*and some of everything else, too

The Sovereignty and Freedom of God: Part 3 of 4

The Sovereignty and Freedom of God: Part 3 of 4

Written by:bcreamer
Published on September 5th, 2011 @ 09:57:00 am , using 4273 words, 3006 views
Posted in Theology, Ethics, Philosophy

The first two sections of this series on human freedom are about objections to the belief in libertarian will (part 1) and about the some of dangers which follow that objection (part 2).

3       It is possible and advantageous to talk about a real, libertarian will in humans.

In contrast to the things described so far—that is, in contrast to the impossibility of freedom being what it was originally cracked up to be—suppose freedom is everything originally understood. What exactly would it be? There are two different ways to answer the question, and both are important here. One answer deals with the significant capability of a will. The other deals with just how and where to pigeonhole the will as a thing. On the first answer, the will’s ability, the most direct route is simply to observe that an individual with a free will can act in different ways given exactly the same circumstances. On the second answer, the will’s metaphysical status, the thing to do is compare it to other things considered to exist. First things first.

3.1     Freedom can be taken as the ability of an individual to actualize a variety of potentials.

3.1.1    That this view of freedom is empirically unverifiable does not eliminate its significance.

There is no way to prove empirically whether individuals have such a freedom or not. Since an individual can only actualize one behavior in a given circumstance, and since a given circumstance can only appear once, there is no possible way to verify that she could not have gone a different way, or that she could have. That impossibility—the impossibility of proving either way empirically—leads some to claim that there is no real difference between the two ways of describing the world. One describes it as free, the other as determined. Both systems attempt to create a coherent description and are acceptable descriptions of the world insofar as they are internally coherent as systems. For instance: Megan uses the term blue to describe color x, yellow to describe color y, and green to describe color z. Leah, on the other hand, uses the term red to describe color x, yellow to describe color y, and orange to describe color z. Forget all the complication.[1] If everyone agrees to use Megan’s terms, all is well. If everyone agrees to use Leah’s terms, all is well. And Megan and Leah can use their own terms without dispute until they have to talk to each other or a third party about the appearance of colors x, y, and z. As little difference as it makes which color vocabulary Leah and Megan choose so little difference does it make whether the world is described one way or another when there is no empirical difference between the two descriptions, or so the argument goes. In truth, though, there is more to reality than inert matter and objective data. In fact, both Leah and Megan are missing a great deal about the reality of the world around them by not recognizing the difference between their ways of describing the world and therefore the layer of interpretation inherent in their experience of color. Indeed, the whole point of this extended argument is that describing the world with freedom allows for the discussion of phenomena which are theoretically disallowed and practically discounted by the language of determinism. For instance, appealing again to the argument for moral responsibility above, either morality is something real or it is not. If it is not, then the vocabulary of determinism explains away the phenomena of morality (with psychological egoism, for instance.) If it is, though, then the language of determinism eliminates from consideration an entire domain of reality. The point is parallel to William James’ criticism of the evidentiary objection to faith in God: any argument which proves a person should not believe in God even if there is one does not seem right. Well, the only way to say there is no real difference between these two ways of describing the world (as free and as determined) is to say that only empirically verifiable distinctions are real—a claim which begs the question and asserts directly that there is no good reason to believe in anything non-empirical. Now the clincher here amounts to the same point William James makes in his justification of faith. To claim that only empirical distinctions are significant is to deny that there could be anything other than the empirical even if there is something other than the empirical. Similarly, to deny that there is any significant distinction between deterministic descriptions of the world and libertarian ones on the basis that they are empirically indistinguishable is to deny the possibility that something non-empirical (free will) could be real even if it is.

