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Free Will
Free Will
Sam Harris
Free Press, 2012
96 pp., $10.99

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Alvin Plantinga


Bait and Switch

Sam Harris on free will.

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I am sorry to say that I couldn't find the argument. Harris seems to think merely pointing to this possibility is sufficient to clinch his case. But that seems preposterous. Some people under some conditions aren't free; how does it even begin to follow that no people under any conditions are free? Couldn't it be that pathological conditions rob a person of a freedom they would otherwise have? Couldn't it be that cognitive malfunction can take away a person's freedom? This is what we certainly think ordinarily. We excuse the person suffering from cognitive malfunction: she is not guilty by reason of insanity, or less guilty by reason of diminished capacity. Cognitive malfunction can take away one's freedom, and with it one's responsibility. But there isn't here the slightest reason to think that those who are not suffering from cognitive malfunction are never responsible for what they do. This argument, like the others, gives us no reason at all to amend this ordinary and deeply rooted way of thinking.

I conclude by considering a kind of argument for determinism that seems to me more promising than any of those offered by Harris. Several Christian thinkers have at least flirted with determinism, motivated for the most part by considerations of divine sovereignty. If God is truly sovereign, truly ruler over all, won't it be the case that whatever happens in the world, happens because he intends it to happen? Indeed, won't it be because God causes it to happen? Reformed thinkers in particular have sometimes seemed to endorse determinism. Some people think of John Calvin himself, that fons et origo of Reformedom, as accepting determinism. But this is far from clear. Calvin did, of course, endorse predestination: but determinism doesn't follow. Predestination, as Calvin thinks of it, has to do with salvation; it implies nothing about whether I can freely choose to take a walk this afternoon. Calvin did indeed have invidious things to say about the freedom of the will; much ink has been spilt on this topic, and the question of just what Calvin believed here is vexed. But as Richard Muller, as good a Calvin scholar as one can find, says, "When Calvin indicates that we are deprived of free choice, he is certainly indicating only that we cannot choose freely between good and evil, or more precisely, we cannot choose between performing nominally good acts in a sinful way and performing them in an utterly good way. He certainly does not mean either that the will … is unfree or coerced in any way; nor does he mean that a person is not free to choose between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon."[1]

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), on the other hand, perhaps the greatest thinker America has produced, certainly did embrace divine determinism. And Edwards endorsed determinism, for the most part, out of concern for divine sovereignty. His idea, ultimately, is that God's sovereignty requires that God himself be the only real cause of whatever happens. In the final analysis, God is the only agent, the only being capable of action, and the only cause of whatever events occur.

Edwards' endorsement is weighty; and divine sovereignty is indeed important; but there are enormously high costs associated with his view. This is not the place for a full-dress discussion, but, just to indicate where the discussion could go, I note two problems for Edwards' view. First, if God is the real cause of everything, then he is also the real cause of sin; he is the real cause of every sinful action. But Christians have for the most part strenuously avoided the conclusion that God is the author of sin. God permits sin, certainly; but does he cause it? Does he cause the wickedness and the atrocities that our sad world displays? Does God cause genocide in Africa? Did he cause the Holocaust? Does he cause all the less conspicuous but nonetheless appalling sins committed by humankind? That seems impossible to square with God's perfect goodness.

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