In recent years significant advances have occurred in both fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology which have provided further comprehension regarding the biological structures underlying intentionality and decision making. In this essay, Tobias A. Mattei reviews the insights such empirical data might provide to the classical theological debate about human will and responsibility. After analyzing the positions of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, and the Westminster Confession of Faith, Mattei exposes how all of them involved a view of human will as “self-determined” and “corrupted.” His discussion then considers how empirical data strongly supports the view of “free will” as a complex and elaborated “illusion” of human mind. Such findings are in agreement with the previously discussed reformed perspective of a compatibilistic view of human will, which is essentially deterministic, but not reducible to the biochemical and neurophysiological levels. Mr. Mattei is Neurosurgery Fellow at University of Illinois at Peoria.
In recent years significant discoveries have occurred in both fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Such discoveries have increased our understanding about the psychological dynamics of volition and provided further comprehension regarding the biological structures underlying intentionality and decision making. In the following essay, I review the insights such empirical data might provide to the classical theological debate about human will and responsibility.
Employing the Multiperspectival Approach proposed by the reformed theologian John Frame, my review is divided into three main sections (see Figure 1).efn_note John M. Frame, “A Primer on Perspectivalism,” The Works of John Frame and Vern Poythress, http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/PrimerOnPerspectivalism.htm (accessed July 21, 2010).[/efn_note] The first section deals with the Existential Perspective, and considers epistemological questions that have arisen from reflection upon the “agent” of knowledge. I analyze how the concept of “free will” may be seen from the perspective of both cognitive and neuroscientific theories of agency, with a special focus on the relation between the subject of action and its environment. The second section deals with the Normative Perspective, and explores the rules that govern an epistemological inquiry. For this subject, I summarize the main historical statements of reformed theology related to the question of responsibility and human will as well as dissident voices of each historical period. Such historical statements are intended to provide a general background that will govern my analysis. The third
section discusses the Situational Perspective, and considers the epistemological situation itself. It represents each specific task in which the agent, governed by the system’s rules, knows something. I attempt to provide a theological position that may govern the epistemological relation between responsibility and human will, integrating, therefore, the current state of scientific knowledge in the areas of cognitive psychology and neuroscience.
The Existential Perspective
In Frame’s epistemology, the Existential Perspective refers to the sphere of questions and concerns that emerge during the epistemological process when considering the subject or individual who proposes to know something.1 The Existential Perspective highlights the personal dispositions, temperaments, presuppositions, past experiences, and all biases contained in the individual that might influence the act of knowing. In considering the Existential Perspective on the issue of human will and responsibility, my analysis will be divided in two subsections. In the first part, I propose to delineate the several possible philosophical and theological beliefs regarding human will and responsibility. To illustrate such views, I will focus on Calvin’s classification of human will.2 Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that several other secular philosophers have held similar views throughout history. In the second subsection, I will explain two different and important concepts of Cognitive Psychology—the differences between the First-Person (1PP) and Third-Person (3PP) Perspective frameworks. I will finish this part by correlating both subsections with previous published works demonstrating that there is a strong correlation between adoption of 1PP and allocation of responsibility to the self. Such a process, though, necessarily involves the inclusion of a libertarian notion of the will in order to maintain the so-called “freedom” of the individual. I note that adopting such an attitude would be surrendering to the natural consequences of the so-called “noetic” effects of sin over the human mind and that, whenever an unbiased 3PP framework is adopted, no libertarian notion of “free will” is required for the allocation of responsibility to the self.
Several attempts have been made throughout the history of philosophy to define the exact relationship between human will and responsibility.3 In the field of theology, this discussion has received even more attention since the effects of human action had to be balanced with the existence of a God who, according to the Christian view (especially in reformed circles) was absolutely sovereign.4 Actually, the very possibility of such harmonization between God’s sovereignty and human will has been questioned by many who found both concepts simply irreconcilable.5 In order to express the different possible theological positions regarding human will and responsibility, I find it useful to employ John Calvin’s classification, which follows.
According to Calvin, the concept of coerced will was a contradiction in itself and, therefore, should not be used. For him, although it is possible to define an action either as self-determined or as coerced, the human will itself (understood as an internal disposition related to personal preferences) would never be amenable to coercion.
In opposition to the concept of a coerced will (which would be a form of an externally-determined will), Calvin proposed two other different forms of describing the human will (both of them considered to be self-determined). They are the libertarian free will and the corrupted (bounded) will.
A libertarian self-determined theory of the will implies the real existence of an unlimited range of possibilities for an action (either in positive or negative terms). Libertarianism holds to a concept of “free will” that requires the individual to be able to take more than one possible course of action under a given set of circumstances. In fact, the essence of libertarianism is for agents to look back on choices and be able to say: “I could have done otherwise.”6 Furthermore, libertarianism argues that “free will” is logically incompatible with a deterministic universe and that agents must necessarily have “free will” in order to be responsible for their acts.
