Libertarian Free Will is a Powerful Meme, Whether or Not it’s True

Why is belief in libertarian free will popular?

We’ve explored before how the popularity of an idea is a function of that idea’s memetic virulence and resilience.

The truth or falsity of such an idea is irrelevant for popularity except insofar as that truth or falsity helps or hurts virulence and resilience.

As such, “Um, because it’s correct, DUH!” is not the “easy answer” to our question!

(1) It’s the Default Feeling

As we’ve asserted several times on this blog, libertarian free will is not a “real thing.” It has several different definitions, but all definition attempts so far have been either non-positive abstractions, or vapid, or incoherent, or simply analytically false.

Our assertion, in other words: “We don’t have it. God doesn’t have it. Nobody has it. It’s not a ‘thing to be had.'”

So, what is “it”?

Libertarian free will could be described as an amorphous conceptual blob that roughly encapsulates 3 things nearly all of us feel “by default” and “in our guts.”

lfw1

  • First, we cannot sense the emergence of our thoughts from their underlying causes. Choices seem “ex nihilo,” or “made out of nothing,” because we lack this sense.

    It’s similar to how our depth perception stops discriminating at a certain distance, giving a starry sky the false appearance of being a dome.

lfw2

  • Second, we surprise ourselves, and others surprise us, with our thoughts and behaviors. Choices often “seem spontaneous.”

lfw3

  • Finally, those of us with well-developed frontal lobes and vivid spatiotemporal faculties often imagine “multiple future worlds” floating out there. Using our imaginations, we “fill up” these “worlds” with likely details as a way to help us make decisions.

    Thus, choices can seem like they elect a “world” into being, and the other “worlds” are still floating there. Prospective hypothetical thinking (“What happens if I do this?”) gives rise to counterfactual hypothetical thinking (“What would’ve happened if I hadn’t?”), giving us the false impression that we have the ability to “have done other than what we have done.”

So, libertarian free will is something like “My decisions have some measure of being uncaused and spontaneous, and they elect between really possible worlds.” Different advocates will quibble about the definition, but generally seek an end result wherein, “I have absolute culpability for my choices and I really could have done otherwise (I don’t just imagine being able).

(This definition seems meaningful until we demand articulation of “done otherwise.”)

And right from the outset, thanks to these feelings, libertarian free will has a huge “head start” on any competing meme by being the one held “by default” by most of us.

(2) Kochab’s Errors are Sandbags Against Competition

Since it’s the default feeling, any competing meme is a “world-rocker.”

And as we’ve discussed before, when our “worlds are rocked,” they tend to be “TOO rocked,” and we conclude — or worry about concluding — zany conclusions that shouldn’t actually follow from the new information.

This we called Kochab’s Error, and the story of Kochab gave us an amusing way to think about it.

Here are a few Kochab’s Errors that act like “sandbags” against a rejection of libertarian free will:

  • “Without libertarian free will, we couldn’t be held responsible for our actions.”

    This comes from a “buck stops here,” folk idea of responsibility that we know — when we spend some time noodling — doesn’t make any sense. Folk responsibility doesn’t come together philosophically and, for us Christians, doesn’t come together Biblically.

    For evidence of the folly of folk responsibility, check out the article, “Holding Folk Responsibility Responsible.
  • “Without libertarian free will, we couldn’t practice genuine love.”

    This is likely the oldest Kochab’s Error related to libertarian free will in Christian theology, first asserted by 2nd century apologist Justin Martyr. And it’s been a common defense — though non-cogent — of libertarian free will ever since, repeated even today by popular speakers like Ravi Zacharias and others.

    These speakers claim that “genuine love” is predicated on risk. For reasons why this is not the case, check out the article, “Genuineness by Association,” on this blog.
  • “Without libertarian free will, we’d be robots or puppets.”

    This is the most “Kochab” of the Kochab’s Errors, since it represents a severely irrational non sequitur from an acceptance of adequate determinism. We’re surprised that Kochab’s rethinking of the size of our world would affect the distance between two cities; it is similarly nonsensical to imagine that we “become” something lesser upon adequate determinism “becoming” true.

    Consider the following thought experiment. Let’s pretend that God decided that on half the days of the year, humans would have libertarian free will. On the other half, their choices would be adequately deterministic (that is, our wills would be strict functions of who we are at a given moment).

    How would we be able to tell which days were “on” and which were “off”?

    The answer is, “We couldn’t, because the presence or lack of libertarian free will is 100% indiscernible and nonfunctional.” Think of it. The thought experiment above could very well be the way of things right now, and we’d have no way of knowing!

    Put simply, whether or not adequate determinism is true, we can make the two benign assertions: First, that we have thoughts and emotions. And second, that robots and puppets do not. Everything else, like whether we make choices through biological mechanisms and/or whether our behavior is back-traceable to external causes, should be discussed on their own merits, without pejorative nicknames therefor.

    For more, check out the article, “Does Determinism Make Us Robots?,” on this blog.
  • “Without libertarian free will, all events would be reducible to God’s will, and God would be the author of evil.”

    Whenever we talk about reducing, we need to make sure we aren’t radically reducing, and blasting past checkpoints of meaning that we know are important.

    More about this.

    What’s the important checkpoint here? The reduction-stopper at play is the phenomenon of “deterministic chaos.” Because of the way our universe works, authorship “evaporates” over time unless deliberately reasserted. As such, things can emerge that cannot meaningfully be called God’s authorship, and we find it useful to draw a distinction between “primary causation” and “secondary causation.”

    More about this.

As you can see, each of these sandbags takes hard work to drain.

The whole endeavor requires scaling the scaffolding of things like ethics, semantics, and metaphysics.

Who has time for that?

Who has the patience?

Who has the driving interest?

Some folks do, but the vast majority of us don’t. As such, the memetic sandbags remain for almost everybody.

The Resilient Cocktail

The end result is an idea cocktail that is very resilient.

  • First, it’s held by-default. It’s intuitive, even if it isn’t coherently articulable. It’s “gut true,” even if nobody can define it in a way that makes positive sense.
  • Second, it resists competition by means of an array of Kochab-driven sandbags. This is especially true for us Christians, since some of these sandbags are traditional and theological.

And thus, libertarian free will remains extremely popular, irrespective of its truth or lack thereof.


It’s possible to talk about our free will while rejecting libertarian free will. We can do this through “compatibilism.” To see how this approach works using Scripture, check out, “Freedom & Sovereignty: The Heterophroneo.”

It is not necessary to accept Calvinism under Christian determinism. For a helicopter view of the “sovereignty situation,” see “The Big Three Sovereignties.”

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About stanrock

Husband, father. Professional game developer, software engineer, & social product analyst. Armchair theology debugger. Fun theology exercises and games at http://StanRock.net

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