Do we have free will? Does God have free will?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: I've been listening to the atheist professor, Dr. Robert Sapolsky, who teaches human behavior classes at Stanford University. In one of his lectures he talks about how free will is a myth… which of course made me question everything that I believe in! His argument is that consciousness is the result of atoms and neurons following the law of physics in our brains. In another study, they used the analogy of pool balls bouncing off the rails. Just as they have no free will, neither do our brain’s components.

I've read a lot about the illusion of choice as well. These authors are saying that we only feel like we have free will, and they talk a lot about subconscious processing — why we repeat the same actions over and over, why we like certain things, etc. They say that we are aware of what our brains are thinking, but we don't have the free will to alter it. They believe that decisions are made ahead of time, but that this is covered up in your thought process, making you believe that it was you doing it… but our consciousness is just an interpreter for our subconscious.

I’ve also been hearing this argument that God cannot have free will. If God must choose the path with the most good because of his nature, then he does not have the free will to do anything else. Also, aren't the names of all of those saved by the blood already in the book? This is all making me question a lot of my beliefs… and I need some help here.

Answer: Let me state a few general truths to get us started. For every Dr. Robert Sapolsky and Dr. Richard Dawkins you give me, I can give you several credentialed people in the same fields who disagree with them on free will. This is why I recommend listening to everybody… even the occasional crackpot. Just be aware that the university and the media have largely been lost to Christianity. So when you go poking around in their worlds, your searches will seem heavily weighted towards atheism. But here’s why I bring this up: every postulation is either true or it’s not… and it doesn’t matter who postulates it or who rebuts it… and it doesn’t matter how facile they are in their presentations. We are responsible to the data first… and what other people think of the data second.

You’re on the right path, though — doing research and doing your own thinking. Just be aware that when you are hearing new information from good communicators (people who do Ted Talks or who lecture very well) you will feel like abandoning everything you know and joining them. This is a natural part of absorbing new ideas. The trick is to let the new information marinate with all your other knowledge before you decide what (if anything) to set aside. This is why it’s important not to run off and join their circus immediately.

People who believe that we have no essential self — that we are only the functions of our brain chemicals — are called Materialists. If you search the Mainsail Ministries website for that word,  you will come up with twenty articles. Now, these are not all about materialism… but it does come up a lot when talking about related topics. My go-to guy in this area is Dr. J.P. Moreland — and he comes with my highest recommendation.

But Moreland is not a one-trick-pony. He is a credentialed and well-known philosopher whose specialty is to explore the brain/mind difference. It happens that he is a Christian, too… so he is in sympathy with us having an essential self which is not merely the brain playing tricks on us. But so are Dawkins and Sapolsky in sympathy with their atheistic views… so these worldview factors should cancel each other out. But what Moreland can do is show you how there is a “mind” that is not the “brain” … and I think this will help you more than anything at this time.

I reference the movie The Matrix a lot in my teaching. It’s a great example of an idea that’s “out there” in that it’s scary fun to think about — but it’s not one that should affect the way we live our lives. You see, it is indeed possible that we are not living life as we perceive it. We could indeed be having our brains stimulated so that we think we are living regular lives. But this is not a “properly basic assumption” to make about life.

We live our lives under many basic assumptions that we don’t have to prove before progressing with other business — like that gravity will work today. Gravity is critical to our lives, but we don’t spend a lot of resources discussing or planning for its failure. We assume that it will work, and that’s a properly basic assumption. So, here’s a little test for people who say that our self-awareness is a Matrix-like illusion rather than a mind and body working in real time. Do they live like they believe that is true? Hardly. I don’t see a bunch of people living in the despondency that that would cause.

I see people pursuing education and careers, starting families, insulating their houses, buying life insurance — stuff like that… yet they are willing to risk eternity based on a fringe idea — one that their lives show they don’t really believe in.

I don’t believe that Sapolsky is correct about free will, but he is congruent in saying that we have none. If it is true that the lives we live are only a function of our brain activity, then we are not at all volitional. Our behaviors are determined by those systems and nothing else. But I think that if this were true that society would have torn itself apart by now. We’d have no warrant for a criminal justice system… and brutality would rule.

With no morality per se, civility would be reduced to a list of laws and/or some majority behavior… but torturing babies would not be morally wrong; it would just be something that most people do not do. But how do we account for that visceral tug you felt when I mentioned the babies? Some say that’s an adaptation to foster group-cooperation; this could be interpreted to have an evolutionary advantage. But that would be a top-down control… which should cause the materialist to cringe. But a bottom-up control has no view of social benefit, so Darwinian evolution can’t cause this. So what does?

The Christian worldview is the best explanation for the morality that we find in every culture throughout the world. Generally speaking, people are moral… and they have no reason to be moral except that it is an intrinsic quality working itself out. Now, there is plenty of immorality in the world… that’s easy enough to prove! But the presence of evil does not mean that people are not intrinsically moral. In fact, it shows the opposite. Sin is people rebelling against the juggernaut of common morality. The human conscience is not a biological component, yet it testifies to those sins.

The idea that we have no essential self that controls our brain and body militates against the empirical. Everybody who has ever lived (estimated at 108 billion people) was or is self-aware… and there are only two ways to look at this: either we are actually self-aware, or our self-awareness is an illusion.

Can we determine which of these competing ideas is true? Not absolutely. But there are protocols for determining which is most likely to be true — so let’s borrow some scientific methodology and ask, which of these claims better explains reality: the materialist view, that there is only the biological self — and that our self-awareness is an illusion? Or the Christian view, that we are essentially beings — with or without our bodies — and that our essential-self cooperates with our biological self? I say the latter.

