Monday, February 4, 2013

Which free will do Christians believe in? The perverted one

I've been thinking a bit about free will, and I think the whole concept, as believed, is utterly perverse.

To be plain, I haven't been thinking about free will in terms of actually rooting out whether or not human beings have it or if it is a philosophically coherent idea, as has been popular lately (Cf. Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, for examples). I'm aware that free will probably isn't coherent and am choosing not to stick to that for this argument. I've been thinking about the doctrine of free will as it occurs from the mouths, and thus in the minds, of Christians, and I've decided that the term itself isn't terribly clear.

While I have put thought on the implications upon the definition of God that the doctrine of free will creates, and while that's a typical topic of interest for me, I don't want to focus on that here. Instead, I want to essentially claim that there are lots of ways to interpret free will, and the way that Christians say we have it is not what they really believe. What they believe is, indeed, more sinister.

The usual doctrine

The usual doctrine of free will is pretty straightforward: human beings are granted freedom of will by God, where freedom of will is taken to mean that we have the essential freedom to come to God or to reject God (and His laws) if we wish. What this actually means, though, is not at all clear. This leads me to introduce the first kind of free will that I want to talk about:
1. Absolute free will: Our freedom of will is absolute. That means that we are free to choose to live and believe as we wish without interference from God. Particularly, God cannot interfere with our experiences or thoughts in any way that would influence our desire to come to God, as it is argued that we must come to God entirely of our own volition.
This is what I would probably consider to be the usual doctrine of free will, and my essential claims are that (a) it is problematic for other parts of (most) Christian theology, and (b) it is not at all the sort of free will that Christians actually believe. In exploring (a), we will define a second essential category of free will, and in exploring (b), we will see at last one more (really two, but I think there is overlap involved in some of these cases).

The problem with the usual doctrine

The usual doctrine of free will is provided not as a concept on its own but rather as a concept buried within other Christian doctrines. Indeed, "free will" is not in the bible but was a concept added later in order to rationalize the Problem of Evil against extant Christian doctrine that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. It is the omnibenevolence that absolute free will bucks against because having absolute freedom of will is not in any salient way a higher good than being protected from avoidable infinite suffering due to bad reasons. Of note, we don't consider it benevolence to give toddlers absolute freedom of behavior because there are dangers beyond their ken.

Since omnibenevolence is a property so desirable to their God that essentially all but the Calvinists have chosen it to be a part of their theology, absolute free will presents a serious point of philosophical friction that some Christians reject. Indeed, absolute omnibenevolence would rather require God to forgive everyone their worldly transgressions and save everyone in the end, even outspoken atheists and horrible murderers. This omnibenevolence could be tempered by omnijudiciality since the latter is usually not a state that meshes with the real underlying motivation for a sense of cosmic justice, but that's an aside.

Now, if we accept the premise of an omnipotent, omniscient, (just-yet-)omnibenevolent God, then we come to a second type of free will that could be put on the table.
2. Apparent free will: Our freedom of will appears absolute from our epistemic perspective. In other words, we think we have full freedom of will, but in actuality, God is able to manipulate our wills imperceptibly from our perspective.
I don't think many, if any, Christians believe in this sort of free will. The Problem of Evil stands in direct contradiction of it because a properly benevolent and able God would intervene into evils and prevent essentially all of them from occurring. The only way to square apparent free will with a God-concept is to drop omnibenevolence. Indeed, I expect that Calvinists have done exactly that and actually do embrace apparent free will with a less-than-desirable God at its helm.

Interestingly, as folks like Sam Harris are arguing, the concept of free will may be entirely illusory--that our will is ultimately beyond our conscious control and the result of enormously complex prior states being influenced by enormously complex inputs. If that is actually the case, then absolute free will is absolutely incoherent, but apparent free will, as it is actually an illusion itself, is not incoherent. This also is an aside.

What, then, do they believe?

