Was Susan Smith Really

An Innocent Machine

In a Deterministic World?

By Robert Harsh

Does it really matter what your paradigm is concerning the nature of life? Does it really make any difference if one person subscribes to biblical naturalism while the other holds to evolutionary naturalism? Evolutionary naturalism believes that nature is all there is. They believe there is no possibility that any non materialistic reality exists. An important premise is that all matter and energy had to have been in existence for all time. In fact, for them, it is unthinkable to even entertain the thought that time had a beginning. Never mind this violated a major law of nature, the second law of thermodynamics.

An interesting natural conclusion of evolutionary naturalism is the philosophy of determinism. Why does anything in the material universe happen? Determinism rightly says, "Things happen because of the influences of all of the other material forces on them." Why does a forest fire burn trees? Trees are packed with chemical compounds which have bond energy that is released as heat and light when the various chemical reactions take place. There is no "will" involved; it just happens. But where did the initial energy to get the fire going in the first place come from? The great Yellowstone fire of 1988 got started with a strike of lightning in the Teton Mountains south of Yellowstone. What caused the lightning? Where did it get its energy? The energy from lightning comes from purely natural forces within a thunderstorm. But where did the thunderstorm get its energy? The electrical forces in a thunderstorm come from the potential energy stored in the storm clouds. That potential energy came from heat energy which in turn came from light energy which came in a purely materialistic way from the sun, 92 million miles away. But how did the sun produce the light energy? Probably the best theory says that thermonuclear reactions occur and hydrogen atoms are combined resulting in helium. But where did the hydrogen in the sun come from? Why, let me think. Oh, yes! The "big bang" of course! But let me ask one more question that requires a purely naturalistic answer of our evolutionary naturalistic friends. Where did the stuff for the bang come from? Evolutionary naturalism has no answer to this materialistic dilemma but they don't want to hear it.

Well this has been a long way of explaining how a forest fire works, but my intent was to use the forest fire explanation to illustrate clearly how determinism works.

Everything, absolutely every natural event in the universe, no matter its magnitude, has a cause from either within itself or from the physical forces working on it.

Let's examine a different scenario. What if a careless camper started the fire instead of lightning? Was determinism still in effect? Let's say the camper left their campfire unattended and a spark from the hot coals provided the energy for combustion of carbohydrates in some dry pine needles. But why did the person leave the coals to hopefully burn out on their own? And why did the person make use of physical materials (a match and some tinder) to start the fire? Perhaps it was to cook some food or maybe to provide warmth on a cool night.

The prosecution by the police will center on the basis that the person started the fire and then left it unattended by "their own free will." But what is this "free will" nonsense? Evolutionary naturalism does not allow for free will. It is not that evolutionists particularly like the idea of no free will; it is just a natural outcome of their philosophy and determinism (rather than free will being more logical).

Natural deterministic forces caused the person (without free will) to light the fire and then to leave it unattended. But the fire did a lot of damage. What kind of guilt should be assigned? The determinism philosophy of evolutionary naturalism says that, in reality, there is no personal guilt. Society is allowed to protect itself from such people by punishing them but in reality there is no guilt.

I came to have these thoughts from reading an article in the March/April, 1996, issue of The Humanist. The article "The Freedom of Susan Smith" was written by Thomas Clark and I would like to share Thomas Clark's thinking in the rest of this report. Thomas Clark studied philosophy at Tufts and Howard Universities and has served as associate director of the Institute for Naturalistic Philosophy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (I wonder if that institute gets any public funding?)

Susan Smith, you will recall, is the mother who strapped her two little boys in her car, drove it into a lake, drowning her boys. Her motive involved a "love" affair in which the boys were too much baggage. She was sane enough to concoct a story about a car thief stealing her car which contained her two boys.

Did she use her free will to murder her sons or did the material forces around her and in her past cause, in a deterministic way, those events to take place?

"To believe that Susan Smith did not have free will seems to undercut the requirements of justice. If she was not raving mad (and it seems likely she was not), then a complete explanation of her act that omits mention of free will seems to exonerate her. No wonder, then, that the conflict between scientific explanation and our cherished explanation from natural causality is so rarely made explicit, and no wonder it is so often the subtext of our debates about responsibility" (emphasis mine, page 8, 9).

For the determinist to attribute anything to a person's free will "is to render a causal explanation of her crime superfluous." This eye-opening statement startled me when I first read it. (Read it again for yourself.)

Clark's article demonstrated clearly the vast gulf between the evolutionary naturalism and biblical naturalism paradigms. The common sense that is produced by my paradigm tells me Susan Smith is guilty because she chose, for whatever reasons to get her sons out of the way. My common sense says, she could have done different.

