Uncool Implications of Radical Free Will ~ BitterSweetLife

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Uncool Implications of Radical Free Will

Over at The Preacher, Charles is musing about the implications of radical "free will" and its effects regarding God's sovereignty. As it turns out, I've been thinking a little about this topic recently. (And when I say "a little," I mean it; you'll see that shortly.) So here's a brief, slight, small, observation regarding Arminianism and its accessory, radical or "libertarian" free will.

(Because of my need to preserve energy, I just Wikipediazed "Arminianism" - I apologize in advance for the mental energy you will need to exert if you're unfamiliar with this jargon. If it makes you feel better, you can just close the browser in frustration now. The blog will continue its slightly esoteric existence without you...)

So then.

It just so happens that other than prevenient grace**, radical free will is one of the aspects of Arminianism that strike me as strange, off-balance, and ridiculous. And now, to atone for merely linking, "Arminianism," I'll explain.

Radical (or libertarian or contra-causal) free will is the concept of human freedom that maintains that at any point we make a decision, we could also have made the opposite decision(s). Example: I choose to brew dark Ethiopian coffee; I could also have chosen not to, or to brew a medium Costa Rican blend.

At first glance, this idea of freedom seems intuitively true. Problem is, it deconstructs. We end up denying, effectively, that people have convincing reasons for what they do. I am forced to argue that I could choose to kiss Lindsay goodbye in the morning or kick her in the shins--within the same framework of motive. "Choice" becomes indifferent and random.

Policeman: Why did you follow that man for ten miles, corner him in a cul de sac, and taunt him into a round of fisticuffs?
Me
: Because I was having a great day and was enjoying a pleasant drive home, when all of a sudden, the idea came to me. I decided to go for it.

In the real world, we do have reasons for the things we do. Even the most nonsensical actions can be explained once you get the man to 'fess up. Ask my wife for stories. There was a reason I kicked a hole in the plywood door instead of delivering a strong uppercut to the brick wall.

What cannot be explained is how anyone could make either of two decisions when the choices in question were dramatically different. Like, say, giving your life to the Creator of the world or laughing in his face. The same rationale does not provide a suitable motive for both situations. In other words, if radical, libertarian, contra-causal free will is in operation, we may as well shut down our law courts and remove "motive" from the dictionary. This world is crazy, yes, but not that crazy. People who pop champagne corks and jump off bridges typically do so for different reasons.

So, that's what I think.
And now, the addendum.


** Prevenient grace

Simply stated, prevenient grace is the idea that God extended enough grace to everyone to be saved. He invited
everyone to join his Facebook account. Some people said yes. And then God, enjoying the benefit of eternal foresight, decided, "OK, these people who will accept my invitation to be friends--I would like them to be my friends. In fact, these people who will decide to be my friends I will 'predestine' to be my friends." In other words:
People who accept prevenient grace: We will be your friends, God.
God: Because I see that you will be my friends, I choose you to be my friends.

This strikes me as the kind of thing I made up in junior high to solve some of God's pr problems. Which is one reason I can't believe it now. It reminds me too much of myself when I was young and silly and thought you could fix the Bible like a crossword puzzle. Also, there are verses like John 15:16.



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13 comments:

John said...

I was really wrestling with this a few weeks ago (and still get into conversations with our pastor from time to time). I wrote a little bit about it on my blog, but to be honest, I still think something is missing somewhere.

My thoughts then (in short) were: Since we are not uncaused causers, our choices have causes (as you explained above). Those causes have causes, and, if you follow them back far enough, they lead to God, who in His omniscience created those He chose to create, fully knowing what they would choose, thereby "determining" what would happen, but not taking away their "free" will in the sense that they can choose whatever they want.

In other words:

Omniscience + Omnipotence + Timelessness = Predestination

I can't see any way around that.

Where things get tricky is as soon as you then try to explain logically why God is not in the end responsible for our evil choices, rather we are. That's where I feel like I end up moving verses around like letters on a Scrabble board to have it make sense. :)

Will Robison said...

The closest thing I've ever read to understanding Free Will vs. Predestination is the comic book (soon to be a movie) Watchmen. In the comic there is a character who is, for lack of a better term, completely annhilated - only to come back into existence with complete omniscience. In an absolutely brilliant chapter, we get to see inside his mind and learn all that he knows about the past, present and future. While he is reacting to events that are occuring to him in a free will mode, he already knows the outcome of his actions, already knows that he will make that decision, that, in essence, it has already been made. He exists outside of time and as part of time at the same time. In much the same way, God existed on Earth and in Heaven at the exact same time - both knew he was going to die and had already died at the same time. That is the problem of Free Will and Predestination. For someone who knows everything, he can both forsee who will be chosen, and indeed choose them, and still allow them to make the choice on their own. Or, in other words, we are all faced by a fate that has been decided since the beginning of time, but that allows us to choose what fate we want.

Ched said...

He invited everyone to join his Facebook account.

Perhaps the most profound definition of Prevenient Grace I've ever heard.

