June 25, 2015

Freedom vs. Theological Determinism

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, June 25, 2015

Freedom vs. Theological Determinism

Do we have freedom of the will? That is, do we have what philosophers call metaphysical libertarian freedom? Or are our decisions and actions wholly determined by God? My answer: people have metaphysical libertarian freedom (MLF), at least to some significant extent.

MLF means that I am an intelligent causal agent. On this view, the cause of my action originates with, i.e., is produced and initiated by, me. Whether a particular action occurs is up to me. I have the power to do otherwise. Philosopher Robert P. George characterizes MLF as "the power of an agent to cause what the agent is not caused to cause."

Why believe MLF is true? Last time I set out four secular arguments. I'll review those arguments briefly. Then I'll set out some theological/ biblical arguments. (Note: I have the Christian idea of God in mind here.)

First, my intuition (i.e., my raw non-inferential experience in everyday life) is such that I sometimes do in fact initiate an action. I know this. This counts in favour of MLF.

Second, my experience of deliberation (i.e., goal-oriented contemplation concerning which of two or more future courses of action I should choose) makes good sense on the assumption that doing alternative A and doing alternative B are each within my power to do. This counts in favour of MLF, too.

Third, making sense of the reality of moral judgment and moral obligation (i.e., that I ought to do X) implies free agency/ MLF.

Fourth, if MLF is false, then I am a robot (determined) or a mere spasm (undetermined/ random), but I know I am neither.

Thus, we have four good secular reasons for thinking MLF is true.

In addition, we also have several good theological/ biblical reasons.

First, God commands people to obey the moral law. Significantly, obedience presupposes freedom to choose.

Second, God exhorts people to choose life, and choosing presupposes freedom.

Third, Scripture exhorts us not to grieve the Holy Spirit, and such grieving (resisting) presupposes freedom.

Fourth, if God is good (as Scriptures teach), but God wholly determines all choices, then evil is wholly due to God, which means God isn't good—so God's goodness implies human freedom.

Fifth, Scriptures teach that God is love, that humans are made in God's image, and that we should love God and love each other—but love implies freedom of choice. Without free will we are mere puppets or robots, not beings who can love.

At this juncture, one might object that the biblical doctrines concerning God's sovereignty, God's foreknowledge, and God's predestination of humans preclude human free will. These are important counter-considerations, and I admit that I don't have a complete answer.

Nonetheless, the above-outlined pro-MLF biblical evidence coupled with the above-outlined pro-MLF secular arguments continue to point to MLF. Also, the force of the apparently anti-MLF biblical doctrines can be weakened.

It seems that a sovereign God could allow creatures to have freedom yet retain His sovereignty. If, say, Arnold Swarzenegger allows me to choose to lift weights at his gym, surely my lifting some weights at his gym does not impinge on Arnold's superior strength. Similarly, God allowing me to choose doesn't impinge on God's superiority.

What about God's foreknowledge? Doesn't God's foreknowing that I will eat pizza tomorrow mean I must eat pizza tomorrow? I think not. Even though God foreknows what I'll eat tomorrow, God's foreknowledge is based on my future choice. (Here I take the view known as "middle knowledge" defended by contemporary philosopher William Lane Craig.)

I realize that divine sovereignty, foreknowledge, and predestination (which I haven't discussed due to space limitations) are difficult to reconcile with MLF.

Nevertheless, the secular and biblical evidence that favours MLF remains, and there seems to be a preponderance of such evidence over evidence to the contrary.

We are made in God's image. Significantly, God calls us to choose (and live in accordance with) life, truth, and goodness.

(Hendrik van der Breggen teaches philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)


Unknown said...

Your article is wonderful. Thank you for presenting the current conversation regarding metaphysical libertarian free will in a way that is both accessible and engaging. I must admit that I rejoiced when I read of your middle knowledge leanings (yes, I am biased towards Molinism). Your appeals to ethical concerns and the character of God seem, at least to me, to be the central issues at stake; the question is not so much "is God in charge of creation" as it is "who is this God and who are these creations?"

My question is in response to your first biblical-theological point. When Jesus states, in Matthew 5:48, that we must "be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect," is He not commanding people to do what is impossible? Is it the case that we have freedom to choose to obey individual imperatives, but not the imperative of perfection? Do you appeal, as virtue ethics-oriented thinkers such as Jerry L. Walls (in Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation) and C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity), to progressive sanctification where we will be able to be relatively perfect and still free?

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thanks, Zach, for your comments—it's good to hear from you! Your comments add clarity to what I've written. I agree that the question is not so much, as you say, "is God in charge of creation" as it is "who is this God and who are these creations?" In response to your subsequent three questions, my philosophical inclination is to say yes, yes, and yes. Thanks again for the clarifications! Best regards.