The view of a corrupted or bounded will affirms the existence of an entity called human will, but denies that it is “free” in the sense that it has an unlimited range of possibilities. To Calvin all human actions are not independent of God’s sovereignty. Nevertheless, in order to avoid attributing directly to God the origin of sin, Calvin distinguished between God (who is the principal or sovereign cause of all things) and his creatures (who are the inferior causes). Calvin says, “The proximate cause is one thing; the remote cause another.”7 According to Calvin, the human will was just a “remote cause” and, therefore, could not be independent or “free” from the “proximal cause.” Calvin states in his Institutes:
Man, since he was corrupted by the fall, sins not forced or unwilling (non invitum nec coactum), but voluntarily (volentem), by a most forward bias of the mind; not by violent compulsion (non violenta coactione), or external force (non extraria coactione), but by the movement of his own passion; and yet such is the depravity of his nature, that he cannot move and act except in the direction of evil.8
Historically, the term “compatibilism” has been classically employed to describe the concurrence of both God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.9 Compatibilism means that God’s predetermination and meticulous providence are “compatible” with voluntary choice. Although human choices are not coerced (people do not choose against what they want or desire), they never make choices contrary to God’s sovereign decrees (which are predetermined from eternity). This harmonic concurrence of both realities is clearly expressed in several biblical texts. Luke, for example, when referring to Christ’s death says, “Him, being 127 delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay” (Acts 2:23). In Calvin’s words:
We allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of the will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man’s innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil. And from this it is possible to deduce what a greatdifference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined.10
I turn now to demonstrate how necessity of a libertarian notion of “free will” for understanding responsibility arises from an excessive emphasis on the subjective and personal view of the matter. In order to understand such phenomenon, I use the basic concepts of what is called 1PP and 3PP frameworks in cognitive psychology.11 It is known that during activities involving spatial cognition, the human brain may operate in different reference frames as a “means of representing the locations of entities in the space.”12 In an “egocentric reference frame,” constituted by subject-to-object relations, locations are represented in relation to a personal agent and his or her physical configuration.13 In such a frame, the “self” is the center of the scene and all objects and all events are represented in relation to this central point. Therefore, the reference frame is, in some sense, the “Euclidean space carried by the observer.” It has been demonstrated, for example, that a specific area of the brain—the right inferior parietal cortex—is activated whenever such egocentric calculations are necessary14 In contrast an “allocentric reference frame,” sometimes also referred to as “exocentric” or “geocentric,” is constituted by object-to-object relations as described in a Cartesian coordinate system. This framework is independent of the agent’s position as well as from any external observer. Examples of “exocentric reference frames” are maps in general where there is no subject of action or central figure, but all objects are disposed in the space. There is, for, example an already-validated “International Terrestrial Reference Frame” as well an “International Celestial Reference Frame.”
The “egocentric reference frames” can be subdivided further in those employing 1PP as well as 3PP. In the context of spatial cognition, the 1PP refers to the perception of the centeredness of the subjective multidimensional and multimodal experiential space upon one’s own body. Such view is the opposite of the 3PP, in which mental states resulting from spatial perception or judgment can be ascribed to someone else. The cognitive operations when perceiving a visual scene from one’s own perspective (1PP) differs from taking a view of the same scene from another person’s viewpoint (3PP). However, both tasks are centered in the body of the agent (both are “egocentric reference frames”): the self or the other, respectively. The crucial difference between 1PP and 3PP is that 3PP needs a translocation of the egocentric viewpoint. Such difference can be easily understood by analyzing electronic games which provide either a 1PP or a 3PP (see Figure 2).
It is important to reemphasize that the adoption of 1PP is strongly related to some internal cognitive processes which involve allocation of responsibility to the self. As stated in a recent experiment regarding 1PP: “It can be said that the agent with strong first-person perspective has a certain understanding of (and a possible empathy with) other agents or creatures. This capability seems to be essential to morally responsible agency.”15 Nevertheless, in my view, the process of adopting 1PP for justifying morally responsible agency is an epistemological mistake (related to the “noetic” effects of sin in human mind) because it will always implicate a libertarian notion of the will. In the 1PP view, the self would only be responsible because it is independent of any external control (including God’s sovereignty). I defend that the necessity of a libertarian notion of “free will” arises whenever the human mind evaluates the relation between human will and responsibility in an exclusive and biased 1PP. In other words, human beings will always judge unfair the punishment for their own decisions if they are shown to be the result of past deterministic processes.16 For example, the individual would consider it unjust to be judged by an evil act (even recognizing that he or she actually had performed that act) if someone shows him or her that all previous conditions that led to that act had already been previously planned by someone else. In fact, in 1PP, the subject will assume responsibility only if he or she cannot establish a clear relation of causality between the past conditions and his or her act. In such situations, the human mind will naturally assume the “ownership” for that act and consider it to be direct result of his or her “free will.” Such necessity, however, never arises when a 3PP is adopted. When an external judge, for example, analyzes a criminal case, although he or she may ask about biological
predispositions or inducing circumstances for the evil that has been done (and even may use these facts for diminishing the punishment), the sentence will be objectively based on the occurrence of the act, not on the absence of predictable social and psychological causes.
