Does God have free will? No.

Does God have free will? No. June 8, 2015

Here is an excerpt from my book, Free Will? An investigation into whether we have free will or whether I was always going to write this book (an introduction to the topic which also deals with religion and its intersection with free will):

Firstly, let us look at whether God himself has free will at his disposal. This is important because one of the primary characteristics of God is that he is perfectly free, not being constrained by the sorts of influences that humans are. It is often said that if God created all things then every thing that he created must have some attribute of his. Man has free will and, therefore, one of God’s attributes must be that of free will. Of course, this might be a circular argument, begging the question of whether we have free will ourselves. The bible is littered with examples of where God supposedly chooses people, things, cities and tribes. Here, in Numbers 16:6-8 God chooses who will be holy:

“Do this: take censers for yourselves, Korah and all your company,perf6.000x9.000.indd

 and put fire in them, and lay incense upon them in the presence of the LORD tomorrow; and the man whom the LORD chooses shall be the one who is holy. You have gone far enough, you sons of Levi!”

In Deuteronomy 16:5-7 we have God choosing a place, assuming that God, in human, anthropomorphic terms, deliberated over where the best place might be, and then chose accordingly:

“You are not allowed to sacrifice the Passover in any of your towns which the LORD your God is giving you;

 but at the place where the LORD your God chooses to establish His name, you shall sacrifice the Passover in the evening at sunset, at the time that you came out of Egypt.

“You shall cook and eat it in the place which the LORD your God chooses. In the morning you are to return to your tents.”

And in John 15:16 we have Jesus talking to his disciples, declaring that he has chosen them, implicitly assuming he deliberated, and may have had other choices, but freely weighed up that the 12 he had in mind were the best choice:

“You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.

Although it is more difficult to look at texts dealing with Jesus, as one can get into deep theological arguments over whether Jesus was fully man, and thus choosing was done in a human context, it is important to look at the way God is described as choosing in biblical texts. As mentioned before, there is a definite human, anthropomorphic character to God (not unusual in the Old Testament, as he, in various books, is described as having eyes, ears, a nose, a mouth, a finger, a hand, a back, loins and feet to name but a few pieces of the anatomy) that imparts the image of God sitting in heaven and deliberating, pondering what the best course of action would be, and then choosing accordingly. Of course, the classical notion of God is that he is omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent: all powerful, all knowing and all good. With this is the understanding that he is prescient – meaning that he knows events before they happen. The problem here then comes with the texts indicating that God chooses. If he is prescient and omniscient, then he knows all the options, and he already knows all the answers, he knows the best and optimal decisions without having to deliberate. God does not need to sit and work out, mentally, what is the best option, does not need to calculate who the best choice of person is to do his bidding. God simply knows – there is no choosing then. In Deuteronomy 7:6-7,

“For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.

 “The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples…”

it is written as if God pondered the best choice for, wait for it, his chosen people – the Israelites. He chose the Israelites over and above all other peoples of the world, over the Aborigines, over the Chinese, over and above the Meso-Americans. And one assumes that this was a choice of free will. Yet, in a sense, it wasn’t, since God always would have known he would choose them, and if full blown omniscience is agreed, then would know all the outcomes. Thus, this aspect of God tangibly choosing anything is rendered somewhat redundant.

Let us look at God as having libertarian free will from another angle. In Titus 1:2, Paul tells us that God cannot lie:

in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago

So, if we believe in the theology and writings of Paul, the backbone of Christianity, then we have to assume that God cannot lie. So he cannot choose to lie. This already constrains what God can choose to do; we are starting to see aspects of God that determine his actions and choices. Theologians will try to sidestep this conundrum by claiming that God has the free will to lie, but since it is not in his nature, he is just simply never going to lie. Others say that he cannot sin, but sin does not apply to him. This is simply denying free will in all but name, and one feels left a little short-changed.

