Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Inherent Value of Free Will

I am in the process of writing a more detailed evaluation of C.S. Lewis’ theodicy in The Problem of Pain and will post it on the website as soon as it is available. But I wanted to share one brief criticism I have of Lewis (and anyone who knows me knows that I have been highly influenced by Lewis in my own apologetic methods, so please do not take any criticisms I launch his way lightly). Lewis brilliantly combines elements of free will, natural law and soul-making theodicies in his book. However, one argument he raises is that God allows some pain to enter into our lives as a teaching tool. Basically, Lewis’ premise is that true happiness lies only in a relationship with God. Imperfect humans insist upon looking for happiness in earthly things, but these inevitably disappoint. Before we will ever find true happiness, we must completely surrender our will to God and turn it over to Him. This, however, is far from an easy process. At one point Lewis even compares it to a form of death, and it naturally involves pain. Because we have free will, we must be free to refuse to surrender our will to God. In fact, because our will is fallen, we will refuse to surrender it without God’s help. So God allows some pain in our lives so we will learn not to depend upon earthly things but instead to rely upon Him. Our free will is what permits us to make this choice. One way of viewing Lewis’ argument may be that God allows those earthly things to disappoint us.

I do not necessarily have a problem with this argument per se. My criticism is that Lewis overlooks an enormous gap in his theodicy and has left himself open to a pretty strong objection. Why should God permit us to have free will in the first place? Granted, we can only decide to surrender our will to God if we have free will. But if we did not have free will, humanity never could have chosen to fall either. If none of us had free will, we could not refuse to subject our will to God. We would have no will to surrender. Freedom, then, is a means to an end. It is a necessary means in order to achieve the end of surrender. But if surrender is not necessary, why have freedom?

Take the example of Adam and Eve. Lewis says we cannot surrender our wills to God because they are fallen. But before Adam and Eve’s sin their wills were not fallen. Yet God also granted them freedom. Adam chose what to name the animals. They both freely chose to eat the forbidden fruit. If freedom opened the door to rebellion, and it was not necessary in order for Adam and Eve to choose surrender (because their wills were not yet fallen), why give them freedom in the first place?

My point is simple: a free will theodicy cannot place the value of freedom solely in being a means to an end. Freedom must have inherent value in itself, regardless of whether it in turn is a means to achieve some other desirable end. If freedom is inherently valuable, then some degree of pain will be permissible in order to preserve that value. Lewis fails to acknowledge the inherent value in freedom and in doing so leaves himself open to the question of why God should have granted us freedom in the first place.


Igitur said...

Why do you believe that free will exists? Isn't it just an illusion? Not that I expect there to be a paucity of contradictory statements within the Bible, but there are some passages that clearly state that everything is controlled by God.

Do you believe that Adam and Eve actually existed? If so, what about the theory of evolution and its mountain of supporting evidence? If not, wouldn't you admit that original sin is imaginary?

Ten Minas Ministries said...


Thank you for your comments. You raise a number of very good questions. A full and truly adequate answer for each would require a lot of discussion and perhaps time to reflect and analyze what we have learned; not exactly compatible with this type of forum. But I will do my best to provide at least a general answer for each that points us in what I believe to be the correct direction.

You ask why I believe that free will exists. Forgive me for responding to a question with a question, but sometimes it is necessary. When you read my original post, did you believe that you honestly analyzed its arguments and found them to be lacking? Do you believe that if I am intellectually honest that your arguments should prevail upon my intellect such that I would concede your points? You see, the very act of challenging the proposition that we enjoy free will itself assumes that both the speaker and the listener enjoy the capacity to make free choices. You assume that you freely arrived at your conclusions and that I have the capacity to freely choose to accept your rebuttal.

There are certain assumptions that are simply necessary for us to function. One (as I pointed out in the post titled “Reason and the Supernatural”) is that our reasoning abilities have the capacity to point to objective truth. Implicit in this is that we have the ability to freely choose amongst proposed conclusions. Otherwise we have no reasoning abilities in the first place. So I believe that the existence of free will is a necessary assumption we must make before we can even begin to construct a logical argument.

Logic operates upon premises. Whenever we see an argument’s starting premise, we can always ask, “Why should I believe THAT to be true?” At this point the advocate may present us with a logical argument supporting his or her starting premise, but this new argument will inevitably have a starting premise of its own, leading the skeptic to re-ask the same question, followed by a new argument and a new question, ad infinitum.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Eventually, some starting premises must simply be assumed in order for us to conclude anything. Free will is one such assumption. Without first presupposing it, we cannot even begin to construct rationality.

You also raise the issue of Biblical passages that God is in control. Again, we would have to delve into this issue far deeper than this forum allows in order to really “do it justice,” but the short answer is simply that there is no logical incompatibility between humankind’s free choice and God’s sovereignty.

I will, of course, concede that at first glance there appears to be a problem between saying that we can freely choose our actions and yet God is in control. Can we choose what is contrary to God’s will? Can we, in essence, frustrate God’s plan through our free choices? However, this apparent incompatibility lies in a category mistake in which we assume that God belongs to the same category as humankind, whereas is reality there is a relevant category difference.

As in any argument, the first step is always to be sure we are operating on the same starting premise. What definition of “God” are we bringing to the table? A full and complete definition of “God” would have to take into account many factors, but only one is really important for our current purposes. God is infinite. What I mean by that is perhaps best illustrated by looking at humankind. We are, undeniably, finite creatures. Every aspect of us exhibits our limitations. We have a limited life span, limited physical abilities, limited reasoning abilities, etc. The point in saying that God is infinite is to say that he is not limited in these or any other areas.