The fact that any libertarian concept of “free will” logically results in physical indeterminism has, since the early debates in philosophy, been clearly perceived. In fact, historically, the claim for the existence of “free will” has always been considered to be a statement that one’s actions or decisions were outside the scope of ordinary physical determinism. That is, arguing for the validity of “free will” has been for some time synonymous to seeking to establish that one’s actions or decisions were not the result of natural causes, but rather that they arose, to some extent, “de vacua“17
The Christian philosopher Donald MacKay presents an interesting analysis on the relation between 1PP and 3PP and the matter of determinism. In his arguments, MacKay purports to establish that although one’s actions can be completely causally determined in the “strong sense” for external observers (at 3PP), they may also, at the same time, be logically undetermined for the actor in question (1PP).18 In other words, according to MacKay, the fact that human behavior is logically undetermined from the 1PP does not necessarily lead to the necessity of a libertarian concept of “free will,” which would result in ordinary physical indeterminism. Therefore, in MacKay’s scheme, physical determinism, behavior unpredictability, and responsibility are fully compatible and integrated in a coherent system without the necessity of any libertarian concept of “free will.”
In summary, it could be stated that whenever the human mind evaluates the matter of responsibility and human will through an essentially 1PP, it will always logically suppose the necessity of a libertarian notion of “free will” in order to justify responsibility. In an analysis of 3PP, conversely, natural determinism and responsibility are completely compatible without libertarianism.
The Normative Perspective
The Normative Perspective can be understood as that point of view of the epistemological analysis which emphasizes the most basic rules governing any epistemic process. According to such a definition I believe it is possible to understand the relationship between human will and responsibility insightfully by focusing on the theoretical implications of adopting a theological framework which is either deterministic or indeterministic. We must keep in mind, as is extensively emphasized by Presuppositionalism, that no philosophical, apologetic, or even scientific system is neutral in itself and devoid of basic presuppositions. Therefore, as general rules orienting our endeavor, we propose to search critically for those assumptions that have governed the theological writings in the classical reformed tradition.19 In order to expose a brief overview about the tone of the discussion in each period, I also provide a concise sample of the main dissident voices against which the orthodox reformed theologians battled.
With such a goal in mind, I focus my discussion on the following topics:
1. John Calvin’s definitions concerning human will as expressed in his book The Bondage and The Liberation of the Will: A Defence of the Orthodox Doctrine of HumanChoice Against Pighius;20
2. Jonathan Edward’s model of the human decision-making processes exposed in his treatise Freedom of the Will: A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will which is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame;21
3. The Reformed view of the relation between the God’s sovereignty and human will as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith;22 and
4. Martin Luther’s theology as expressed in his book The Bondage of the Will (from the Latin, De Servo Arbítrio).23
John Calvin’s Theology of Human Will
After the publication of his masterpiece Institutes of Christian Religion in 1539, some theologians (among them the Dutch Roman Catholic theologian Albert Pighius) thought that Calvin’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty as well as his radical view on predestination would be a real obstacle to any Christian theory of responsibility. In fact, Calvin’s theology on the issue was sufficiently clear, as it may be perceived by the title of one of the chapters entitled: “That Man is Now Stripped of Freedom of Choice and Bound Over to Miserable Servitude.” In response to Calvin, Pighius wrote a treatise called Ten Books on Human Free Choice and Divine Grace, which defended a libertarian notion of the will. When Calvin saw Pighius’s work, he felt a pressing need to respond to his arguments. The result was his book The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, published in 1543. In fact, Pighius defended that God’s election has no reference to or connection with “His hatred of the reprobate.”24 Actually, this is the position that most Lutherans would defend later in history and that would be known as “Single Predestination.” Furthermore, when Pighius stated that “God willeth all men to be saved,”25 he was in accordance with the doctrine of ‘Unlimited Atonement,’ a position which, after the Remonstrance, would become a hallmark of Arminianism.
According to Calvin, however, neither external action nor internal states of the heart were independent of God’s sovereign will. He believed that God’s decrees were the primary and sufficient cause of any action or desire. For Calvin as well as for most of the reformers, the sovereign ruler of the universe had foreordained “whatsoever comes to pass” before the beginning of time. Further, this was not based on any prediction of any human response (something as the position defended by Middle Knowledge or Molinistic theologians), but was only according to the counsel of his will and for his good pleasure. According to Calvin, God works internally in the minds of men so that “whatever we conceive in our minds is directed to its end by the secret inspiration of God.”26 For Calvin, the hand of God rules the interior affections no less than it superintends the external actions. Interestingly, despite recognizing the reality of human responsibility, Calvin’s system continued to be essentially deterministic because God would not have effected by the hand of man what he decreed unless he worked in their hearts to make them will before they acted. Calvin thus states, “The will of God is the chief and principal cause of all things.”27
Jonathan Edwards’s Theology of Responsibility
Jonathan Edwards’s positions regarding human will and responsibility have been extensively discussed in his treatise Freedom of the Will.28 Edwards exposes his arguments in relation to responsibility in several sessions in both positive (praise, reward, virtual) and negative (blame, punishment, vice) forms in the third part of his treatise entitled: “The Kind of Liberty of Will That Arminians Believe In: Is It Necessary for Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Praise and Dispraise etc.?”29
Section 1: “God’s moral excellence is necessary, yet virtuous and praiseworthy.”
