Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Four Paradoxes of Free Will

Four Paradoxes of Free Will

I've put one of my essays on what free will really is at the beginning of this article so that people will know what I'm referring to. If you've already read this, or read this, then skip to section two.

First off, some philosophical background to know where I'm coming from. Like many Christians, I believe that God is infinite. Not infinitely good, or infinitely wise, but an *actual* infinity. God is infinity, and infinity happens to wear a crown, so to speak. That is, infinity happens to be conscious, to feel emotions, love, pain, and so on, and this infinite being is everywhere and rules forever and ever. Bit of a big assumption from a non-religious point of view, but this is religious talk here.

1: What is free will? (short version)
2: Four paradoxes of 'infinite' free will, and how this view of freedom answers four common objections to Christianity
Paradox 1: God knows how we're going to choose, but we have free will
Paradox 2: God ensured everything that has happened or will happen by making the world the way he did, but the way things have turned out isn't his responsibility; it's the responsibility of creatures
Paradox 3: God can't just make the saved
Paradox 4: With free will, something can be possible every second of every day, and yet will never happen over an infinite length of time

1: What is free will? (short version)

Now on to free will.

I'd say that none of our attempts to define free will 'feel' right. If we say that our actions are caused then we should blame the laws of physics when someone does something wrong. On the other hand, if we say that our actions are *not* caused then it sounds like they happen randomly, because the only alternative to stuff being caused that we can imagine is randomness. That would make doing the right thing a matter of chance.

I think that a good solution involves imagining two 'worlds' out there: a finite world and an infinite world.

Humans see the finite world. In the finite world, everything is a matter of cause and effect. In the finite world A causes B, which causes C, which causes D, and so on. People are determined in the finite world.

In the infinite world people are not determined, but that doesn't mean that they act randomly. The concepts of 'causation' and 'randomness' don't apply in the infinite world. It's a whole different 'ball game', where everything, including causality, is totally different. God lives in the infinite world, because God is infinite. Free will comes from the infinite world, and that's the only place where it can exist.

This situation explains why humans can't understand free will. We can't understand free will because it's very hard to use finite reasoning to understand the infinite.

OK, that might explain how free will can exist even though we don't understand it, but doesn't this mean that only God has free will? After all, only God is infinite. Or am I saying that humans are infinite? But that would put us on God's level.

My view is that humans are partly infinite and partly finite. Only God can be fully infinite, because God 'encompasses all possible infinities' in his being. That's why God can't make another God. But he can go 'halfway'. That is, God can make people partly infinite without making another God.

We get an infinite part of ourselves from God. This is our soul, and it is what makes us a child of God, a thing made in God's image, because nothing finite is made in God's image. We get free will, consciousness, and morality from our soul. But everything else about us *has* to be made finite, including our reasoning, knowledge, and body, because we cannot be all-infinite like God (by the way, animals also have a soul but not understanding - Job 39:13-17.)

This is how I see free will 'working': our physical bodies and soul together make up our personality. We get free will through our soul, and through our bodies we get something to express our choices with as well as reasoning and knowledge. The body sometimes appears to do what the soul does, so for instance, we have an emotional part of the brain, but only because the soul needs something to work with when God empowers it to interact with the body-brain. So we get 'brainy stuff'. But the brain never achieves what the soul does, it only appears to because God wants our brain and soul to interact, and the soul uses 'brainy stuff' to do so.

So free will can make sense, if you say that there's a mysterious 'infinite world' where there can be free will in a way that we can't understand. We get to have this freedom because God made us partly infinite, although we can't understand our infinite selves because our reasoning had to be made finite. We borrow our infinite soul from the infinity of God, and the soul and the body working together create our personality.

This is a dualism of the infinite and the finite, rather than soul and matter.

2: Four paradoxes of 'infinite' free will, and how this view of freedom answers four common objections to Christianity

Because free will comes from the infinite world, you can't use finite thinking to understand it without sacrificing the way things really are. This is because you're dealing with something that is infinite, not finite, so trying to understand free will with finite reasoning is going to lead to paradoxes and contradictions.

