Monday, January 4, 2016

Are “Free Will” and “God” Mutually Exclusive Concepts?

This is a snip from an on-going dialog with an atheist which focuses on an atheistic argument I had not encountered before: whether a theistic model for God is compatible with free will. As the argument goes, God [should He exist] is assumed NOT to have given “free will” to man according to the creation narrative in Genesis. Here’s a paraphrased summary of the position:

“If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present, etc…then the following are true:
-He foreknew the fall and His act of redemption;
-He allowed His creation to reject Him;
-He "authored", (His Word via the hands of men chosen by Him to write them) what we know as the Scriptures;
-The "way" it was written is in His control;
-The way it's written communicates that God assumes reasoning powers we were supposedly not granted until later.”

The last statement in the hinge for this person’s argument. Since theists believe in free will, and since the Scriptures are written in such a way that shows we did not have free will, rather were coerced into the “fall”, then God cannot exist according to the theistic (Christian) model.

There are several things about this argument that may jump out, but one of the main things that I see is this: not all Christians believe in free will to begin with; think of Calvin’s double-predestination (determinism). So, from the start of it, even assuming that 'we don’t have free will' is not an argument for atheism. At most, it can only be an argument of why a person doesn’t like the God that [most] theists believe in, or an argument that we misunderstand our God.

Another point, which is the one I honed in on the most in our discussion, is the obvious contradiction in the claim. If Adam did not have free will, if he were coerced into doing something, how is it possible that he chose to do (eating the fruit) the exact opposite of what God was coercing him to do (NOT eat the fruit)?



   
My conclusion is that free will and God are mutually exclusive concepts.

Clarify for me, but I assume you are referring to the prohibition of the "fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil"? Why would that suggest that we were not granted reasoning powers? Without those reasoning powers already in his possession, how would Adam (or Eve) have chosen to eat of [the forbidden fruit, despite being told not to? Seems to me that he must have had the reasoning power to make a choice...of his own free will. (Sounds like God was putting man to the test, if you ask me.)

When it comes to free will specifically in the context of Christianity, "reasonable choices" is a major component for me. No choice exists if one of the options is coercive. Free Will and coercive tactics are mutually exclusive.
As an example: In considering the best work-out strategy, I know my goals and how to reach them because I am working with a competent trainer whom I need for guidance. I am likely to make bad choices, and a good trainer will let me do that, then council me about the consequences. Eventually I will learn AND push, not to please my coach, but because it is the right to thing to do for myself and my goals. This creates a satisfying relationship between trainer and trained.

I can abort my workout if I want to because I know I will not be severely punished for doing so. That is free will. If threat of severe sanctions follows one of the choices, then that is not true freedom. It is coercion.

Finally the problem eventually comes down to this: What if I had no say in being thrust into a compulsory relationship with this trainer? In this scenario I have no say in who to trust (I am told this trainer knows all and I am to ‘do as told’...or else ). Immediately I am uninterested in the activity and the trainer. Had I been Adam I likely would have done no different than he did, if only to try and create some sort of situation where free will has a chance [*See End Note]. And I would fail because it has already been told to me by God ( if I am Adam ) that I have no choice if I want eternal life...I must agree to remain in this relationship or I will be punished, my ancestors will be punished ; thus perpetuating the lack of free will through lack of reasonable choice forever.

That’s only an excerpt from his scenario. I kept the “meat” of his statement here for context, and replied to the key points I saw. Since God had given a “severe sanction” (threat of punishment) should Adam “eat the fruit”, it was seen as coercion, thereby nullifying free will.

Lack of coercion is important. Free Will and coercive tactics are mutually exclusive.

Okay, let’s put the Genesis story in the context of a practical example: As God said “do not eat of the fruit”, so we have a civil law against crimes, (murder, theft, etc...). Are laws against crimes a coercive tactic which excludes a criminal from making a choice whether or not to commit a crime?

…satisfying relationship between trainer and trained.

You are likening God to a trainer, except that’s not what He is. Your trainer didn’t create you. Christians obey God because He created us…we are His and we owe our existence to Him, AND He knows what is best for us, AND He is our Father.


