Free Will And God`s Sovereignty
Why we can have our cake and eat it. Nature might win over nurture, but that doesn`t mean we`re not free and responsible for our actions.
Date : 14/10/2020
It is thought that if God controls human actions, then human actions cannot be free. The two, so they say, are incompatible. But incompatibilism misunderstands which kind of freedom it is that moral responsibility requires. Conscious decisions that are based on perceived options and desires need not be without prior cause. I will begin by presenting the strongest argument for incompatibilism, then I will bring the problems with this argument to bear, using a preferable definition of free will to provide an alternative.The Statement of IncompatibilismThe most successful articulation of the view that moral responsibility is incompatible with a total and effective external cause (incompatibilism) contains three premises:
1. if God s providence is infallible, that is, P being a decision made by a human, if God causes P to occur, P must occur and not-P cannot occur,
2. therefore, the human would not be able to make a decision which is not-P.
3. Free will is defined by the ability to choose other than what you do in fact choose: the possibility of both P and not-P
The conclusion is that human freedom and providence is a contradiction in terms. If `P` is a human decision, providence says only P can happen, whereas free will says both P and non-P can happen. What do you make of this argument? Logically, it is valid. That is, the conclusion does in fact follow from the premises. Not-P cannot be both possible and impossible at the same time in the same sense that would be a contradiction (this is a condensed, informal version of the argument which I have drawn primarily from the modern secular philosophical debate on free will and determinism, for example: A Master Argument for Incompatibilism? , Tomis Kapitan, The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, edited by Robert Kane and The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism , Peter van Inwagen, Free Will, edited by Gary Watson).
Analysis of premise two
One problem lies in the concepts of possibility or ability . The kind of possibility of an event`s occurrence, which was not caused by God, is treated as directly equivalent to the ability of someone to do something which they will not do. That is a mistake. The second problem is that the ability to choose other than what you do in fact choose may not be the best definition of free will. I will explain both further in turn.
Imagine I speak to my friend about my 16 month-old daughter s remarkable dexterity, verbal development and understanding of simple social cues etc. I call her exceptionally intelligent. Later on I talk with a fellow-student about Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jonathan Edwards and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I say how lucid they are as thinkers and effective communicators. They are exceptionally intelligent. We would certainly not hail as such, a teen with only C-grade A-levels, much less an infant still on her mother s breast. Is my daughter exceptionally intelligent or not? Did I contradict myself? The way to find out would be to analyse what I meant by intelligence in the context of world-renown intellectuals and contrast that with what I meant by intelligence in the context of a sixteen month-old girl.
We need to do the same thing with the can in premise 1. and the ability in premise 2. Let us ask what is meant by can in the context of free will and then contrast it with what is meant by can in the context of God s sovereignty.
If I flip a coin, there are a number of factors that determine whether it lands on heads or tails: the amount of blood in my hand at that point in time, concentration levels, dryness of my fingers, wind etc. If it does in fact land on heads, and I then say it could have landed on tails , what do I mean? I don t mean those exact conditions could have produced a different outcome . I don t mean to say that in a different possible world, I could have moved my hand in exactly the same way and the wind have been exactly the same, and yet it land on tails. I don t mean that it could have done the opposite of what it was caused to do. What I mean is, if I had flipped the coin and the air pressure had been slightly different, or my skin slightly rougher (for example) it would have landed on tails . It is possible for it to be caused to land on heads and it is also possible for it to be caused to land on tails. In that sense, when I flip a coin and it lands on heads, it could also have landed on tails. Each outcome would demonstrate its respective cause.
Now consider another example. You are given the choice between a chocolate doughnut and a vanilla doughnut. For the sake of simplicity, assume you have no reason to choose one over the other, except a preference for chocolate or vanilla in that particular moment. A preference for chocolate would cause you to choose the chocolate doughnut, and the same for vanilla. If you had the preference for chocolate, and there were no other factors involved, you would choose chocolate. In that sense, if you preferred chocolate you could not choose vanilla, for why would you? The chocolate preference cannot give rise to the vanilla decision. This would lead some to say that you were not free in choosing chocolate, because you cannot do otherwise. If you have the chocolate preference you cannot make the vanilla decision, which means the chocolate decision would be meaningless: coerced. But this misunderstands what free will requires. Free will is not the possibility for you to do what you don t want to do and have no reason to do. Free will is the possibility for you to do what you do want to do. If you prefer chocolate you can choose vanilla in the sense that you would do if you wanted to. Just as if the coin landed on heads it `could have` landed on tails, in the sense that if I had tossed the coin and the conditions had been slightly different, it would have landed on tails. The `can` is understood to involve a set of possible worlds that all include my tossing the coin.