These phrases are the reason I keep coming back here.

I like your thoughts on this as well.

Weekend Fisher said...

Yah, I think "radical free will" as you have it here is a fiction.

I've always thought "prevenient grace" is badly defined. Grace is God's favor; grace comes through Christ. So I think "prevenient grace", if it's going to be meaningful, would mean "God sent Christ first".

And I think the presence of Christ is what makes or breaks someone's mental image of how salvation happens. Does the presence of Christ free us so that this radical freedom really does happen whenever Christ is present?

Take care & God bless

Jamie said...

Ariel: As I said to Charles, I think you both make some good points--much as I hate to admit that. ;-)

However: You say, "radical free will is one of the aspects of Arminianism that strike me as strange, off-balance, and ridiculous." I understand this (honestly, I do), but is the doctrine of radical sovereignty less strange, off-balance, and ridiculous?

I realize this is somewhat subjective, but free will seems to me merely hard to understand, whereas God's complete sovereignty is both hard to understand and repulsive. (Sovereignty is hard to understand because it makes nonsense of experience and of the Bible's regular implication that we are supposed to choose. It's repulsive because it requires believing that God created people specifically for the purpose of tormenting them.)

So...of the two, I am far more inclined to espouse free will, even while recognizing that the will is not perfectly free.

One more note: You say that "the same rationale does not provide a suitable motive for both situations." Agreed, but are there not multiple rationales at work in each of us at any given moment? Why imply that there is only one?

Will Robison said...

(Sovereignty is hard to understand because it makes nonsense of experience and of the Bible's regular implication that we are supposed to choose. It's repulsive because it requires believing that God created people specifically for the purpose of tormenting them.)

Jamie, if I may offer a writerly opinion on this... I think its safe to say that in a fictional universe the writer is God. The writer creates all the characters, good and bad, and all the places, situations, words, etc... As such, the main character's torments are all creations of the writer. Every bad guy they fight, every setback they have, every obstacle they dodge is the writer's creation. But the purpose of all these bad guys, setbacks and obstacles is not to torment the character, nor, really to entertain an audience. The purpose of the torments is to force the main character to grow and in growing to bring about a better world as a result.

I submit that this is exactly why God does what God does. We are all meant to grow, to learn, to become better people, and to create a better world than the one we were born into. And if we succeed despite numerous obstacles, our glory points to our Creator. The more daunting the challenge, the more glory our Creator receives.

Jamie said...

Will: Well, the only reason writers write stories involving torments of various sorts is because it mimics real life. Now, if the author was not bound by the constraint of reflecting an already-existing world, and if he still chose to create a fictional world in which the characters were tormented--and felt they were being tormented--then wouldn't we say he was cruel and unjust?

You say: And if we succeed despite numerous obstacles, our glory points to our Creator.

Ok, but what of those who, by their Creator's own design, do not succeed and are tormented forever? Does this bring glory to God also?

I should say...I can't identify any fault with John's equation above (Omniscience + Omnipotence + Timelessness = Predestination). It appears logically that predestination must be a reality. On the other hand, this is not consistent with experience, and the Bible strongly implies that people have free will and that there is a genuine possibility of choice open to them. So I am inclined to think that there must be something wrong with the equation, even though I can't label it.

Ariel said...

If I didn't spend my time after work lying on the carpet wrestling Aidan and re-hydrating, I'd do a better job keeping up with comments. I've got to jump in here, though...theological tussling calls.

Since we are not uncaused causers, our choices have causes... Those causes have causes, and, if you follow them back far enough, they lead to God

I like what you said, John. The fact that our decisions are so totally determined by causes (both known and unknown to us) is a crucial element in seeing how God's sovereignty and our free will, understood as freely, without coercion, choosing to do what we most desire to do can coexist.

Will, if the upcoming Watchmen movie does anything close to the theological work you took on in that comment, it's going to be a heck of a film. :)

I think "prevenient grace", if it's going to be meaningful, would mean "God sent Christ first"...Does the presence of Christ free us so that this radical freedom really does happen whenever Christ is present?

Thanks for the thoughts, Weekend. I'd merely point out that I'm targeting the specialized meaning of "prevenient grace." Biblically, grace is something completely other. As to your question, I believe the grace of God liberates us to follow him--not to reject him. People don't need additional grace in order to reject Jesus, we all do that without extra help.

You say, "radical free will is one of the aspects of Arminianism that strike me as strange, off-balance, and ridiculous." I understand this (honestly, I do), but is the doctrine of radical sovereignty less strange, off-balance, and ridiculous?

Fair enough, Jamie. I realize that in framing my take as I did, I made a subjective argument, and we each have one. I'd go so far as to say that at first blush, most people respond as you do to the concept of God's sovereignty.

The real question is how the Bible portrays God and man. That's where we have to dig in and prepare ourselves for whatever we find.

