Freedom (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Freedom as understood in the modern West is self-determination by an autonomous being with a rational mind. Precursors to this understanding of freedom begin with Plato in ancient Greece, who shifted the locus of freedom from the political distinction between citizen and slave to the internal will that exercises influence on external events. Aristotle saw in the human will the capacity to harmonize itself with the will of God and the pursuit of the transcendent good and the good life.
Conceptions in Various Religious Traditions
In Hinduism and sister traditions such as Buddhism the doctrine of karma places the human person in a causal nexus of moral determinism where past life behavior determines present life status. Liberation (moksha) consists of being freed from the wheel of reincarnation, freed for eternity from the effects of karma. A variant of the dispute between grace and merit appears in Hinduism over the role of free human action in salvation. The cat school (Tenkalai) argues that God's irresistible grace saves the adept like a mother cat carries her young by the nape of the neck; whereas the monkey school (Vatakalai) argues that human free will is required in a way that a baby monkey is required to cling to its mother.
Islam teaches that God (Allah) is in control of the outcome of human acts, whether those acts are free or not. Human beings are free to choose between good and evil; the Qur'an teaches that God will judge mortals on the Last Day according to good and bad deeds. Some Muslims find comfort in predestination as a doctrine that affirms divine control over the course of events. "God leads astray whom he pleases and guides whom he pleases" (Surah 74:34). Human moral responsibility is not obviated by strong reliance upon divine control.
Freedom according to Christian theology belongs preeminently to God, who is absolutely free. God is the one, original, and authentic person through whose creative self-expression all other persons come into existence and are sustained. Human freedom derives from divine freedom, expressed as divine grace. God liberates Hebrew slaves from their Egyptian taskmasters and liberates faithful believers from the threat of sin, death, and the power of the devil. Christian advocates of predestination hold that human salvation is the result of free divine action, a gracious action that bestows eternal life as a gift rather than as a reward required by a legal structure of merit.
Commitment to belief in a single all-powerful God, which Christians share with Jews and Muslims, has led to three theological struggles over the nature of freedom that provide background to the contemporary conversation with science. The first is the predestination controversy. Once it is accepted that human salvation is a gift of divine grace and not the product of human moral achievement, then the question arises: Why do some persons exhibit strong faith in God and others do not? Predestination answers this question by contending that God has eternally decreed that some individuals would be infallibly guided to saving faith and, thereby, to eternal salvation. Those who do not have faith either were not included in the eternal decree; or, according to the double predestination school, they were actually predestined to damnation. The import of predestination is to make salvation solely a product of divine action, not a matter of human freedom. Humans remain free on a daily basis to make routine choices, but their salvation is a matter of divine decree alone.
The second theological struggle focuses on divine power, on God's omnipotence. Once it is accepted that God is all-powerful, metaphysical questions arise regarding the application of omnipotence to causal efficacy. Is God the cause of all things? Of every event? Should we eliminate causal efficacy, contingency, and human action as factors in the created world? If so, is God responsible for evil and suffering? This tempts some to affirm a thoroughgoing predestination, a complete determinism; and to do so not as a corollary to grace but as an implication of omnipotence. The unspoken assumption is that of a fixed pie image of power in the universe: if God gets more power then human beings get less. The fixed pie assumption has led two contemporary theological schools to compromise divine omnipotence. Process theologians in the tradition of Alfred North Whitehead (1861947) deny divine omnipotence and proportionately increase the power that local human free decision-making has on the future. Similarly, certain classical theists adopt the Kabbalistic notion of zimsum, a primordial self-withdrawal on God's part to permit contingency in nature and freedom in human life. In this case, the self-restriction on God's part is voluntary; whereas for the process theologians it is metaphysically necessary. For both these schools of thought, power is finite and competitive; so to have room for human freedom some proportion of power must be denied to God.