I can abort my workout if I want to because I know I will not be severely punished for doing so. That is free will. If threat of severe sanctions follows one of the choices, then that is not true freedom. It is coercion.

This is equivalent to "If I know I won't be punished, I am free to abort the workout". This will directly contradict the last statement of yours that I quote.
But why do you believe the “severe sanctions” are threats? “If you eat of the fruit, you will surely die.” “If you touch a flame, you will get burned.” “If you run the edge of a blade against you, you will get cut and bleed.” Those aren’t threats, they are warnings of real consequences to our actions. That’s not coercion, it’s someone who loves you trying to keep you from being harmed…knowing you have the freedom to choose that harm.


What if had no say in being thrust into a compulsory relationship with this trainer?

No one is thrust into a compulsory relationship. God created Adam and Eve. He told them what would happen if they chose to end the relationship (you will surely die) and then let them make their choice.  What would the preference have been?  To not be created, not be given life, and not be given a choice to live with or without God?

And I would fail because it has already been told to me by God ( if I am Adam ) that I have no choice if I want eternal life...I must agree to remain in this relationship or I [and my ancestors] will be punished; thus perpetuating the lack of free will through lack of reasonable choice forever.

This is a contradiction. Adam already had eternal life...he was created with it. If God’s warning [“threat” as you call it] took away reasonable choice, how in the world did Adam and Eve come to choose to sin? It makes absolutely no sense to say, “I was threatened NOT to do something, so I felt I had no reasonable choice but to do it!

At this point, my discussion partner and I began to examine what “Free Will” is, exactly. While he and I disagree on what constitutes “Free Will”, it still doesn’t make much difference to the overall argument. It is still plainly obvious that Adam and Eve, in the creation narrative, made a choice contrary to what they were supposedly coerced toward. There is no way around that fact.

Would you say then that the burden of the analogy is this: to present a plausible situation in which "number of available choices" and "quality of available choices" are revealed to be relevant to the concept of free will?

No, I wouldn't think so. For "number of choices", I would think it's enough that we can "do" or "not do" something, and which of those we choose is an exercise of free will.

Having choices is not the same as being free to choose. That freedom, the freedom to choose, requires the following qualities, simultaneously as far as I know: 1) Each choice must be avoidable; 2) The future must not be known with certainty.

Choices lacking these properties are still choices, options to be considered, but they impede the conditions required for free will to emerge. Their quality is of such low value in this regard that they negate free will.

He and I went back and forth clarifying what each of us meant, making sure we understood the other’s position, and summarizing our thoughts. We have discussed this further in a very minor way since my last response (below), and if more discussion occurs that will be of benefit, I will post a continuation.

I would argue that the distinction between quality of choice and quantity of choice is a necessity for determining the availability of free will when dealing with a reality generator like God.

If the supernatural reality described in the Bible exist then it negates any hope of humans have of reconciling the natural laws ( such as the elusive Grand Unified Theories ) that run the universe: they simply would not exist. Laws of Physics can only be negated if they are not laws. Otherwise they are just temporary conditions that exist by Devine will; totally and unalterably a part of this being's will rather than natural conditions which must exist due to natural laws.

Any being that can generate reality can invalidate logic ( on which all said laws must stand ) by altering the predisposing conditions and thereby inducing a state of being which has no familiar or relatable outcome: a man in the cognitive state described of Adam, just as one example, before he ate the forbidden fruit.

The idea of a reality which God created in which the choices presented are being equated with freedom of choice, and therefor free will, is very problematic for me. Free will does not seem to me truly possible in the Christian paradigm, so I would say that without God free will has a better chance.

My take-home summary on “Free Will”, God, and the overall argument is this:

-The argument regarding coercion [of Adam and Eve] isn’t valid because it refutes itself. The fact that Adam chose the opposite action of what he was warned against is evidence that he exercised free will.

-The observance of natural laws can take place in either viewpoint, theistic or atheistic, and there is no reason a person could not believe he could act against them merely on the basis that a Creator generated those laws. An argument that a Creator could only generate laws that could not be broken would be invalid because it’s circular, presuming both a definition of “law” and presuming the will/ability of a Creator.

