Saturday, December 13, 2008

Freedom and the Ability to do Otherwise

Theological absolutism can frequently lead to certain contradictions. For example, it is supposed that God is omnipotent and all powerful and yet that humans have free will. If God is all powerful then God must control everything, including my actions. But if God controls my actions, then I can 't have free will. One way to dodge the problem is to speak of potential omnipotence. In other words, God could control me, but God permits me to have free will.

Yet another solution is to approach the problem by dividing up the concept of freedom. Freedom is proposed to have two parts: autonomy and choice. Autonomy just means that I do my actions myself. I am not a puppet in any sense. For example, the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has no autonomy since he is controlled by Caligari, or in Being John Malkovich, John Malkovich loses his autonomy when his body is taken over by Craig Schwartz the puppeteer.

Though I think none of use would deny that autonomy is necessary for freedom, I think we assume there is something more. We usually also want to include choice, namely having multiple options. To be unambiguous this is sometimes called the ability to do otherwise. Now, I don't really care to quibble over terms and debate whether "freedom" means just autonomy or means the ability to do otherwise plus autonomy. When this is put in a metaphysical-theological context to try to guarantee free will, it doesn't really work. How can I be blamed for doing any action when I could do nothing else?

Descrates uses this distinction too in his discussions of freedom. He becomes convinced that reason leads to good action, and he even goes so far as to say that reason compels good action. Once you see the truth of something (with clear and distinct perceptions) you can't help but believe it, and once you see the goodness of something, you can't help but do it. But, being a faithful Christian, he can't deny free will. So, he has to demarcate this separation between choice and autonomy. He then claims that autonomy is sufficient for free will. But how can you possibly permit responsibility in the full Christian sense and still embrace this idea of the compulsion of reason?

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