Free will and transcendent morality challenged

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Hey look… I didn’t ask to exist… and I didn’t ask to deal with this life — which is just the consequence of my parents being intimate! So, how does that make me guilty? I didn’t make or choose my body, my mind, the world and what it contains… and how we are forced to adapt through reward and punishment. I don’t see myself as having free will. I didn’t choose to be born… and the options that confronted me once I get my feet under me, were not chosen by me. So how is that free will… and how is that deserving of being labeled a “sinner?”

Furthermore, I don’t see that God is necessary to have an objective moral standard. So-called “morality” is taught and enforced through the authorities humans have created like teachers, police officers, judges, etc. Humans realize what pain feels like, and they want those who inflict pain put in jail. So, how does God play into this? Morality is subjective. Look at how we destroy plant and animal to fuel our own survival! Plants and animals have no say in what we do to them. What I see is the animal food chain I see in us. All living species are selfish for their own survival because they fear pain and death. A higher morality has nothing to do with it.

Answer: Greetings, friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries — and thank you for submitting this deep question. The phrase “how does that make me guilty?” hangs in the air throughout your comments. So, I consider this to be your overarching question… although I see you approaching it two different ways.

First, you believe that humans do not have free will. Second, you believe that morality does not come from God. These ideas militate against the Christian worldview, of course… and my assumption is that you know this. The Bible shows people acting as free moral agents (Joshua 24:15; Acts 16:31), it teaches that morality is transcendent (Exodus 20:1-17; Romans 2:14-15) and the core of the gospel is that we are indeed sinners (Romans 3:23; 5:8). So, these are the “battle lines” as I see them.

Since these three challenges combined are tantamount to saying you don’t believe in God (… or not the God of the Bible at any rate), quoting Bible verses will not address your challenges. Instead, we will have to talk about philosophical ideas because you seem to be taking a physicalist’s stance when it comes to free will.

Physicalists (aka materialists, naturalists, etc.) aver that what we understand to be the volitional actions of human beings have nothing to do with free will. They are merely the result of neurons firing in our brains. I repudiate that idea and here’s why.

There is a difference between the physical brain, the states of the brain and the mind… yet physicalism insists that they are all the same. So, what gives me warrant to say they are not the same while many credentialed scientists say that they are? The Law of Identity — the first law of logical thought.

You see, there are things that are true of the mind that are not true of the physical brain or the states of the brain. So, according to the law of identity, they cannot be identical. But there’s more. Persons who assert that they are identical are guilty of a logical fallacy — equivocation. This occurs when they gloss over the definitive differences to bend the definition of the object to meet their ends… and that’s not happening on my watch.

The mind — or the will (if you will) — superintends the brain… although while we still have bodies their functions will feel inseparable… and why not. Our physical systems are responsible for 100% of our sensory input and output. But the brain and the mind are ontologically — that is definitively — discrete. And if that is true, then free will exists as a function of the mind… which Christians often call the soul… which Christians understand to be the essential self — the part which lives on after it is disembodied (or de-brained, if you will).

If you’re looking for an example of transcendental essence, just look at your own question. It is complex, nuanced, multileveled and outright philosophical… and mere physical systems cannot account for such thoughts. There is an “essential you” that has asked this question… and that essential you is not the physical you. The physical you just helped to communicate with me, and it will help you process my response.

What if this essential you decides to run out into traffic? Is there anything to stop you? No. You could just go and do that. But the thing that makes you choose not to is your will — your essential self. Do you think that a pile of chemicals is capable of making such moral decisions? I don’t see how they could… yet you make them all the time. Your behavior proves that you are greater than the sum of your parts. It also shows that you are not merely equal to them nor are you identical to them.

Now, you seem to place a lot of logical value on the fact that you did not ask to be born… yet here you are! But the fact that you did not cause your existence has no bearing on whether or not you are guilty of sin. Every entity has its own nature and no entity has ever been self-caused. Now, humans and angels have as part of their natures something that is unique in creation: a moral compass… and only beings who have one are capable of sin.

When it comes to beings, God is the exception. There is only one God, and he is transcendent. This means that he is beyond morality. This God is the only self-existent being, and it is this Self-Existent One who brought everything else into existence. He is the one who created the physical universe… but also the moral universe. So, just as he is himself transcendent, many aspects of his creation are too… like love, morality and justice.