Being an explanatory reductionist makes sense if it is the effort to create an integrity between beliefs about the reality of the world and descriptions of that reality. But there is a difference between curt, empirical accuracy and the practice of glossing over difficult realities with friendly vocabulary. If someone calls death sleep because she wants to be sensitive to her friend’s emotions, there is an inherent deception, albeit benign, implied. “Well, your husband is really only sleeping.” But if someone calls death sleep because she believes that death should not be associated with the end of existence then she is not multiplying vocabulary beyond necessity, but refusing to reduce vocabulary beyond expediency. And so is the concept of will. If will is something like an uncaused cause, as below, then descriptions of a world with and without will are entirely distinct, and the consequence of describing the world without will instead of with it immensely meaningful.

3.2     Will is an uncaused cause in the universe.

If it is the case that what the will does is actualize potentialities, then the will essentially becomes an uncaused cause. While everything else in the world (except God, of course, whose “in-the-world-ness” is entirely different) is a part of the causal chain of historical events, the free will is capable of interjecting an otherwise uncaused cause into the system.

Of course, it only looks like an uncaused cause because the original act of creating that will is all but forgotten. But as Romans 8:20 implies, even if a free will is entirely uncaused within creation, its presence in creation is evidence of its original cause, God. To say that God creates the will is not though to say that the will’s activity in a particular circumstance can be sufficiently explained in terms of that creation. The will is able to act creatively only because God has created it to do so.

One material event is causing another throughout history right down to the grape and Joe, the table and his teeth, and even his hunger and behavioral training that eating the grape will sate him. Then the will intervenes miraculously and produces an inexplicable (in terms of prior sufficient causes) and unpredictable event—whatever Joe’s action is. In the scheme of freedom, that act is a brand new injection into the causal universe. Aside from the dilemma presented at the outset of this discourse, there is a phenomenological objection to that scenario, and there are a couple of uncomfortable implications that attach to it.

3.2.1    That people do not appear to be free does not change the possibility that they are free.

The phenomenological objection is that people do not appear to act freely. This objection is as plain as the nose on any observant and thoughtful face and manifests itself in practically every venue of life. On highways drivers are strangely animalistic, running in packs of cars and adjusting and maintaining speeds based on stimuli from, for example, the drivers around them, usually without any awareness of what they are doing and why they are doing it. In homes, parents and children spiral around each other in relational systems governed by hidden but practically omnipotent stases. Because they have no idea why their daughter is running amok, they seek counsel from someone who can explain the invisible system behind their behaviors and inject some new stimulus into the system to make a change. More poignantly, anyone who cares to see it can watch manipulators (from salespersons to politicians and preachers) use psychological tools to motivate automatic behavior in unsuspecting clients or followers. Indeed, the herd mentality so disdained by philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche is a frightening and disappointing reality of humanity.

However, the lack of freedom’s exercise is in no way a proof or even evidence of its non-existence. When a person’s will injects creativity into the world that person is active. When, on the other hand, she flows along with the causal chain of events she is passive. Sadly, almost everyone—even this author—lives predominantly in passivity. Some probably spend their entire existence, with one notable exception, in passivity. While it is wise to acknowledge that people often are not aware of what they are doing or why they are doing it (think of the myriad unconscious motions with which everyone is constantly busy) it is both liberating (with the power to do differently) and encumbering (often with the responsibility to do differently) to realize that there is at each person’s disposal a tool for breaking free from many of the behaviors which appear to govern existence within the material world.

It is no wonder, by the way, that people do not appear to be free. Most do not believe they are—except at the shallowest level. Very few any more believe that by simply making a choice they can change their involvement in and contribution to their circumstance. With that claim though comes the other observation of what appears to be determined behavior: addiction. It does seem foolish not to admit that some behavior is beyond a subject’s ability to change it. That a drowning man’s surge for air is inevitable is arguable. But that some persons’ addictions are inescapable without causative intervention would be practically undeniable within contemporary culture.[2] So how can a person’s will be free if addiction can become deterministic in its power. The answer is fairly clear. At the point where a person engages for the first time in a certain behavior, say smoking, she is confronted with a choice. She may actively choose to smoke or not to smoke. Or she may passively negate her responsibility to choose. But either way, she is an agent in that circumstance with the ability (whether applied or not) to behave a certain way or not. The ability to choose does not in any way imply the ability to control what results from that choice. That a bad choice or passivity can result in circumstances which are beyond a person’s ability to choose is no great surprise and completely compatible with the existence of free will.[3] More importantly, no libertarian (except the most ridiculous of existentialists) believes freedom extends to everything. Free will does not mean the choices available do not control. Everett can remain on the roof or step off. But he cannot step off the roof and not fall. And so with addiction, by the way. Perhaps given a certain circumstance a person cannot control whether to imbibe a chemical (like stepping off the roof but not falling) but that same person can control (hypothetically, and just as an example) whether to enter the circumstance.

