God’s Own Free Will

God’s Own Free Will July 8, 2020

I have written variously on this subject before but wanted to bring together two ideas:

  1. God cannot have free will.
  2. If he does, he could not have used it to create the world.

Libertarian free will (as in the conscious and actual ability to choose otherwise in a given scenario, ceteris paribus – LFW) is an incoherent concept. It doesn’t work and can’t work given what we understand of causality and, well, reasoning (both reasons explanations and otherwise). But, let’s try and make sense of the concept in order to grant the Christian (or general theist) what they usually believe in. This piece will deal with 1) above. I will deal with 2) in the next post.

LFW is important (for Christians) 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 argumentbegging 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, 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!”

There is plenty of evidence up and down for this sort of behaviour. It is the same sort of thing with Jesus in the New Testament. 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 (more on this in the second post).

Of course, the classical notion of God is that he is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent: all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving. 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.

Can God lie?

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.

God’s nature as constraining his free will

This is one of the cornerstones of issues with LFW. Theologians will try to sidestep this lying 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. He could lie – as in, he has the conceptual ability to lie. But (embedded within my definition), this isn’t really free will. 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.

What does it mean to say God could lie but…can’t? That he could if he wanted to but he just doesn’t have the nature to want to? This looks rather like compatibilism and not LFW where you can do what you want but what you want is determined. As Schopenhauer said: Man can do what he wills but not will as he wills. This is soft determinism. There is still no ability to do otherwise, it’s just that what one wants is aligned to what one does.

What this means is that not only can Good not lie, he can’t do anything that goes against his omnibenevolent nature. He can only “choose” to do that which is maximally loving, God’s omnipotence is shrinking, it seems.

God’s nature is not the only characteristic of God that constrains what he can and can’t do.

God’s infallible foreknowledge

John Barrow, in his 1999 book Impossibility, talks about how God could not predict his own actions if he wanted to be contrary.

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 omnibenevolent.

If God predicted he’d make a cup of tea at Tuesday at 09:03, he can do nothing BUT do this at that time. His own foreknowledge creates a set of steel tracks that he cannot waver from, with their course set from the beginning of time. This also has ramifications for prophecies, if they are to be deemed as remotely plausible.

The only solution to divine foreknowledge, a truly problematic idea if ever there was one, is to rid God of its shackles but this would then mean that creation is a random affair and perhaps God just threw up the cards to see how they landed. The more God knows about the system, just like with humans now, the more predictable the system becomes, and that system includes God himself.

Even if free will was remotely coherent, God cannot have it. It’s not coherent, so the point is moot.

 

 


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