Free Will – May 2006

Question: I was wondering what process theology has to say about free will. It seems that the temptation to become purely deterministic is possible within process theology. I understand that that temptation is resisted, but I wonder if there are any resources I could read on how free will is explained in this context.

Publication Month: May 2006

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Process theology affirms self-determination but not “free will.” That may seem like a quibble, but it is an important quibble. The idea of the “will” is part of a way of thinking that process theology rejects. It is sometimes called “faculty psychology.” It depicts the human psyche as divided into quasi-substantial parts, for example, passion, reason, and will. Freud’s analysis of the psyche in terms of id, ego, and superego is another example.

The objection to faculty psychology is not that these terms have no meaningful referents. The problem is that they reify aspects of the total psychic life and compartmentalize these reified elements. The will is one of these, and after its existence is questionably established, then the question is whether it is bound by the passions, or by the reason, or is free. There is the further question as to whether freedom is synonymous with “uncaused” or “arbitrary.” If so, it hardly provides a basis for moral responsibility.

Obviously, there are answers to my questions that work fairly well, but this whole approach is alien to process thought, and it has never been successful in explaining human freedom. Process theologians, in contrast, understand the psyche to be a succession of occasions of experience. Each occasion derives from God an aim that guides its integration of its past. But the aim is also adjusted during this process. The exact outcome is not determined until it happens.

In Whitehead’s view everything about the outcome is then determined. But there are multiple determinants. Much of it is determined by the past occasions that are synthesized. This is the causality studied by scientists. Some of it is determined by the contribution of God. But even the combined influence of the past and of God does not determine exactly what the outcome will be. This is the “decision” of that occasion itself. Hence self-determination plays a role. Whitehead says that every occasion is in part causa sui, cause of itself.

Self-determination provides a meaningful understanding of “freedom.” The problem with “freedom” is that it can be understood negatively. It is often understood to mean only not determined. Then it seems to be a matter of sheer chance. What is self-determined is not determined by the past or by God, but it is determined by the occasion itself. If freedom means simply not determined at all, then neither the occasion nor the person of whom it is a part is responsible for the outcome. If the outcome is determined by the occasion itself, then there is responsibility.

This idea of self-determination has been very difficult to articulate outside the process conceptuality. It is the idea of the process being made up of successive occasions that makes it possible. Consider the problem.

Ordinary conceptions of causality require that the cause precede the effect. When the flow of events is understood as a continuum, however close the cause is to the effect, there is no present in which decision about itself can be made. For this reason, the great majority of discussions of freedom have equated it with indeterminism. The discovery of indeterminism at the quantum level has been regarded as supportive of this idea. But other philosophers point out that believing that there is random, uncaused behavior is of no use in explaining the human awareness of freedom.

The view that the course of events takes place through successive actual occasions opens the door to another kind of reflection. But it could still be argued that the occasion is fully determined by its past. Just how the event integrates that past would then be entirely the result of what the past is. This is a conceptually plausible view. For a long time it seemed that physicists were demonstrating its adequacy for the natural world. Evolutionary theory extended it to the understanding of human beings as well.

The advocates of this kind of determinism generally acknowledge that along with the factual past we require some kind of physical laws in order to explain what happens. The use of the term “laws” reminds us that for centuries it was assumed that these laws presupposed a lawgiver, namely, God. Accordingly, the full explanation of what happened required appeal not only to the factual past but also to God. As time passed, scientists felt less and less need to attribute the “laws” they discovered to a lawgiver, who was distinct from the laws. The regularities identified in the laws could be thought of as a matter of chance, but the door to a theistic explanation has never been closed. Recent discoveries have called attention to the “constants” that make life possible in this universe, but could so easily have been different. The theistic explanation has regained some traction.

However, an explanation of what happens in the occasion that is comprised only of the factual past and God still seems to provide no room for self-determination. This requires another step. God’s role must be understood as providing alternative ways of synthesizing the past rather than determining exactly what the synthesis will be. Whitehead proposes that we think of a divine ordering of potentiality that provides laws but also alternatives. Every way of synthesizing the past that God makes possible will illustrate the laws of physics. But there is not just one way of doing this. Of the several ways an occasion can actualize itself, all but one must be rejected. That means that the occasion “decides.”

This goes some distance to account for the sense of responsibility for what we do and become, but it is still not sufficient. If the options among which the occasion chooses are morally equal, the decision has no moral value. For humans the connection of freedom and morality is very close.

Whitehead proposes that the options derived from God are “graded” in terms of the value attained by actualizing them. In other words some are better than others. In his book on religion, he expresses the view that in all cultures one finds some sense of having partly realized and partly missed the way, the ideal possibility, the maximum value, what he there calls “the rightness in things.” He gives us an account of God’s dealing with us that explains how that can be. We decide in response to God’s call. That call may be to act in a way that seems to us too risky or too costly. We are likely to compromise between the full realization of the possibility to which we are called and something that feels more secure or more comfortable or more satisfying. Hence we also sense that we are responsible both for what we have achieved and for having, in biblical language, “missed the mark.”

It is my belief that a sound philosophical grounding of our common experience of responsible freedom requires all these steps. First, there must be actual entities that act in their own constitution. Second, there must be limited but real options in the way in which the past functions in constituting these entities. Third, such options can only come from outside the occasion, and their source is properly called God. Fourth, these options must be graded, so that some are better than others.

Whitehead has provided us a conceptuality that includes all these elements. He was guided in doing so by his conviction that in fact all of us believe that we do have some responsibility as to how we act and who we become. We need a philosophy that does not deny these ineradicable beliefs. The task of philosophy is to explain rather than to explain away. Process theologians are deeply grateful to Whitehead for having provided us a way of understanding and confidently reaffirming our sense of responsible freedom.

Of course, we know that many people are content to affirm their moral responsibility for what they do without engaging in philosophical reflection. We also know that even those who subscribe to theories that deny that there is any such responsibility cannot eradicate their sense of responsibility altogether. Nevertheless, we are disturbed by the fact that academic study generally instills deterministic ways of thinking and provides little support for our sense of self-determination and resultant responsibility. As more and more people are socialized to think in this way, the cultural climate changes. Young people are more likely to excuse themselves for their failures than to strive for moral excellence.

For Christians, however, it is important not to leave matters at this level. There are three problems with giving primacy to morality. First, it is all too easy for people to assume responsibility for features of a situation for which they in fact have little or no responsibility. For psychic and social health it is as important to analyze accurately the limits of responsibility as to affirm its reality.

Second, there is a grave danger, rarely completely avoided, of confusing the call of God with the social code of the local society. Such codes are generally helpful and even necessary. But they often include elements that are deeply hurtful. The call of God may be to break with elements of inherited moral teaching.

Third, our value and meaning as human beings is not finally derived from our morality. Jesus emphasized that repentant sinners enter God’s realm ahead of those who are “righteous.” Love counts for much more than moral virtue. Or perhaps to put matters better, true righteousness consists in responsiveness to the call of God, and although this call and response gives rise to an understanding of what we usually understand as moral responsibility, hey go beyond that. More fundamentally, and more ultimately, God calls for faith, hope, and love. This both grounds and relativizes morality.

Also, we are most free when we allow God’s call to work in us as grace giving us what we will receive. Our freedom is not greatest, therefore, when we struggle to decide rightly. The freedom we feel when we are consciously making decisions is not the highest form of freedom. We are most free when we are most open to what God gives us, when our self-determination is least distinct from God’s causality within us.