Furthermore, if God is the standard set for goodness, the benchmark, as is often thought, then it is necessary that he is good. One anecdote that I have read that explains this concept in simple terms is that of a king that wanted to have a standard measurement for distance for his kingdom to use. To decide what the standard measurement for a foot (in length) would be, the king’s measurers measured his foot. How long was it?  Well, a foot, naturally, because it was the standard by which all other distances were measured. This analogy works well for the standard, then, that God has to set for goodness. He is ‘necessarily’ good, and can’t be anything but good. If God is necessarily good, then it follows that he cannot have libertarian free will – he is constrained by having to be good. He cannot, theoretically, choose to do something bad.

Martin Luther, in response to Erasmus (the Dutch Renaissance humanist scholar and theologian), wrote in his The Bondage Of The Will that will is in bondage to sin. This definition of free will means that God does not have free will inasmuch as God is not bonded to sin, but quite the opposite. What’s more, according to Paul (who said in Romans 6:7 “he who has died is freed from sin”) people who die and go to heaven are freed from sin, but potentially from the will, too. Does this mean that free will is not available to those in heaven?  However, this is changing the goalposts since this is not the usual definition accepted for free will.

God also suffers from something that, at first sight, seems obvious and self-evident. If one agrees that God has been eternally existent, then one can get into some very interesting discussions about the personality of God, God’s very own nature. Has God ever been able to change his nature or character?  Does God even have a character?  As humans are born and grow, we develop our personalities, and our characteristics change and grow. However, we are (arguably) always fighting our genetic traits, or the influences of the environment around us. There is still, no matter who you talk to, the fact that we have a core being, a sense of self or “I” from which we cannot seem to stray too far from. Does God have this?  Does God have a set character?  If he is eternally existent, how was his character defined?  Can he define his own personality?  This is connected to the idea that God can’t lie, as previously stated, but is larger than that, with more far-reaching consequences. Is God bound by his always good nature to be completely constrained in who he is, and what he can choose?  I would actually argue that God is, himself, fully determined, if you take into account the all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing nature of God. He always, in setting the benchmarks for those characteristics, and in the same sense that he cannot lie, has to act in the maximally caring way for his entire existence. But caring to whom?  Being more caring to humans might well be at the cost of another species, and being more loving to the lion or giraffe, might be at the expense of human success and happiness. I will return to this idea later (I can feel your excitement building already). So God can no more do ‘bad’ as change his own character. He is eternally stuck with being who he is, and cannot change in any way, since he must always be maximally good. Perhaps he could change what it means to be maximally good, by shifting the goalposts, just so as to allow a bit of variety in his existence. However, one then has the age-old debate of whether God creates moral absolutes (and they are therefore subjective to God), or whether good is objectively good, irrespective of what God says[1]. If God said the Holocaust was good, would that make it good?  Or is it objectively evil, no matter what God says (and therefore begging the question of whether we need God for morality)?  Or is it, indeed, neither good nor evil, but just is?  I can feel the chins being rubbed in thought.

A British cognitive scientist called Donald Mackay looked at a logical problem that an omniscient God would face, in relationship to being bound by his omniscience to act in a particular way. This problem is born out of the issue of whether one can predict one’s own actions. John Barrow, in his 1999 book Impossibility, talks about how God could not predict his own actions if he wanted to be contrary, based on Mackay’s logic. In other words, God, as a superbeing of omnipotence and free will, cannot choose to be contrary. Imagine that a certain Mr. Scelta has the full knowledge of the brain and the universe, like Laplace’s Demon[2], so that he could work out where he would want to go for a meal – the Italian restaurant or the Indian restaurant. Now, if he wants to be a little “perverse” and decide to choose exactly the opposite of what his predicted calculations state, it then becomes logically impossible for him to predict where he wants to go for a meal because he is choosing against his prediction. Conversely, if Mr. Scelta decides to conform to what his predictions state, to go to the restaurant that his calculations of all the variables computes, then he will predict correctly. Mr. Scelta’s successful prediction of his future actions depends upon him not being contrary, and not deciding to choose the opposite of what his predictions calculate. To choose the opposite is logically impossible, given the knowledge of the prediction as a part of the system of variables.

