study of Oerton's book is beyond the purvey of this essay. Rest assured, however, he does answer all objections. What about the soul? What about choice? What about conscience? The author provides excellent answers to all of those objections. It was only my intent here to show how the thrust of his message resonates perfectly with the biblical record. Again, bear in mind that free will ought not to be imposed on the bible unless it is found there in clear and explicit terms, for it is essentially a nonsensical concept. It should only be entertained as a last resort. If the bible seems to both support and deny free will, then we ought to deny it. Moreover, there is a perfectly logical explanation—several in fact—as to why the bible would seem to support this idea. Free will must be assumed in order to communicate. A common argument goes something like this: God gives us commands; this assumes our ability to obey them, and this assumes free will.
Not really. I don't believe in free will, but I live as if I do. For instance, I don't stand on the street corner and think: Whether or not I get hit by a bus crossing the street will depend not on my free will, but on how the causal chain of events stretching back to infinity will affect my decision making at this very moment; hence I might as well simply cross the street with my eyes closed and hope for the best. No, I don't do that. But that doesn't change the fact that my decision to look both ways is casually determined.
God is the first cause to which all other causes respond as He planned they would. He knows what you will do in every instance. But He still gives you commands. At this point one might say: Okay, I can understand why God, even if there's no free will, would still give me commands. But why does He hold me responsible for keeping them?
That's a good question. I would suggest that He doesn't hold us responsible for anything. I would suggest that He holds us accountable. There's a difference. A mother holds her three year old accountable to her for all his actions. But who is responsible for those actions? If the three year old darts out into traffic, who is responsible—the three year old or the mother? The mother, of course. So it is with God and man. It's an interesting fact that throughout the bible God seems to go out of His way to take the credit for virtually every thing that happens, down to the minutest detail. It is clear that He regards Himself as the primary cause of everything that happens in His universe. Man is accountable, but God is responsible.
But What About the Spirit World?
I am not making an argument for determinism in the sense that evolutionists do. I'm not saying the universe is limited to the physical. God is Spirit; hence, I believe in a spiritual as well as a physical dimension to the universe. But this does nothing to dissuade me from my position. Determinism is about causality, not a denial of a spiritual realm. It insists every effect has a proportionate cause, and that everything's part of a chain of causality. As a theist, I believe the chain starts with God; an atheist believes it starts with the big bang, perhaps, and the physical universe. It makes no difference. Either way there's still an insistence on cause and effect, on causality. The existence of a soul would not make a difference. Nor would a distinction between the mind and the brain. These things do not bypass casuality. Oerton writes:
“No, what we need to find within the mind (or the brain) of a human being, if free will is ever to get to the starting gate, is something which would stop the causality which formed him or her from running on into his or her feelings, thoughts and actions. It must break the casual chain, stopping causality dead in its tracks. It must, in short, amount not merely to an arbitrator but to what philosophers sometimes call an originator. . . And why would a person make use of an originator except to attain some end which he or she wants to attain? But the originator cannot be conceived of as a means to the ends dictated by the person's wishes, because then the chain of causation would run straight through the originator and it could not be the origin of anything. So are we supposed to picture it as some sort of mythical force which interposes itself between a person's motivation to do some act and the doing of the act itself, somehow severing the causal connection between the two . . . while at the same time being under the person's control?” (p 21, 22)
There's one last thing Oerton says that I wish to share.
“To “understand” something must always, I suspect, be in some sense to picture it visually. It is no accident that to whom something eventually becomes clear will say; “Oh, I see”, or, “Oh, now I see”. It is somehow pictured in the mind's eye. And if it is never pictured in this way then no argument in its favor, no proof of its existence, will ever be convincing or perhaps even comprehensible. I have become aware of this more than once, in discussing determinism with other people. If you can imagine a seaside penny-in-the-slot machine in which what you see through the butler's eyes is determinism, then its clear that you won't see it unless and until the penny drops. And this is so often the problem with trying to convey the idea of determinism, and the incoherence of free will: there is a penny that doesn't drop.”
And there is something else that is perhaps most strange of all. This power of this illusion seems impervious to the change—the discoveries—that by now ought to have exploded it like a balloon. Every day science discovers more causes for the effects once attributable to free will. Soon there will not exist a single type of behavior for which we have not isolated a precise chemical cause in the brain, nervous system, glands, or some other part of the body. And yet, through it all, we will most likely continue to insist that at least a part of the cause of our actions is this mysterious, invisible, inexplicable spiritual force called free will. It is the myth that won't die—a Santa Claus or an Easter Bunny we just can't let go no matter how little evidence we have for its existence. Every day we have less reason to believe it and yet it remains.
Sometimes it takes a long time for the penny to drop.