Free-Will or Determinism
Are we able to make moral choices? Should we be held accountable for these choices? The Bible says “yes” to both questions. Most atheists say “no.” How does this affect our understanding of moral evil?
What is moral evil? We said earlier it was the result of moral and ethical choices. But do we understand the difference between good and evil? Can we make moral and ethical choices? These questions are the key. Why?
If we do not understand good and evil, we cannot know whether our actions are good or bad. We are no more responsible for moral evil than an animal when it kills for food. However, if we understand good and evil and if we are able to make moral choices, we are moral agents. We understand morality. We can make moral choices. And we bear the responsibility for our choices.
The Difference Between Good and Evil
The previous post—“The Moral Face of Evil”—described our struggle in defining good and evil. If a person steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving children, is his action good or evil?
Some people call his action justified and good. His children were starving! Others say theft always is wrong. Stealing anything is evil. I do not intend to start a lengthy argument. But let me point this out: the fact that we argue about such examples proves that we comprehend the existence of good and evil. Is it wrong to steal? Most of us would say, “Yes.” Is it wrong to steal when my children are starving? The answer is not quite so clear.
So we do know the difference between good and evil. We just disagree on the specifics. This satisfies the first of the two requirements for being a moral agent. We understand the concept of good and evil. But do we have the ability to choose good or evil?
What Is Free-Will?
The ability to make moral choices is called free-will. Free-will means, first, that I know the difference between good and evil. But I also am free to choose between good and evil. I have the freedom to act upon my choices. But do we really have free will? Can we make free choices?
Many atheists and agnostics do not like the idea of free will. They think it is a way to let God off the hook, so to speak. If there is no free will, then every evil deed is God’s fault. Hitler, Stalin, and a host of other extremely nasty persons are not responsible for their actions. God is left holding the bag. According to ethicist Leslie Stephen in “An Agnostic’s Apology and Other Essays,”
The free-will hypothesis is the device by which theologians try to relieve God of the responsibility for the sufferings of His creation. . . . Man must be partly independent of God, or God would be at once pulling the wires and punishing the puppets. . . . the device [free –will] justifies God at the expense of making the universe a moral chaos.
Sam Harris, an atheist, agrees. He wrote in his book “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason,”
The problem of vindicating an omnipotent and omniscient God in the face of evil . . . is insurmountable. Those who claim to have surmounted it, by recourse to notions of free will and other incoherencies, have merely heaped bad philosophy onto bad ethics.
Harris does not explain why believing in free will is bad philosophy. But Harris is not a philosopher. He has a Ph.D. in neuroscience.
If atheists don’t like the idea of free-will, how do they explain our actions? Why are we unable to act on moral choices? Most atheists believe in something called determinism. That’s a fancy way of saying . . .
The Universe Made Me Do It
Atheists say we are only cogs in the machine of nature. This belief is the basis for determinism. The universe runs like a big machine. It obeys regular laws. These laws are predictable. Sir Isaac Newton showed these laws can be expressed using mathematical formulas.
Determinism takes the structure of the universe one step further. Because the universe is a big machine everything happens according to nature’s laws and rules. This is so precise, they say, that the outcome of all future events is already determined. There is no room for chance. Free-will cannot exist. We are locked into patterns by the mechanical nature of the universe.
According to determinism, tomorrow morning, when you wake up, you do not have the ability to make the decision to get out of bed. This has already been determined. You have no choice.
However, recent scientific developments damaged determinism. Science is the atheist’s “Bible”—their ultimate authority. But as science continues to advance, atheism is being left behind. Science no longer supports some of atheism’s beliefs.
For example, basic quantum mechanics includes an “uncertainty principle.” That is, there is a fundamental limit to our ability to measure the position and momentum of a quantum particle. In addition, quantum particles appear to move at random. Does this destroy determinism? No, but it certainly damages it. How can the future be rigidly pre-ordained if the fundamental particles of the universe move randomly? Scientists disagree on the answer.
But that’s only the beginning. Determinism even calls Darwinism into question. Chance and random change are basic elements in Darwinist belief. Determinism denies the possibility of random change. There is no opportunity for chance. Nature’s laws determine the outcome. According to determinism, I guess, there must be a Designer in nature.