Section 2: “The acts of the will of Jesus Christ’s human soul were necessarily holy, yet truly virtuous, praiseworthy, rewardable, etc.”
Section 3: “Moral necessity and inability are consistent with blameworthiness. This is shown by the case of people whom God has given up to sin, and of fallen man in general.” In this section, Edwards refers to some biblical texts such as: “So I gave them up to their own hearts’ lust, and they walked in their own counsels” (Psalm 81:1); and “God also gave them up to uncleanness, through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves. For this cause, God gave them up to vile affections. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things that are not convenient” (Romans 1:24-28).
Based on general ideas from his writings, it could be stated that for Edwards:
1. Human responsibility does not require a libertarian notion of “free will” nor any kind of indeterminism between the decision and act.
2. There are two types of inability: natural and moral. In the first, there is incongruence between will and action (either by external coercion or due to self-limitations of the nature). In the second, there is congruence between will and actions.
3. Responsibility is generated during a dynamic process of conscious decision during which the “will” is transformed into action. At this point, any inability becomes not only a limitation of a fallen nature, but also the result of a conscious decision against the commandment and, therefore, amenable to punishment.
4. A libertarian notion of “free will,” understood as a complete and unrestrained liberty, is itself a philosophical fallacy because it pretends to be independent of what could be called Edwards’s Supreme Ontological Law.
According to Edwards’s theology, there is one law or rule relative to “Being” that is the basis of all rationality in this world. Such a rule, therefore, would be so essential that its validity extends even to God. Such a Supreme Ontological Law could be stated in the following terms: The freedom of action or the range of possible acts for every “being” is limited by (or subjected to) the essential nature of this Being. For Edwards, the ontological nature was the supreme concept, while the range of possible actions was merely a logical consequence of the nature. For example, because of the Christian definition of God as a holy and perfect “Being,” the range of His possible actions is limited to those considered “fair and just.” This fact, according to Edwards, by no means contradicts the notion of an all-powerful God, because, ultimately, even his omnipotence is subjected to his nature. In such a sense, one can realize how, for Edwards, the very idea of a libertarian “free will” is irrational if the word “liberty” is proposed to mean an unlimited and unrestrained capacity of volition. In such a situation, a perfect God’s Being would not possess a will, which is “free” in the libertarian sense.
In the same way the “freedom” or range of possible actions of fallen human beings would be limited by their own corrupted nature. To Edwards this does not imply that humans cannot be responsible for their actions, but it clearly proves that all beings in this world are subject to his Supreme Ontological Law. For Edwards, freedom essentially means the “absence of coercion.” Therefore, although he considered human beings free, the concept of freedom should never be applied to the “will” itself, but to the actions. As he stated:
The plain and obvious meaning of the words “freedom” and “liberty,” in common speech, is power, opportunity, or advantage, that anyone has, to do as he pleases … being free from hindrance or impediment in the way of doing, or in conducting in any respect, as he wills …To talk of liberty, or the contrary, as belonging to the very will itself, is not to talk good sense.30
Jonathan Edwards’s “Utility” Model of Decision
I predicate Edwards’s model of human decision making with the word “utility” because, when analyzing the way the will determinates actions, he reaches some conclusions that are very similar to those of modern economical models. According to Edwards, every decision happens when the self is posed in front of a range of possible choices. The self, then, always chooses “what is most desireful.” In economic theory language, it could be stated that, having a background of personal preferences (pay-offs) in relation to possible outcomes and calculating the probability of achieving such outcomes through each one of the possible decisions, the subject would, then, attribute a certain value (utility) for each choice and, ultimately, make a rational decision. In Edwards’s original words:
What determines the will? All I need to say for my purposes is this: What determines the will is the motive that the mind views as the strongest. A motive’s tendency to move thewill is what I call its “strength”: the strongest motive is the one that appears most inviting, and is viewed by the person’s mind in such a way as to have the greatest degree of tendency to arouse and induce the choice; a weaker motive is one that has a lesser degree of previous advantage or tendency to move the will-i.e., that appears less inviting to the strong mind in question. Using the phrase in this sense, I take it that the will is always determined by the strongest motive.31
At this point, it becomes clear that both Edwards’s model of decision making, as well as his theory of human will, are essentially deterministic. In the case of human beings, as human desires are totally constrained (determined by the fallen nature that generates such desires), the consequent actions are, therefore, also totally determined by the utilities attributed to each possible option. In his writings, Edwards distinguishes between two types of inability – natural and moral – with only the second being related to responsibility. For Edwards, natural inability is the incapacity, either due to internal limitations or due to coercion, to act according to the will. Moral inability, on the contrary, would consist in the lack of “will” when obeying a command. In other words, in natural inability, there is a discrepancy between will and act, while in moral inability there is congruence. Although denying in other texts the existence of “free will,” at this point, Edwards simply seems not to discuss the causality of the lack of will (if it is contingent or necessary). Simply put, if the will is coherent with the action, the subject would responsible for the action. In his words:
We are said to be naturally unable to do a thing, when we can’t do it when we will, because what is commonly called nature does not allow it, or because there is any impeding defect or obstacle that is extrinsic to the will; either in the faculty of understanding, constitution of body, or external objects. Moral inability consists … either in the want of inclination; or the strength of a contrary inclination; or want of sufficient motives in view … [it] consists in the opposition or want of inclination.32
In summary, in an attempt to relate the system proposed by Edwards to Calvin’s theology it can be perceived that Edwards’s theology would only be compatible with Calvin’s Corrupted Will option. Clearly, it would not be compatible with the conception of a libertarian “free will” because this is the very idea that Edwards tries to combat. Not so evident, but easily demonstrable, it would also not be compatible with the conception of a Coerced Will because such a model of decision making emphasizes the existence of a decision, and therefore, links the action to a process that occurs internally inside the mind and, therefore, is self-determined and not coerced.
