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The Free Will Problem

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In last week’s Thursday Theology post (here) we looked at different theories of determinism. We saw that determinism is the idea that the past determines the future in a literal ’cause and effect’ way, so that theoretically, given the entirety of history and all the laws of physics, there is only one possible future in any given situation.

Determinism raises a number of questions concerning free will, and so it’s logical that following on from last week’s post we should look at different types of free will this week. I will try to condense a complex subject into a few simple definitions, and then offer my own reflections and conclusions concerning the free will problem.

Compatibilism

Compatibilism is the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism. Philosophers who believe in this thesis disagree about what exactly free will means, because they acknowledge there are constraints due to circumstances (both in a person’s life and in the world at large) that can impact our choices and decisions.

In practical terms, compatibilism is often relevant to issues of moral responsibility. We might imagine, for instance, a court situation where a jury is trying to discern whether an individual is responsible for a crime, or whether outside factors coerced him or her to commit a crime. The judge might consider how a mental illness led to an illegal act, or that a person was acting under duress, or on the other hand they might argue that the individual on trial was motivated by their own free intentions.

Contemporary compatibilists like Daniel Dennett argue that a certain definition of free will holds true if a coerced agent’s actions coincide with the agent’s personal desires and intentions.

Incompatibilism

Incompatibilists quite simply deny the compatibility of free will and determinism. They argue that if the world is deterministic then our feeling that we are able to make free choices is simply an illusion. I will have more to say about this in my conclusion, below.

Some contemporary incompatibilist philosophers, like Sam Harris, argue that our thoughts are the product of a lengthy evolutionary process, coupled with our life circumstances, so we are not free at all (to read my post entitled ‘Sam Harris and Free Will’ go here).

Libertarianism

Some incompatibilists are libertarians, which is the strongest position in favour of the freedom or ‘liberty’ of the individual. Libertarians argue that because at least some actions of some agents are free, determinism is necessarily false.

One definition of libertarianism is the thesis that an agent is able to take more than one course of action in a given set of circumstances. Some who hold to this view believe that events are influenced by the ‘non-physical’, whether it be a mind, will, or soul.

Assessment and Conclusion

As I concluded last week’s post on determinism, I argued that of crucial importance to the free will debate is the way in which we understand the nature of God. God is often left out of these discussions about determinism and free will, because we live in an age where scientism has led to a proliferation of atheism and great scepticism about God’s existence.

This scenario is unfortunate, as the solution to the problem of free will lies in correctly understanding the nature of God. Without such an understanding, there will always be confusion on this subject.

Theists generally agree that there are certain attributes that are definitional of God; attributes such as omnipotence (God is all-powerful), omniscience (God is all-knowing), and omnipresence (God is everywhere). These attributes are very relevant to the free will debate. If we believe God exists and literally possesses these attributes, then it’s quite obvious there is no room for free will at all.

Let us focus on the attribute of omnipresence. Please consider that this means that every cell of your body, and every particle in the universe, is a part of God. To deny this would be to limit God’s presence in such a way as to deny His omnipresence. This view of God naturally leads us to a panentheistic understanding of existence; panentheism being the idea that all that exists, exists within God.

In practical terms, this makes sense, as theists will happily attribute to God the ability to impact any part of His creation at any time. This would not be the case if there were distance between creator and creation. If God is truly omnipresent, and a living God, then we can rightly surmise that God is unfolding the universe by His omnipotent power in this very moment – this moment being all that actually exists (the past and the future exist only as ideas; not in reality).

It is not the case that the past necessarily leads to the future. This will only happen if God wills a particular succession of events. Being in control of existence, as He is, God is above the laws of nature, and can at any time change those laws if He wishes (which is what is happening when we observe miracles).

Ideas such as cause and effect, past and future, are simply that – ideas. Because events flow into one another, in reality there are no separate events. Similarly, because the past flows into the future without any interruption, we can see that time is illusory – it’s a way of segmenting a single eternal ‘now’ into divisions that don’t exist in reality.

All of these observations beg the question: What is real? And we can observe that there is an ‘unfolding’ happening. Wherever there is activity in existence, there must be a cause of that activity. Considering this deeply should lead us to conclude that there is an all-powerful, omnipresent God – a ‘cosmic animator’, as I like to call Him.

There are many repercussions of this view for the determinism / free will debate. If God is in control of all things, then obviously we don’t have free will. If we apply this understanding to the situation of a jury assessing the crimes of a perpetrator, it would appear to be the case that ‘anything goes’ – they cannot be found guilty because they were simply a puppet in the hands of God. While there is logic to this, I believe it’s important to point out that in reality it’s not actually the case that ‘anything goes’ – only God’s will goes.