In addition, nature obeys a law called “the Second Law of Thermodynamics.” This is a basic law of the universe. It states that, over time, the amount of energy in nature dissipates. That is, the energy spreads out or disperses. This causes matter to disintegrate. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a fancy, scientific way of saying, “Everything rots; everything decays; everything breaks down over time.”
If this is true (and it is), how can determinism function? How can nature maintain complex structures if its basic law directs the opposite? If determinism is true, the structures of nature will devolve into nothing.
Nature must possess a will if it is to overcome the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The existence of a will can direct the development and growth of nature. But a will is meaningless apart from choices and the ability to choose. How can there be an ability to choose unless there is a mind, an intelligence? How can there be growth and development apart from an intelligence?
Nature cannot overcome the Second Law of Thermodynamics by herself. She needs help from God. Atheists preach a rigid structure of determinism. But scientific progress is destroying their belief. Sorry, atheists, that’s just the way it is.
God Made Me Do It
Another atheist argument against free-will involves divine foreknowledge. “Since God is omniscient,” they argue, “He knows everything that will ever take place? Right?” They continue, “He knows, for example, that you will have corn flakes for breakfast tomorrow morning. Tomorrow morning, when you get up, you go to the kitchen cupboard and reach for the corn flakes. You think it’s your free-will choice but it’s not. God’s foreknowledge destroyed the possibility of any free-will choice.”
This argument is not new. Atheists have no new arguments. They say that if God has foreknowledge of future events, these events must take place. If the foreseen event does not take place, God is capable of making mistakes. But if the foreseen event must take place, we do not have free-will. Gottfried Leibnitz, a seventeenth-century philosopher, describes their argument like this:
They say that what is foreseen cannot fail to exist . . . supposing that God foresees it, it is necessary that it come to pass; that is, the consequence is necessary, namely, that it exist, since it has been foreseen; for God is infallible.
However, this example of foreknowledge is not consistent with examples of God’s foreknowledge in the Bible. Leibnitz explains,
. . . there are three objects of divine knowledge, the possibles, the actual events and the conditional events that would happen in consequence of a certain condition if it were translated into action.
How does this help explain divine foreknowledge? Well, atheists have this theory of infinite possible worlds. Actually, this is a theory of quantum mechanics. According to this theory, if an action has more than one possible outcome, when an action is taken, the universe splits. Anew universe comes into being for every possible outcome.
For example, when I get up for breakfast tomorrow morning, there is a possible universe where I eat corn flakes; there is another possible universe where I don’t eat any breakfast; there is a possible universe where I just have a glass of milk. This holds true for every action taken by every person every minute of every day. The result is an infinite number of possible worlds.
Three centuries earlier Leibnitz developed a similar possible worlds theory. Actually, it was a theory of infinite possible futures. According to Leibnitz,
The knowledge of possibilities is what is called the ‘knowledge of mere intelligence’; that of events occurring actually in the progress of the universe is called the ‘knowledge of intuition’. And as there is a kind of mean between the merely possible and the pure and absolute event, to wit, the conditional event, it can be said also . . . that there is a mediate knowledge between that of intuition and that of intelligence.
Leibnitz demonstrated this principle using an example from the Bible—from David and the town of Keilah. First, Leibnitz says God is able to see the possibles. Leibnitz calls this the “knowledge of mere intelligence.” God sees all possible futures. He sees the outcome of our choices.
For this result I resort to my principle of an infinitude of possible worlds, represented in the region of eternal verities, that is, in the object of the divine intelligence, where all conditional futurities must be comprised. . . . Thus we have a principle for the certain knowledge of contingent futurities, whether they happen actually or must happen in a certain case. For in the region of the possibles they are represented as they are, namely, as free contingencies.
Leibnitz continues. Because God foresees all possible futures, man is able to exercise free choice. Man’s choice was foreseen by God. But, since all possible futures were foreseen by God, man has free-will. Man’s choice was foreseen but not restricted by God.