At this point, it would be interesting to compare Edwards’s theological position with that of some of other groups within Protestantism. One of these schools, the Arminians, rose as a soteriological line of thought within Protestant Christianity based on the theological ideas of the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609). Their beliefs have been mainly summarized in a document 135 called “Remonstrance,” which was published in 1610 as a theological statement against the ideas of “The Synod of Dort” (1618–19), a hallmark of Calvinism. In relation to human will and responsibility, the Arminians basically believe in three propositions about liberty:
1. It consists of a “self-determining” power of the will or of a certain sovereignty that the “will” has over itself and its own acts, whereby it determines its own violations to the exclusion of any prior cause lying outside the will.
2. Liberty involves indifference. In other words, it requires the mind to be evenly balanced between the alternatives until the act of volition occurs,.
3. Liberty requires contingency – understanding “contingency” as opposed to necessity. Contingency would mean the absence of any fixed connection between the contingent item and its cause.33
The first period – described in sections I and II and which could be designated as “The Glorious State of Human Will” – relates to the time before the Fall and which has been classically described in reformed theology by the Latin words “Posse non Pecare.” In fact, Adam and Eve, the first human beings, were the only persons who could really be said to pursue a will that included both possibilities (to sin or not to sin). In other words, their range of choices was not constrained by a fallen nature.
The second period – described in section III and which could be designated as “The Corrupted State of Human Will” – relates to the period after the Fall in which the corruption of human nature limits the range of possibilities of man’s will (a state which has been classically described by the Latin words “Non posse non pecare”). In such period, although human will still exists (and it is in Calvin’s words not coerced by any external force), it is now internally limited by the corruption of man’s own nature.
As my discussion concentrates mainly on the second period, it can be perceived that according to the WCF, the corruption of the will was the direct consequence of sin, which, since then, has been transmitted to all humans since birth Since WCF supposes the existence of human will, one recurrent matter of debate 137 is the relation of such human will and God’s sovereignty. Does the existence of the latter lead to the denial in any form the reality of the first? Or does the compatibilistic view, which affirms both, logically imply that God is the direct creator of evil?
To clarify I turn our attention to the WCF view regarding God’s sovereignty as expressed in Chapter III – “Of God’s Eternal Decree”:
1. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.34
Luther’s Theology of The Bondage of the Will
When analyzing Luther’s opinions about the state of human will, it is interesting to highlight the historical aspects involved in the composition of his masterpiece on the issue: The Bondage of the Will. This document was published in 1525 as an emphatic response to Desiderius Erasmus’s thesis On the Free Will published in the preceding year.35 Interestingly, Luther considered as sophism (and, therefore, of “no value”) the difference established in previous debates between “Necessity of Consequence”, understood as the necessity of the occurrence of something as a logical deterministic consequence of a foreordained fact that occurred earlier, and “Necessity of Essence”, in which the fact itself has been directly foreordained. To Luther, whenever talking about God, such distinction would be of no value because attributing “necessity of essence” to anything outside God would be similar to considering the event autonomous and independent of God, or a god in itself. In Luther’s words:
By necessity of consequence (to give a general idea of it) they mean this – If God wills anything, that same thing must, of necessity be done; bit it is not necessary that the thing done should be necessary: for God alone is necessary; all other things cannot be so, if it is God that wills. Therefore, the action of God is necessary, where He wills, but no act in itself is necessary; otherwise the act would be a God in Himself.36
Therefore, for Luther, the concept of “free will” would necessarily suppose a will that would be free from “necessity of consequence,” or, in other words, a will that would not be completely determined by God. Therefore the adjective “free,” when attributed to the will, would suppose that the will is autonomous or independent of God, or a god in itself.
For Luther although the Doctrine of Human Will should not be abandoned (because terms expressing the existence of human will and decisions are extensively used in Scripture), attributing the adjective “free” to “human will” was an epistemological fallacy related to the primitive sin of Adam (the desire of autonomy from God). In fact, for Luther, the doctrine of Foreknowledge and Omnipotence of God was completely incompatible with the freedom of the will:
The foreknowledge and omnipotence of God are diametrically opposed to our “free-will”. Either God makes mistakes in his foreknowledge, and errors in his action (which is impossible), or else we act, and are caused to act, according to his foreknowledge and action. And by the omnipotence of God I mean, not the power by which he omits to do many things that he could do, but the active power by which he mightily works all in all. It is in this sense that scripture calls him omnipotent. The omnipotence and foreknowledge of God, I repeat, utterly destroy the doctrine of “free-will.”37
Therefore for Luther, God’s foreknowledge and predestination was compatiblemwith only one of Calvin’s options: that of the Corrupted Will.