Many theists are uncomfortable with a worldview that sees God as the author of everything that we describe as ‘sin’ and ‘evil’. But I believe in the domain of ultimate truth, we must accept that God is indeed in control of everything that happens. This may cause us to see the world a little differently, but it’s actually an immensely liberating idea, knowing that whatever you’ve been through, and whatever you’ve done, represents God’s will for your life. Also, your future is in His hands.

My conclusion is that none of the views of free will presented in the first part of this article are accurate, for they fail to take into account the divine attributes that demonstrate God is unfolding all events in accordance with His sovereign will. There is no free will, only one almighty will; a will so powerful it can create a universe, billions of planets and billions of people, unfathomable complexity and diversity, and a historical process that lasts thousands or even millions of years.


I’m aware that the view of God described in my conclusion presents a challenge to many of the key doctrines and tenets of Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions. For a more in-depth look at the issues, I invite you to read my essay entitled An Almighty Predicament, which you can find as a downloadable PDF at the top of the Essays page.

42 comments

  1. Hey Steven, always good to read your posts…at times though, they venture a bit too deep for my mind! Thinking of you and praying for you as we seek the truth of God. ☺

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    1. Hi Lisa! Apologies for that. I do cover deep topics, but I do my best to try to make my points in the simplest way possible. I may not always succeed! I’m very grateful for you reading though, and for your prayers. Peace and blessings upon you! 😊

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  2. As always Steven you do make one think. I am very logical when it comes to pretty much everything. But in my faith, I am very simplistic. Many of my friends, Christian or not, always ask how can I be so analytical in all aspects of my life, except in my faith. I am intrigued by all the new and different views you share, it’s intriguing learning new, and different things. As I told you before, I never knew there were so many hahaha. I ask God to bless you Steven :):)

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    1. Thank you, Margaret. It is my intention to provoke people to think deeply about some of the issues related to faith, and religion, and a belief in God. But I also respect and understand how simplicity of faith can be a good thing – it’s in line with what Jesus taught. God bless you, too!

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      1. I understand, you do a good job, and it is appreciated. I love discussions about faith, religion, and God. I didn’t know they had names for all of them. :):)You have helped me put names to some of the topics. I can pretty much sum up everything, from my perspective, in a sentence. Fear of and love for God, and belief in Jesus, and my salvation through Him. Which when I think about it, even though it might seem simple, it is quite the opposite ;);)

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  3. Good afternoon! Quick clarification: although orthodox or historical Christian belief holds to the omnipresence of god, it doesn’t also hold that god’s omnipresence thereby means that the universe (as a whole) or our cells (in particular) are constitutive of god’s being. There’s been, historically, a fairly strong distinguishing between an omnipresent, a panentheist god, and a pantheist god. Interesting stuff to study, nevertheless!

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    1. Hi Joshua! Many thanks for your comment. If I’m understanding you correctly, then I think I agree. I’m more of a panentheist than a pantheist, as I believe the whole of creation could cease to exist and God would still be perfectly whole.

      In terms of omnipresence, I don’t know that a definition of omnipresence would be logical if it implied God’s presence was limited in any way, and if God wan’t present in the cells of our bodies then His presence would indeed be limited. Would you agree?

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  4. Interesting post. I was surprised by your conclusion, ultimately, but I think you nailed the current debate on this subject and fairly represented the various positions. You make some excellent points.

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  5. When I consider what you said, it must be true, for who can turn back God’s will and plans? No one. They are finite. I do think it’s more accurate to say God gave us a life to live more than anything else and choices to make, that are ultimately already a part of his sovereign plan. And you’re right that is comforting. You’re right many misconceptions come from not understanding the nature of God. From now on I think I will shy away from using the term ‘free will’.

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    1. Hi Rosalind! Many thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you found my arguments to be of interest and in some way persuasive. God bless you and have a wonderful day 🙂

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  6. Hi Steven,

    I find that the “omni’s” can be troublesome when talking about the nature of God. I know that we use our own experience and terms to talk about God and that can’t be helped, but I think it could be useful to not stretch them too far or make them some form of dogmatic principals. To me they just express the idea that God is ultimate and might be helpful metaphors for exploring. If one accepts that God, while being immanent in creation also has an abysmal character (infinitely transcending creation) then we should be cognizant of the limits of our language. After all the omni’s can lead to unresolvable paradoxes (Can God create a stone that God can’t lift?) so perhaps they shouldn’t take a central place in theology.