Where do the animals fit in? Are they moral beings? No. Animals have a lower type of volition with no moral component. God gave humankind dominion over them (Genesis 1:26), and he has also made them part of our foodstuff (Genesis 9:3). But he has also embedded an analogy of his relationship to us in our relationship to the animals (Job 12:7-10)… so there is nothing untoward in how we treat them if we treat them as God treats us — with purpose according to our various natures.

Everything that exists was either caused by a transcendent creator or was caused by entities that were given a nature to also create — like your parents. They had a human nature which they passed along to you. There is no logical warrant to claim “innocence” for yourself just because you did not create yourself. An estimated 108 billion people have lived on the earth so far… so don’t feel picked on. They were all “stuck” being moral agents, too… and not one of them asked to be born!

Your existence is what some philosophers call a brute fact. But the fact that we can even postulate what our existence means shows that there is some explanation beyond simple Darwinism as to why we are this way. How about music, poetry or visual art? God made us to be lovers, explorers, thinkers, expressers and archivists. This is extraordinary… but this is not physical… nor is it coincidental.

Let's shift our focus away from free will and talk about morality now. You went on quite a bit about how morality exists… so we have no argument there. But you attribute its propagation to Darwinian pressures saying that, by and large, people do not want to suffer, so we learn to “behave” over time and conform to the common morality — a morality that has been taught and enforced all our lives and is, therefore, “of” us… not from above.

Even if that were true (and I believe that some of that is true) it does not account for the source of that morality. You are just reporting on its existence. To a Christian, this is evidence for God’s existence… not against it.

Here’s the thing: the moral landscape you described would be the same no matter where morality came from, so the fact that it exists and changes in certain ways over time is not proof for or against anyone (or anything) being the source. In fact, your observations do not focus on the sources at all… just the results.

By way of contrast, the Apostle Paul takes the same phenomena you described and reveals both the source and the reason for providing morality-based institutions: God put them there for our protection against evil.

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:1–7, NIV, emphases mine)

I said previously that I wasn’t going to give you Bible verses as my primary method in this discussion, but the above passage lays out the case for God being, not only the source of morality but the justification for all the accouterments of a society like the one you described — one with institutions like education, law enforcement and a court system. Now, these are expensive… yet we insist on having them. So, not only does their existence prove that a greater-than-the-individual moral umbrella exists, we fund them through our taxes… just as God told us to!

But just because morality and its related institutions are “common” and expected in society does not mean that their source is also common (or non-existent). Logically, that would be a category error. Since the source of morality is not equal to the institutions of morality, they are not identical… and nothing is self-caused. So, where did they come from? The only place they could come from — the Transcendent Creator.

I must admit, though, that I don’t see how our use of the planet’s resources (including its animals) argues against objective morality. As I said in the previous section, God made humankind stewards of the earth. The assumption here is that we would consume what we needed… not just for survival… but for flourishing!

God set up the biosphere with our use of its resources in view… and he knows our physical resources are limited. So, when the time is right, he’ll establish the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:1). The way we consume resources is part of God’s plan for the current age. It is not a moral emergency. It fits perfectly into the Christian worldview.

What’s your suggestion, then… that we stop consuming resources and exit the planet by dying out? Is self-destruction objective morality in your view?… because that would be strange. The way God set things up — where we consume resources and flourish —  is evidence of objective morality. Our participating in this system — with our farms, markets, police, teachers, etc. — is functional morality. In my opinion, this Creator-creature handshake is strong evidence for objective transcendent morality… and not the opposite, as you seem to suggest.

American philosopher, Dr. William Lane Craig (Reasonable Faith Ministries), is an expert on what is or is not transcendent. I recommend you listen to an expert from his Defenders teaching series at the link below.

In conclusion, if free will doesn’t exist, we’re all off the hook. No one is a sinner because sin requires volition. In like manner, if objective morality doesn’t exist, no one’s a sinner because everything is relative. But the world doesn’t work that way. People behave as if they are making decisions, and people behave as if there’s an objective right and wrong.

Now, some “elite thinkers” may argue that these are merely social constructs — or even illusions — but I’d go with my gut on this one. What seems to be true is true. You are responsible to God for your actions.

So, since the jeopardy is so great, would you consider visiting one more website? We have an article called An Alternative to Death. It takes you through some of the issues we’ve talked about today… but more naturally…  and while keeping one eye on your jeopardy. Visit the following link:

I appreciated the opportunity to think more about these issues. God bless you.

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