In relation to Erasmus’s view of human will and responsibility, several interesting issues can be discussed. Up to the time of the Reformation, it could be said that there were basically two views of anthropology and soteriology. Either one believed in salvation by works or in salvation by grace. In other words, either one was a Pelagian (whether pure or semi-pure) or an Augustinian. Salvation was either by sovereign grace or by human merits. In between these two “extremes,” Erasmus of Rotterdam tried to find a middle position: the doctrine of “Synergism.” Synergism ascribes salvation both to God and to man. In salvation, God and man make an equal contribution. Salvation is both by merit and by grace. Erasmus saw salvation as a cooperation, a joint-venture, a partnership between God and man. The result was that, while God receives the glory, man also receives the reward for his merits. It could be stated, therefore, that from the reformed perspective Synergism is, in essence, an illegitimate hybrid of grace and free will.38 In Erasmus’s words:
We should not arrogate anything to ourselves but attribute all things we have received to the divine grace, which called us when we were turned away, which purified us by faith, which gave us this gift, that our will might be synergos (a “fellow-worker”) with grace, although grace is itself sufficient for all things and has no need of the assistance of human will.39
Luther also says, “And so these passages, which seem to be in conflict with one another, are easily brought into harmony if we join the striving of our will with the assistance of divine grace.”40
Because the synergistic view of salvation places an emphasis on “works” as an effective and essential road to salvation, it is still the main position held by some conservative Catholics as well as some liberal protestant theologians. Nevertheless, a classical and strict reformed view of responsibility would still hold to the defence of human will as “self-determined” and “non-libertarian.” Yet it should be compatibilistic because the language about human choices is clearly expressed in the Bible, and there is no logical contradiction (as demonstrated by Edwards, Calvin, and Luther) between human will and God’s omnipotence and predestination.
The Situational Perspective
Understanding the Situational Perspective as that epistemological point of view which emphasizes the facts of reality or the objects of knowledge, I propose to conclude my analysis with a brief exposition of the current state of scientific knowledge about the biological basis of our object of study (the human will), with special emphasis on the cognitive psychology of intentionality as well as on the neuroscience of decision making.
I present some of the cognitive nuances involved in every decision making process with special focus on the neurological structures responsible for intentionality as well as in the cognitive psychology of conscious agency. Finally, as a conclusion I will demonstrate how both aforementioned empirical sciences strongly support a deterministic, non-libertarian, and compatibilistic theological view of human responsibility and human will, which has been previously built upon the presuppositions of the reformed traditions.
Cognitive Psychology of Conscious Will
The very definition of the concept of will has been vague and subject to many controversies both in the history of philosophy and psychology. David Hume, for example, could not define it without referring to other even more imprecise metaphysical concepts such as impression, feeling, consciousness, knowledge, motion, and perception. Hume’s states, for example that “Will is nothing but the internal impression we feel and are conscious of, when we knowingly give rise to any new motion of our body, or new perception of our mind.”41 It has long been held that the question of human will was closely related to the decision making process, which had a close relation to each individual’s preferences. Nevertheless, the exact relation between act and will (as well as between will and desire) has not always been clear. Although John Locke, for example, initially identifies will with preference, desire, and choice (taking them as equivalent), he further denies in his writings such univocal relation:
The will signifies nothing but a power or ability to prefer or choose … Although the word “preferring” seems best to express the act of volition, it doesn’t express it precisely; for although a man would prefer flying to walking, who can say he ever wills to fly?42
Although the psychologist William James’s further division of the concept of mind into three basic functions (cognition, emotion, and conation – this last corresponding to the will) added some further clarification to the issue, we must recognize that it was a very simplistic and quite arbitrary division, taking into account that it could be stated of someone as “willful loving” or “passionately reasoning.”43
The definition of will seems to be so subjective and existential that, although intentions, plans, and thoughts may be experienced consciously, the action could indeed be said to be unwilled if the person says it was not. Furthermore, in common everyday language, the term “will” may refer to completely different concepts – either to well-elaborated and organized plans for the future or to profound feelings and emotional desires. It is clear that the matter of intentionality, closely related to the issue which is currently known as conscious agency, has fascinated generations of psychologists. In fact, James believed that human will plays a crucial role to the subject by organizing its personal interpretation of life. In his Principles of Psychology he states:
But the whole feeling of reality…the whole sting and excitement of our voluntary life, depends on our sense that, in it, things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.44
Interestingly, several non-Christian psychologists agree that the notion of free will is an elaborated and recurring illusion of the human mind.45 Since early scientific research on the phenomenon of conscious agency, it has been perceived that such natural and almost instinctive feeling may be fooled in several situations. This may happen in some specific clinical disorders, such as the alien hand syndrome, dissociative identity disorder, and schizophrenic auditory hallucinations. Such illusion has also been demonstrated to occur during other events such as hypnosis, automatic writing, Ouija board spelling, water dowsing, and facilitated communication, all of which illustrate in different ways the possible dissociations and nuances between will and action.
