A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

The problem of free will (Part 4)

Does a deterministic view lead either to a materialistic determinism or to divine determinism (at least in regards to salvation)? Philosophically speaking, there is no need for such a dichotomy. It is obvious that human behavior has never been just the result of one factor, but it is the combination of many factors (or many causes) that lead to a certain action. Likewise, it is possible that a deterministic view can embrace a combination of natural and divine causes (although such a sharp distinction may in fact be misleading, as I will mention in a moment).

When it comes to particular situation of the ability for a person to choose to repent and believe, one could endorse the idea that natural causes play in a role, just as divine causes do. However, this is in contrast to Calvinism that would argue that  the sole cause of a person’s repentance and faith is rooted in God making it happen. At stake here, in the end, are two important concepts, more theological in nature: 1) The issue of God’s sovereignty and 2) the division between natural and supernatural (or divine). Both are in fact interrelated to each other when one looks deeper.

Taking a look at the latter issue first, one of the unfortunate tendencies within Christian theology (especially Western) is the tendency to make a differentiation between the natural order of the world and the supernatural causes. With association of God with the supernatural, it seems logical to associate the natural order with the absence of God. Then it becomes a hop, skip, and a jump over to associate the natural order being in opposition to God (personified in Satan). So the tendency is to embrace a dualism in which the natural order of the world is evil, or at least useless, whereas the supernatural works of God are the source of good. The natural world is fallen, so only a supernatural work of God can restore it.

I would argue there is a modicum of truth to the idea, but for the most part, the natural and supernatural are treated as always in opposition to one another. Instead, I would say that when God works in a way that isn’t part of the natural order (revelation, personal influence by the Holy Spirit, miracles, etc.), it leads to the natural world being a sufficient aid for good. In other words, the fallen world with the natural order of death guides people towards evil, but when combined with the work of God in a supernatural means, it allows the natural order of the world to produce what is good. God can be seen as restoring the goodness of the natural order, which He created in the first place. For instance, death would naturally lead people to do whatever they can to preserve their own life, even harm others. However, the revelation that God will raise people from the dead by raising Jesus from the dead, will remove the tendency of the fear of death to be a cause of harm to others (and one might make the argument that death in the context of that belief even moves a person to do good).

As a result, one can attribute the work of God as being not just supernatural, but natural. Furthermore, one can state that God’s intervention is necessary for the natural order of the world to produce good. Which leads us into the issue of sovereignty.

Calvinist theology proposes, by way of Total Depravity, that in order for a person to repent and believe, God must regenerate them by the Holy Spirit. This work of regeneration is a supernatural work of God. Due to a spiritual death that people are born with, they are incapable of repentance and faith in the true God and the Lord Jesus. Hence, the spiritual death requires a spiritual resurrection, which can not be the result of the natural order (notice the dualism between the natural and the spiritual). The natural order is either then seen as not being able to mold the person into being capable of repentance and faith, or even have a deleterious effect. It is in this manner that God is concieved as being the cause of salvation by Calvinists. Since it requires the personal, spiritual touch in each individual in order for them to experience salvation, it is necessary that God predestine certain individuals for salvation.

But, if by the involvement of God in the world, the natural process does not only lead to evil, but can also lead to good, then a deterministic one can argue that God is the ultimate cause of salvation, but it doesn’t necessitate a spiritual death (which is explicitly lacking in the Bible), nor does it require individual predestination. The natural process, which affects all people, could cause it that some could repent and believe without requiring some “spiritual regeneration” first. However, the natural order is capable of leading to that only because God is involved in the world. But each person accepts or rejects the call to repentance and faith based upon their own desire, caused by a combination of the natural and supernatural events, and the individual’s acceptance wasn’t contingent, somehow, upon God eternal predestining the individual to salvaiton. Hence, a determinism that isn’t purely materialistic need not lead to Calvinism’s Unconditional Election.