This point can be illustrated by three paradoxes, applying generally to the idea of infinity.

Take the paradox of the Grand Hotel by David Hilbert. In theory, you should be able to put a guest in every room of a hotel. But what if the hotel is an infinite hotel? If it's an infinite hotel, then you can never fill it with any finite number of guests. No matter how many guests go to the hotel, there will always be room, because the person in room 1 can move to room 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4, and so on ad infinitum. Like you can't think of a 'highest' number (someone could beat you by adding a zero on the end of your number.) You would need an infinite number of guests to fill an infinite hotel.

This shows how the finite is an entirely different kind of number to the infinite, or different concept. The finite deals with the finite and can never interact with the infinite without help from the infinite. The infinite deals with the infinite, and through God's power can interact with the finite. They're very different concepts; the infinite isn't just 'much bigger' than the finite, but a different kind of thing. A difference of quality rather than quantity.

Another example of an infinite paradox is the paradox of the circle. Suppose you have a circle and a line to every point of the circle. You need an actually infinite number of lines to go to every point of the circle, because otherwise there'll be gaps when you zoom in closer and closer. OK, suppose you've drawn that circle and the lines. Now draw a much larger circle around that circle. And make the lines you previously drew go out to that even bigger circle. Now, according to finite logic, when you look at those lines in enough depth, there should be tiny gaps when they go out to the much larger circle, because that circle is, well, much larger. But that's not the case. No gaps will ever appear between the lines that have been extended out to the much larger circle, no matter how much you zoom in, because infinity is always infinity. This is a rather counterintuitive mystery of infinity.

You can also use infinity to show that 1 = 2.

Let's assign infinity some value. Like X. Let's say that infinity = X.

OK, now let's add infinity to infinity. What does infinity + infinity equal? Surely two infinities (using finite logic). So if we say that infinity equals X, then infinity plus infinity must equal 2X.

But infinity always has the same value. So infinity plus infinity remains infinity. That means that if we assign a value to infinity then we can show that numbers that are inherently different are the same.

So infinity = X. Infinity + infinity = 2X. But infinity is always the same, so infinity + infinity = X. But this means that 2X = X. That would imply that 1 = 2.

So infinity can be used to show that 1 = 2. This shows that there are clearly 'issues' with using our reasoning to understand infinity, to say the least.

(Visualization of the difference between infinity and finiteness below, click to enlarge)

We find infinity so hard to understand because God really 'messed up' our reasoning when he made us. He did this so that he *could* make us (that is, because only God can be fully infinite, we had to have finite reasoning). No matter how smart we get we'll still think in finite terms and use finite reasoning, even if everyone had an IQ of six billion. You can't be smart enough to understand these things and still be finite. If we could understand them, then we'd be God. No angel or human will ever understand these issues (it reminds me of Matt 24:36 "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only".)

All this means that we can probably expect to find 'true contradictions' whenever we analyse free will using finite language. We should expect to find truths about free will that seem to make no sense, but which are still truths - they are mysteries of infinity.

With this expectation in hand, lets look at four common 'paradoxes' of free will, which are often recast as objections to Christianity, and how the 'infinite' idea of free will resolves them.

Paradox 1: God knows how we're going to choose, but we have free will

Because free will cannot be comprehended with finite reasoning - not even with God's help - we have to mangle the concept of free will very badly whenever we intellectually 'establish' how free will works.

This mangled idea of free will - which is usually deterministic, but can be random - is then used to prove that God doesn't exist, which it does successfully within its domain in the finite world.  When you think about it, this isn't surprising, because God is as far from being finite as anything can get.

The most common 'repackaging' of free will in finite terms draws on deterministic logic.  Christian and secular philosophers won't necessarily say 'I believe in a deterministic idea of free will', where people's actions are determined, but this kind of thinking is implicit in the way both Christians and secular philosophers tend to understand free will.

