Plantinga on Free Will

I have great respect for Alvin Plantinga. He is one of the foremost philosophical voices arguing against the tiresome, faddish notion that everything in human life can be explained by matter, natural laws and evolution — that the mind is nothing more than the brain and that our capacities for morality, truth, beauty, and religion are nothing more than evolutionary devices, and that science can in theory encompass everything of importance. I’m looking forward to reading his Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, and a complimentary volume by the equally estimable philosopher Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

But when it comes to free will, I’m not much of a believer in it. At the very least, I view it with great skepticism. And so when Plantinga wrote a piece attempting to refute arch-nouveau-atheist Sam Harris’ arguments against free will, I couldn’t resist the temptation to respond.

Plantinga claims that Harris mixes up two kinds of freedom. One is the freedom to have done otherwise on a particular occasion: to have lied or not lied at some specific moment, for instance. Another is the freedom to have chosen your character, neurological traits, and anything else that determines your thought and action. Plantinga claims that this latter freedom is called “maximal autonomy,” and it is not something we can be expected to have. We can have freedom in the first sense without having it in the second. In fact, to have freedom in the second sense is barely even possible, because to make a free choice about our desires and personality, we would have had to have made a choice about our desires and personality before making that choice, and so on. It would be, in philosophers’ parlance, an infinite regress. Even God, per Plantinga, could not have maximal autonomy, because he did not choose his character as all-knowing and all-powerful.

Here I disagree. These two types of freedom are not so different as all that. A lack of maximal autonomy does kill freedom in the more commonplace sense. Think about that decision to lie or not to lie in some situation. Perhaps you “know” that honesty is the moral thing. But perhaps you think you will benefit by lying. Maybe you mull it over, think about it long and hard, give it enormous deliberation. Well, in the end, you say, you can do either thing. Yet at the very moment of decision, at the very second, if you watch yourself, what happens? You either lie or you don’t. And why is that? Because at the last moment you have a sudden disposition towards either the lie or the honesty, and that’s what you go for. That’s what you call “your choice.”

But why do you have that sudden, last-minute disposition towards that particular choice? Either you have to say you don’t know (or call it “chance”) or you have to say it’s a result of your prior dispositions. Either way, to control that last-minute choice, you either have to control “chance” or else the factors that produce the inclination — you have to have, in other words, maximal autonomy.

Plantinga tries to reason this away. “Why think that if it is within my power to perform an action, but also within my power to refrain from so doing, then what I do happens just by chance? Maybe I have a good reason for doing what I do on that occasion—then it wouldn’t be just by chance that I do it.” But there are plenty of actions which have good reasons on both sides. There are plenty of actions in which we fail to take the path dictated by good reason and follow bad reason, or no reason at all.

Why is it the case that certain good reasons in certain situations, and only in certain situations, in fact dictate our actions? Is it not either emotional inclination or chance? And to control either do we not have to have maximal autonomy? And if you actually examine your mind at the time of a decision, is this not actually true? Think about any decision, big or small, complex or trivial. Think about it as much as you like, but at the very moment of decision, a choice of this or that, action or inaction, it is mysterious to ourselves why we choose as we do.

And as for even God not having maximal autonomy, I have to disagree again. Plantinga says that “…God is necessarily all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good. This means that God has not freely chosen to have that character; there never was a time at which he had both the power to bring it about that he had that character, and also the power to bring it about that he did not have that character.” Yet I would argue that God’s all-knowing and all-powerful nature are not characteristics at all. They are aspects of him that are beyond characteristics. God’s omnipotence is beyond the very notion of power, in the same way that infinity is not a number at all, but is something different. So I think trying to use normal conceptual logic on things that are really pointing to notions that are beyond concept cannot work.

  • Frank Knarf

    Reductionism obscures thought on both sides of this argument. Harris can’t grasp the possibilities of consciousness as an emergent phenomenon, and Plantinga et al can’t see such emergence without some prior agency. Neither of these misconceptions sheds much light on human behavior.

  • Immanuel BaumGarten

    you dazzle me sir

    • siftingtothetruth

      Why thank you sir.

  • Jay Mack

    I loved your commentary on the commentary a lot. Free will has intrigued me as a concept for a long time, but while I cannot entire refute Plantinga, or deny elements of reality in Harris, I don’t think of either as defining free will as I know it. First I can’t agree more with you that God is above characteristics, because to say otherwise is to define God as the image of man instead of the other way around. For me free will involves entire the choice for or against God, who leaves that decision to us, though we are assisted by the Holy Spirit to make the choice for. I kept thinking baack the Macabees when the mother and her sons have the choice to remain true the the Lord or offer acknowledgement of pagan gods endure torture and death rather than deny God. An act of free will. To have adored the pagan god, now that would have been a surrender..