The purpose of this article is to address Clark's desire for the public to critically examine the notion that people make choices and do what they do because of their own "free will." It is time to begin the public, explicit questioning of this assumption, however uncomfortable it may occasionally make us" (page 9).

Clark noted a writer who had challenged society's idea of moral responsibility. Robert Wright, in his book, The Moral Animal, in a chapter entitled "Blaming the Victim" described humans as "we are all machines, pushed and pulled by forces that we can't discern, but that science can." Wright's view about free will is "that it is simply a delusion without intelligible foundation."

Susan Smith's lawyer argued a defense that painted her a victim of a very destructive background. These influences had "swept her helplessly through life like a cork down a quick-moving creek." Clark added that "perhaps her state of mind at the time of the murders was the fatal culmination of a life history and recent events which she neither planned nor controlled."

Clark argued that criminal justice is based on a faulty foundation. Criminal justice views its subjects as free moral agents who not only know right from wrong, but also have the capacity to make behavioral choices upon which they must take personal responsibility. On the other hand, Clark declared that "science" is on the right track. Everything in the universe, including Susan Smith is causally connected to the world around it; there are no gaps in which free moral agents can reside. "If we believe Susan Smith acted coldly and rationally out of selfish motives, so be it; but we need not--indeed can not, if we are being reasonable--buy the notion that she chose to act out of some mysterious, uncaused capacity called free will" (page 12).

Does this mean Clark believes convicted criminals should go free? No, he just believes that society's motivation for punishment should be out of a sense of retribution. He believes in "treatment" at a secure facility is appropriate. "Since she was judged sane, it is obviously important to protect ourselves, as well as deter others harboring similar motives, by imprisoning her. Time spent in the right sort of facility, with the right sort of interventions, might even work to ameliorate a flawed character" (page 12).

I think Clark made a clear case for the wrongness of punishment for the purpose of retribution. "The good citizens of that town (and the jurors who decided Smith's fate) quite properly sensed--perhaps unconsciously--that you can't put her crime into a causal, explanatory context and still justify retributive punishment" (page 12).

So where did our natural feelings of outrage and need for retribution come from? Robert Wright in The Moral Animal has the evolutionary naturalist answer. "Such feelings are simply the naturally evolved response to a horrific violation of a central human value. They serve to ensure that such transgressions are swiftly attended to, for if reliable sanctions were not imposed, no ordered society could last for long" (page 12).

However, freely willing agents do not exist, according to Clark. "No such agents exist anywhere or ever have or ever could--since humans are as much a part of the causal continuum as molecules and machines. . . . Our concept of moral responsibility need not rest on the myth of originative agency but only on the necessity for social order. We must assign credit and blame and impose legal and moral sanctions not because freely willing agents exist but in order to channel behavior within acceptable limits" (page 12).

Let me now tell you why and how I disagree with Thomas Clark. Foundationally I do not agree that man is the product of evolution from any non-human animals. Humans were created in God's image. Adam and Eve, I believe, were real historic people who were given a command to not eat of the Tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve both chose by their own free will, with Satan's influence, to disobey and ate the fruit.

I believe the Bible is God's communication to humans and that it contains no misinformation. It should be abundantly clear, from numerous examples, that people are held responsible for their actions. David was guilty of committing the sin of adultery with Bathsheba and a just God provided a punishment. If David were a mere pawn in the deterministic forces around him, I do not believe he would have been punished by a just God.

When Achan kept some of the spoils of battle and hid them in his tent he did the act out of his freedom to either obey or disobey God. A just God held him responsible.

The ten commandments were given to people who could choose to obey or disobey. Ananias and Sapphire had to pay for making the wrong choice.

Solomon is said to have been the wisest man who ever lived. Let's see what Solomon says about personal responsibility and personal choices.

"Do not envy a violent man or choose any of his ways, for the Lord detests a perverse man but takes the upright into his confidence" (Proverbs 3:31, 32).

"My son, If sinners entice you (a choice is required), do not give in to them" (make the right choice by your own free will) (Proverbs 1:10).

"But a man who commits adultery lacks judgement, (the opportunity to do right or wrong) whoever does so destroys himself" (Proverbs 6:32).

"The wages of the righteous brings them life, but the income of the wicked brings them punishment" (Proverbs 10:16).

To believe people are not free moral agents is to believe that people are not really morally responsible for their actions and there is no such thing as sin that requires moral consequences. If there is no sin, there is no real need for salvation through Jesus.

I am glad to have been able to have shared Thomas Clark's article because it has exposed one of the consequences of believing the evolutionary naturalism paradigm. It does make a difference what your paradigms are and our society will suffer more and more problems as our society "evolves" from biblical naturalism to evolutionary naturalism.

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, NovDec97.