I suggest that Christians (non-Calvinist) do not actually believe either of the two sorts of free will presented above. Their theology essentially depends upon absolute free will, though, and their theology is dashed upon the rocks of evidence if apparent free will exists with an omnibenevolent God. As usual, I expect they believe a nonsense and fluid mish-mash of these concepts that allows them to rationalize issues and feel as though they hold airtight arguments that are maintained by momentum and a lack of clear examination.

A third type of free will, then, that is itself a subtype of apparent free will, is some limited free will.
3. Limited free will: Our freedom of will appears absolute but is actually limited, say by God's overriding "Plan." Essentially, this case is that God has set some kinds of boundaries upon how free our will can be and gives us full autonomy within those boundaries while preventing us from getting outside of them.
This may be a relatively commonly held position, actually, but it's difficult to square with the evidence of the real world. Particularly, we have to wonder why events like the Holocaust are within God's boundaries. The reason that is given, of course, is because "God has a plan and has used it to achieve a higher good." This begs the question of why an omniscient God couldn't have come up with a better way to have achieved the goal, but if events like the Holocaust or the African slave trade fall within what He has planned, it is conceivable that He could allow us this degree of autonomy, however lamentable it is.

Observe that this position pays a heavy price, though. First, omnibenevolence looks to be on pretty shaky ground: there are lots of evils that a all-good God could prevent but doesn't in this case. The judicial assumptions of God are the stuffing that fills this gap, and this situation makes the circle a little harder to square for such a theology. Second, at some level, God is determining the wills of human beings, which is rather uncomfortable for some people. This, though, is the price of believing in "God's Plan."

I thought you said it is perverse?

Yes, I did. The concept of free will that I think most Christians (non-Calvinist) believe is pretty sick. To motivate it, consider the following statements, some or all of which it is likely that you have heard from a Christian at some point, probably recently:
  • "[Something wonderful] happened, and I knew God was watching out for me."
  • "God answered my prayers."
  • "The Good Lord provides for me."
  • "This view is incredible! God is truly great!"
  • "God called me to come to church, and I heard exactly the sermon I needed!"
  • "God lifted me up when I was low."
  • "I have a personal witness of the Holy Spirit."
  • "God speaks to my heart and comforts me."
  • "I have a personal relationship with Jesus."
I don't think any of these statements are controversial, but they absolutely violate absolute free will because each would have the impact of maintaining the speaker's faith--unless it's actually pretty perverse.
4. Perverse free will (or solipsistic free will): God wishes people to come to Him of their own volition, and thus God is not willing to influence the will of anyone in any way that will lead them to Him, though He can influence the wills of those who have already come to Him.
Why do I think this rather messed up version of free will is what Christians believe, other than the fact that it is solipsistic? Consider each of those typical Christian statements being spoken to an infidel (atheist, member of another faith, etc.), and imagine the infidel replying, "Why doesn't God do that for me?" The answer that will be given almost invariably is "Because God gave you the gift of free will." This is often reinforced with an induction to self-blame (the hallmark of the Abrahamic--and most--faiths): "God is reaching to you and wants you to come to Him, but you have to choose to do it on your own." Of course, personal evidences are also often offered, but because of the epistemic distance requirement of "free will," the infidel is in a position where those cannot qualify as evidences at all (otherwise God has violated the infidel's free will since He inspired the "evidence" and omniscience guarantees He would be aware of its effects upon the wills of infidels).

What makes this perverse is that it sets a double-standard that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, to use an analogy that has nothing to do with money here. The requirement literally becomes that in order to know God, you have to know God first. Anyone who understands the fallacy of circular reasoning, though, will thereby be doomed--and God knows it, does nothing about it, and yet clearly has no problem intervening in some human wills. This is the type of free will that makes God utterly petty and disgusting to infidels. If pointed out, theists will frequently retreat to absolute free will, but to do so requires the sacrifice of all of their claims that God has influenced their own lives in any ways whatsoever (which sometimes you can see the clear hallmarks of in their eyes or manner when they do it--hint: it looks just like cognitive dissonance).