3.2.2    That people should not have the creativity and power of God does not change the possibility that they are free.

The uncomfortable implications of such a freedom are that the will appears to be miraculous in its nature, and that Joe seems to be strangely imbued with divine creativity. There is something right about that assessment and something wrong about it.

It is true that the kind of freedom described in this argument allows humanity to insert into the universe that which cannot be sufficiently explained in terms of prior causes. And it is true that the same insufficiency of explanation applies to God. But, as with every aspect of humanity bearing God’s image, the image is limited. Compare consciousness as an attribute of humanity and of God. God is conscious. Man is conscious. Saying so does not in any way imply that man is God. In the same way, man partakes of an attribute of God, free will, only because God chooses for man to do so, and only to the extent which God allows. There is no assault on the uniqueness of God. So there is nothing strangely divine about humans imbued with creativity.

3.2.3    That it seems like people cannot act other than how they want does not change the possibility that they are free.[4]

This objection is the main point of the opening explanation of free will’s dilemma.  However, there is a response to this objection that must be made here.  Take Jesus’ prayer on the eve of His crucifixion as a model. He concludes that prayer by saying, “Not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus literally rejects His will in favor of His Father’s. To divide Jesus’ will as a man against His will as God is too Nestorian. And Jesus does not say, “Not as my humanity wills, but as my deity wills.” He says, “Not as I will, but as you will.” So Jesus is choosing to do something against his own will. That fact does not comport with compatiblism.

But to try to make it fit, suppose Dieter asks, “Well, did Jesus want to do the Father’s will?” And of course the answer is yes, in which case Dieter can reassert that Jesus did indeed do exactly as His will dictated.

But Dieter has made the error every compatiblist makes. Of course Jesus acted in accordance with His will in retrospect. Saying after the fact that someone could only act in accordance with his or her will is no more meaningful than saying after the fact that the door had no other thing to do than close. All past contingencies become necessities once past—not logical necessities, but necessities nonetheless. That is to say, once a thing is past it cannot any longer be otherwise than what it was even though it could have been otherwise than what it was. Jesus acted in accordance with His choice to obey the Father once the choice was made. But His choice to obey the Father was a choice of freedom. His willing sacrifice is willing precisely for that reason. In the garden both options are living, the choice both momentous and forced. He can glorify His Father by remaining untouched by sin or by taking on the sin of the world for redemption. But He chooses His Father’s will over His own (the wording makes this statement inevitable.) Once that choice is made of course He acts in accordance with His own will as He submits to the Father’s will. But His will is what it is because of the choice He made. And so with freedom in every person who exercises it. Of course a person’s activity can be explained in terms of compatiblism after the fact. But that explanation is only possible for two reasons: first, because it is given after the choice to pursue a certain expression of will is made, and second, because the person offering the explanation has already decided that there is no possibility of any choice being made outside the context of prior sufficient causes.

To be perfectly frank: psychological egoism (that persons cannot do other than their psychological makeup determines) is no friend to Christianity. Compatiblism (the idea that people cannot  act other than how they want) is just a form of psychological egoism. Any description of Christianity couched in terms compatible with compatiblism misses some of the greatest significance of discipleship; specifically, “if any man wills to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and then he can follow me.” Any attempt to gloss over that denial of self underestimates both the cost of Christianity and the significance of human freedom.