Whenever someone says 'I can't have free will if God knows what I'm going to do, because I can't make God wrong, and so I have to do what God thinks that I'll do' they're drawing on deterministic logic, because that statement draws on deterministic logic to work.

For instance, if I drop a ball from a great height, then I can know that it will fall to the ground.  I am making a prediction about it falling to the ground with a high degree of certainty.  How can I make this confident prediction?  Because there's a force that will ensure that my prediction will come about - gravity.  People get the ability to predict things by knowing that something will ensure that they are right.

Similarly, if I predict that Tom will give me a million dollars tomorrow, and this isn't just me making stuff up, but involves actual knowledge, then something must ensure that I will be right.  My ability to know that Tom will give me a million dollars tomorrow must be correlated with some kind of 'guarantee' that he will do so.  Some possible guarantees are threats to Tom, the use of force, or even a mind control device that I've put in Tom's head, which will ensure that Tom will give me a million dollars tomorrow.

Basically, to have the ability to predict stuff perfectly, and not just be making stuff up, but to actually *know* the future with absolute certainty, requires us to obtain 'guarantees' of the future.  With guarantees of some kind we can predict that balls in the air will fall to the ground (with the 'guarantee' of gravity) and we can predict that people will do stuff (with the 'guarantee' of threats or mind control devices or stuff like that.)

All of this, obviously, uses a deterministic logic.  If something is up to chance then you cannot 'know' that it will happen. Therefore, to 'know' that something will happen you need a guarantee that it will happen. A guarantee removes chance. The removal of chance equals determinism.

This means that if God knows what we're going to choose then there must be some kind of 'guarantee' that God will be right.  Yet free will seems to require leaving things to chance.  Therefore, God's guarantee must remove chance. And this means that we don't really have free will according to the finite-reasoning philosopher.

The problem is, that's not free will.

What philosophers have done here is 'repackaged' their instinctual knowledge that we have free will into finite terms that can be understood.  This repackaging was then used to analyse God's ability to predict our choices in the Bible.  Philosophers have in this process hammered the square peg of free will into the round hole of finite reasoning; thought of free will in deterministic terms; visualised or imagined God's knowledge 'forcing' our choices to conform to his predictions.  There's been a bifurcation of free will into determinism or randomness/probability, forced on philosophers by the finite nature of our reasoning, when in reality there's a third option operating in the infinite world.  No one can intellectualise this third option but we make use of it in the part of us that's infinite (our soul).

This third option is the 'true' option, and if we understood it then we'd know that God's ability to predict our (and his own) choices is completely compatible with everyone having genuine free will.

To really understand what's going on with free will we must resist putting it into a finite 'box'.  Once we stop trying to intellectualise free will with our finite reasoning, then we can learn to embrace the paradoxes and ironically through ignorance get closer to the truth.  By embracing these philosophical paradoxes, by making it clear what humans can and can never know, we can learn something about God, the infinite world that he lives in and the nature of our own free will that we share with God.

Once we embrace these paradoxes as mysteries of infinity we can accept more readily, on the one hand, God having the power to predict our choices, and on the other hand, humans being genuinely free.

Paradox 2: God ensured everything that has happened or will happen by making the world the way he did, but the way things have turned out isn't his responsibility; it's the responsibility of creatures

In the Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus pointed out a common thought that causes many Christians to stumble over the idea that God made everything. If God made everything then isn't he ultimately responsible for what will happen? If God knew how everything would turn out when he made the world, that Adam and Eve would sin, that there would be horrible wars and so on, who would be saved and who lost, etc. then isn't it his responsibility the way things have turned out? Isn't the state of the world God's fault much like when someone pushes a boulder off a hill, they're responsible for what the boulder does on the way down?

As we saw earlier with the view that God's knowledge contradicts free will, the root of these types of theological problems comes from forcing free will into a 'deterministic' framework, when the reality is quite different.

I think that the basic argument structure borrows from the argument against free will in the first paradox. Basically, because God ultimately started everything off knowing what would happen, and because his foreknowledge takes away our freedom (according to the finite reasoning I talked about earlier), then God is responsible for all the evil in the world; all the bad choices.