It's even more perverted than that!

On the one hand, for whatever reasons in His Sight, God has provided the world with several faiths (at least 20 major contemporary religions with some minor ones, and tens of thousands of denominations of those, mostly exclusionist in their theology). From the infidel's perspective, particularly from the atheistic point of view, all of the religions provide this kind of insider's club, which makes it look even more like circular reasoning instead of God actually interacting with people's wills--the kind of evidence that would be required for skeptics to get involved, a fact of which omniscient God must be cognizant. This means that God has stacked the deck heavily against people ever getting into the game.

On the other hand, the same problem applies within all of the incorrect religions. There must be incorrect ones because some of them directly contradict one another and cannot simultaneously be true (e.g. the Abrahamic religions are directly mutually contradictory). People in every religion make statements like those above, though, and so God there is allowing those people to be deceived by a false perception of having their wills confirmed in the one way that is absolutely the least likely to permit them to come to the right religion--a competing ideology being a vastly stronger mental bulwark than the skeptical position of, "um, I don't think that's valid; can you show me that it is?"

To really cap it off, this form of free will gives absolutely nobody special insight into which religion is actually true. This virtually guarantees that almost everyone will be getting it wrong in the situation where God is actually willing and able to intervene in people's wills. Given the proposed costs of getting it wrong, this paints God as a very petty, very horrible being, absolutely inconsistent with omibenevolence and instead the embodiment of omnicapriciousness, at best, or more likely omnimalevolence since the presumption is that God is giving us the "gift" of this free will.

Like I said: what they really believe, when looked at closely, is pretty perverse.


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  1. Very interesting; I have intuitively thought something along these lines about the Christians "free-will", but I had never followed the concepts inconsistencies out to their perverse implications as you have here.

    Indeed, with this critique I think it's important to realize that the whole ideology rests on an entirely bogus folk theory of mind/consciousness (which includes such properties as souls and mind/body dualism, freewill, Sensus Divinitatus, etc.), which Christians use to absurdly psycho-analyze actions of humans and the universe. And their worldview, as a result, can be no less absurd than these base(less) concepts and rationale.

    1. Oh, absolutely, Brad. And all of these ideas that come from the folk theory of mind/consciousness can be traced backward (with pretty decent robustness) and revealed to be the ad hoc additions that they are--including all of the increasingly complex apologetics that attempt to square these various add-ons.

      A decent analogy might actually lie in software, where a particular OS or whatever is developed, found to have some problems, and gets ad hoc software patches installed because it's in some ways easier than a complete ground-up rebuild. Those patches are later found to be incompatible with other parts of the package, which results in more patches. Eventually, it gets worse when this already highly cumbersome system starts getting influenced by third-party modifications. Endless comments about system robustness, memory hogging, and security loopholes could proceed from there.

      If I'm not mistaken, I may have just told the history of Microsoft Windows and Christianity at the same time.


    The teaching that men do not have free-will evolved from the false doctrine that men are saved by grace alone. There is not one place in the Bible that has grace and alone in the same sentence. If in fact men are saved by grace alone and have no free-will, there are many things that would be true.

    If men have no free-will, then God would have to force men to have faith so they could be saved.

    If men have no free-will, then God would have to force men to repent.

    If men have no free-will, then God would have to force men to confess Jesus as the Christ.

    If men have no free-will, then God would have to force men to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.

    If men have no free-will, then God would be responsible for all of the sins of mankind.

    If men have no free-will, why did the men on the Day of Pentecost ask "Brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37)

    If men have no free-will, then why did the jailer ask Paul and Silas, "What must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30)

    If men have no free-will, then why did Saul ask, "What shall I do Lord?" (Acts 22:10)

    Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared, bring salvation to all men.

    God's grace is available to all men. Grace is not forced nor is it denied to any man. MEN HAVE FREE-WILL!