Therefore neither the foreknowledge of contingent futurities nor the foundation for the certainty of this foreknowledge should cause us perplexity or seem to prejudice freedom. And though it were true and possible that contingent futurities consisting in free actions of reasonable creatures were entirely independent of the decrees of God and of external causes, there would still be means of foreseeing them; for God would see them as they are in the region of the possibles, before he decrees to admit them into existence.
Second, at times God does foresee actual events. We call this prophecy. Examples include prophecies of Jesus Christ such as Isaiah 53. Leibnitz calls these “knowledge of intuition.”
Finally, God is able to see the consequences of conditional events. In the example of the town of Keilah, David took refuge in this town when he was fleeing from King Saul. When Saul heard of this, he decided to go to Keilah. There he would capture David. David sought guidance from the Lord. According to I Samuel 23: 9-13,
Now David knew that Saul was plotting evil against him; so he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” Then David said, “O LORD God of Israel, Your servant has heard for certain that Saul is seeking to come to Keilah to destroy the city on my account. Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down just as Your servant has heard? O LORD God of Israel, I pray, tell Your servant.” And the LORD said, “He will come down.” Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the LORD said, “They will surrender you.” Then David and his men, about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go.
How could God know what might happen in the future? David asked a conditional question: “If Saul comes to Keilah, will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand?” God searched his knowledge of possible futures (possible worlds) and provided an answer. “Yes, Saul will come down and the men of Keilah will surrender you.”
God’s foreknowledge of this possible scenario did not strip David of free-will. Rather, it gave David knowledge regarding a possible future. When David heard God’s announcement, he exercised his own free-will. He left Keilah.
Understanding divine foreknowledge in this way is important. This explanation preserves our belief in God’s ability to know future events. But it does not deny the operation of our free-will.
God has foreknowledge of all possible futures. One of these possible futures will become our free-will choice. Once again, the atheist belief system does not hold together.
Some atheists believe in free-will. Free-will and the ability to choose is a cornerstone of existentialism. Most prominent existentialists were atheists (except Kierkegaard, who was a committed Christian).
Nietzsche, who was the pinnacle of existential atheism, wrote about something he called the “will to power.” What is “will to power?” It’s the desire to grab all the power you can. This is possible only with free-will. Nietzsche wrote in his book “The Will to Power,”
There is nothing to life that has value, except the degree of power-assuming that life itself is the will to power.
All meaning is will to power (all relative meaning resolves itself into it).
Atheists who accept free-will do not believe in good and evil. These atheists become sociopaths. They choose to do evil and they do it well. There seems to be no limit to their ability to destroy people and societies. Examples include Hitler and Stalin.
It seems some atheists believe in free-will; others do not. The atheists denying free-will are opposed by the laws of science. Atheists who accept free-will do not believe in good and evil. The evil they choose is without boundaries.
Either way, the atheist position is hard to support or maintain.
The Bible and Free-Will
The Bible supports free-will from beginning to end. The Fall of humanity came from a free-will choice. In Genesis 3, Adam was placed in the garden. He was permitted to eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden. Only one tree was forbidden—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree. It was their free will choice.
In the next chapter Cain, one of the sons of Adam and Eve, makes a free-will choice to kill his brother. God tells Cain that he is able to restrain his anger. Cain is able to choose to let Abel live. But Cain chooses the opposite. He makes the free-will choice to kill his brother Abel.
We saw David’s free-will exercised when he left the town of Keilah. Throughout the Old Testament, God warns the Israelites to turn from their idols. They choose to continue to worship idols. In John 1 the Bible says Jesus came to His own people. They chose to reject Him.
I could add hundreds of biblical examples. But the Bible is clear. Humanity has been given the gift of free-will. We are moral agents. We understand good and evil. We are able to choose good or evil. We also bear the consequences of our actions.
Determinism is dead. In the restructured words of Sam Harris, “Determinism merely heaps bad philosophy onto bad ethics.”
Divine foreknowledge includes a knowledge of all possible futures. At the moment of a decision I make a free-will choice. One of those possible futures becomes a present reality. God is Lord of all but He supports free-will.