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Reflections on Ethics 12
The Plausibility of Human Freedom within Christian Theism.

By Daniel Trenz

A discussion has been opened on this Reflection. To add your own thoughts, please use the contact page.

Upon examining the possible coexistence of divine foreknowledge and human freedom I find the exploration of both concepts of God as an omnipotent being and God as a benevolent being to be most useful in attaining a valid criticism of Christian theism. Does Christian theism offer a convincing argument for the coexistence of both of these divine attributes? What does this entail about moral responsibility, or more specifically, the ownership of moral responsibility? Does the existence of evil threaten human freedom or God’s benevolence? Finally, after discussing these thoughts, are we compelled to stake our beliefs in Christian theism, or have we determined that Christian theism is implausible at best? These are the questions I intend to focus on, however, this will require the discussion of many other issues within each of these larger topics.

Let me begin be stating the properties attributed to God within Christian theism which I believe to be relevant to this discussion:

(1) God is omnipotent.

(2) God is wholly good.

(3) God is omniscient.

Which entails,

(4) God has foreknowledge.

I am fully aware that many theists would immediately take issue with my use of the prefix “fore” in implying God as a temporal being. This would be a misunderstanding. I feel that using this terminology in this discussion is valid, in that I do not mean to imply that God is a temporal being, but simply that humans are temporal beings. This being a human discussion I feel that this usage is warranted. That said, I do not intend to discuss the concept of God as an “atemporal,” or timeless being further as I do not feel that it would benefit this discussion.

I believe it is important that we have a clear understanding of the nature of human freedom, or free will, before advancing the discussion much further. Before discussing how human freedom relates to God I would like to briefly explore the various concepts of human freedom. When are humans truly free? Determinism and fatalism aside, for the moment, is a man free to kill another man? I would like to clarify this issue by presenting a variation on what Yandell refers to as the “Principle of Alternative Possibilities.”

“…which says that one is responsible for performing an action A on a given occasion only if on that occasion one has categorical freedom regarding performing A as well as categorical freedom regarding refraining from performing A.”

Let us suppose that a man, we will call him Bob, is pointing a gun at another man, who we will call John. If Bob shoots John, and the result of this action is John’s death, who is morally responsible? From an indeterminist point of view we would logically conclude that Bob has made a morally incorrect decision, or at least a moral decision, and therefore would have ownership of the moral responsibility of this action.

Let us now suppose that Bob has a gun to his head, and that a third man, who will be known as Dave, is threatening to kill Bob if he does not kill John. We have now created a very tangible causal chain. If we reconsider the original action of Bob killing John, would you maintain that Bob should bear the moral responsibility of the act of murder, OR, would the moral responsibility shift to Dave? Here is where things get a bit muddled. One could argue that Bob had no choice, that he killed John because he was forced to in order to save himself. This argument could be restated by saying that Bob was not free, and therefore cannot be held accountable for John’s death. This would also imply that Dave is morally responsible for forcing Bob to Kill John.

Others may argue that John was free to choose, and he chose to take John’s life and spare his own. By making this decision Bob was acting upon free will, and this is provable by noting that he could have chosen not to shoot John. This brings up the concept of negative responsibility, which I will discuss further later on. Had Bob refrained from killing John, John would not have died; therefore by decisively not refraining from this action, Bob is morally responsible for the death of John.

Now let us factor in determinism by complicating John’s murder a little further. We will suppose that Dave is merely interested in John’s death, and even if Bob should decide not to kill John, sacrificing his own life for John’s, Dave will kill Bob and then kill John regardless. However, let us assume that Bob is not aware of this and still believes that John’s life could be spared. I feel that this is an effective analogy for determinism. If John’s death is guaranteed, then how can Bob be morally responsible for any decision? An incompatibilist determinist would say that Bob is not free, and perhaps he cannot be held morally responsible for his actions. A compatibilist might say, regardless of Johns impending demise, Bob still has a moral decision which he is able to make. If Bob kills John he is blameworthy, and if he sacrifices his own life for John’s he is praiseworthy. In either case he retains moral responsibility, good or bad, for his actions, and therefore can be considered free. Next I would like to explore the role of Dave as played by God.

Are we indeed free? If so, does our freedom of will limit God’s omnipotence? Or, does God’s omnipotence limit our freedom. Is it possible for our free will to be God’s will? According to determinism,

(i) God created the initial state of all things.

(ii) The initial state of all things determined the current state of all things.

(iii) Human beings had nothing to do with the initial state of all things

(iv) Human beings cannot be responsible for things which they had nothing to do with.

(v) Human beings cannot be responsible for the current state of all things.

If these statements are true, it should follow that we are not morally responsible for our actions or for the results of our actions. Then how can we be considered sinners, and how can we be judged as such by our creator? This is obviously not a favorable viewpoint for Christian theists. This could be resolved by amending these statements by saying that, although humans cannot be responsible for the initial state of the universe (iii), we can make decisions which affect the current state of the universe. This statement returns the ownership of moral responsibility to humans, and opens the possibility for us to make either blameworthy or praiseworthy moral decisions.

