If you’ve ever spent time inside the ontologically arid box where atheists and religionists debate the issue of free will, you have probably been left gasping for air. Oxygen is in short supply and it makes thinking clearly difficult. While the stakes fall well short of life and death, you’d never know it. Free will is of course difficult to reconcile with an omnipotent God, yet free will is essential to a theological worldview anchored in choice. Moral agency stands or falls on the issue.
Knowing what is at stake for this class of religionists, some atheists think it important to argue against free will on reductionist-determinist grounds. This is the materialist playground in which one thing, whether atom or force, causes another both backwards and forwards. As far as I can tell, it’s the scientific alternative to turtles all the way down.
These debates can be tedious and dense in the extreme. In years past, I’ve occasionally put my head in the box to see if anything has changed. It hasn’t. The issue has not been resolved and neither side has convinced the other. But I’ll give the participants credit for their tenacity. Free will is like an infinite bone, to be chewed on forever.
For those not familiar with the basics of these debates, I recommend this Five Books interview with professor of philosophy Paul Russell. He does a fine job of summarizing and explaining the various positions. It takes a special kind of person to do this and devote one’s career to the subject. This makes Russell special, in a peculiar kind of way.
While reading the interview, I could not help but think how strange the world appears to those inside the artificially bounded box. Why so earnest? What is at stake? Is free will foundational?
In a famous passage from Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche took Kant to task for thinking he had solved a foundational philosophical problem:
It is high time to replace the Kantian question, “How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” by another question, “Why is belief in such judgments necessary?”–in effect, it is high time that we should understand that such judgments must be believed to be true, for the sake of the preservation of creatures like ourselves; though they still might naturally be false judgments! Or, more plainly spoken, and roughly and readily–synthetic judgments a priori should not “be possible” at all; we have no right to them; in our mouths they are nothing but false judgments. Only, of course, the belief in their truth is necessary, as plausible belief and ocular evidence belonging to the perspective view of life. (Section 11, Chapter 1 “Prejudices of Philosophers”).
In this critical interrogative context, synthetic a priori judgments strike me as being similar to free will. We should therefore ask: Why is belief in free will necessary?