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

Monday, June 29, 2009

Free will megapost

A collection of short essays (except the last one) in one post on various issues/problems to do with the idea of 'free will' in Christianity.

1. Summary of free will in a paragraph
2. Does God's foreknowledge contradict the idea of free will?
3. Why didn't God only make people who would follow Him?
4. Is God responsible for how everything has turned out?
5. How can God have free will if He can never be tempted to do evil?
6. Does the fact that we have original sin mean that humans are not responsible for our evil?
7. Wouldn't serving God take away our independence and free will?
8. Does the Bible say that humans don't have free will?

1. Summary of free will in a paragraph

What is free will? An answer I favour is that our intellectual reason isn't like what God has - ('My thoughts are not your thoughts' - Isaiah 55:8; Romans 11:34). But our soul, or something like that is like what God has (John 10:34). We get free will from the latter, but because the former isn't really like what God has it can never understand free will (from the latter) adequately. Something not like God is on the wrong 'level', or category of reality, to understand something that is like what God has. Moreover, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, this means that we will always unconsciously translate anything to do with free will into non-free will language our intellect can understand.

2. Does God's foreknowledge contradict the idea of free will?

The 'God's foreknowledge contradicts free will, because we can't make God wrong' argument ONLY works if free will is something that exists within what you might call the 'three known causal categories'. The three known causal categories are: a) randomness, b) probability, and c) determinism. For a human the whole idea of a 'prediction' necessitates these categories. 0% certainty = randomness = no clue at all, 50% certainty = probability = it could go either way, 100% certainty = determinism = no chance of it not happening. We can never think outside of these known categories, or even imagine how any being possibly could... Determinism is the predicting category of the three, and that pretty much kills the idea of free will (for obvious reasons).

But free will doesn't necessarily have to exist within the 'three known causal categories'. Maybe it can exist in a completely different causal category, outside of cause/effect/probability/random 'space'. If so, then unfortunately we can never understand it (and it's very mystical). Yet it may not have to exist within those categories. If so, God could know something without forcing it to happen.

3. Why didn't God only make people who would follow Him?

I think if we understood it really well then we'd know that free will is *like* a random process in a couple of ways. Creating a person is kind of like flipping a coin that will come up 50/50 heads or tails. This is important because if a process is random then you can't make it go heads or tails. So God making a person is kind of like flipping the coin in the sense that God can't make someone on the basis of how they're going to choose, just like I can't make a random coin toss go the way I want. But unlike flipping the coin God *can* predict how we'll turn out - He just can't make only the people who will choose the way He wants.

So in some ways free will is *like* randomness, but it's not really random because randomness is a terrible thing in people. It's somehow a 'third option' out of cause and effect that mimics randomness in this aspect, but is overall a genuine, great thing to have.

In Matt 13:24-29 God says that there's some kind of ratio of people who'll choose the way He wants and people who won't. Salvation is kind of like a statistical generalisation of e.g. X:Y ratio that becomes meaningless on an individual level because individually everyone has the power to choose the way God wants. It's just that on a generalised statistical level God knows X:Y ratio will be saved. It's like individually most philosophy students can choose to study metaphysics but statistically only a certain proportion will. Individually every Internet user can visit Apple.com but statistically only a certain proportion will.

4. Is God responsible for how everything has turned out?

Question: isn't God responsible for how everything has turned out, by choosing to make things in the way that He did?

I think at some point, one has to make an intellectual leap and say that as beings with finite reasoning, our reasoning is on the 'wrong level' to understand the infinity of God effectively, which also includes the image-of-God in humans. This frees us from having to work out in-depth how something like free will could work, which might come from something Godlike (infinite) that human brains make use of (Ecc 3:11; John 10:34-36).

So I don't think that Christians can be expected to explain how a) God could predict something without narrowing everything down to only one possible outcome, and, b) how we could possess a 'thing' called free will where multiple outcomes were possible, although only one outcome in fact occurred (which is part of our intuitive grasp of the concept of free will).

This means that we can trust from our feeling that we have free will, that although God knew what would happen by creating the world, the fact that there is evil in the world is our responsibility.

5. How can God have free will if He can never be tempted to do evil?

To begin with, in Christian theology just like being physical is part of our concept of 'a stone,' so loving and rejoicing in doing the right thing is part of what it means to be a 'mind' or 'conscious.' Love and goodness is to consciousness what being physical, or existing in the universe, is to a rock. Mind/consciousness is a kind of substance or thing that follows different rules to physical stuff. One of these aspects of mind, different to rocks, is loving and being good. So mind is love.