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    1. Thanks for your insights, Steve.

      I suppose an important question is whether or not it’s okay to ponder the nature of God? If it is okay, then language is a helpful tool, and I do believe the omni’s capture important ontological attributes. There is an argument that says we should just trust in God’s word, and not think deeply about the nature of God, which I understand, but personally find very difficult to do, because I have a passion for thinking about reality and what is ultimately true. I find contradictions in the Christian worldview which are hard to ignore… I wish I didn’t, but I can’t help it. I have tried to immerse myself in Christian life, hoping that the problems would go away, but they always return to the forefront of my mind whenever discussions around key Christian ideas like sin, judgment, the fall, and salvation, arise.

      How can I be an evangelist when I believe strongly that we don’t have free will?

      My essay entitled ‘An Almighty Predicament’ (here) explains the issue in more depth if you’re interested (although I realise it’s a big ask requesting someone reads an essay!).

      In any case, I’m very grateful that you took the time to read my article and leave a comment.

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  7. Read your essay. Well written and argued. I agree with you that God suffers. Where we would probably disagree is in ontology. In my ontology, https://dlcommunion.wordpress.com/%20aspect-monism/ , God is the one who is doing the actual suffering. Everything is an aspect of God, in the Divine Life. This has similarities to panentheism but I believe is a more radical monism than it usually describes.

    I suppose an important question is whether or not it’s okay to ponder the nature of God?

    Good question. I think if one wants to do theology it is inevitable that there is talk about what God is like or doing. The question is, where and how to go with this. If a certain avenue leads to logical contradictions and paradoxes then maybe it’s best to tread lightly. For instance, how does one deal with statements like this:

    Can God choose to not know something?
    Can God choose to be bad?
    Can God choose to forget?
    Can God choose to not be someplace?
    Can God give up God’s power?

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    1. Hi Steve!

      Great to be discussing these things with you, it seems that we’ve grappled with a lot of the same issues. Thank you for taking the time to read An Almighty Predicament (and I think you may have read my essay on God and Suffering as well – thank you).

      I read your article on ‘aspect monism’. I agree with you that everything is an aspect of God. And a panentheistic understanding of reality makes good sense to me. I believe all is God and that all of creation is in God. Would you mind explaining in a little more detail where our ontology differs as I’m not quite understanding that right now?

      Concerning the questions at the close of your comment, I would have to give a different answer to each question. I have absolutely no problem arguing that there are certain things God cannot do. I have argued this in other articles. For instance, God cannot create another omnipresent God. God cannot cease to exist. So the way I put it is that God is omnipotent only in respect of reality. He is limited in certain ways.

      I agree that treading lightly when it comes to difficult questions about God is wise. I also agree that when we discuss theology, difficult questions about God do arise. God seems to reveal certain understandings to our minds.

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          1. Hi Steve,
            I wonder if the following will add to the conversation of your topic?

            Dr. Alvin Plantinga appeals to the notion of “morally significant actions”. This parallels a Gospel narrative where Jesus asks a rhetorical question: Does the master commend his slave for carrying out those actions the master determined the slave do? Jesus answers: “I think not”.

            The slave is merely functioning as an instrument on the master’s behalf. Any moral significance having to do with the slave’s actions are attributed to the master who functions as the effectual determining agent.

            The slave exists within a modal condition of restricted freedom. Christian philosophers would note that if he were not a slave, he could “Do otherwise” than what the master determined him do. But since he is a slave, he cannot (for all practical purposes) “Do Otherwise”.

            This modal characteristic of “Do Otherwise” is acknowledged as unique to, and pivotal to, libertarian freedom.

            Plantinga then imagines a theoretical world, in which God determines all things, which come to pass. (aka Theological Determinism). In this world, God determines that persons can only think/say/do things, which are morally good. These persons cannot think/say/do anything morally evil, because God has not made morally evil thoughts/choices/actions accessible to them.

            Plantinga then argues the people of this world are not performing morally significant actions because (like the slave) they cannot “Do Otherwise”. Any attribution (praise or blame) could not be attributed to them.

            Plantinga then argues the modal condition of freedom the people in this world have, parallels the modal condition of freedom, which a robot has, when it is programmed to throw an empty soda can into the correct recycle bin. The robot is not performing a morally significant action, because (like the slave and the people in theoretical world) the robot cannot “Do Otherwise” than what an external agent has determined it to do.

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