An Objection Considered
One objection to this understanding of free will is that it includes coercion. Saying that a person with the chocolate preference can choose vanilla in the sense that they would if they wanted to is said to be equivalent to saying that a person whose hand is forced to pick up the chocolate doughnut can pick up the vanilla doughnut in the sense that he would if his hand wasn`t forced to. The charge is that the above defined free will is a meaningless tautology, tantamount to saying he is free because he could choose vanilla if he could choose vanilla . But this misses the point. This exposition of free will does not say if you prefer chocolate you are free to choose vanilla, in that, if everything stopping you from choosing vanilla was removed, you would choose vanilla . It simply says if you prefer chocolate you are free to choose vanilla, in that, if your preference to do the opposite was removed, you would choose vanilla . In simpler terms, our definition requires that the only thing stopping you from choosing the vanilla is your own desire. If your hand was forced, you wouldn t be able eat vanilla if you wanted to, which is the original stipulation.
God and Chocolate
As we have seen, if our chocolate preference completely determines our decision to eat chocolate, we are free as long as, if we wanted to eat vanilla instead, we could do so. Glance back to the first two premises of incompatibilism. One way of stating them would be: 1. if God causes a decision to be made by a human, 2. that human cannot do otherwise. This is true in the sense that if God puts in place the set of psychological and physiological elements that invariably cause the vanilla decision, the chocolate decision will not be made. But this interpretation of can is not the sense with which free will is concerned. This cannot does not encroach on free will. Just because we cannot do otherwise in that our desire to eat vanilla will never cause us to eat chocolate, doesn`t mean we are not free to eat chocolate in that if we did have the desire to eat chocolate, we could. Had we the chocolate preference, His sovereignty would not stand in our way, it would simply be evidenced as the cause of the preference.
An Alternative to Premise Three
In short, the incompatibilist s statement confuses the ways in which can can be interpreted. God s governance involves a logical/physical type of can whereas freedom involves a hypothetical/conditional type of can . Consequently, the definition of free will provided in premise three is ambiguous and can be misleading, for there are ways in which we cannot do otherwise and yet are still free in the sense required by moral responsibility. This leads to the final section of my argument: I suggest that there is a better definition of free will than that proposed in the incompatibilist statement. Free will is the ability to make a conscious decision based on desires and the full range of perceived options . Compare this with the incompatibilist definition.
The incompatibilist says, in order to be free, you must be able to do otherwise than what you do in fact do: to do what you don t want to do. Whereas this new definition says you must be able to do what you DO want to do. A will that is free, is the freedom to do what you will. This, I think, expresses more accurately the conception of freedom that we wish to preserve in this debate. Moreover, it addresses an important concern for incompatibilists: if God causes me to choose to sin, or to honour Him, this seems to be no longer our choice, but coercion. This definition recognises the crucial role of the individual s volition. It precludes coercion, (hence. .."conscious decision based on desires") as does it preclude choosing vanilla because it is your only real choice (hence ...perceived options ).
A good definition of Free Will, I have shown, breaks the back of the incompatibilist challenge. The two most important definitions are the ability to do what you don t want to do , and the ability to do what you want to do . We have seen, that in some senses, God s sovereignty does not contradict the former, and it in no way contradicts the latter, which is the better definition.
In this way we defend against the charge of contradiction, but it is important to note in closing that the legitimate presence of free will, although making us responsible, does not make us ultimate self-determiners. We are only free because we are determined to be free. Thomas Reid quotes a saying about Cato: he was good because he could not be otherwise , Reid observes, this saying, if understood literally and strictly, is not the praise of Cato, but of his constitution, which was no more the work of Cato than his existence . The problem here is assuming that if Cato s constitution caused his goodness, Cato didn`t cause his goodness. But Cato is his constitution. However, there is also something astute about this reflection. Cato is not to be praised as the prime-mover, the uncaused cause, the perfect, self-sufficient source of goodness. His goodness is derived and dependant. Cato is good because God made him good.
God is to be praised as the grand artist who designs exactly how much goodness and how much evil is to be present. The king s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1). That is why Not to us, O LORD, not to us, But to Your name give glory Because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your truth. (Psalm 115:1). I hope this essay has cast some light on the question of free will and moral responsibility and encourages less daunting discussions on the subject.
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