Following this, there are two possible reasons why people are tempted by God is not.

The first is that because God is God, He's never tempted. Because we're not, we must be tempted. Never being tempted is a 'perfection' that only God can have.

A second possible reason is that our mind is localised in a brain, and the brain isn't sort of made out of love like our mind is. It's not bad or evil in any way, it's just not 'love', or has the connection to love, that 'mind' does. Our mind pulls us in the direction of loving others unconditionally. But since we use our brain to think, and the brain isn't love, we can step 'outside the box', as it were, and do anything.

The question is: why did God make us brain-Minds instead of 'Mind' by itself? Couldn't God have taken away the possibility of evil? The answer is that to be pure mind you basically have to be God, I think. So the above setup (which makes sin very likely) needs to be the case.

So for us, free will MUST INCLUDE the possibility of sin. But for God, genuine free will comes without the possibility of sin...

6. Does the fact that we have original sin mean that humans are not responsible for our evil?

Our intellectual reasoning and moral sense belong to different worlds. Our intellectual reason belongs to our brain in the universe, our moral sense belongs to the image of God... in whatever kind of reality that involves.

Our moral sense gives us our highest moral ideals, and tells us that we should never do wrong. But our intellectual reasoning can't understand how a person could have reasons for doing the right thing in every circumstance.

The closest that intellectual reasoning can come to morality is 'You should do the right thing out of rational self-interest' - game theory. 'You do a good thing for me and I'll do a good thing for you' - tit-for-tat morality (the flip-side of tit-for-tat is 'Hurt me and you're going to suffer horribly').

This is a bad thing in circumstances where the self-interested thing is the wrong thing morally.

If you combine this reasoning with free will, then what you get is everyone choosing to sin because our reasoning leads us to make choices in a certain 'rational' (i.e. game theoretic) way.

You don't need to appeal to evolution to explain why humans are basically selfish - you can appeal to humans having a form of intellectual reasoning that tempts us with game theory, tit-for-tat, self-interested, etc. reasons for acting.

So original sin is essentially the curse that we'll work out good and evil for ourselves, instead of copying what God thinks.

The fact that we think this way doesn't seem to take away our free will, or excuse our actions. If we want to do the right thing our moral sense makes it plain to us. If we want to reject original sin then God provides the answer in Jesus Christ. Original sin makes it impossible to do the right thing consistently, because it creates constant, tantalizing temptations to sin, but in each individual act we are free.

7. Wouldn't serving God take away our independence and free will?

Mat 4:8-10: "Again, the Evil One took him up to a very high mountain, and let him see all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; And he said to him, All these things will I give you, if you will go down on your face and give me worship. Then said Jesus to him, Away, Satan: for it is in the Writings, Give worship to the Lord your God and be his servant only."

One way of thinking about serving God is that it's like the ultimate 'protection mechanism'. Let's say that you had two people in a really heated argument, it would be very difficult not to say hurtful things to the other person which would hurt your relationship with them down the road. But if they were both focused completely on serving God, then they wouldn't even think of doing hurtful things because they wouldn't be concerned with what they wanted at that particular time, but only what God wants at that time. And God always wants people to love others. So by only focusing on what God wants, that protects us from doing what we think is right (but isn't) at a particular time. Serving God with all our heart and mind ensures that we will always do God's will, which is a 'protective cover' for helping us always love others and God as we should.

On a similar note, it's in the nature of God that God cannot be tempted by evil. All other creatures must be tempted at some point. This makes God the perfect person to refer decisions to, assuming our communication with God was clear.

Another argument that we should serve God starts by assuming that what makes us people is that we have minds. And having a mind makes you worthy of love and respect. People should care for you because you have a mind and have feelings, can suffer etc. Well, this is a little tricky to really convey, but God is not a mind on the 'human' level. He's a 'super-mind' which somehow encompasses more 'mind' than humans have. A 'super-mind', as opposed to a human-style mind, can do more stuff. A 'super-mind' can understand free will, everything about minds, is all-powerful, eternal, and so on. So the argument says that if humans deserve love because we have minds, then a 'super-mind' deserves even more love and respect, which is what God is.