What we find is a God who isn't afraid of taking responsibility for both good and evil. He says he controls every decision of the dice, every act of kings, every impulse we indulge. He also says that we're still responsible for our decisions. The onus is left on us to reconcile these two, even if we're forced to leave it as a mystery, and be willing to rest on it.

After all, if God is knocking us around like pills in a pinball machine, we had better adjust and make the most of reality. Right?

You say that "the same rationale does not provide a suitable motive for both situations." Agreed, but are there not multiple rationales at work in each of us at any given moment? Why imply that there is only one?

I wasn't arguing that we only possess one motive at a time. (If that was the case, we would all have a better shot at holiness. As Kierkegaard said, "Purity of heart is to will one thing.") Rather, I'm saying that radical free will is forced to account for all conceivable decisions within the same framework of existing motives. Consider the natural implications of this, and it becomes "strange, off-balance," etc. "Choice" becomes indifferent, random, and ultimately untenable.

This is a really long comment and I'm ending it now, but I'd be happy to continue talking about this if we can keep it friendly and interesting.

Maybe I'll do another post.

gymbrall said...

Jamie,
You pointedly ask a couple of questions that Romans 9 answers directly:
Ok, but what of those who, by their Creator's own design, do not succeed and are tormented forever? Does this bring glory to God also?

Here's Paul's answer in Roman's 9:17-18
17 For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.

18 Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.



You also say:
Now, if the author was not bound by the constraint of reflecting an already-existing world, and if he still chose to create a fictional world in which the characters were tormented--and felt they were being tormented--then wouldn't we say he was cruel and unjust?

Here's Paul's answer:
19Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?

20Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?

21Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?

22What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction:

23And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory,

24Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?


Lastly considering God's justice:
10And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac;

11(For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;)

12It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger.

13As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.

14What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid.


The way I make sense of this passage is that there is no context in which the pot can hold the potter accountable. There is no context in which the word accountable has any meaning except going from the potter to the pot, but never the other way around.

Jamie said...

Gymbrall: Re the idea of no one being able to hold God accountable, I've been thinking about that quite a bit. (I've also been thinking about Ariel's thought that if God is knocking us around we should simply cope and make the most of it.) I posted a partial response on my blog over the weekend, drawing from the experience of Abraham. The long and the short of it: I think it is possible in some sense to "hold God accountable." As for Romans 9, I'm still musing on that (and have been for a while)...

BruceA said...

I'm coming late to the discussion, but I have to comment. I don't think you understand Arminianism. Certainly free will and prevenient grace as you have defined them are "strange, off-balance, and ridiculous." But no genuine Arminiam would define those terms the way you have.

Free will does not mean having to choose every morning whether to kiss my wife or kick her in the shins. It does not mean deciding, on a whim, whether or not to pick a fight with a total stranger. Arminianism does not teach that free will is "libertarian" or "radical" as you have suggested.

In fact, the Wikipedia article you linked includes this quote from Arminius himself:

In this [fallen] state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace.

I don't see how even a Calvinist could disagree with that.

God "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2:4) So if we have no free will, then everyone will be saved. But, "the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it." (Matthew 7:13-14) If people are not saved, it is by their own choice, not by God's.

Prevenient grace, too, is not what you think it is. On our own, we could never choose to do what is right. But we are not on our own. God has not completely abandoned us to our own sinful devices. God has given each of us a measure of grace that allows us to recognize that we need him: "The grace of God has appeared to all." (Titus 2:11) And for what reason has God given all of us this measure of grace? "God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance." (Romans 2:4) That's why we are called to "work out you own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12-13)

MICKY said...

Our moral freedom, like other mental powers, is strengthened by exercise. The practice of yielding to impulse results in enfeebling self-control. The faculty of inhibiting pressing desires, of concentrating attention on more remote goods, of reinforcing the higher but less urgent motives, undergoes a kind of atrophy by disuse. In proportion as a man habitually yields to intemperance or some other vice, his freedom diminishes and he does in a true sense sink into slavery. He continues responsible in causa for his subsequent conduct, though his ability to resist temptation at the time is lessened. On the other hand, the more frequently a man restrains mere impulse, checks inclination towards the pleasant, puts forth self-denial in the face of temptation, and steadily aims at a virtuous life, the more does he increase in self-command and therefore in freedom.
PEACE BE WITH YOU
MICKY

Ariel said...

Bruce, thanks for jumping in. Is it possible I overplayed my hand in caricaturing Arminianism? Yes. I also feel fairly confident in attacking the versions (whether they are 1.0 or 2.0 or something in between) of Armminianism belief as I depicted them.

I appreciate the quote from Arminius, and understand that we agree that the human will is fallen. This is excellent. Where we disagree is the extent of grace, and the ability of people to "cause" in some sense their own salvation.

Mickey, to an extent, the Bible supports your position--especially the book of Proverbs. Doing good, like doing evil, is habit-forming. I'd point out a vital ingredient I don't see in your comment, though: GRACE.

Unless God steps in and gives us the possibility of doing good, we're stuck in a vicious cycle of futile self improvement.

 

Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife