Friday, October 23, 2009

Free Will

The Great Delusion


    Among philosophers from different backgrounds, the free will problem continues to create debates and stand in contrast with the omniscience of God. If one supposes that God is a perfect being, all knowing, all good, all powerful, then how can man act independently of God's will? Wouldn't the will of an all-powerful god have power to force the human race into submission? From the Determinist to the Libertarian, many conflicting views create the uncertainty of our role in the world.

    In order to come to an answer about free will, we must first understand the three schools of thought in regards to the nature of God. By understanding the theology and definitions of God, we can then define our relationship with Him.

I claim that free will does exist and does not take away any traits from a perfect God; rather the existence of free will proves that not only is God omnipotent but also merciful and loving—traits that should be held by a Supreme Being.

The Determinist

    A classical theologian like Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) subscribed to the theology of determinism which is: "the view that everything that happens is uniquely determined to happen by prior events and states of the universe (Shatz, 556)." In other words, God has already set life into motion, and everything that will happen has been decided by God before any person came into existence. A determinist believes that God is the source of everything. If anything happens, then it happened because God wanted it to be that way. All of our actions, past and future, have been decided, and we are not free to act on our own.

This philosophy is strengthened when one considers the omniscience of God. If God is all knowing, then He knows how we will act. A perfect God must possess this attribute of knowing everything in order to be supreme. If God knows that something will happen, then it must happen or He will no longer be omniscient— and no longer worthy of our worship.

    While this form of belief may bring comfort to many who look for order in a chaotic world, this notion of God eliminating our ability to choose unsettles many. For those looking to have a personal relationship with deity, the deterministic view is cold and subservient. According to William Hasker, a professor at Huntington College, this relationship with God can be compared to a puppet tied by string to a puppet master who controls all movements and voice (Shatz, 56). In following the deterministic philosophy, a person surrenders all autonomy to this higher power and acknowledges their station in life as the will of God.

    The critique of determinism continues with the issues of sin and evil. If one supposes that a benevolent God is the source and cause of everything, then where does evil come from? How could a perfectly good God create evil? How can a person sin when God has decided that choice for them? To answer these questions while keeping with the deterministic philosophy, all things are done because that is the way God had planned it. This answer does not provide any clarity on the questions of evil and sin, nor does it help the believer build a personal relationship with this God. In claiming that God is the source of all suffering, the believer cannot seek comfort or refuge, or plead for help from this being. This callous thinking comforts only those who want to have a concrete explanation for the mysteries of life.

The Compatibilist

    The philosophy of the Compatibilist closely resembles that of the Determinist in that a person's free will is real and in harmony with determinism. A person can act according their own will and desire if it is true for them to act at that time. A person can only make a choice if that choice has been approved. With compatibilism, God retains all His power, knowledge and goodness while still allowing humans their freedom to choose.

    The compatibilist argument satisfies both the need for God to be perfect and the human need for independence. Each and every person is able to act according to their own will. However, this idea of free will cannot be real if our choices are contingent on the need to be "true" for us. We have two choices when waking up in the morning: get out of bed on the right side, or get out of bed on the left side. We could choose either option, but the perfect omniscient God would already know what side we will get out from. This perfect God cannot be wrong. Therefore, our action must comply, and be "true" for us. The only choice we can make will be the choice that God already knows. While we may think that we have options, God knows that we have only one action—His action; thus causing our free will to be nothing more than an illusion.

This illusion of free will may still give comfort to people who look to God for answers to life, but there are many still that do not see how an illusion of free will is the same thing as being able to choose. We are still trapped inside of a prison even if we do not realize it.

The Libertarian

    Libertarians, or incompatibilists, argue that free will is real. According to Hasker: "an agent is free with respect to a given action at a given time if at that time it is within the agent's power to perform that action and also in the agent's power to refrain from that action. (Shatz, 55)" A person can act however they desire if they are able to and if they can say no. We simply can't try to fly and then claim that God is restricting our free will because we are not able to avoid the law of gravity, but we could choose to jump off a cliff, or choose to not jump off a cliff without any determined outcome. In this view of free will, we are truly free agents to according to our own desires.

    This libertarian view of free will also eliminates the problem of sin and evil. People are free to choose—to sin or not sin. If a person is considered "evil" or a "sinner" they have chosen that path; God did not decide this for them.

    However, the problem with this idea arises when talking about the power of God. In the libertarian philosophy, God is no longer all knowing as there is no way that He can know how we will act if the choice is left to us. If God does not know something then He is no longer perfect. The Libertarian now must tweak the concept of God to fit with his definition of free will.

God is still omniscient, but that does not mean that He sees the future. Rather as an all knowing God, He knows everything that can be known. He cannot be expected to know things that have not occurred as they have not yet happened. Strengthening this argument further, the Libertarian then asserts that God knows all the possible outcomes for any situation we are in. While He may know our many options and their outcomes, He allows us to make that choice for ourselves.

The Determinist vs. The Libertarian

    In comparing these three views, we can quickly eliminate the compatibilistic argument as they eventually revert back to the deterministic view that the outcome is already known to God and therefore must happen. The remaining two arguments both have strengths that appeal to the believer. The God of the Determinist is all knowing; there is nothing unknown or surprising to this God. The Libertarian will admit that there are things that his God does not know.

    The Determinist takes comfort in knowing that all problems and sorrows come from God for some unknown reason, but by faith they accept this as divine. The Libertarian cannot answer for the calamities that fall upon the human race. However, the Libertarian can claim to be a free agent in respect to God while the Determinist can't. The Libertarian takes comfort in building a personal relationship with this Supreme Being whereas the Determinist's relationship with God remains distant and cold as they have no claim on their own actions of good or evil.


    The libertarian argument remains the stronger of the two as it clearly allows for a more intimate understanding of God. In their argument of God's omniscience, they do not take away from His power and glory, but they still are able to explain the problem of evil and sin. The deterministic view creates a rigid unbending law that can only be explained by denying simple logic. One must deny that free will exists, and also they must deny that God is able to change.

    I agree with the libertarian view also because of my desire to act as an independent agent. Clearly there is a selfish reason to this thinking, but the evidence of their argument also allows for God to still know all possible outcomes. Isn't that knowledge still worthy of worship? The assertion that free will is just an illusion still remains a possibility, but clearly delving into a debate on relativism in regards to this will only lead to more questions and fewer answers. In believing in free will and the existence of a loving benevolent God, we must subscribe to libertarianism as that theology allows for both the perfect God and the free man.


Works Cited

Shatz, David. Philosphy and Faith: A Philosophy of Religion Reader. 1st ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2002. Print.