Also regarding some issues we clearly think that limits to freedom enhance freedom. So it's illegal to yell 'fire' in a crowded theater without cause. So if you assume that humans are made to be 'love' like God, then it would enhance freedom to serve God in such a way that humans are love (i.e. by serving God like Jesus did).

8. Does the Bible say that humans don't have free will?

Rom 9:17-23: "For the holy Writings say to Pharaoh, For this same purpose did I put you on high, so that I might make my power seen in you, and that there might be knowledge of my name through all the earth.
So then, at his pleasure he has mercy on a man, and at his pleasure he makes the heart hard.
But you will say to me, Why does he still make us responsible? who is able to go against his purpose?
But, O man, who are you, to make answer against God? May the thing which is made say to him who made it, Why did you make me so? Or has not the potter the right to make out of one part of his earth a vessel for honour, and out of another a vessel for shame?
What if God, desiring to let his wrath and his power be seen, for a long time put up with the vessels of wrath which were ready for destruction: And to make clear the wealth of his glory to vessels of mercy, which he had before made ready for glory"

Does this verse say that humans have no free will? This has been used to argue that the Bible itself contradicts the idea of free will, since God is alleged to determine what people choose (for His glory).

I think that if a) and b) are true below, then one can show in a way that fits with Romans 9:17-23 that God wants everyone to be saved, offers salvation to everyone (in the next life if they never hear about Jesus) and that through a miracle by God everyone can say 'Yes'.

a) In one of the paradoxes of free will, although God knows before we're born how everyone will freely choose in an infinity of possible situations, God can't use this knowledge to make only the people who will freely choose in the way that God wants.

So if God knows that out of a hundred people He makes that 33 will choose to reject grace and 67 will not reject it, God can't use this knowledge to make only the 67 people who will be saved.

More about this here.

b) Given (a), God must deliberately make people who He knows will be damned in order to make anyone who is saved at all.

E.g. if the ratio of people who reject God versus not reject is 33:67, then God has to knowingly make an individual who will make 'cursed' choices (Matt 25:41) in order to make two individuals who will be happy forever.

You could describe the cursed individuals as 'clay vessels ready for destruction'. But they do the cursing themselves. But God knew they would do so before He made them! So God bears some responsibility. But it was nonetheless good to make them because their creation was a necessary part of making the saved given the 33:67 ratio or whatever it is.

So in a tricky way, both human freedom and divine sovereignty overlap here, and Paul is describing the 'divine sovereignty' side of things, where God bears some responsibility. But was God wrong to do what He did? Creating 'vessels ready for destruction' was needed to make 'vessels of mercy', so no.

To be more exact, God's actions are morally OK from our point-of-view as long as they fit with two requirements:

1. The ratio of the damned to the saved isn't too worrisome. E.g. if 90% of people are going to hell then it seems unlikely that God should create people even if it's based on a fair process. I'm not sure what ratio is 'alright', but as long as there's more happiness than sadness in reality overall, then it seems OK for God to make 'cursed' people as long that is needed to make saved people.

2. It's the outcome of a fair process. In the idea of grace there's nothing stopping the unsaved from coming to God; God offers salvation to both the unsaved and the saved and no one gets an advantage over anyone else in accepting it (over this and the next life). Every damned individual could be saved at any point over an eternity if they simply changed their mind and didn't reject grace(!) So damnation is the outcome of a fair process - the saved are only treated differently to the damned because they don't reject God's grace ("there is no respect of persons with God" - Rom 2:11).

(Note: What I just said is a bit confusing given the concept of heaven and hell. I wrote an article on a good way of looking at hell here).

It's a mystery how a) and b) works. Libertarian free will doesn't make sense from the perspective of finite reasoning so it's not a huge step from the not-making-sense nature of free will to accepting that free will works in a way consistent with a) and b). You have to accept the idea that free will is a mystery and somehow fits with a) and b) for this argument to work.

If you read the Romans passage above in light of these arguments, then I believe that you can reasonably interpret them in a way where God wants everyone to be saved but people reject His offer of salvation. For those who reject, God uses them for a dishonourable purpose to help the saved come to Him forever. It's only because God knows they will reject Him - and are a clay vessel made for destruction in the understandable way I talked about above - that God hardens their heart to use them for a dishonourable purpose if that is somehow needed to bring people to Him (through creating adversity in ways that God knows will do that).

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