The answer to it is that due to the nature of infinite free will, that we can't understand using our reason (we can't *ever* understand), we're completely responsible for our bad choices even though God puts us in situations where he knows we'll choose a certain way.

Because in the infinite world we have a choice; we have a sovereign free will. So ultimately, what we do is up to us.

The paradox is that in general terms, you can put someone in a situation where you know that they will do the wrong thing, and yet you are not responsible for their choice.

But how to explain that using finite reasoning? It can't be done. You can never know this intellectually like you can know that 2 + 2 = 4.

This wouldn't entirely excuse God if the situation he put us in were unfair, I should note. There are fair and unfair situations. But if the situation is fair, then it's not God's fault if we do the wrong thing, even though he knew that we would.

Paradox 3: God can't just make the saved

A third paradox of free will is that God couldn't only make people who would decide to come to Christ (Matt 13:24-29). This needs to explained in a theology where some people never choose to go to heaven.

One objection to Christianity is that if hell is such a nasty place, then God should have avoided making the unsaved. If God could have avoided making the unsaved, then why not avoid making them?

An all powerful God should be able to do a lot of stuff. He should be able to make only those people who decide to make certain choices. So what's going on?

It's important to remember that free will isn't determined or random/probabilistic, but involves a 'third option' in the infinite world. Even though this is the case, I'm going to use an analogy between free will and finite concepts to account for this third paradox.

In one respect, free will is a little like randomness (although the metaphor shouldn't be carried too far and people think that free will is affected by randomness, because randomness isn't a good thing in people.)

I think that in some respects, although it involves a completely different process (an infinite one), creating a person is kind of like triggering an event with a random outcome. Creating a person is kind of like flipping a coin, with a completely random 50/50 outcome, even for God.

If a coin toss is random then you can't make it go heads or tails - it could go either way. We cannot affect the outcome, and we cannot predict it either.

This is similar to God making a person, in that God cannot just make people who would go a certain way (i.e. have certain personalities), but he *can* still predict us. Whereas for human randomness, if anything's random you cannot make it go a certain way *and* you cannot predict it.

So when God creates people he hopes that they're going to turn out well, but it's *like* a random process as to whether they will... so God can't make sure that all the people he makes will make the best choices. But the other half of the paradox is that even though making a person is like a random process in this aspect, God still knows how we're going to choose, so free will isn't actually a random process. To even use the word 'random' is kind of a misnomer, because the infinite world 'third option' isn't determined or random at all.

And also, even though free will is *like* being random in this way, it's still a great thing to have. You'd think that being even slightly random would be a terrible thing for a person, because you'd end up doing crazy stuff that you didn't want to do, because you'd act randomly. I'm not saying that free will is random, I'm saying that it can be *compared* to random in certain aspects, in a superficial way when looked at through finite reasoning. Actually, the 'third option' that we can't intellectually understand is a genuine, great kind of freedom.

Paradox 4: With free will, something can be possible every second of every day, and yet will never happen over an infinite length of time

Possibility and probability go hand in hand in the normal view. If something is possible, then it has a probability. If something is impossible, then the probability of it happening is zero.

The fourth paradox of free will is that when it comes to free will, possibility has absolutely nothing to do with what's probable and what's improbable. Something can be possible again and again, every hour of every day for an infinite length of time, and yet will never happen.

Traditionally we say this about free will: if you have free will, then you can choose to do anything within your physical power, at any time. So it's *possible* for you to do anything within your physical power at any time.

According to finite reasoning, the fact that it's possible for you to do something *should* create a relationship with probability. There should be some kind of probability that you can assign to whether you will do something that it's possible for you to do.

For example, if it's possible that Jimmy will take a cookie from the cookie jar, then you should be able to assign an e.g. 70% probability that he will take it. You should be able to assign a probability to whether someone will go and see a certain movie, or marry a certain person.

