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What is the Point of Even Trying? 


I know a young man.  Let’s call him John.  John’s father was a criminal and raised him to be one too.  John has five brothers, and every one of them is either currently in prison or on parole.  John dropped out of school and joined a gang where he began his criminal career in earnest, specializing in robbery and drug dealing when he was not binge drinking and high on meth.  His first prison stretch was seven years for armed robbery.  His second was three years for possessing a firearm in violation of his parole.  John has spent nearly one-third of his life locked up.

After he got out of prison the last time, John decided to try to turn his life around.  He is two years sober, which he attributes to a literal miracle.  That is not hard to believe given the over 90% relapse rate among meth users.  He is married, holding down a job, supporting his family and raising three beautiful children.

According to our materialist friends, this should not be possible.  You see, John has no free will, and everything about him is completely determined by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.  In a comment to a recent post Seversky summed up the materialist view as follows:

We all agree that we experience or have the sensation of exercising free will.  But no sane person can deny that much of what they are physically and psychologically was inherited from their parents through their genes.  No sane person can deny that their character or personality was shaped in their formative years by influences of which they were unaware and over which they had no control.  So no sane person can deny that to that extent what and who we are was determined or constrained by history. Given the above, to what extent can we be said to have free will?


I presume Seversky’s question is a rhetorical one, with an implied answer of “to no extent at all.”

Perhaps I should pick up the phone, call John, and tell him to knock the whole “turn my life around” thing off, because our materialist friends insist he is doomed.  He comes from a family in which 100% of the males are career criminals.  Genetically, he is screwed.  From an early age he was conditioned toward a life of crime, and as soon as he could he joined a gang and launched a criminal career that was spectacular in its sheer mendacity.  He was a criminal and he surrounded himself with criminals.  Environmentally, he is screwed.

If Seversky is correct, if John’s choices are constrained by his genetic and environmental history, John is doomed to a life of criminality.  There is literally no genetic or environmental underpinning for anything else.  Yet, there he is.  Two years sober, holding down a job, and raising a family.

What happened?  John will tell you Christ happened.  You see, my wife led John to accept Christ a few years ago.  There was no instantaneous change at that time, and he even did a brief stretch in jail afterwards.  But John says the seed was planted, and in due time it bore fruit, the fruit of a transformed life.

But if Severseky is right, the whole idea of “transformed life” is nonsensical.  John has no free will.  He has no ability to choose other than what his genetics and environment conditioned him to choose.

But there he is, acting for all the world like he can choose to change.  Hmm.  Maybe the materialists are wrong.  Maybe John has free will after all, and maybe he can choose to turn away from a life of brutality and hate and embrace an ethic of love, mercy and forgiveness.