As Barrow (1999) states:

Let us look at what sort of dilemma this creates for our Superbeing. If he stubbornly chooses to act contrary to what his predictions say he will do, he cannot predict the future, even if the universe is completely deterministic. He cannot therefore know the structure of the Universe. Omniscience is logically impossible for him, if he wants to be contrary. But if he doesn’t want to be contrary, then he can be omniscient No being will not do what he predicts he will do!

So God can be omniscient, but he is restricted in the power to be contrary. Or God can be contrary, and therefore be restricted in the power to know everything. Thus, it is logically impossible for God to be omniscient and omnipotent. This has some interesting implications for those who have the classical view of God; that he is omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent.

There are some arguments to support the fact that God has free will, but they all seem to fall logically short of any kind of convincing status. For example, one might say “I don’t believe it’s possible for an entity to give/grant an ability that it doesn’t already possess, i.e., how can God give man free will if He doesn’t have it?” as I saw on one forum[3]. This simply begs the question of whether humans themselves have free will – a dangerous assumption from this forum member!

So, what can we conclude from these observations?  God’s own character means that the assumption that God has libertarian free will is fraught with issues, and that, realistically, God is not just a little determined. Not only are his actions seemingly constrained, but his ability to shape his own character, and his own ‘destiny’ is apparently non-existent.

[1] This was first examined in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, and is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma.

[2] See Part I -3 Determinism.

[3] (08/2009)

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  • John Grove

    Brilliant. The more you actually think about causality, the more “free will” makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. And if it is turned out to be true there are uncaused causes, free will still has no leg to stand on. Nothing can escape causality, not even a god(s).

  • D Rizdek

    Good point.

    A key point among apologists is that there is nothing incoherent in the concept of god. And I suppose for some kinds of gods that might be true. But the issue you are discussing appears to lead to god being incoherent. I suppose I’ve read arguments before along those lines before but sometimes I’m slow on the uptake, so the relevance and impact of that line of reasoning has recently strengthened my conviction that there is no god, at least not one of relevance.

    For me, it has become not so much whether there are gods or not, but whether gods are relevant? It seems they aren’t. They only become relevant in the minds of those who not only believe there are gods but that there are gods who care about and involve themselves in the affairs of the world. I can’t see any reason to think any gods do…care and do things to/for us.

  • Marcus Ashes

    Think about god and his thoughts and decisions. However you look at it they stretch infinitely into the past and will stretch infinitely into the future. But how can god see something that is infinitely far away. Surely there must be some kind of format for how god views all of his activity but still if they aren’t going to happen for all eternity then how can god know what they will be?
    And as William Lane Craig pointed out and infinite regression is absurd.

  • Marcus Ashes

    The question you’ve got to ask yourself is, why is god the way that he is. If he genuinely cares about us believing in him and following him then that would be an involuntary emotion or state to be in. If not then he doesn’t genuinely care and just says he does. It doesn’t make sense to say that you choose to care about something as with all emotions, genuine ones are involuntary and cannot be changed for no reason. So with this said god would not have free will and considering he is omniscient and knows all future decisions always cared and was always going to. Plus as well god is eternal and timeless so the question must be asked at what point did god decide to care? He didn’t just like he did not choose his own nature. Therefore he is not the author of everything and there are higher causes and reasons for elements of his existence.

  • Marcus Ashes

    And when thinking about how some Christians say that everything god does is good you could argue that if god has no choice but to say that everything he does is good then again he is an automaton and ask why he says it in the first place. However the problem arises more so when they say god could have said otherwise. This can be countered by saying then god’s opinion on this is subjective and asking why he didn’t choose otherwise and by pushing the question back further (why is what god does good just because he says so).
    Logically god being good in everything that he does would be out of necessity yet again he wouldn’t be the author of it. The contingency part is harder to refute because God would be the author of that fact however it wouldn’t be objectively true, and it would mean if god tortured you for no reason you’d still have to view it as good which is absurd and meaningless.