This has led to the formulation of an interesting theory called “Apparent Mental Causation.” According to this theory, when a thought appears in consciousness just prior to an action and such thought is consistent with the action (and it appears exclusive of salient alternative causes for that action), human beings usually experience a feeling of conscious will and ascribe authorship for such action to the self. The experiences of conscious will would, therefore, arise from processes whereby the mind interprets itself, not from processes whereby the mind creates action. Conscious will, in this view, would be an indication that the subject believes he or she had caused an action, not a revelation of the causal sequence by which the action has been produced.46
Another valuable insight has been the conceptualization of what is currently called the Authorship Processing System.47
Such a complex psychological subsystem of human mind would stand outside the processes that effectively cause the action, laboring in parallel with it in order to generate for the subject “feelings of doing,” which inform the person of an estimate, based on available information, of who in fact is performing the action. According to the authors who proposed such theory, depending on the values of these estimations different degrees of subjective experiences of conscious will would take place. In the presence of strong evidences of external clues which suggest agency the authorship processing mechanism would, therefore, give rise to subjective experiences of “conscious will” that would compel people to believe they really caused their actions, although that may not actually be true in some cases. Daniel Wegner, from the Psychology Department of Harvard University, extensively explored such phenomenon is his most recent bestseller The Illusion of the Conscious Will.48 Wegner strongly denies any causative power to the subjective experience of the will, considering it an epiphenomenon of the Authorship Processing System. He states, “The experience of conscious will is a marvelous trick of the mind, one that yields useful intuitions about our authorship – but it is not the foundation for an explanatory system that stands outside the paths of deterministic causation.”49
Despite not departing from a Christian worldview, Wegner openly advocates an interesting position that denies the idea that responsibility strictly relates to causality. In fact, in his model (similarly to the Edwards’ model of responsibility previously presented) the author associates responsibility directly to conscious experience of authorship. As stated by Wegner:
Qualms about responsibility arise when we make the mistake of believing that responsibility is the same thing as causality. And of course it is not. Causality is something you can see in mechanical systems, a relationship between events, and is not dependent on what kinds of events are involved. Responsibility, on the other hand, involves persons-those selves are are constructed through the process of identifying actions as caused by an agent, the “I”50
In summary, it can be perceived that a growing amount of evidence from empirical research in cognitive psychology supports the concept of the free will (or a will that does not dependent on deterministic causes) as a complex and recurrent psychological illusion of the human mind. In order to explain such process without relying upon a supernatural or theological worldview, evolutionists biologists defend that such illusory process might have emerged as it played a role in the social adaptation of human beings.51 For a Christian, nevertheless, such empirical evidence reinforces the reformed presuppositions previously discussed, which defends an essentially deterministic understanding of human will and responsibility, in which human will possesses no autonomous causative power, but in which human will can be considered as a subjective epiphenomenon of the human mind.
Neuroscience of Decision Making and Intentionality
A great amount of research data (especially regarding experiments in patients employing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging—fMRI) suggests that human decision making is not a unitary and simple process, but rather that it involves a series of interdependent steps integrated by different areas of higher-order processing in the brain. In such complex process each neurophysiological subsystem seems to play a unique role in some specific phases of decision making so that it is almost impossible to attribute to, or to localize in a unique area of the brain, all the complex neuronal events from which each decision and desire depend.
According to the protocols of such fMRI experiments, the subjects are solicited to perform some specific tasks such as reading, speaking, or moving an arm. The consequent increase in cerebral blood flow of specific areas of the brain activated by such tasks is then detected through high-field Magnetic Resonance Imaging systems. In the case of the decision-making research, such tasks employ specific paradigms, usually involving the selection of multiple choices or the decision among differently valuable options (see Figure 4). Such tasks, different from pure motor, visual, or language ones, tend to activate several areas of the brain, such as.52
• The frontal cortex, which is responsible for analytical processing and cognition. In relation to intentionality or agency, it has been known for a long time that the frontal cortex plays a central role in initiative and purposeful behavior and that lesions of the frontal cortex induce aphatic states characterized by abulia (lack of motivation) with diminution of both active (motor as well as cognitive) behavior.
• The limbic system, which is responsible for the processing of emotion-related information.
• The so-called “reward-system,” which is composed of mesolimbic and mesocortical structures that are responsible for evaluating external stimuli and regulating behaviors that involve pleasure and reward.
• The mesial temporal structures, such as the hippocampus, which are responsible for learning as well as past-memories evocations.
• The ventromedial prefrontal cortex and cingulate gyrus, which seem to be activated whenever the decision-making process involves any complex ethical dilemma.
• The left parietal lobe, which is responsible for numerical evaluation and calculating of outcomes related to each possible option involved in a decision.
