The Often Ignored Necessary Element for Free Will

Most people don’t like to think of themselves as automatons — just inevitably doing what they do. But that is the logical inference if reality is constituted by necessity (laws) and chance (quantum indeterminacy). So what do those who subscribe to the non-intentional model of reality do? There are numerous attempts to somehow salvage free will. Some are just nonsense like compatibilism and others try to find some way to use indeterminism. None of that works if necessity and chance determine every event in the universe.

Another thing most people want to believe is that we make conscious decisions. Here the key word is “conscious”. But how would that work? After all, we know that most of the decision-making process is done unconsciously. There are billions of neural processes going on that we have no awareness or experience of. It’s only very late in the process that we experience a decision. So, there is all this processing going on unconsciously and then after all that is done there is suppose to be some other different conscious processing that makes a decision or vetoes the decision make unconsciously. In that case there seems to be a phenomenal (experience based) homunculus (some extra something that has its own decision making processes). Seems like a weird contrivance to me.

Now, even if any of that were truth the missing necessary element in those schemes would be why a certain decision is made. The unconscious neural processes have all sorts of biases in their circuits that determine the processing at every step. Here you can think about a single neural synapse that has a chemical/electrical bias to react a certain way because of an input. Now, obviously there is an incredible complexity at work with all parts of the brain interacting but in the non-intentional model the brain just does what it does, much like a computer. In a computer each bit sets its state based on the input to it. It has a bias that responds to an input.

So in the non-intentional model, our unconscious processes do their biased thing and eventually end up with a decision (sometimes through a very tortuous process). Then the homunculus steps in and accepts or rejects that? Based on what? This is the missing necessary element in this scheme. There should be some other criterion for making a different conscious (homunculus) decision than what the neural process came up with. But what would that be? The non-intentional constitutionalists would need to come up with something here. In years of following this topic I haven’t seen anything like that.

So, instead of the non-intentional approach, here’s what I think may be going on. In a divine idealism every event in the universe is intentional. There are no laws and no chance. Everything happens because of intentionality — both the regularities and novelties. This includes everything in our brains. Every event happens for a reason. Those reasons are twofold. They are twofold because they include those of God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. I’ve talked about this elsewhere — and will in more detail on how this might work in an upcoming essay on divine action. So, the issue at hand is what is involved in why we make a certain decision?

Now, here I’m going to speculate from physics but based on some mainstream models. I think that every event in the universe is connected and integrated with everything else. Thus decisions are not just something “magical” happening. They occur within the life giving constraints of this reality.

In the divine idealism model, there is a teleological impetus involved in every event, even at the microscopic level. I’m using the term “impetus” because it denotes an active, forceful factor. As an analogy, think of how a magnet applies a force to attract a metal object. This is not some passive “lure” like in process theology. It is an active (but not coercive) influence toward a certain direction. The force of the magnet can be resisted but it is still an important factor in a decision. God-as-transcendent provides an impetus according to the divine purposes for this reality. However, God-as-living (that’s us and everything else) also has internal impetuses at work. These ensue from being finite creatures with certain motivations, needs, and desires. Sometimes there may be a competing impetus. I think that competition can occur at every step in the decision making neural processes, not just at the end. Every step is part of an integrated whole within the Divine Life Communion. What this means is that at every point in the process a decision must fit within the statistical model of how reality is constituted and take into account what is possible within those bounds. However, novelties can also occur within those bounds. So, live options are available. At various points in the process the competing teleological impetuses can become pronounced and a decision must be made. There is a constrained free will at work here. Each decision narrows what is possible. Eventually a final decision is made. It’s a decision on what impetus we freely choose to win out.

So, where does consciousness come in? I’m not sure about this, but to avoid the homunculus scenario, I think what consciousness does is experience the decision we made unconsciously. Now some might say, well “that’s not me making the decision”. Of course it is. That would be like having a back pain and saying, “that’s not me I’m experiencing”. A person is a whole, including their unconsciousness. If that wasn’t the case then the “me” would be different from everything else going on in our bodies.

So, the necessary element in free will is the reason for making a decision. That reason comes down to making a free choice between the sometimes competing impetuses of God-as-transcendent and God-as-living. God-as-transcendent has a purpose in mind for this reality. I think a big part of that purpose is the creation of love, beauty, and meaning. God-as-living, as finite constrained beings also have impetuses. The question is which impetus to embrace and act on.

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