Seversky says: "Is there a way for us to determine whether your wife's meting was pre-determined?" I can see the "nature and nurture" in the family issues with John, and his decision freely to ignore them and go another way, but a chance meeting being determined? I seems to me that you would almost have to postulate some sort of master mover to manipulate such a meeting. I don't think God manipulates like that, but how would a materialist come up with some sort of determining mover with such power? I am surprised to hear you come up with such a suggestion Allen Shepherd
It's a heartwarming story and obviously it's good that John was able to get free of his life of crime and find a better path. I would simply note that the fact that the father and all six children were criminals suggests a degree of determination was operating there. It also raises a question: is there any way for us to know whether your wife's meeting John and inspiring him to change the course of his life was not pre-determined? Seversky
HeKS @9: What God knows or does is completely independent of our human preconceived ideas about what would make more sense to us. We could discuss -all the way until our exhaustion- about what and how God does or doesn't do. But our arguments, no matter how strong they seem, won't change a bit of God's knowledge, actions and will. Our extremely poor understanding of the ultimate reality disqualifies us. That's why we can't understand how God can be totally sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and still give us free will within the limits established by the purpose of His own sovereign will. Perhaps that's one reason why Christ declared the poor in spirit blessed. Humility in accepting our limited human knowledge and power, while continuously asking Him to reveal to us as much as we can understand about the ultimate reality. Here's an example of something fundamental that we don't seem to grasp well: I believe we all were created to have relationship with fellow humans during this relatively brief physical existence, hence we were given means to communicate effectively with others around. Unfortunately we don't take that seriously. Human communication is among the most difficult and neglected activities we may get involved in. At the same time, we were made to have eternal intimate relationship with our Creator. Isn't that the Imago Dei we were created in? It has nothing to do with looks or appearances. It's spiritual image expressed in relationship through communication at the highest imaginable level. How close are genuine Christians from exercising such an amazing condition and enjoying the unfathomable spiritual blessing it may provide, starting from being a continuously-improving reflection of Christ's light, so that the world does not see us but Him only? Does that relate to the lifetime process known as "sanctification" which affects all those who are truly in Christ? Dionisio
DaRook @8
Ya know, theologically, everything is set in stone. I mean, since God knows all things, and has since before the foundations of the world, then can man’s will be so free that he can choose something different than what God Foreknew in eternity? If God foreknew I was going to pick up a fork and I instead picked up a spoon, then God would have gotten it wrong and He would cease to be God. The very characteristic of the true God is infallible knowledge of the future.
This largely (if not entirely) depends on your understanding of God's omniscience, that is, whether you understand God's omniscience to be inherent or total. There are also open questions about how God gets to know future realities and even what it is logically possible to know, even for God, which would likely depend on the 'how' question. Total omniscience definitely raises some questions about the possibility of free will for either humans or God himself. Inherent omniscience, on the other hand, is far more clearly consistent with the possibility of true free will. HeKS
Ya know, theologically, everything is set in stone. I mean, since God knows all things, and has since before the foundations of the world, then can man's will be so free that he can choose something different than what God Foreknew in eternity? If God foreknew I was going to pick up a fork and I instead picked up a spoon, then God would have gotten it wrong and He would cease to be God. The very characteristic of the true God is infallible knowledge of the future. Jesus said in John 14:29 - "And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe."(ESV). And in Deut 18:22 - "when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him." (ESV). Man's will is free only because he acts without compulsion. God doesn't force wills, as much as He dissuades or changes them, as in the case of the Egyptian people: "And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians." Ex 12:36.(ESV). So man's free will depends how it is defined. DaRook
HeKS: But even getting to the issue of free will is getting WAY ahead of ourselves. … you keep making these statements about what you think and why you think it, but you’ve universally failed to address the very foundational issue that your stated worldview provides zero justification for the notion that you have thoughts or beliefs that are even about anything, much less that they can and have at any point come into contact with a reality external to your own chemical reactions. Free will is so far down the line from where your problems start that there hardly even seems to be a point in talking about it.
Why is it that Seversky participates in a discussion about free will? It is his strong conviction that thoughts and beliefs are not about anything. His worldview simply does not allow for meaning:
Seversky: No one is pretending that one clump of matter can be about another clump of matter.
IOWs everything that goes on in his brain is not about the external world — or any other world. So why does he put words on the screen which, according to his own view, are not about anything? I find that disturbing. Origenes
Barry, you're right, and the 'rationalist/materialist' position seems to have fallen down one messed up rabbit hole. It started with a - comparatively - simple proposition: demonstrate there is no need for a God to account for the universe's existence. From a practical standpoint, that is the low hanging fruit; i.e. 'God' doesn't show up at our door to sell Girl Scout cookies or go on TV to give press conferences, and also from a moral standpoint; 'God' doesn't stop wars or prevent horrific crimes. But then, things got weirder. The point materialists wanted to make was that everything is just mindless atoms in motion. And THAT meant the rabbit hole got deeper, and weirder. Wait a minute, that means that I am nothing but atoms in motion....and wait.... that must mean that my THOUGHTS are nothing but atoms in motion.... and THAT must mean, that, that, - forget about God - 'I' don't exist either! Atoms in motions are simply creating the illusion that I do. It's preposterous. The premise determines the outlook, all the way down to the decision to put these words on a screen. The only thing 'determined' by 'determinism' is the determination to kick logic out the door and stick with the premise to whatever absurd point it leads one. soundburger
soundburger @ 4. Of course you are right. The beauty of Darwinism is its explanatory depth. Need an explanation for murder, rape and hate. Darwinism explains it. Need an explanation for altruism, love and sacrifice. Darwinism explains that with equal alacrity. Darwinism explains everything and its opposite equally well. Therefore, it explains nothing. Materialist cant on determinism is the same way. Someone stays the same? They were determined by genetic and environmental factors to stay the same; they could not have done otherwise. Someone changes radically? They were determined by genetic and environmental factors to change radically; they could not have done otherwise. There is no possible evidence that could falsify the view, because it explains absolutely everything -- and its opposite -- equally well. Barry Arrington
It's a great story (happy for John!) and a great illustration. One odd thing about the whole 'hard determinist' position that Jerry Coyne so often advocates is that he would concede - if I understand him clearly, which I may not, because I think his whole premise is so unstable - that John's story has value: for the rest of us, not John! John had no choice in the matter of transforming his life or not/ no such freedom existed for him. HOWEVER, his story can serve as a 'determinant' for OTHERS. We can read the story Barry shared and it can have a positive influence on our attitude. People who were close to John during his criminal years might incorporate his experience as a 'determinant' that shapes the future course of their lives. Not that it will influence their 'choices' (as they have none) but simply that awareness of his transformation has now become a component of 'the laws of nature' that will impact them in a way more conducive to leaving their former behavior behind. I know it sounds really stupid, but I'm also pretty sure it is a more or less accurate depiction of Coyne's, and others' stance. soundburger
AS, the point is, influence (though it be strong) is not determination with force of necessarily, this consequence. and, on the strength of John's case, the other relatives have some decisions to make. As the parable of the prodigal son highlights, often that is when people hit rock bottom and are considering how to get carob bean pods from the pigs. Then, it registers, wait a minute, there is an alternative . . . it does not HAVE to be this way. I can write and work with a different life-script. KF kairosfocus
Barry, Serversky's summary is pretty much on target. The rest of the family shows that it is so, and that environmental and genetic factors do influence us profoundly. So we should not overstate the case for free will. Nature and Nurture are quite powerful influences and very often determine the outcome in an individual.. But it is just as clear that free will exists. You and I and Serversky have not had the unfortunate fate of being born in that family, so we have it easier, and it is easier for us to choose better life styles. Your friend is one of those great evidences for free will and the power of the gospel. We are empowered by it. John still has tendencies to fall back into his past life. As time goes own that will fade. Free will can imbue one with amazing power. Such a great gift, and so little understood or exercised properly! Allen Shepherd
Barry: I haven't been following this discussion, but, let me tell you, you have presented one heck of an example for the determinists to chew on. Good job. PaV

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