One objection might be brought up by the Calvinist in response. If a person God wants to be saved can reject the Gospel, does it not mean that God is not sovereign? In part this has already been addressed, in that God’s intervention need not solely be part of the realm of the supernatural. However, my other contention (which I will address more so in future posts) is that God’s ultimate will/desire is not the salvation of particular individuals, but a redemption of all creation. God loves people corporately, but the salvation of individuals is merely a means to an end of God’s corporate love. The end/goal is the salvation of creation and the community of people. That purpose of God will be achieved without question, whereas the salvation of individuals is essential. However, the salvation of any particular individual is not essential, nor the absolute goal of God.

In the next post, I will address a few “free will” objections before I then move into some Scriptural texts.


January 10, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

The problem of free will (Part 3)

If human behavior isn’t largely the function of free will, then what is the psychological process that determines human choices? The apparent cause of choices are human desires, which includes the desire to follow one’s own reasoning (emotions and reason are not mutually exclusive). While that might be simple enough, it is rather unhelpful for really explaining human behavior because it provides a catch-all answer that doesn’t really give different understandings for different choices. To give one cause for two (or more) outcomes defies the cause-effect relationship we look for, as it doesn’t give us sufficient explanation for the multiple outcomes. What then is the cause of our desires?

On the one hand, our desire if fundamentally to be happy. It might be correct to say then that at the root of all our actions is the desire to be happy, whether it is done to increase happiness in the future or maintain the present level of happiness. But happiness is never the actual choice that is made in human behavior, because one does not simply choose to be happy, but one becomes happy. When a person chooses to eat food, they are not choosing to be happy, but they are making a choice to consume something that believe will produce happiness, either by satiating hunger or by the pleasurable taste of the food.

This leads us to a more helpful definition of desires. Most (this is not an all encompassing definition) desires might be said to be the expectations that something will produce a positive experience. A person who is cold comes closer to a visible fire because they expect it will provide warmth, thus decreasing the negative experience and correspondingly increasing the positive experience.

But the word “expectation” implies too much cognition in human behavior. A person who is cold and near a fire doesn’t generally think “I am cold. There is a fire. If I come closer to the fire, I will warm up.” Rather, much of the time it is an automatic process where it does not occupy the thoughts of the person. They can continue to occupy their mind on something else while they also move closer to the fire. In which case, the choice to move closer to the fire is not a cognitive choice, but a habit.

Psychology recognizes these two different types of causes of behavior. There is automatic, or quick, thinking and there is controlled, or deliberate, thinking. However, it need not be necessary to think of these two types of thinking as in fact being totally different, but rather that they are merely differentiated by the speed of the processing. Sparing a long drawn out explanation, an understanding of the way neuronal transmissions work justifies that.

Habits, or quick thinking, is formed by the repeated exposure of certain events with a positive result. B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorism provides a basic theory that corresponds and illustrates that. As something begins to be associated with a subjectively positive result, the likelihood of that action occur in the future is increased. What happens inside the brain is that there more neuronal connections of a certain type and faster neuronal connections also. So the behavior becomes more likely, and the speed of the response is increased. As a result, the expectation for a positive result is correspondingly strengthened to the point that it happens automatically and rapidly.

Now when looking at the nature of our expectations, it would not be accurate to state that it is solely deliberate thinking, as if there is only one step in the thought process. For instance, when a person is looking to purchase a new car, it is the combination of many different other factors. A person may look at two cars and compare gas mileage, top speed, and cost. One car may have better gas mileage, but the other car may have a better top speed and cost. In the analytical, deliberate thinking process, the person will consider each factor. But each factor will be automatic, as we naturally associate cheaper, faster, and efficiency as better. So the deliberate, controlled thinking can be said to be the combination of quicker, more automatic thoughts. And then, a person may value fuel efficiency so much more than cost and speed that they will pick the first car over the second, even if differences in speed and cost would lead most others to pick the second.

So then, most (if not all) human behavior can be described as a combination of thoughts, either quick or deliberate, with different values for the different conclusion that eventually lead up to what is most strongly desired, and then what is chosen. It is important to realize that much of this process isn’t done cognitively (or consciously), but must happens instantaneously without the person recognizing what is happening. Nor is the thought process necessarily what we would consider “logical”, conforming to standards of rationality.