But, if free will is a matter of probability, and we can do anything within our physical power at any time, then over an infinite length of time everyone would do everything.

The reason why everyone would do everything over an infinite length of time if free will can be analysed in terms of probability, is that in probability theory, if an event is possible, then it has *some* chance of happening. Even if the chance is absolutely miniscule.

And if any event has *some* chance of happening, then if that chance gets repeated again and again an infinite number of times, then the chance *must* come up eventually and the event happen.

For example, suppose that the universe is continually remade in the Big Bang, and that every time the universe is recreated there's a chance that a life form would evolve and write Hamlet. Over an infinite length of time, someone *has* to write Hamlet.

So if you lived for an eternity with probabilistic free will, then eventually you would choose to build a spacecraft with wood, or drive your car deliberately into a ditch repeatedly, because it's possible that you can do it.

And you would have no choice about it. As long as there's any probability of trying to make a spacecraft out of wood, then over an eternity you'll decide to do that. You simply cannot get out of it in the probability view of free will.

But this view is completely counterintuitive. Assuming I live forever, why should I be forced by probability to build a spacecraft out of wood? Why should I be forced to recreate the Great Wall of China in Alaska using books written about the American Civil War?

The conclusion is that when it comes to free will, possibility doesn't have anything to do with probability. It would if free will were finite, but in the infinite world, a different set of rules apply. In the infinite idea of free will you don't have to do everything that you can physically do. You can do what you want to do within your physical power. And if you never want to build a Great Wall of China out of books written about the American Civil War, then don't.

If you're a Christian, there's a second reason to defend the idea that you can be free to choose something every second of every day, and yet never choose it over an infinite length of time. And that reason comes from our concept of heaven.

Let's talk about heaven. According to Christianity, the people in heaven will be able to be perfect forever, but only because we'll all choose to accept God's grace forever (Rev 7:17). We'll still have the same old personality that has chosen to find doing the wrong thing attractive, but we won't act wrongly any more, because we'll be perfect through the work of the Holy Spirit dwelling inside us. Once anyone accepts the Holy Spirit, God can perform a miracle that will make them perfect as long as they accept the Spirit.

But no human can accept the Holy Spirit on their own. No one is good enough to genuinely know what it means to be perfect, and to want to be perfect, otherwise they already would be ("All have sinned" - Rom 3:23). So God performs a miracle on anybody who hears the gospel that allows them to genuinely accept what living a perfect life really means. For an idea of what we'll be like forever in heaven, look at 1 Cor 13:4-7. We'll be infinitely close to that, which as you can tell might be hard to live out in practice, and a hard transformation for sinful people to want forever. So through a miracle God can take away the character flaws that prevent every one of us from wanting to be perfect, so that we can accept the Spirit of grace. And God extends this miracle to everyone who hears the gospel, to allow everyone to accept his grace, although not everyone does. And through another miracle God can make us perfect as long as we continue to accept his Spirit.

Whether we'll go to heaven depends on our willingness to accept God's grace for an actually infinite length of time. On our own we're still not perfect, even though the Holy Spirit who dwells inside us will help us be perfect through a miracle. Without the Spirit, we're still people who chose desires that made doing wrong things the most attractive option. And we'll have free will in heaven. So it's possible for us to want to go back to being our old selves and reject the Spirit of grace in heaven. If someone would do this after a million years then they cannot go into heaven; someone cannot go into heaven if they would reject grace after a googol years. You can only go to heaven if you're willing to choose to accept God's grace forever and ever, and some people won't. Why? Because even though God performs a miracle so that our imperfect works and imperfect character traits don't prevent us from coming to Christ, we're still our old selves apart from God's miracles and are free to reject God's grace at any time in heaven. The only people who will be in heaven are those who want to put themselves under grace, suppressing any temptation against accepting it forever and ever.