Is it possible to say that humans have free will, independent of God, and yet also maintain that God is an omnipotent being? Many Christian theists have suggested a restrictive omnipotence; the very idea is a stunning contradiction. However, if God is omnipotent, it should be possible for Him/Her to restrict His/Her omnipotence. J.L. Mackie wrote in his essay “Evil and Omnipotence,”

“It may be replied that these limits are always presupposed, that omnipotence has never meant the power to do what is logically impossible, …”

It would seem, then, that the most convincing argument that a Christian theist could offer is that God created the initial state of all things and simply forfeited control of our actions. I began by laying out some primary attributes of God. Most relevant to this discussion is the issue of God as an omnipotent being, and simultaneously, as a benevolent, or wholly good being. One might consider the problem of a wholly good and omnipotent being creating beings that are capable of carrying out evil. This is probably the most challenging question for Christian theists. There are some notable defenses for the Christian theist. One argument removes moral responsibility of human actions from God by saying that God has the ability to control our action, yet chooses not to, so that we may have free will. But this defense requires either a qualification of good or of free will. Mackie considers this possibility:

“But besides this there is a fundamental difficulty in the notion of an omnipotent God creating men with free will, for if men’s wills are really free this must mean that even God cannot control them, that is, God is no longer omnipotent. It may be objected that God‘s gift of freedom to men does not mean that he cannot control their wills, but that he always refrains from controlling their wills. But why, we may ask should God refrain from controlling evil wills?”

First of all, in choosing not to control our actions, knowing that we would sometimes choose evil, God earns a negative responsibility. Although God is not doing evil, evil could be prevented if God chose to intervene whenever the opportunity for a human to choose evil presents itself. Therefore, God allows evil to be done and can no longer be considered a wholly good being. Perhaps God could have created humans so that they would always choose good over evil, but this would eliminate free will. Mackie offers a possible argument:

“To explain why a wholly good God gave men freewill although it would lead to some important evil, it must be argued that it is better on the whole that men should act freely, and sometimes err, than that they should be innocent automata, acting rightly in a wholly determined way…. God was not, then, faced with a choice between innocent automata and making beings who, in acting freely, would sometimes go wrong: there was open to him the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good.”

Perhaps it is God’s will that human freedom be considered of higher worth than wholly goodness. But this does not resolve the issue that God is supposed to be a wholly good being. If God created all things, then God must have created evil. The question then remains whether evil is necessary for the existence of good. I believe this to be true. A door can only be considered closed if it is possible that doors could also be opened.

Perhaps God created evil only for good to exist, or only enough evil for good to exist. For example, many would say that the events of September 11, 2001 were the fruits of evil. As a result of these terrorist events, many people in New York, in Washington, in the U.S. and around the world took part in generally good activity, such as heroism, volunteerism, etc…. In this instance it might be said that evil merited good or enhanced good. Mackie notes that many theists accuse those who take this approach of thinking of good and evil much too materialistically. Once again there is an obvious issue with the phrasing, “God created evil.” Yet another possibility is that good and evil are measures of a quality of morality. For example, there is no such property as cold; there is only energy, which can be felt in the form of heat. Cold simply means “less hot,” or, “lacking heat.” Using this analogy one might say that there is only good; evil is simply a less good, or a lack of good. Christian theists do not favor this reasoning either, since it implies that God is not wholly good, but simply wholly better.

The final write-off to the problem of evil I rarely find worth mentioning because of its lack of empirical substance. There are Christian theists who argue that there is no problem of evil because good and evil are illusory, as is much of our world. This is because God’s will is beyond human understanding and good and evil are human creations. If sight were analogous to the human creation of good and evil, perhaps good would be light, and evil would be darkness, and God would be the blind man who does not perceive the universe as light and dark, good and evil. Poeticism aside, what is really being said here is that theology is false, philosophy is false, so why bother pondering the nature of our universe at all? This is why I consider this argument to be an easy way out with disregard to social science and the like.

Regardless of God’s endless ability to control our actions, and God’s benevolent nature, does God’s endless knowledge (or foreknowledge) present an obstacle for free will? A logical step at this point might be to state that divine foreknowledge entails determinism. I see a problem worthy of noting with this conclusion. Let’s not leap to equate knowledge of future events with causality. For example, suppose that today I were to claim that it would rain within the next year. When spring showers came would I be considered a rain god? I know that I will fall asleep, but will I choose to go to bed, or will I fall asleep on the couch in front of the television. Yandell remarks,

“An omnipotent God can create a world in which things are true that God did not cause to be true. An omniscient God can know things to be true that God did not cause to be true.”

I do not believe that there is a direct problem between divine foreknowledge and human freedom; the problem mostly lies with other divine attributes (omnipotence, benevolence, etc…). If I revisit the scene of the crime, so to speak, involving Bob, John and Dave, there is a foreknowledge present. Dave (or God) knows that regardless of Bob’s decision, John will be killed. Yet Bob still is in a position to make a moral decision. I see this as human freedom and divine foreknowledge coexisting.

In conclusion, I find several individual beliefs about God as offered by Christian theists to be moderately convincing (with the exception of God as a wholly good being). For example,

A. God created beings whose actions he can control but chooses not to control.

B. God knows what choices we can make and how we will choose, yet he does not choose for us.

Hence,

C. We are free to choose.

However, I have been unable to reconcile the conflict of basic divine attributes (i.e. omnipotence, wholly goodness, etc…) simultaneously coexisting. The only proffered solutions to this problem have been either inconsistent or insubstantial. It is for this reasoning that I have found Christian theism to be either implausible or irrelevant in its present form.