So each person has a set of feelings, beliefs (consciously recognized), and habits (not as conscious) that combine together to determine what action a person will take. Its complexity is sufficient to explain various human behaviors so that free will need not be necessary to explain human behavior (though we need not exclude it’s possibility either).

But the important thing to remember about people is that they are not static creatures. Rather, we are dynamic, constantly changing in big and small ways. Keeping in mind that our thought process are effected by leading to positive outcomes, our different experiences will change our feelings, beliefs, and habits in different ways. Also, the different choices we make will cause us to interact with the world, which will give us other experiences that will then change our feelings, beliefs, and habits.

So, the lack of free will (however extensive it is) doesn’t mean that we as individuals can not change who we are. Rather, it is that we can not change what we will do at the present moment. But what I want and the corresponding choices I make in the present can lead me to being a person who would make a different choice in the future (whether it is a moment later or a more extended period). Also, our desires, what we want to do, are autonomous essentially (unless there are beings, such as God, who directly change our feelings, beliefs, and habits), so it is not as if we lack the ability to do what we choose to do. Rather, I can not choose to be in the present what I am not presently.

This may sound deterministic, and it can be. But first off, as I have emphasized, that just because some or most choices have causes doesn’t mean there are no choices that are not the result of free will. Rather, we have no reason to validate a positive acceptance of free will. Nor do we have anything that proves there can not be any free will either (the idea that all things have a cause is assumption drawn from abstraction and is not in fact proven).

Secondly, even if it is deterministic and there is no free will at all, it does not mean that the determinism is merely a materialistic (natural) determinism, where the causes for human choices are all derived from natural processes. The determinism can be a combination of natural and supernatural causes. But (as my next post will illustrate) bringing in supernatural causes, or more specifically divine causes from God, does not lead necessarily to Calvinism.

To give a preview of what believe theologically speaking differentiates Calvinism from what I am referring to, what it becomes a question of theologically is whether God’s all encompassing purpose that He will achieve is individualistic in focusing upon saving certain individuals or “Creational” in “saving” the whole creation. However, my next post will not be focused upon theology (or more precisely, knowledge derived from revelation), but instead a philosophical justification for their being a form of determinism that does not leade to Calvinism/predestination.

January 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

The problem of free will (Part 2)

Since a universally present free will can not reasonably be argued for, as I argued in my previous post, are there times where a person might conceivably have free will? If it is not universally present, then there has to be some cause that provides for the actual capability of choosing what is not our greatest desire.

The first condition one might attribute to is a supernaturally caused free will. This corresponds with the idea of Wesleyan Prevenient Grace in which God restores the capability of evil, depraved people to have free will. Again though, the Bible, our purported source of revelation about God, fails to speak about the actual abstract notion of free will. If God does indeed do that, He has not revealed that to us. It would be prudent then to not base a systematic theology upon the idea that an actual free will is provided via a supernatural process caused by God.

If we are to make any argument for any possibility of free will without any direct revelation, it has to come from a natural, psychological point of view. Defining free will as to ability to do that which is not ones greatest desire, then we have to find a condition that would be sufficient to cause a single greatest desire to not be the deciding factor.

In the hypothetical situation of Buridan’s ass, a donkey is equidistant from two equal bales of hay and is hungry. If there is no free will, then one might say that since there are two equal desirable choices, then the donkey would never actually move towards one or the other. Eventually, he would die from starvation since he would never make a choice as to which bale to eat from.

But is this realistic to expect? Would an animal or a person, having two equally desirable options but having a pressing desire to also make a choice, fail to act? Would not the desire to survive or to be satisfied in the instance of Buridan’s ass override the indecision of two equally desirable options?

Two equal desires are overcome with a greater desire to make a decision. What happens in this scenario is that there is a desire to make a decision, which becomes the greatest desire. So that would force the decision of one bale of hay over the other. Secondly, if one bale was desired more than the other, the  indecision would have never been an issue. So this situation also requires two equally desirable options.

But is Buridan’s ass really that practical? Is it likely that any being will have two exactly equal desires? Perhaps not, but there are many examples we can all think of where people are indecisive. Practically speaking, there are many times where we have indecision, and if the conflicted aren’t desires aren’t likely exactly equal, then the Buridan’s ass scenario isn’t that impractical.

