Free Will,  Love,  Metaphysics

Would Determinism Make Love Unreal?

Compatbilists about free will hold that, although everything is determined by God, human beings are free because they are able to operate, uncoerced, according to their desires. Greg Boyd argues that such a view inhibits the possibility of loving relationships particularly when it comes to human relationships with God. He describes the following scenario in order to make his point:

Suppose I were able to invent a computer chip that could interact with a human brain in a deterministic fashion, causing the person who carries the chip to do exactly what the chip dictates without the person knowing this. Suppose further that I programmed this chip to produce the perfect wife and inserted it in my wife’s brain while she was sleeping. The next morning she would wake up as my idea of the perfect wife. She would feel, behave and speak in a perfectly loving fashion. Owing to the sophistication of this chip, she would believe that she was voluntarily choosing to love me in this fashion, though in truth she could not do otherwise.
         Would my wife genuinely love me? I think not. Proof of this is that I (and hopefully all husbands) would eventually find this love unfulfilling. I would know that my wife was not experiencing these loving feelings or engaging in this behaviour on her own. In reality, I would simply be acting and speaking to myself through this sophisticated computer chip. My wife’s behaviour would not be chosen by her, so she would not really be loving me at all. She would become the equivalent of a puppet. If I want love from her, she must personally possess the capacity to choose not to love me.
         If God desires a bride made up of people who genuinely love him–who do not just act lovingly toward him–he must create people who have the capacity to reject him. He must endow agents with self-determination. (55)

Boyd’s question is: how could love be real if it is not freely (in a libertarian way) chosen? It is reminiscent of the dystopian vision of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In the new world elites manipulate the people to desire the things they want them to desire. This takes away their freedom.

If God, like the elites or the husband, controls the desire of a person in what sense could we describe their love as real? Of course, the experiment is not supposed to show that a chip renders love unreal, but God’s determining decree.

There are a few responses available to the compatibilist. The first is an appeal to an intuition. If the husband found out tomorrow that determinism was true and that there was no possibility, given God’s decree, that his wife was not going to love him would he turn to his wife and say, “you never really loved me and I guess I never really loved you”? I would say, no. Now perhaps someone who holds to libertarian free will would say that there could be no such thing as love if determinism is true, but just imagine telling your wife that, now you know determinism is true, you never really loved her.

Second, is the wife loving her husband against her will? Some would suggest that if the wife is  not co-erced to love her husband then she loves her husband freely. It does appear from the story that the wife’s will has been coerced, but what has really happened is that her desire has been directed. In the story she really does love her husband. If one where to ask her if she had been coerced she would presumably say, no. She would presumably say that she cannot find in herself any evidence that her will has been coerced. In fact, the story does not so much talk about the direction of the wife’s desires but the chip replaces her faculty of desire or is identical to it.

Perhaps neither of those more intuitive responses work. A third response is to consider what presumably is the alternative in the story – that the wife freely (in a libertarian sense) chooses to love her husband. Would the husband have been happier with this? What if the wife said that she, at one point, did not love her husband but then freely decided to love him? Perhaps this might be better for the husband. The problem is: I can’t help wondering if love is the kind of thing I get to have much say over. Indeed, isn’t the kind of love that one can’t help having better than a love that you have to tell yourself to have? After all, love is the kind of thing that should be compulsive. After all, if choice was the crucial issue, I’m fairly certain Romeo and Juliet would have chosen other people. But isn’t that precisely the point: love is something that happens to us and when it is full blown it sometimes propels people to pay amazing costs for the one they love. They can’t help it.

I’m not saying that those compulsions should justify immoral acts like adultery. Our desires are not always for what is good. They are often for things that are evil. But doesn’t that tell us something else? Isn’t desire the kind of thing that needs directing to the right object?

A compelling love is the kind of love Jesus desires us to have for him, a love that is spontaneous, one we can’t help having because of how magnificent he is. Similarly, the kind of love a wife has for her husband (and a husband has for his wife) is the kind of thing one would hope the couple can’t help but have. Of course, a marriage survives on working to maintain that love, but the love for one another is grounded in something that appears given rather than decided upon.

None of this proves compatibilism over libertarian free will but it does show that Boyd’s argument fails to get what it wants: that if compatibilism is true love is not real.

Perhaps one might think that there is an additional problem here: in our story there is someone else who is forcing love to occur in a person. It is like the story of Brave New World. There is a coercive element that remains. Surely that makes love, though experienced as real, ultimately fake love. Now, in the case of a chip implant I concur. If a husband drugs his wife daily with a love drug then one would think of that love as unreal.

But the point of the story is not supposed to show that a chip in the brain is what is so objectionable, but any antecedent condition that determines everything that happens including the wife’s love for her husband. But the antecedent condition in question is God and his will. God’s decree, in turn, encompasses everything including the existence of the husband and wife. He has full ownership of all his property and can do as he wills with it. He decided in ages past to grant love to this couple. He determined that they would love one another. I can’t tell you what our imaginary husband might say to this, but I can say what I would say: “Thank you Lord for the love you gave to my wife and I for each other.” Every good gift is from his hand.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.