-The atheist could say that ‘there is no such thing as a “natural law” in a theistic view’, but only on the basis that a theist would see them all as “supernatural laws”…all things generated by God being “supernatural”. But that’s a distinction without a difference. Regardless, this is neither an argument against theism, nor for atheism.

-There is no reason to view laws (of nature or physics) as “temporary”, nor would it matter if laws of physics were, from the theistic viewpoint. This is only problematic from a viewpoint based solely on a world that is infinitely-only-corporeal.

-There is no evidence, from either the theistic or atheistic sides, that God altered a law or predisposing condition, invalidated logic, or induced a state of being with no relatable outcome before Adam “ate the fruit”. Even if there were claims that He did, it would not be problematic to the existence of God; it would only be a reason to disagree with Him (which would necessarily require one to first concede that He really does exist).

On the issue of "qualities of choice", which define Free Will:

-For one quality, we agree: a choice must be avoidable to be freely made. The orthodox Christian viewpoint is that our choices are indeed avoidable, made or not made (we can "do" or "not do"); we are not coerced. God is the primary mover and creator, and we secondarily act to make a choice of our own free will. While God fore-knows our choices that we will make, foreknowledge is NOT causation.

-For the second quality, that "the future must not be known with certainty", I don't see why that must be a quality of free choice. This quality presupposes that man does not use his reason/intellect to make choices. That's the opposite of the orthodox Christian view, so it does not work as an argument against theism.
Choices lacking the second “quality” are still free choices that are made by free will, using reason.


*[End Note] To me, this statement sheds more light into this person’s rejection of theism than any argument he put forward. I’m no psychologist, and I may be wrong in what I am seeing here, but review this statement and then think about some questions, if you will:

I am told this trainer knows all and I am to ‘do as told’...or else. Immediately I am uninterested in the activity and the trainer. Had I been Adam I likely would have done no different than he did, if only to try and create some sort of situation where free will has a chance.”

If a person is immediately uninterested after being told to “do as you are told”, does that say more about the “trainer/activity”, or about a person who dislikes authority (i.e. every human that I know of)?

To say that, in such a situation, you would disobey just to create a situation where free will has a chance tells me two things: 1) You already had free will to begin with, otherwise it would not be possible to disobey, and 2) you are renouncing an authority figure because you don’t like to be told what to do/not do, or what your limits are.

Don’t we ALL, as humans, deal with this problem? This entire discussion isn’t an argument against theism or for atheism. It’s a complaint that God would create us, and then expect us to act according to a Will greater than our own, and hold us accountable when we do not.*

1 comment:

  1. In the conclusion of our discussion, my dialog partner gave a very long and detailed response that summarized to this:

    [Paraphrasing] "While Adam knew right from wrong, he did not know good from evil. Because he could not conceptualize evil, he had no means by which to gauge the nature of a legalist choice (doing X is wrong) versus the moral choice (doing X is Evil). Therefore, he could not have had the free will necessary to make a choice.”

    Then it hit me. His argument isn't actually against free will, it's against culpability. Note that my partner DOES believe in free will, just that Adam did not have it. With that in mind, there are only 2 conclusions I can see:
    1) we (including Adam) have free will;
    2) "determinism" is true.

    This was my final response:

    "I disagree that being able to conceptualize evil was necessary in order to make an informed choice.

    However, this argument, coupled with the facts that we know and the remainder of your argument, still works against the conclusion that Adam did not have free will: **If not knowing the difference between good and evil took away his freedom of choice, how did he come about to do the exact opposite of what he was told?**

    The only answer that would suffice here, other than “he had free will”, would be determinism…that God has determined/caused all the actions of man from the beginning to eternity (Remember, God is eternal, so any quality of God is also eternal.)
    But for that, you must presuppose that “knowing” = “causing”. (You have to prove that if I know what color shirt you will wear tomorrow, and then you wear that shirt, that I caused you to wear it.)

    But that’s still not what your argument works toward, because you DO believe in free will (just not in Adam’s). Your whole response argues that *Adam did not have all the information you believe he should have had*, or that should have been *necessary to make an informed decision*. You statements, the entire sum of them, suggest that Adam should not have been *culpable for his choice*, or at least not as culpable as God held him. But this presupposes free will to make a choice. You aren’t arguing against free will, you are arguing against *culpability*."

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