Accepting God's grace for an actually infinite length of time is the only thing that protects us from hell. Hell does not occur because God does anything, rather it is an automatic process that happens when any soul sins (John 3:17). Because infinite souls must have a certain nature, sin kills souls (James 1:15). It's only through our spirit becoming one with Christ's Spirit that the atonement can have any effect to help us. If this doesn't happen then we die spiritually (Gen 2:17). Our soul doesn't have to be in hell for this to happen, a person could be anywhere and still be in hell. Hell is merely a process of sin killing a soul, which is either like life on earth if you're good, or much more painful if you're evil. In a sense, we're already in hell because suffering on earth occurs because of sin (Rom 5:12-14), and later on the scenery changes. It's also true that a righteous God will not allow sin into his presence, being a righteous God, and will cast those who reject his grace out of heaven. But even if God did allow those who reject his grace into heaven, then no sinners would be happy in heaven, because they would be killed by sin while they were in heaven, which would make heaven a hell for them.

For those of us who heard the gospel and held on to God no matter what, no matter the testings, trials and doubts, God has developed in us a character that is willing to accept his grace forever. That's why and how Jesus came to save that which was lost (Matt 18:11). We started off graceless, choosing to reject God, and we will join God in a state of grace after we are helped through testing and trials to want it so much that we'll want it forever (Luke 15:11-32.) (Note: I think that children and others outside accountability very likely go to heaven, so actually more people are saved than not saved. But exactly what's going on with this is ambiguous.) Through testings and trials, we will be brought to choose grace forever and ever as our deepest desire, against any contrary thought, and thus we will have chosen to be perfect in heaven forever. The parable of the loaves is that no one who could have been brought to accept grace forever will be lost (John 6:12, Mark 8:17-21). All the souls who could have been brought to accept grace forever have been allocated into history facing the kinds of tests especially helpful for them in choosing to accept God's grace forever, so that when they pass those tests, they have created a character in themselves that will choose God's grace forever instead of being graceless (Rev 1:19-3:22). Those whom God knows can never be brought to accept his grace whatever God does (the 'cursed' - Matt 25:41-46) have been allocated into history according to God's knowledge of how they will choose in every situation, so that everything they do will ultimately help those who are being brought to accept grace forever accept it forever (Rom 9:19-25, 1 Cor 10:13, Heb 12:11).

The finite idea of free will criticises this view quite severely.

If you adopt the determinist idea of free will, then we are saved or lost depending on how God chose to make us. In this idea of free will, God made some of us follow him, and some of us not follow him. We only act out our predetermined desires.

If you adopt the probability idea of free will (a competitor), then we would eventually choose to sin in heaven over an eternity. Rejecting the Spirit in heaven is a possible choice. So if free will is a matter of probability, then everyone in heaven will eventually reject the Spirit over an infinite length of time. This would disprove the Christian idea of heaven.

And the random idea of free will runs completely counter to any reasonable idea of what free will is, because being forced to act in a random way is not a good thing.

As hopefully I've laid out, we should reject all of these finite world understandings of free will. Free will is neither determinist, nor probabilistic, nor random. So we can be in heaven forever and ever, and always choose to follow God's will forever, and never sin because we will accept God's grace forever, but still have free will all this time. This is the promise of heaven (Rev 7:17).

To sum up this article, when we think in finite terms we bifurcate free will into determinism or randomness, or a hybrid of both, probabilistic free will. But none of these ideas reflect the idea of free will in our intuitions, or rather, the idea of free will sensed through our infinite soul.

This situation leads to the four paradoxes I've just outlined, that defy intellectual understanding and have to be taken on faith, faith both in an infinite God and that this infinite God made us in his image, giving us access through the infinite world to this thing called a soul.

If I'm right about free will being given to us through an actually infinite object - our soul - then perhaps by understanding all of these paradoxes about infinite free will we can get a better grasp of what an actual infinite is like, which could be interesting.

If I'm right about God being infinite and humans being partly infinite and partly finite, then if you applied finite reasoning to God, or to the things in humans that are infinite - free will, consciousness, morality, and many of our intuitions, which philosophers do, then you'd be using the wrong terms, asking the wrong questions, speaking the wrong language.

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