Does God Bestow Free Will?

Does God provide the answer to the Free Will Problem? To review the problem, look again at these 2 apparently conflicting statements, introduced in a prior blog:

1. Every event has its cause.

2. The ideas I bring up and the habits of
action that I form can produce
effects in the world.

Pragmatic pears for text 4Immediately after introducing these two statements, we asked: Does it really matter pragmatically whether they are conflicting or compatible? That is to say, does conflict or lack of conflict between these statements make any difference for decisive change in a person’s habits? If not, then presence versus absence of conflict really doesn’t matter, amounting to a pragmatic pair. I chose to answer that conflict versus no conflict does matter, thus not a pragmatic pair.

If you agreed with that judgment, then the next crucial task was to figure out whether statements 1 and 2 can be shown compatible. Thus far in this blog and this one, we have considered 4 attempts at reconciliation. First, calling it a paradox gains no ground and merely abandons the attempt to dispel contradiction. Second, appealing to levels in the hierarchy of matter doesn’t work, because scientific examination of causation functions with each level of physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology/sociology. Third, chaos theory is a mathematical construct that generates striking examples, but does not address reconciliation. Fourth, true randomness is not something that “I” can influence, nor is it something for which “I” am responsible. My will (statement 2) is deeply connected with the sense of who I am and what I do.

Our discussion then took a step back and made a distinction between will (as in statement 2 above) and willpower, spurred by new scientific results showing how high glycemic (starchy carbohydrate) diets can affect brain function. Science may fully explain and thus be compatible with willpower. Science may even explain some of the tendencies that I ordinarily associate with my will. However, science can never fully explain my will, partly because the very decision to apply science to questions of will amounts to an act of will.

Next we took a deep dive into questions of human consciousness, will, and quantum physics. Paul Nunez’ book titled Brain, Mind, and the Structure of Reality served as guide for that discussion. Nunez presents a “crazy conjecture” that particles and energy currently known to physics may comprise only a small fraction of the Ultra-Information that inherently possesses consciousness and forms the universe. Our brains could act as antennas to connect with Ultra-Information and thereby to direct consciousness toward locally real material objects impinging on our physical senses.

The crazy conjecture of Nunez brings us right up to the gate of the 5th answer to the Free Will Problem. The 5th proposed answer is that God reconciles will and cause.

In the divine formulation, everything that happens is in accord with God’s will. Statement 1 is said to be true, because every event has its cause in God’s will. God created the laws of physics and lit the fuse for the Big Bang, setting everything in motion according to natural law.

Whenever a free will decision needs to be made by a human, it is proposed that God provides help with a miracle, and that miracle most often occurs within a human brain, interrupting the natural chain of neurophysiologic events. At the same time, free decisions of human will are perfectly in accord with God’s will and in a sense caused by God’s will, because God has willed that his human creatures shall have freedom. Therefore statement 2 is also true, and there is no conflict with statement 1.

But do these explanations really work to reconcile the apparent conflict between cause and will? Look back at the words “every event has its cause in God’s will.” Does that tell us every event has its complete cause in God’s will? If complete causation of events is from God, where is the opportunity for me to change anything? In the next paragraph, consider “free decisions of human will are … in a sense caused by God’s will.” Let’s recognize that free decisions of human will are among the events that happen in the world. Are these decision-events completely caused by God’s will?

My human understanding just gets tied in knots over this. To human understanding it’s a frank paradox (that is, a question without an answer). Then again, there is no paradox at all (nor can there be) from God’s point of view. This is what some theologians tell us.

My problem is that I recognize no direct, clear message from God on this point. What I find are declarations from human theologians who claim to be able to tell me what God’s will is and how this paradox is not a paradox because the theologians know that God knows it is not. I have read the Bible and parts of the translated Qur’an.[1] I guess I’m just not trained well enough to see it. Maybe the Upanishads. I haven’t gotten to them yet.