If such a God exists, it logically follows that we should not be able to FULLY comprehend Him. Please note the qualifier “fully.” Imagine attempting to pour the contents of a 2 liter bottle into a 12 ounce can. Some of the liquid undeniably will fit, but far from all of it. Similarly, a finite mind will be able to comprehend as much of an infinite God as its capacity will allow. However, there will be many things which, while not logically contradictory, will strain our ability to fully picture. The preliminary point I am making here is simply that IF an infinite God exists, this is precisely what we should expect. It is not a “cop out.” In fact, if at any point I fully grasped all aspects of an allegedly infinite God, I would in the process have actually proven that such a God does NOT exist. The mere fact that I, a finite creature, fully understand Him would show that He cannot be infinite.

This point is merely a precursor to my main point. Einstein demonstrated that matter, space and time are all relative. In fact, time is a dimension to our universe in addition to the three dimensions we all take for granted. However, assuming Big Bang theory to be true (again, I am only attempting to demonstrate that the concepts of God’s sovereignty and our free will are logically consistent, which does not require me to show at this time that the Big Bang IS true, only that it is logically possible), then time began at the Big Bang. It is, as far as we can determine, a phenomenon confined to our universe much the same as space and matter.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

At a minimum, this opens up the possibility of a timeless existence outside of our universe. Such an existence does not mean that beings have lived through an infinite number of points in time past. In such an existence there is no such thing as “time past.” Similarly, there is no space or matter, so there is no such thing as different locations or bodies. When a being in that type of existence looks upon our universe, all times, places and things are equally present in what can best be described as an ever-present “now.”

I often give the example of a tapestry. Imagine a tapestry that depicts all events from the beginning of time through the end. God, as I propose Him to be, is looking down upon that tapestry in one ever present now. To Him what we did 20 years ago is equally as present as what we will do 20 years hence. He does not travel from one point in time to the next as we do. He may still be able to interact with that tapestry by pulling a thread here or cutting one there. But the important point is that while to us it would appear that these threads were manipulated at different points along the timeline, to God all the interaction was simultaneous.

When we discuss the use of OUR free will (keep in mind, this is what we are discussing, not God’s free will; although ours may be a reflection of His, it is still a finite version and therefore only a reflection), we are referring to a phenomenon that occurs within time. We, unlike God, exist in time. Therefore we make a choice at one point which is then followed by our actions at another. But to God the choice, action and result are simultaneous.

While the free choices of beings within linear time may certainly affect other creatures that exist within linear time, it makes no sense to claim that the choices of creatures within time could somehow frustrate a being for which the decision and its result are both equally apparent. We are free within the confines of our linear existence, but God is sovereign because He transcends that linear existence. What this type of existence must be like we, as finite creatures, can never fully comprehend. But we can understand enough to discern that it is logically possible and can bring the sovereignty of a being within that reality into logical conformity with the free will of those in our linear existence.

Finally, you ask if I believe Adam and Eve were real and if so, how I would respond to the mounting evidence for evolution or if not, would I concede that original sin is imaginary. When I was in grammar school, some of the boys on the playground loved to play a trick on some unsuspecting youth. They would walk up to him and say, “Can I ask you a yes or no question?” Once the boy said they could, the trap was sprung. “Does your mother know that you are stupid?” the boys would ask. Of course the poor victim was caught between a rock and a hard place. If he said, “Yes,” then he was stupid and his mother knew. If he said, “No,” then he was still stupid, only his mother was oblivious.

Of course, the game hinges on a false assumption. It poses the question as if there are only two possible answers while ignoring other possibilities. It is entirely possible that the boy is not stupid at all, but the question does not allow this option as an answer.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

I believe that your question similarly assumes that only two possibilities exist when in reality this is not the case. Basically, you argue that if I believe Adam and Eve were real people then evolution disproves my belief. Alternatively, if I do not believe them to be real, then original sin must be imaginary.

Of course, there are plenty of theories in theological thought that would claim Adam and Eve were real people yet still allowing for evolution to be true. Perhaps they were the first individuals instilled with souls. Perhaps they were the first evolved beings who could truly be called “human.” I will not rehash these theories here, but plenty of Christians firmly believe in evolutionary theory yet also accept the literal personhood of Adam and Eve.

There are equally many Christians who challenge the theory of evolution. If nothing else, I believe there are some very good arguments at least calling into question the depth of the evidence for the construction of new body structures through unguided, blind mutation. Even if this research is true, does it disprove macro-evolutionary theory? Far from it; and perhaps many evolutionary critics commit the same error as those they oppose in carrying their conclusions farther than the evidence permits. However, I believe these researchers have at least demonstrated that perhaps many evolutionary biologists are not truly approaching their subject of inquiry with the amount of skepticism the scientific method to which they claim such allegiance would truly require.

Take the other prong of your dilemma. If Adam and Eve were not literal persons, why conclude that this means original sin is imaginary? Again, like before, there are plenty of devoted Christians who believe the Adam and Eve story to be figurative, personifying the fall of mankind as a whole in these two individuals.

I believe that Christians devote far too much attention to the creation story. We can hardly act surprised at the skeptics’ assumption that the truth of Christianity somehow hinges on our interpretation of the creation story. After all, we have brought this criticism upon ourselves by the inordinate amount of attention we have given to it and how we have allowed it to divide our own ranks.

That being said, whether Adam and Eve were literal people or the personification of our race as a whole is irrelevant to me. The theological lesson taught by the story is that humankind fell from God, whether it began with two individuals or the masses. Either way, we are in need of redemption. That is the point of the creation story. To take it further is to invite bickering over collateral issues.

So in answer to your question I believe that evolution could be true along with the literal personhood of Adam and Eve. Alternatively, Adam and Eve could be personifications of the human race but original sin could still be a reality. Your question poses a false dilemma, forcing your listener into one of two options when more alternatives exist.

Thank you again.

Ken Coughlan