Finally (on this issue,) Joseph Butler pointed out some three hundred years ago that egoism is an insufficient explanation for human behavior. Egoism may be a necessary part of any explanation of human behavior (particularly in retrospect as mentioned above,) but that does not necessitate that it is a sufficient part of any explanation of human behavior. In other words, even if it is true[5] that an agent must always act in accordance with her own will, that will may not be sufficient to explain why the agent acted in some particularly altruistic manner. Necessary causes are not necessarily sufficient causes.

3.3     Will is the mechanism of purpose.

Of the two questions regarding what a will is, the answer to the first is that it is an uncaused cause (except for its original creation by God) allowing individuals to act in ways that are either inexplicable or indeterminate (at least by means of prior sufficient causes.) The second answer to what a will is, the metaphysical answer, remains.

So how can it be explained? And what kind of thing is the will? To answer that question first requires clarifying what a cause is. Most people believe with certainty that causes are real—and for good reason. There is such an obvious relationship between (as David Hume describes it) events which are proximate in space and time, prioritized in time, and constantly so related that only the most dysfunctional and foolish among people would not see that “cause” is a reasonable way to describe the way things happen in the world. But, as Hume also points out, those three ingredients (proximity, priority, and constancy) are not cause itself but rather the reason observers posit cause.

Oddly enough, there is not even a theoretical possibility that the actual cause of something (the mechanism of change) could ever be known. Rather, observations are made repeatedly with as many contextual (circumstantial) variations as possible in order to isolate a relationship between sequential events which can then be described as causally linked. Then some word or formula is put on the causal relationship and, voila, the cause is “known.” What is actually known is simply that this particular event is followed by that particular event in as many different circumstances as can be imagined within the current model of empirical reality. It might seem that such an understanding of causation undermines its reality. Not necessarily. Such an understanding actually only limits what can be claimed about the particular nature of specific relationships between events.[6] Within that way of  thinking there is still plenty of room for some claims about causal relationships: for example, that there are causal relationships between prior and subsequent events even if they cannot be authoritatively specifically known, and that cause seems to be as real a part of the world as all other phenomena—whether it obtains as some undiscoverable aspect of material reality or an expression of God’s ongoing activity (maintenance) in creation.

Here is the point. It is no more difficult to claim that will is the governing principle of purpose than that mechanical efficacy is the governing principle of cause. To use a different correspondence: freedom, will, volition, and purpose are the words used to describe one aspect of the way the world appears while determination, mechanism, efficacy, and cause are words used to describe a different aspect of the way the world appears.  Will is to purpose as mechanism is to cause. Free will is the mechanism of purpose. No more metaphysical clarity concerning will should be expected. Will is no more able to be plumbed than cause itself.

By the way, this model of will avoids the issue of symmetry altogether. Volitional symmetry is a problem commonly raised for a will poised equi-volitionally between two options. If the will acts purely as an appetite, then such a symmetrical equality poses a real problem. How would the agent act at all, not being able to find a reason to make one choice over the other? Some libertarians are tempted to use that equidistance as an opportunity for freedom to obtain. But that limitation on freedom misses the point. Here, freedom is the ability of the will to choose what is fully and even profoundly less desirable. The will’s choice is not random and it is not caused. Whether it is sui generis or not, it is chosen plain and simple. Original (saving) Christian faith is a good example of the point here.