The doctrine of God’s omniscience raises an equally profound Theological Problem of Free Will. If the future is not determined, then it is not knowable. But in their attempt to reassure us that every event has its cause in God’s will, many theologians tell us that God knows the future. What role then might I have in making the future happen?[2]

Although the concept of God’s omniscient foreknowledge seems much too lofty for human understanding, let me propose regardless a pragmatic attempt to reconcile God’s foreknowledge and my free will. I’ll suggest that the following two statements form a pragmatic pair.

3. The ideas I bring up and the habits of
action that I form can produce
effects in the world, 
because God does not
know the future and does not 
the future.

4. The ideas I bring up and the habits of
action that I form appear to
produce effects in the 
world, because
omniscient and all-determining God

creates for me just such an appearance
as a 
completely effective virtual free will.

Pragmatic pears questionDoes this work? My initial reflex is to answer yes. The only differences between statements 3 and 4 stem from questions of ontology (being and essence) and not from pragmatic decisions for tangible habits and acts. Pragmatism does not concern itself with ontology.

And yet … maybe I am a faltering pragmatist. Perhaps the very notion of God bespeaks ontology: What would I know if I had all knowledge and if I understood as God understands? The idea that statements 3 and 4 form a pragmatic pair gives me an empty feeling. Perhaps it’s the same kind of feeling that certain existentialist philosophers have described.

Virtual free will is not enough. I want to have something to call my own. If that something is not my will, truly my will, what else could it be, because the very words “I want” would be meaningless?

The bestowment of free will on human creatures is sometimes described as an act of God’s  permissive will. It can be understood as God willingly placing restrictions on God’s own will in order to create space for acts of human will.

Some theists have gone further to say that God chooses also to leave the future undetermined and free. Alfred North Whitehead along with Charles Hartshorne and John B. Cobb in their formulation of process theology propose that God does not know the future, but chooses to respond to and shape events in time. These thinkers with Christian roots strongly support human free will. However, despite the prominence of its founders,[3] process theology has never claimed more than a small number of adherents.

I have read that kabbalism, an esoteric offshoot of Judaism, may also deny that God knows the future, but I’ve been unable to confirm it thus far.

More mainstream in Christianity is the concept of open theism, which overtly emphasizes human free will and states that God chooses to leave the future undetermined. Open theism is contemporary. A book titled The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God proclaimed its concepts to the evangelical Christian community in 1994.[4] The book triggered a fierce critical backlash from traditional theists. Few large church congregrations thus far embrace open theism. An attempt to organize the movement can be found here.

Have we been able to reconcile the concepts of cause and will – statements 1 and 2 above – by an appeal to God? Certainly not within this blog. The books written about God and free will would fill a library. It’s a question that lies beyond the scope of our efforts here.

Then is there some other answer to the Free Will Problem that satisfies pragmatic reasoning?

For now, I want to get down to earth, take a break from abstract thinking. In the next 3 blogs before returning to pragmatism, I’ll highlight expressions of will in a young couple about 100 years ago – my father’s parents. The story will begin in 1898 in the small town of New Albany, Mississippi, where an 11-year-old girl has lost her father to a heart attack. Ten years later we shall follow her and her Kodak camera across the Pacific Ocean to the city of beautiful gardens, Suzhou, China.


Next post:  Kate goes to Suzhou

Previous post:  Does the brain create the mind?

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Photo by David Sley with permission.

[1] I have also read just a few Muslim commentators, who unanimously make a strong case for human free will from the Qur’an.

[2] In an article titled “Foreknowledge and free will” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Norman Swartz argues that the apparent conflict between foreknowledge and free will evaporates when we recognize a modal fallacy of logic in the conflict. However, Swartz gives no account in the article for personal ownership of responsibility for events in the world. Therefore, I cannot agree that he is actually discussing what I am trying to call free will. Here is the link.

[3] Whitehead partnered with Bertrand Russell over 10 years writing Principia Mathematica, which was published between 1910 and 1913. Their book, largely penned in symbolic logic, was a massive and mostly successful effort to ground mathematics on primitive logical premises. As I’ll describe in a future blog, Principia Mathematica was hailed as the landmark philosophical achievement of its time.

[4] Pinnock, Clark, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.


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