The third struggle in theological conceptuality is to clarify how power begets power, and how freedom begets freedom. Rejected here is the assumption of a fixed pie of power. Rather, theologians influenced by Karl Barth (1886968) and liberation theologians posit that God is the absolutely free one and that divine freedom is contagious; when God exerts divine power, it liberates the creation. The creation of the universe from nothing, creatio ex nihilo, took an act of divine power; and God's continuing work of creation, creatio continua, is similarly an exertion of divine action in the world. Yet this is fully compatible with natural causation, contingency in events, and willful human action. The prayerful cry of petitionary prayer is for God to exert divine power to liberate us from natural disaster, disease, political oppression, or our personal bad habits.
The historical struggles over divine power and human freedom set the stage in Western history for the contemporary debate regarding the relationship of determinism to free will. Rather than see God as the opponent to human freedom, modern Westerners see the causal ubiquity of natural law playing this opposing role. The word 'determinism' refers to lack of contingency in natural events, lack of noncaused events; it is a philosophy deriving from scientific reductionism.
Contemporary definitions of freedom
In the contemporary discussion of freedom versus determinism raised by reductionism among natural scientists, four definitions of freedom are of interest to theologians. First, political freedom or liberty is understood as independence from external coercion by government power. Liberation movements pursue freedom to escape economic and cultural coercion as well as political restriction. Philosophies of political liberty usually presuppose belief in natural freedom applied to the individual. Second, natural freedom or freedom of the will is the ability of a rational mind to choose between alternatives and make decisions that lead to actions. The locus of natural freedom is the choosing self. This is the Enlightenment view of freedom as self-expression, self-determination, and self-pursuit of happiness. Choosing between good and bad things and acting voluntarily are attributes of an individual's free will. Third, moral freedom refers to what the disciples of Aristotle dubbed 'virtue,' the freedom gained when conforming one's life to a higher truth or higher good that transcends the choosing self. For Augustine of Hippo (35430 C.E.) and Martin Luther (1483546) the human self, to be truly free, must be freed from being curved in upon itself; such freedom can come only from a bestowal of God's liberating grace. The Christian variant of moral freedom expresses itself in selfless love of neighbor. Fourth, future freedom is the release of human creativity through designing, engineering, organizing, and building in such a way as to influence future events. Freedom here consists of transcending the confines of past precedents and constraints.
Determinism in modern science
Determinism is a philosophical idea that may or may not be attached to a scientific understanding of natural law. The essence of the deterministic view is that natural law is exhaustive and total in its causal application. Once initial conditions are established, every event that follows is bound to happen as it does and in no other possible way. Nothing in nature is contingent; so no room exists for natural freedom or future freedom. Hard determinists hold that no human act of will is free, even if it appears so. Free will is a delusion. Soft determinists hold a version of compatibilism; they believe that human actions are physically caused, but room remains for exercise of free will.
The mechanistic model of the natural world bequeathed to modern science by Newtonian physics presents a closed causal nexus, an exhaustive nexus of events without contingency. If the laws of nature never go on holiday, then what follows is eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume's (1711776) repudiation of miracles as events that deviate from unbreakable laws. What also follows is the eclipse of freedom, both divine and human. What appears to be freedom in human experience must be reducible to lawful physical activity, and the appearance of freedom as something supraphysical or spiritual must be a delusion.
In the early twentieth century Newtonian mechanism in physics was replaced by quantum mechanics; determinism was replaced by indeterminism. The activity of the individual electron is contingent, unpredictable; it can be predicted only in statistical quanta. Some contemporary theologians such as Robert John Russell argue that indeterminism at the fundamental physical level is a necessary condition for human free will to appear at the psychological level. Some physicists repudiate indeterminism by posing the theory of many worlds, according to which every potential physical state becomes actual in one or another universe. This would in principle apply to every human state as well, eliminating natural freedom.
Near the end of the twentieth century, Newtonian mechanism reappeared in genetics and neuro-science. Genetic determinismhe widespread belief that human essence is found in DNA and that DNA is determinative of both traits and behavioras indirect implications for freedom understood as political liberty. The cultural response to the Human Genome Project (initiated in 1990) in conjunction with controversies over gene patenting, cloning, and stem cells lead many to fear an alliance between big science and big money; it is the populist fear that a powerful invisible elite will make decisions regarding human evolutionary future that will release forces beyond the average person's control.