3.3.1    The fact that faith is chosen rather than caused reveals the importance of libertarian will in theology.

A key argument about salvation revolves around whether faith or regeneration comes first. Five-point Calvinists are inclined to the view that regeneration precedes faith. For them, a person is able to believe because she has been given life to do so. In contrast, non-Calvinists and many moderate (or modified) Calvinists contend that faith precedes regeneration (at least logically.) For them, a lost person exercises faith in Christ and is therefore regenerated by the grace of God—a position inexplicable and untenable to strictly reformed theology. A misconception regarding faith creates the conflict.[7]

The misconception is that faith (that is, the act of faith; the choice for faith) must be caused by something prior to it. If faith is sufficiently caused by some aspect of character already present in the subject then it would certainly appear that salvation is the product of the quality of the subject’s character rather than the grace of God. But that valid criticism never obtains the status of soundness if faith is not caused by something meritorious in the subject prior to salvation. The Calvinistic way around merit is to say that God regenerates the person and so causes their faith—convenient, but not consistent with the general biblical model.[8] A better answer is to acknowledge that faith (conversion) precedes regeneration, but that faith is not caused by some meritorious aspect of the person’s character. And indeed, with the model of will presented here, it is not. God makes the genuine option of salvation available to a lost person. God creates (and maintains) her will. So it is God’s grace which makes it possible for her to choose faith. The person under conviction does have to choose faith in order to be saved, but can only do so because of God’s gracious provision of the option and the will. God does not need to do anything different whatsoever for her, on the other hand, not to choose faith (or to choose against faith.) But having so chosen (negatively, that is), she is now completely at fault for her rejection or negligence of Christ. God has done everything for the person who rejects faith that He has done for the person who accepts it. The difference is neither about merit nor cause, but choice—the choice of the one under conviction and graciously endowed by God with the freedom either to accept or reject His word.


[1] For instance, the only thing that could be meant by “color x” really has nothing to do with what appears as color, but is instead a reference to a certain range of frequency of light.

[2] At a theoretical level, this subject ought to be more debatable than the question of gasping and struggling for air when drowning, but within current American culture, it is not. It would be practically useless to claim within this culture that a person can simply choose to stop using crack cocaine. So this argument proceeds within that assumption.

[3] Of course, those consequences can extend beyond one generation, say to a baby addicted to cocaine. Those implications are profound, leaving open the possibility that original sin eliminates the function of free will in the fallen. It is important then to remember that this argument is not about what must be, but what is. Bluntly, free will could have ceased with the fall, but nothing requires or implies that it did. And further, it seems the point of general revelation and the grace (or hope) that lightens every man that comes into the world,  that part of God’s activity in everyone is to provide them with this singularly human-making attribute.

[4] “Free” here does not mean “compatibly free.” “Incompatible freedom” would work here, but grants too much meaningfulness to the term “compatible freedom.”

[5] This hypothesis is not granted in this paper.

[6] Hence the falsificationism of Karl Popper: that is, while no scientific claim is verifiable (in the sense of proving it is true) every scientific claim is falsifiable. In Popper’s view that falsifiability is what distinguishes a scientific claim.

[7] Actually, there are two misconceptions regarding faith. Aside from the one discussed in the main argument, there is the misconception that faith is a work. That error comes from an equivocation on “work” or on “do,” depending on the approach. If “working” is the same as “doing” then of course faith is a work because faith is something a person does—hence Acts 16:30-31. “Working” is used so broadly that it is sometimes taken for granted to be meant that way, that is, equivalent to “doing.” But it is not safe to make that assumption biblically. Clearly, in the biblical context of salvation, “working” has to do with “meriting” or “earning,” maybe even in the sense of legal obedience, in which case faith is not a work—hence the opposition of Romans 4:5, for instance. Doing something is not necessarily working. And choosing faith is neither working for nor earning salvation.

[8] This generic biblical reference is not an attempt to be oblique, but a nod to the assessment of people like Millard Erickson (Christian Theology. Second Edition. Baker Books. 1988. p. 945).

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Comment from: bcreamer [Member] Email
Yes. You heard correctly. I discuss the statement in a post at http://forchristandculture.com .
11/02/11 @ 10:59
Comment from: Larry Zamora [Visitor] Email
Larry ZamoraDr. Creamer,
I heard you make the statement that you felt that you would be responsible for someone else's eternal position if you were disobedient to share the Gospel with them. Did I here you correctly ?
11/02/11 @ 10:52

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