Greg Boyd and Roy Baumeister on Free Will

In Greg Boyd’s book, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God, Boyd makes a claim that at first seems to be non-testable. He notes that certain viewpoints about the future, the possibilities of life, and of God’s nature tend toward certain mind sets.

Along the same lines, if we believe that even God faces possibilities, we will be more inclined to see possibilities as positive than if we believe God faces an exhaustively settled future…People who believe this will be more inclined to see their lives in terms of possibilities. They will be more inclined to adventurously and passionately envisage and pursue what they could be instead of resigning themselves to what was supposedly settled an eternity ago about what they will be.  Boyd, p 94

I read this and thought, “well, that’s an interesting conjecture…but Popper would say, ‘You need to check that against actual empirical data.’ For instance, John Piper has claimed that not believing in possibilities and free will is equally energizing for doing good, “So, I’m deeply convinced from that, and a thousand other illustrations, these doctrines [that God foreordains all events], really, are meant to be lived and loved in the worst and the best of times.

But, there is some evidence from the social sciences (which admittedly aren’t  given a great deal of credence amongst certain lovers of the hard science), that believing in free will does lead to higher personal efficacy and disbelief in free will leads to moral resignation. Controlling for certain other factors like a constellation of theological beliefs would be pretty difficult. This is especially so because very few people understand theological nuances, especially in fields wherein the inquirers are more likely to be a-religious. For evidence that a-religious people misunderstand religious beliefs with a predictable amount of misrepresentation and general silliness read anything by Daniel Dennett. Anyhow, here is the conclusion of an analysis of several studies on self-efficacy, placement on a free-will/determinism scale, and various behavior traits:

High belief in free will produces effects that can mostly be described as prosocial, but pro-cultural may be an even more apt characterization. Belief in free will seems to promote a less forgiving and more punitive attitude toward people who break rules and thus undermine the implicit social contract that underlies culture. In general, disbelief in free will is linked to disregard for societal rules and norms, as indicated by increased propensities to engage in aggression, cheating, stealing, and slacking off at work, as well as reduced helpfulness. Belief in moral responsibility appears to be closely linked to belief in free will. Baumeister (2008) has proposed that the concept of free will is linked to a new form of action control that evolved in connection with the human propensity to reinvent social life as culture. That belief in free will supports cultural activities is conducive to that view, though it cannot be taken as proof of any evolutionary argument or of the reality of free will.
A second theme is personal agency. High free will belief has been linked to thinking for oneself instead of mindlessly conforming to the opinions of others, to counterfactual thinking and learning from one’s mistakes, to self-efficacy and (sometimes) internal locus of control, as well as to brain activity associated with initiating movement and to actual behavior. Disbelief in free will appears to foster an attitude of passivity, indifference, and perhaps wide-ranging disregard for moral responsibility.
Baumeister, Roy F., and Lauren E. Brewer. 2012. “Believing versus Disbelieving in Free Will: Correlates and Consequences: Free Will Beliefs.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6 (10): 742–45.
Again, controlling for other beliefs is difficult. The article notes that many things can be controlled for and that the results end up the same. But historically, the Puritans built culture, became rebels of the state, and were known for (except for certain lapses in terms of witch hunting which were obviously evil) their morals. Same with Augustinian monks. These are groups that have historically not believed in free-will. But, they did believe in the gospel, that control is hard to test. Anyhow, though I really am convinced that people with loads of false beliefs (including ones about free will) can be transformed into Christ-likeness (which I strive for some days), it does seem that believing in free-will has a practical pay-off that makes it seem to be a true belief. Anyhow, Boyd was right. Believing in possibilities can empower others. The article does note that free-will belief can also correlate with being more judgmental. This is something Christians should guard against.

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