Neuroscience and cognitive theory prompt some philosophers to reduce psychological and cognitive processes to neuronal activity in the human brain. This has led to an alliance between genes and brains that seems to challenge natural freedom with ferocity. If DNA through neural activity turns out to govern behavior, then the genes would turn out to govern human choices. What appears to be a self who makes decisions would be reducible to a complex interaction of genes with environment. Genes might even be found responsible for predispositions to choose between what is moral and what is immoral. Crime and virtue would then be predetermined. No self would need to be transcended by moral freedom, because no self would exist in the first place.
Some opponents of genetic determinism argue for a two-part determinism, genes plus environment. Other opponents defending the Enlightenment doctrine of freedom as self-determination hold to a three-part determinism: genes, environment, and self. In the latter case, the self is an emergent entity not reducible to either genes or environment.
Future freedom is enhanced by the Promethean dimension of genetic determinism, according to which molecular biologists are gaining the knowledge and technology to alter the human germline in such a way as to influence directly the future of human evolution. This future freedom elicits anxiety on the part of many people, because it raises specters of Frankenstein the mad scientist who lets evil loose on society. Those fearing Promethean pride on the part of scientists try to curtail research by saying, "thou shalt not play God." This warning appeals to something allegedly essential or sacred in nature prior to technological intervention; so the commandment against playing God is an attempt to avoid violating nature by legislating against future freedom.
Freedom in theology and science
The commandment against playing God in secular society shares the assumption made by some theologians that there is a fixed pie of power in the universe, that God's power competes with human power. These theologians believe that if God's power is restricted then human power is increased, thereby making human freedom possible. Those who forbid playing God in genetics or other scientific endeavors follow the opposite logic, namely, if human power is restricted then God is freer to act through natural processes.
The advantage for theologians in adopting either the process model or the zimsum model is that they can hold to a doctrine of divine creation while allotting to Big Bang cosmology and biological evolution principles such as deep time, contingency, self-organization, and development. The absence of divine power opens an arena within which a dialectic of regularity and chance governs natural occurrences. This is theologically significant because it solves the theodicy problem: suffering and evil on the part of sentient creatures is now the responsibility of self-organization through natural selection. God is exempt from responsibility for what goes wrong. Science and technology fill the hole vacated by God. God's absence makes natural freedom and future freedom possible.
The difficulty faced by theologians who cling to divine omnipotence is that nature's victims, such as the predator's prey or extinct species, must be judged to be part of God's plan. By allowing such waste and suffering, God risks being thought of as cruel. The theological advantage to omnipotence is that God is viewed as the very power by which development is energized and guided, leading the human race through scientific and medical discoveries toward taking control of its own health and wellbeing. God is viewed as the healer, the redeemer. Science and technology become liberating vocations, expanding the horizon of human freedom while imposing increased environmental responsibilities. God's presence makes natural freedom and future freedom possible.
Finally, reductionism raises the question of the status of the human self. Biologist Francis Crick (b. 1916) would eliminate any ontological status to the self or the soul, on the grounds that it is reducible to gene expression and neural firing patterns in our brain. Many who oppose a strict biological determinism substitute a two-part determinism, genes plus environment. In this case 'environment' can refer to the cytoplasm within the cell or to the food our parents place on our plate. Two-part determinism is just as eliminative of the human self or soul as is raw genetic determinism. What most defenders of natural freedom actually advocate is three-part determinism: genes, environment, and self. The self functions as a determinant. The self can be thought of materialistically as an emergent property within evolutionary development; or it can be thought of metaphysically as a divinely imparted soul. It need not have any material substrate other than genes and environment; but its deliberations, decisions, and actions are observable and can be empirically confirmed.
See also DETERMINISM; FREE WILL DEFENSE
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