• The right parietal lobe, which is responsible for processing any spatial information that might relate to the decision of a motor act. The complexity of this region as well as its unique role in spatial cognition has been extensively discussed elsewhere. In fact I have previously demonstrated that the cognitive framework through which spatial information is processed has an important parallel with one of Kant’s category (a special form of a priori and synthetic knowledge as proposed in his “Critique of Pure Reason”) responsible for generation of Geometric information.53 have also demonstrated that several types of ischemic or tumoral lesions affecting the parietal lobe may lead to complex neuropsychological syndromes which may significantly impaire spatial cognition.54
Although some authors have proposed indeterministic models for neuroscience that might account for a certain level of indeterminacy,55 the present time most neuroscientists agree that attributing even a small level of indeterminacy to each human individual action (or to each individual physiological event in the brain) would ultimately lead to such an enormous amount of uncertainty that almost no human behavior or social phenomenon would ever be amenable to description, explanation, or prediction by science.56 Furthermore even atheist scientists agree that, for matters of the criminal law, even a hard form of determinism would not undermine responsibility or punishment, and, therefore, no abstract notion of “free will” or indeterminacy would be necessary for supporting any ethical or legal system of the modern world.57
Actually, earlier generations of scientists defended not only determinism but also a strict version of the relation between the human mind and brain called physicalism. For example, the biologist Gerald Edelman, awarded the Nobel Prize of Medicine in 1972, argued that both the mind and consciousness are wholly material and purely biological phenomena, arising from highly complex cellular processes within the brain.58 Nevertheless, although for many years the working hypothesis in neuroscience has been that a complete account of brain function was possible in strictly neurophysiological terms without invoking conscious or mental agents, this long-established materialist-behaviorist principle has been challenged in recent years by the introduction of a modified concept of the mind-brain relation in which consciousness is conceived to be both emergent and causal.59
This complex psychophysical interaction has been explained in terms of the emergence of hierarchies of higher-order and functionally-derived mental properties that interact by laws and principles different from, and not reducible to, those of neurophysiology. Reciprocal upward and downward interlevel determination of mental and neural actions are, therefore, accounted for on these terms, without violating the principles of scientific explanation and without reducing the qualities of inner experience to those of physiology.
In accordance to these recent modern concepts of “emerging consciousness” as well as “downstream causation,” some Christian scholars, bringing together insights from both philosophy and neuroscience, have defended a non-reductive version of physicalism.60
The Christian psychologist, Nancey Murphy, for example states the real concept that should be avoided in any serious discussion of the relation between brain and mind is not neurobiological determinism, but neurobiological reductionism.61 For her the relevant question is, in fact, whether humans, as whole persons, exert downward causation over some of their own parts and processes. Nevertheless in such system, what then would account for human responsibility, if all organisms would be capable of doing this to some extent? In other words, what needs to be added to this animalian flexibility to constitute a responsible human action? Murphy proposes that the main difference relies on a sophisticated language apparatus and on hierarchically-ordered cognitive processes which allow (mature) humans to evaluate their own actions, motives, goals, and moral principles and, therefore, generate a subjective perception of action which involves moral decisions.63
Cite this article
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- John Murray, “The Free Offer of the Gospel,” in Collected Writings of John Murray: Studies in Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 4:75-80.
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- Ibid.,3;emphasis added.
- Ibid., 17.
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In summary, we have seen that, in accordance with the latest research data from neuroscience and psychology, an appropriate Christian understanding of human will should consider intentionality and consciousness as having a complex biological basis, which is essentially deterministic, but not reducible to it. Furthermore, such higher-order functions should be understood as pursuing causal power over lower-level constraints of human behavior and other basic brain functions.
I have demonstrated, in the Existential part of our Multiperspectival Approach, that the question about the necessity of a libertarian model of free will for justifying responsibility arises from an erroneous interpretation of the relation between human will and responsibility from an exclusive and biased 1PP. After analyzing the origin of the question, in the Normative section of the essay, I proposed to search along the history of Christian tradition for the basic reformed presuppositions which would further guide the epistemological endeavor in the issue. After analyzing the position of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, and the Westminster Confession of Faith, we concluded that all of them involved the same view of human will as self-determined and “corrupted” by nature. At this point, I have demonstrated that, according to a Christian worldview, the very concept of “freedom,” when applied to the will in such a libertarian way, is meaningless and irrational because, according to such broad view of freedom even the Christian God would not be free, because he cannot act in contrary to his own nature. We have also concluded that, in order to be compatibilistic and to ensure that human will and God’s sovereignty harmonically coexist, a reformed view should be founded on a deterministic theory of biological working of the brain.
Finally, in the Situational section of my analysis, I have demonstrated how a significant amount of empirical data from contemporary cognitive psychology of conscious agency and intentionality strongly supports the view of “free will” as a complex and elaborated illusion of human mind. I also explored the complexity of the neurobiological apparatus underlying the decision making processes and intentionality, emphasizing the integrative character of this complex system composed of several harmonized subunits. Such empirical evidence provides further scientific support for the proposed reformed perspective in which human will is understood as being essentially deterministic, but not reducible to the biochemical and neurophysiological levels.62Special gratitude to my dear brothers and friends: Dr. Eduardo Oku and Dr. Everson Matte (“The Drummer”), who have taught me, through their exemplary life of joy in the fellowship of our Christian community, that there is a holy commitment to the gospel which transcends any professional duty or worldly vocational calling. May God bless me with the same wisdom they had in their personal life’s decisions!