What is the cause of indecisiveness then, if it isn’t two equal desires? Human behavior requires not just a desire, but motivation to actually do something. While one desire may be slightly stronger than another, the difference may not be enough to motivate making a choice. But this is simply the opposite of the urgency to make a choice mentioned previously.

In the end, there are two ways  to interpret this  situation. On the one hand, the desire to make a choice will allow a person with two nearly equal desires to choose between one or the other. On the other hand, one can say the desire to make a choice reduces the necessary motivation to actually make a choice. The first fits within a free will view of behavior, wheras the second fits within a causal  view of behavior.

Part of this point of this exercise is to show the difficulty of ascribing a cause to free will. If a universally present free will is unjustified, and there isn’t any reason to affirm any moments of free will (though there isn’t necessarily any reason to deny it either), it would be prudent not to base a set of theogical beliefs upon the belief in free will.

Does this logically lead to the belief in Calvinism? I would say no. Neither is it Biblically mandated nor is it philosophically mandated in my opinion. But that requires a discussion first of what is the cause of human behaviors, or more specifically, human desires. After going into that, I will address how it does not philosophically lead to Calvinism, and then I will address the Biblical texts and how they neither affirm classical free will forms of Arminianism nor Calvinism. Finally, I will give a basis for my understanding of human behavior and desires, and the interaction of God with human behavior.

January 3, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

The problem of free will (Part 1)

At the center of much of theology from Augustine until even modern times is the role of free will, or the lack thereof, in human choices. The debate between Augustine and Pelagisus was centered around whether people have everything they need to be able to be holy people. Pelagisus affirms this, whereas Augustine denies that an evil person can will good.

But in many discussions on free will, there is a sense of ambiguity as to what is being talked about. Those of an Arminian persuasion will mean one thing by free will, whereas Calvinists may affirm something else, but both use the same phrase “free will.” This leads to people speaking past each other without realizing there is really be an actual agreement as to what is being talked about. As such, it is important to define the different definitions of free will.

Free will can refer to the freedom from any outside force to make our choices for us.  For instance, no person can force me to do something I do not want to do. They may be able to persuade me, through force or reward, to do something else. But in that case, my desire has been changed because there are different consequences to consider. One might consider the use of force to be the negation of free will in this instance. However, even with force, it can be said that the person still exercises free will, but that their desire to avoid an undesired outcome leads them to choose. If they were not concerned about the threat, they would not change their choice, and as such, they are autonomous. 

One may extend that definition of free will even further to being free from spiritual forces, namely within Christian theology, God and Satan. This takes a bit different flavor frequently from the freedom from the previously mentioned idea of free will. Under this type of free will, or lack thereof, is the question as to whether our decisions themselves can be affected without affecting the consequences themselves. For example, a person who fears death and would choose to forsake their faith in order to live can be changed so that they would choose to die, even if the threat of death is still present. In this case, the desire of the person is changed, not the potential consequences. It can be said that this change either occurs through a direct transformation of the psychology of the individual, or through a personal revelation that leads the person to alter their desires (If there is an eternal life, then I need not fear death anymore).

The final major usage of free will is regarding the premise as to whether a person can choose to do something that they do not desire in any way, or to change their desire simply by wanting it to change (for instance, the person who fears death wishing they would not fear death). For the former definition, it is not looking at human behavior as the result of individual desires and that we can co-opt one particular desire. Rather, it looks at the sum of all personal desires and asks whether the thing most wanted can be co-opted.

Also, discussions on free will may encompass all of these definitions. Frequently, an Arminian will affirm free will in all three ways, saying that nobody can unilaterally force another person to do something or to desire something, that God does not (or can not in some Open Theism quarters) force a desire or an action, whereas a person can choose to do something they do not want to. The third is also the assumption of many people within human behavior, who regard criminals has having the actual ability on their own to rise above how their grew up.

