Determinism: How Can Free Will Co-Exist with Divine Preordination?
Well, so much has been said and written on this question that all I can hope to do here is to offer a few preliminary thoughts, all of them quite well-known. Please feel free to skip this post if this is an old hat to you.
The first thing to realize is that this problem is not unique to Christianity, theism or even religion. It has been much discussed within a purely materialistic framework too. The official name for it is “determinism.”
Determinism is the idea that every event in the universe is the result of a prior cause that determined its outcome. Existence, then, functions like a giant clockwork. Theistic determinism posits God as the one who preordained everything, but one does not need to believe in God to be a determinist. Some of the earliest people in the Western tradition inclined toward determinism were the Greek atomists, who thought that every event in the world could ultimately be reduced to the mechanical interaction of atoms. This did not leave much room for free will, no matter if you were a god or a mortal.
It would be tempting to now delve into a historical overview of determinism. But I shall refrain and instead summarize the main options. Essentially, there are three of them. You can (1) reject the premise that all events in the universe are determined and therefore believe in free will (“indeterminism”), (2) accept the premise that all events in the universe are determined and therefore give up the notion of free will (“hard determinism”) or (3) work out how determinism and free will might be compatible (“soft determinism”).
There is also a fourth option, rejecting the premise that all events in the universe are determined and also rejecting the idea of free will, but I won’t get into that now.
Of the three options, I imagine that the third one (“soft determinism”) seems a bit baffling to some people. How can everything be determined and yet some things (namely our will) be free? The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer answered the question like this: “Man is free to do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.” In other words, we do have the power of choice, but we are not the creators of our choices. Nor do we exist in a vacuum, in which we can freely choose what motivates and drives us. Most of our motives and choices are set for us, and yet within that restricted framework we do have the power to choose between several options.
Both theists and atheists can be soft determinists, though I am inclined to think that the problem of determinism is greater for the atheist than for the theist. That is because the atheist has to explain how free agency (=human choice) can develop out of an otherwise completely mechanical universe. Don’t get me wrong. I would not say that it is impossible to explain this. Also, due the advent of quantum mechanics in the last century, the materialistic determinism of the universe has been loosened up a bit, since we now think the universe runs on probability rather than determinism.
Nonetheless, I think the theist has it easier in this respect. He, after all, believes that free agency—namely God—lies at the very foundation of the universe. If one accepts this premise of the ultimate Free Agent, it is not such a big jump to suppose that some creatures are allowed to participate to a degree in free agency as well. As long as you are not a Calvinist, it is perfectly possible to be a Christian and affirm that we are (partially) free agents in this world. In my opinion, God’s foreknowledge does not equal foreordainment, though some have suggested this.
In conclusion, I like what the great American psychologist William James said: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”
Anyone want to use their free will to object to the idea of free will?
Entry filed under: Christianity (general), Philosophy. Tags: Atheism, Calvinism, determinism, free will, God, mechanical universe, predestination, Schopenhauer, soft determinism, theism, William James.