Free Will and Christianity

Posted by on February 6, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments

Further to the topic I covered in the previous blog post “Free Will, Determinism and Religion” I have had some thoughts regarding the very duality of free will versus determinism that Christianity preaches in The Bible. Previously I wrote:

  The Bible claims in many passages that humans have been give free will by God as a test, serving to back the tenets of choosing Christ over hell, choosing “right” over “wrong”, and choosing to follow the moral dictates of the scriptures. As we are discovering, however, things like “right and wrong” and morality are subjective to the people who claim it, so the idea of free-will from that standpoint is confusing at best. The one thing that many religious folk find hard to grapple with is the dichotomy of determinism versus free-will, where an omniscient God knows the future (as he knows everything), he is omnipotent (can do anything and has created the universe), and has therefore determined the outcome of any situation. Apologists, while they agree with this statement will say that while God knows the future, he leaves it up to humans as individuals to choose the right path.

The passages about free will and choice are numerous in the bible, as are the claims of God’s omnipotence. The big problem arises when one claims both. Is it that God is omnipotent, has created the universe and the future for all its creatures to follow a certain path, or is it that man has the choice of doing this or that, and the ends will be seen soon enough?

This is more interesting a question than at first it may sound. If it is true that a God exists, and he has predetermined everything that ever happens in the universe, then he (it?) has foreseen the suffering of many people at the hands of other men, or by “acts of God” as they used to be known, and done nothing to protect them. The innocent fall victim to the harshness of the world simply by virtue of being born into the plan, in the wrong place or time.

This also means that every person is born into their situation, religion, belief system (or lack thereof) as part of the plan, and that wars between neighbouring tribes and country are a play in the almighty chess game God has set up.

This being the case also, I have never done a single action or had a single thought of my own free will. Nor have you. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and every dictator in history killed millions of people as a scene in the grand drama that is life in the universe. I am atheist because of this plan, others are Christian and Muslim and Hindu. We get cancer, we get heart disease, we willfully destroy our planet, and can claim it all back to being “part of the plan”. I will go to Hell because God chooses for that to be my fate.

On the other hand, the claims of free will make room for personal blame, saying that people like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot chose to do what they did, because God gave us free will to prove our worthiness to him. This is the God that loves temptation, loves redemption and loves revenge when done in his name.

This scenario means that we can blame others for their actions, we can hate and justify our human wars against one another, go against the ten commandments and kill people, because of our choices. And in Christianity, as long as we redeem ourselves by worshiping and confessing to God our sins, we will be saved. All by free will.

This version of free will also allows us to have our prejudices, our xenophobic hatreds, our selfishness and greed, because we can choose to do these things based on our knowledge, education and upbringing.

The apologist stance on this is a little from column “a” and a little from column “b”; God has preordained everything and knows everything, but has allowed free-will to mankind so we can “choose” to follow him. This does a few things. Firstly, it allows for an omnipotent God, but allows for there to be evil in the world. Second, it justifies the idea of hell, for if a man chooses to do evil, he does so of his own choice rather than being damned from the outset. Thirdly, it helps to justify a sense of dislike for those who are different, for if there is free will and choice, then surely one can “choose” to be atheistic. And fourthly, this gets rid of the annoying little contradiction of the deterministic God and free will.

As I pointed out in the previous blog, the notion of free will and determinism in the world of science suffers from a similar problem; either the universe is deterministic, and the flapping of a butterfly’s wing seven centuries ago contributed to the the situations which arose allowing for the advent of the first nuclear bomb, or we have all arrived here through our own free will, by reacting to our world and deciding our course. But the truth seems to also come from a little from column “a” and a little from column “b”, in a slightly different way, and for different reasons.

It would seem that our existence is deterministic, insomuch that previous events have led us here today (given that time appears linear, how could they not?), but that no prediction can be made of our future with any certainty given the complexity of the universe, the way the component parts interact, and the primitive nature of our instruments of measurement. Add to this, minute randomness occurring in the universe, any shift in the initial state at any given point will lead to a different outcome.

(At this point, let’s not get confused with the bunkum that is the quantum-fairyland world of Deepak Chopra. His attempts at using terms like “quantum-love” (explaining a metaphysical notion of what love is) and conflating it with notions like “quantum entanglement“, bear no relation to what we have learned about the universe. He is using seemingly technical language to push an idea that he himself has admitted to not knowing much about.)

So due to the complexity of the universe, the fact that we are only now beginning to understand it, and our limited capacity for understanding things of such complexity, the best way we can describe the notion of free will is that it, for all intents and purposes, does not exist as such. But we are creatures who react to our situations, who are intelligent enough to see the world around us with a discerning eye, and creatures who make plans for our futures. So again, whatever the reality of the situation, we will continue to live our lives as if we are the masters of our own destinies.

This is no small point to draw to the fore. The distinction between the apologist compromise coming from the self-caused contradiction of free will versus a deterministic universe in Christianity bears little or no resemblance to a similar outcome which comes from observation of the universe. One was designed to reason away holes in a bad story (i.e. man is imperfect, therefore we are being tested), the other has been arrived at through experimentation and observation, and will change as the results of our testing are revealed.

I am interested to follow this idea further in coming blogs, as I really am just scratching the surface of this idea. I’d like to investigate how other religions and cultures see the idea of free will and determinism, and I’d be interested in your feedback on this subject.

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  1. While I don’t buy into it, there is one halfway decent explanation of freewill that is at least logically consistent. If you ignore the idea of time being a linear progression, and instead as a physical place, then you can have both free will and determinism at the same time. Imagine that you are a looking at your entire life from this perspective.

    God creates consciousness’ that are eternal, but are place in a finite universe for a short time. During that time, the local illusion makes time look like a linear progression. While the consciousness exists in this place, the rules of action and consequence appear to be real. Once free from this existence, the consciousness could look at that linear time scale and understand how it understood time, and recognize that those decisions were made with free will, but since time is really just an illusion, all of the decisions were made simultaneously.

    Of course, it’s just a wild guess with no basis in evidence. It is the most internally logical argument I’ve ever heard for a deterministic universe filled with conscious beings that exercise free will.

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  2. Free Will? It really doesn’t exist! Here’s the popular religious belief – a god has given you free will and you can do whatever you want to with your life. In theory it sounds good, but here is the problem. This god has said “I give you free will but if you don’t use it the way I want you to, then I will make you burn in hell forever.” This god has set down certain parameters to be met with this “free will” that will satisfy him, so it’s not really “free” – there are conditions attached. Simple as that – if conditions are attached, then it is really not a matter of “free will” but a matter of “do as I say or else…”

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