For this post, I am not primarily concerned with the first definition of free will, as it has little to do with theology and because most will agree that we have a free will in that regard. I am not also choosing to discuss free will from God (or Satan) much at this point in time, although my discussion on free will will have potential implications. I am mainly concerned with the third definition, which does have some relation to the first two in the end.

Another way to define free will of the individual is the ability to do something that has no cause. In other words, if my greatest desire would lead me to do something, if I have free will, I can do something that would not be caused by my greatest desire. One might say in this case that this would be caused by the second greatest desire, but that begs the question of as to what causes the second greatest desire to overcome the first. In the end, if one affirms free will, one has to accept that there is some part of the choice process that is uncaused.

This premise is fraught with difficulties. In terms of probability, if a choice is not caused, but yet there is potential for something to happen, then every potential choice would have an equal possibility of occurring. To say that one is more likely than the other is to in effect, give a cause for that behavior. If there is absolute, universal free will for every choice, every potential human behavior and belief would be occur equally. Yet any quick study of psychology will reveal that this is not the case. That people who grow up with divorced parents are more likely to be end up divorced themselves. Furthermore, the Bible affirms that humanity as a whole has the inclination towards sin, and more so than righteousness.

A quick look reveals that personal free will is not a primary factor in human choices. If it was, then human behavior wouldn’t be predictable at all, since predictions are based upon cause-effect associations. So, at best, free will is not universally present. In which case, in order for their to be times of free choice, the ability of free choice must be caused. One might seen an analogue between this and the Wesleyan notion of Prevenient Grace in which God graciously enables the free choice of man to turn to God. But the problem with John Wesley’s idea is that it makes this ability of free will universally present in regards to all moments of a potential choice between repenting and trusting God and not. To argue for such a premise would lead to a form of special pleading where free will is not universally present in other instances, but suddenly is available in regards to religious repentance and faith.

In the end, any form of a free will that is universally present also has Biblical problems, as nowhere does the Bible talk about the abstract notion of free will. Any attempt to read free will in certain words within the Bible suffers from anachronism, assuming ancient usage of vocabularies are similar to ours (such as reading a Hebrew or Greek word translated as “choose” as affirming free will). Consequently, it never affirms a free will that is universally available. To be fair though, because it never affirms free will, it doesn’t deny that there isn’t any free will either, nor does it make any statements as to when there is a lack of free will. Both the Arminian and Calvinist lack any ability to speak universally on the topic, as it involves anachronisms and taking general statements as referring to a universally truth at all points in time. For instance, a Calvinist who interprets Romans 8:8 as being a specific description of all choices a person makes instead of the general nature of their life is guilty of trying to take the text beyond what is intended. (Of course, I am aware of the tenuous nature of what I am saying, as it does involve the nature of interpretation itself).

So that leaves, in the end, the belief about the nature of free will as being based upon prior theological or ethical commitments. For instance, the Calvinist who believes in Total Depravity and Unconditional Election would deny free will in instances of conversion, whereas an Arminian who happens to also believe that in order for God to be just or loving that each person must have an equal (or near equal) possibility of being saved. This type of justification is also fraught with difficulty for the Christian as it requires that those theological and ethical premises be Biblically founded on revelation from God (which I would say, none of the premises given above are Biblically justified). It also assumes the infalliability of human logic, even when we have the correct premises (in other words, presuming we are not capable of making a mistaken inference, even when we have the right beliefs that we base that inference on). This is especially a problem when we can not verify something through experience of the topic, and as free will is not observable or reliably “feelable” (we might feel free will, but that begs the question as to whether we were really free), we must take our logical conclusion as very tenuous.

In the end, one can not affirm the universally present free will (either in all areas of choices or any particular area such as repentance and faith) philosophically or Biblically. Matter of fact, both the Bible and philosophical inquiry would lead us to reject that premise. However, the reverse is true that we can not make a statement is that free will is universally absent.

As this post is already exceeding the length I originally intended, I am going to create this as part of a series on free will. In later posts, I will look as to what is a more Biblically and philosophically justified conclusion. This will probably lead to some Biblical interpretation, as I admittedly never addressed any specific passages but only spoken generally of the Bible (in order to keep this post shorter).

January 1, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment