Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Problem of Free Will

For the purposes of this post, "theism" refers to the Judeo/Christian/Islamic traditions, "theists" refers to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, unless otherwise noted.

I have had trouble articulating my view of why free will cannot co-exist with an immanent, omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God for some time now. But I think I may have figured out how to do it, so here goes.

Theists attempt to frame the argument by equating "free will" with "not being coerced." That is to say, since God isn't somehow threatening and forcing you to do what he wants, you have free will. But this just moves the argument back a step, just as when theists claim that God must exist because the universe came from somewhere, begging the question of where God came from. In the case of free will, the theist's argument ignores the fact that, if God existed, God would control every factor that influences every person's actions, which means he would control every person's actions.

When God creates someone, he decides everything about that person. In a theistic worldview, everything is contingent on God and so nothing happens by chance or without his consent, else he would not be immanent, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent as theists claim. So, nothing about a person -- genetics, physical appearance, temperament, psychological makeup, ethical boundaries, response to stress -- happens by chance. God decides all of it.

Theists may respond by saying, "No, your parents getting together by free will decides your genetics, blah, blah, blah." But God also controlled everything about them and how they came about. He also controlled the world they lived in, from a puppy running across a lawn to maintaining gravity and the constant value of the strong electromagnetic force, and so everything that ever happened to your parents is the result of decisions God made, going back to the beginning of creation. God decides when you are born, to whom, and has set up everything that will happen to you in your life. He knows as soon as he even considers making you exactly what will happen if, say, he gives you this gene or that, this psychological strength or that, this set of parents or that, he puts you in this time and place or that, etc. etc. He knows that for every person in the world.

So, no one you meet, nothing you do, no incident that causes you to accept or reject God, happens in a time outside of God's control, happens in a place outside of God's control, involves people outside of God's control (even if only when he created them), involves a world and physical laws outside God's control, or incidents outside of God's control. He controls all of it.

So, while God may not actively be coercing you, all the factors that control what you will do in life are controlled by God. If he so chose, he could, without violating the theist's concept of "free will," change whatever people however he wants and produce any result he wants. He's not coercing anyone: He just controls everything that controls what everyone will do.

For instance, God could make everyone so they would accept him and thus be saved. This would not violate the theist's concept of free will because he is not coercing anyone to accept him; he's just tweaking things in all of us when he creates us so that we will. Since God hasn't done that, isn't the whole concept of God a morally bankrupt concept? After all, God controls everything that controls whether you will accept him or not. If you do, you get all these great rewards for doing so, even though God controlled everything that made you do so. If you don't, you get punished for all eternity for failing to take an action that you failed to take due to factors entirely under God's control.

So, once again, why doesn't God just make everyone so they will accept him? He could do so without coercing anyone and thus without violating the theist's concept of "free will."

To demonstrate, let us think of a perfectly competent, perfectly knowledgable programmer building a computer. He designs and makes the chipset, the motherboard, the processor, the hard drive, everything that will affect how programs run on the computer. Then, he writes a bunch of programs and runs them. The programmer knows, when he runs the program, what the program will do, because he wrote it and is running it on a system he created. Technically, he is not forcing the program to do anything. But he also knows it can only run one way. If he wrote the program differently, it would run differently. If he built the computer and processor differently, it would run differently. But all those factors are in the control of the programmer and not the program. Would we say the program has free will?

But then, the theist pulls the next rabbit out of his theological hat: "We have to be able to choose between good and evil for there to be free will."

I'll take Begging the Question for $200, Alex! Why do we have to be able to choose between good and evil for free will to exist? Who, exactly, in a theistic worldview, gets to define what free will is? That's right! God! So, all God has to do is decide that free will doesn't require a choice between good and evil, and presto! Problem solved.

In addition, if free will is truly defined by being able to choose between good and evil, and God is truly omnibenevolent, then God cannot choose evil, and thus God does not have free will. But humans can't have something God doesn't; humans can never exceed God who is most High. So that doesn't make any sense either. This is really another version of the Argument Against Evil: If God created everything and is omnibenevolent, where did evil come from? In the same way, by the theist's logic, I would ask: If God created everything and is omnibenevolent, and free will requires the ability to choose between good and evil, God cannot have free will. Therefore, where did free will come from?

Of course, theists sometime try to obscure the issue by claiming that a materialistic universe without God cannot have free will either, because the universe is either random, in which case our actions are random, or determinstic, in which case our actions are determined. This argument fails simply due to the Law of the Excluded Middle: The universe is neither random nor determined but somewhere in between where future states cannot be fully determined from past states no matter the amount of known information, and in which free will can exist.

But theists (and some atheists) don't realize that this counter-argument isn't worth refuting, because the benefits of theism vs. atheism isn't really crucial to atheism. That is to say, theists try to argue that "things would be better" if theism were true, and thus atheists should become theists. Theists say, "A materialistic universe has no room for free will. Not having free will would suck, so you should become a theist so you'll have free will."

There are several flaws in this argument. The first is the assumption that since theists choose theism because they want it to be true, atheists must do the same thing. But atheism, for most atheists, isn't about what we would like to be true, but rather what we actually believe to be true. Therefore, if a theist somehow managed to convince me that a materialistic universe with no God is incompatible with free will, he or she will not have accomplished his or her goal of proving theism must be true. Rather, he or she will simply have convinced me that there is no free will and that, therefore, I can't really do anything about my atheism.

Theists make a similar argument, by the way, using the question of whether life has meaning. "If there is no God, life has no meaning, therefore there must be a God." Once again, the argument assumes that no God = life has no meaning, but I don't accept this assertion. Secondly, were a theist to prove to me that life has no meaning without God, he or she would not have proven that there is a God, but rather that life has no meaning.

To all theists out there: Trying to demonstrate a bad result from atheism is dumb and accomplishes nothing. Many things that suck are true. Whether something sucks or not has no affect on its truth. Arguments like these are no different than, "If gravity were true, you would die when you fall, therefore there must not be gravity." They make no sense. The reverse argument, that theism must be true because the results (the theist claims) would be better, is just as empty, basically boiling down to, "It would rule of Santa Claus were real. Therefore, he must be real." Wishing for something doesn't make it so.

In any case, I believe I have articulated my view on free will and its incompatibility with theism. Consider and discuss, then turn to Part 4 for an Exercise.


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