Let me give you some side-data here because the scientific world has divided… and those in the life sciences haven’t really responded to what’s been going on in the other sciences. It is now the consensus in the fields of physics, astrophysics and math that the cosmos is best explained as having had a beginning… and having been caused.

The standard model for cosmology (aka big bang cosmology) features an expanding and a cooling universe… and this bothered many scientists when it was first introduced. The previous consensus was that the universe existed in a steady state. Under this view, the stuff of the universe could itself be eternal… and no God would be needed! But the data did not cooperate. It soon became clear that the universe was not static, but expanding. So, when one winds the clock backward, the universe contracts until it arrives at a singularity… the presence of which has not been explained by science.

What the layman might not realize is that this caused a mad scramble among scientists, mathematicians and philosophers to find an escape hatch from the apparent “beginning” in the standard model. That’s where postulations like oscillating universes came from (the big bounce), or parallel universes — where, given an infinite number of parallel universes, our universe would necessarily exist as it does.

Now, I’m not making fun of these ideas. Highly speculative thinking is part of the process of discovery. But I would remind God’s critics that the existence of parallel universes is just as unprovable as any of our metaphysical assertions about God and that making postulations about possible worlds in the absence of testable material is philosophy, not science. But sometimes the science drives the philosophical statement.

After decades of taking new measurements and refining the standard model, it is now the scientific consensus that the universe had a transcendent cause. So, even atheist astrophysicists agree that a causal agent who transcends the universe, and who has sufficient power to do the job, caused the universe to exist. This, of course, is pretty much the Christian idea of God. They just won’t use the “G” word. But the debate has shifted from questioning if such a cause exists to is this cause a personal being… which is an amazing concession!

By way of comparison, people who work in the life sciences don’t have a 13.8 billion-year frame of reference. They are looking at relatively brief time periods in a relatively small field of play. But even they know that the earth has not been habitable for enough time for even rudimentary Darwinian evolution to occur. That’s why such a prominent scientist as Francis Crick subscribed to panspermia — the position that life was seeded from outer space. I’m sure that such an accomplished person as he realized that this just pushed the Creator problem back one planet, but you can see the box he put himself in by forcing the data through a philosophical position… and you don’t need a Nobel Prize to understand that this is a scientific no-no.

Let’s focus on the second part of your question, now: Can the free will of humankind be congruent with the omniscience and omnipotence of God? If God knows everything… and if God is powerful enough to work any results… how do we know that we are working our free wills? How do we know that we are not just corks in a stream?

To answer this, we must understand that Christians postulate an omniscient and omnipotent God. God knows everything… and time is not a restriction. As such, God knows the future now. But that’s not a strong enough picture of God’s omniscience. God not only knows the future, but he knows every possible future… because, if this were not true, then there would be some things that God doesn’t know… and we should all go home.

But the implications of God knowing every possible future are profound — especially when someone like me insists that humans have a libertarian free will. But God uses this particular kind of knowledge to protect our free will and to optimize the outcomes. This kind of knowledge is sometimes called middle-knowledge, and these processes in logic are called counterfactuals.

“If they forecast rain for the twentieth, I will cancel the picnic.” That’s a counterfactual statement. It’s an algorithm of what I will freely do given the information that will play out in real time in the future. This is how God treats us.

An omniscient God must — by definition — know every possible combination of future conditions and our responses to them. From a free will perspective, this is God watching us live all those future lives without his interference. But this is not just free will… this is every possible free will! God merely chooses which of those freely-lived futures to actualize… and none are perfect in the sense of being error-free on our part (or engineered for perfection on his part) … but one will best fit his kingdom’s needs. So, the others, he leaves unactualized.

Now, there are natural limits to this process. One of my possible futures is not that I will fly like Superman. But also, I had no control over whether I was born, where I was born, when I was born and to whom I was born. Those were assigned to me. We don’t really get to exercise free will meaningfully until we get into adulthood. But can you see how these limits can help God help us? God, who can play out every potential life through all potential cultures and at all potential times for me… might discover that I will only find him if I am born in America after World War II. I couldn’t cut it as a pagan, I couldn’t cut it under the Roman persecution, I couldn’t cut it in Kenya… but if I had access to a Big Mac! … that would push me right into the kingdom of God. Now, this is a silly example, but I believe that it is God’s process… and this process has important ramifications for eternity.

Concerning the condemned (all those who are terminally unrepentant), I believe that God ran their lives through every possible counterfactual — trying to bring them home. But he found that they never came to him under any circumstances. If we humans are not free to legitimately choose God, then we’d not be worth making. And since we have free will, God could maximize the opportunities for us to choose him… but he could not force anyone to do so.

But also, he couldn’t just back up in time and not create them. That would insult the person he created, and it would undo their free will. In this age, the rejection of God is proof of free will. God did not have the choice of proving himself a “God of love” by just using his super-powers to make sure everybody got home safely. The choice was to create or not to create… and the type of life we have is the only type worthy of creating.

Remember, there are plenty of things that our omnipotent God cannot do… because he cannot act outside of his nature. But this doesn’t mean that God himself doesn’t have free will. We have the same issue with his free will as we do with his omnipotence. Don’t let the world bully you into thinking that being Omni-anything includes participating in illogical activities. Just as God cannot do anything contrary to his nature, he cannot will to do them either. This is no paradox. Every entity acts according to its nature. God set the universe up that way so we could learn that about him.

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