Temporal Flow and Freedom

What is the point of a processive view of time? It allows God to do new creative things, it allows finite agents to be free and creative in an open future, and it allows God to react to such free acts in a fully responsive way.

A wholly nontemporal God could not allow creatures autonomously to decide even part of the future, for then God would have to take account of their acts in constructing the next slices of time. And that would mean that God was temporal since God would first have to see what creatures did and then, at a subsequent time, respond. The nontemporal God must, therefore, will the creatures' free act and the divine response to it in the same act, and that act will be the one divine act of creation.

As a matter of fact, most philosophers and theologians have been entirely happy with that situation. When a person prays, they say, God causes the prayer and has eternally decreed the response to it. That, and everything else in time, is wholly determined ("predestined") by God. And such divine determination is entirely compatible with the exercise of free creativity and choice by creation because "free" action is taken to be action in accordance with your desires. You are free if you can do what you want. Your desires are set by nature. They are determined by previous causes and the laws of nature. Or, in the religious case, they are determined by God. You are not free if someone forces you to do something against your will. So, freedom is as "determined" as compulsion, but you are not compelled as long as you can do whatever you wish. Therefore, freedom and determinism are wholly compatible.

The determination of everything by God, which follows from divine nontemporality, is not the same as physical determinism or determinism by previous states and the laws of nature. God might determine everything without using general laws of nature at all, or without using them all the time.

But if God determines everything, then God determines people to do evil and to harm others and—in some views—determines them to suffer in hell because of it. John Calvin stated, "All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation" (I989, 206). It is small consolation to be told that you acted freely in doing evil because it was what you wanted to do, when God put those desires into you and then punishes you for having them.

Many people feel that if you are going to be punished or rewarded for your acts, it must have been possible for you to do other than you did. It is not only that you did what you wanted. More is required— you could have chosen to act in accordance with a different desire. There were open alternatives, and it was up to you to choose between them. However, others feel that such an open choice would be no more than an arbitrary, uncaused event, and nobody deserves to be punished for an uncaused or undetermined event either. So indeterminacy, and a future of open alternatives, does not resolve this issue.

The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics does show that it is possible to have indeterminate events in nature—in fact, it claims that there are millions of them. An indeterminate event is not an event without any cause. It may have lots of causes, lots of factors inclining it to happen. But it is an event without a determining cause—without a cause that ensures that this precise event, and no other, will happen.

As David Hume pointed out, it is hard to see how a cause could ensure that a subsequent event would happen and that no other event could possibly happen. How can the present determine the future in this way? In quantum physics, the present does not determine one and only one future. It offers a limited range of alternative futures, and nothing that we know of actually determines which one happens.

Such indeterminacy does not seem to have any particular value. It seems like leaving things to chance rather than rational and responsible control. But that reference to rational control is significant. To have rational control of a process is to guide it to a goal that is taken to be of value. An intelligent agent can select one goal, out of many possible goals, and then select a process to achieve that goal.

Initial physical states and the general laws of nature lay down limiting conditions on what sorts of goals are possible and on how they may be achieved. But they do not consider goals or select means to them by conscious deliberation. Where, then, do goals exist, and what causes them to exist? They exist in minds, and what causes them is deliberation about possible futures and a comparative evaluation of those futures. This requires a capacity for knowledge, abstract thought, evaluation, and some control of the processes that can lead toward an envisioned goal.

Such a capacity can be exercised with various degrees of skill, attention, and application. To some extent, skills can be taught, attention can be focused, and application can be brought to bear. Intelligent agents can be held responsible for the goals they choose and for the effort they do or do not put into achieving those goals.

Among the goals that may be chosen are some that increase beauty, knowledge, and the happiness of others. There are others that disregard those things or that may even harm others in the pursuit of personal happiness. To make a responsible choice is to envision possible futures, evaluate them, decide on a personal goal, and begin to execute a process leading to it. This is not a matter of pure indeterminacy or randomness. It introduces considerations of thought, evaluation, decision, and execution. Those are the considerations upon which an attribution of personal responsibility is based. To the extent that agents are thought to be incapable of rational decision, of unbiased evaluation, and of intelligent choice or to be unable to influence their own actions by such rational activities, that those agents are exempted from responsibility. Thus, animals like dogs and cats are generally not held morally responsible for harmful acts, though some (mostly British) people think that dogs, at least, are borderline cases.

For views like this, attributions of responsibility presuppose the existence of rational agency, with capacities of thought, evaluation, and choice that are not within the province of the natural sciences, purely physical causal states, or the laws of physics. Nevertheless, if such views were true, physical processes could be modified by rational (or irrational) actions. In that case, there would be alternative possible futures, between which a responsible choice can be made—thereby undermining the notion of physical determinism. According to these views, then indeterminacy is a necessary condition of rational and responsible action.

Since physical determinism cannot be proved and since indeterminacy is affirmed by most quantum physicists anyway, it looks as if a consideration of human responsibility gives good reason for affirming a processive view of time, in which open futures are at least partly fixed by the choices of rational agents within the process.

According to this view, freedom of choice is not limited to the indeterminacies of subatomic particles. But the fact that science admits indeterminacy at a fundamental level suggests that it cannot consistently deny the possibility of indeterminacy in natural laws in general.

This is by no means the end of the argument, which has raged in philosophy since ancient Greece and seems to be theoretically unresolvable. For many philosophers, it is unrealistic to posit the sort of independence of rational agency from the physical causal network that these views seem to suggest. A compatibility view is the one, they would say, that is most consistent with the scientific view that we live in a world governed by physical laws, and there is no other "magical" or nonphysical stuff that we can draw on to solve our ethical problems. No matter how we manage to analyze thought, evaluation, and choice—and it is agreed that no one has yet satisfactorily done so—they must, in the end, be resolvable into the interactions of the physical entities that are the only real things that exist.

But at least we can plainly see that this is not an argument that science is in any position to resolve in the foreseeable future. If anything, indeterminacy seems to have the majority vote in quantum physics. Whether that sort of indeterminacy is the sort that a "responsible-agency" view of freedom requires is another matter.

 
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