One of the thorniest problems that the theist must face is how to understand the concept of human freedom in light of a sovereign God. By “sovereign” I mean a God who is maximally great and possesses such attributes as omnipotence (maximal power), omniscience (maximal knowledge), and omnibenevolence (maximal goodness). God’s omnscience, and his foreknowledge in particular, is the attribute that causes the most consternation for theists who want to preserve the notion of human freedom. If God already knows everything about our future, do we actually have any choice in the matter? Is every human action already determined by God, or are free human choices undetermined? There are three basic categories that philosophers and theologians fall into in regard to these questions:
Hard Determinism: This view essentially asserts that everything that happens is causally determined. The causes may be physical (such as in a materialistic, clockwork universe), due to God’s prescience, or a combination of the two. Under this view, human beings are not free in the libertarian since (they cannot act contrary to the causal chain).
Libertarian Free-Will: This view argues that the choices of human beings are not causally determined (at least not completely). Under this view, free choices are indeterminate, and a free human agent can act contrary to the causal chain.
- Soft Determinism (Compatibilism): As the name implies, this view seeks to mitigate the fatalistic impact of Hard Determinism and the indeterminate fuzziness of Libertarian Free-Will by arguing that Determinism and human free-will are compatible. To accomplish this, the Soft Determinist must redefine the meaning of a free choice. The Soft Determinist argues that “freedom” is merely the ability to choose what you desire (although your desires are themselves causally determined).
So what’s the problem? Why have intelligent individuals argued over these different theories for thousands of years? Well, let me conclude part one of this topic by listing some of the problems that each view holds for the theist.
Some theists hold to a clear Hard Determinism (usually in Calvinist or Reformed circles). The unsavory aspects of this view, however, revolve around the idea of fatalism. If everything that we will ever do has already been determined, do our choices have any real value? Are they worthy of praise or condemnation if we could not have done otherwise. Besides, a lot of people don’t consider themselves as organic automatons and actually find the very idea to be repugnant.
Other theists seek to have their Deterministic cake and freely eat it too by espousing Compatiblism (a large chunk of evangelical Christians fall into this group). However, this view suffers precisely the same problems as Hard Determinism. How’s that? Well, remember that the Compatibilist achieves compatibility by redefining free will. We do what we want, but our wants our determined. And if our wants are determined, did we really have a choice?
Then there are the theists who take the opposite route by completely denying Determinism in favor of Libertarian Free-Will (many Christians of an Arminian or Wesleyan bent espouse this view). While this idea seems attractive at first, it apparently produces some serious problems for a sovereign God. If God foresees that Bob is going to mow his lawn next Thursday, can Bob freely choose not to mow his lawn and thus change God’s mind? Do human choices trump God’s choices? If so, then God does not seem to be as great as he is supposed to be.
Now, before the contentious comments begin to arrive :), let me give a quick disclaimer. I am neither espousing nor condemning any of the above views in this post. I am only trying to point out the potential problems for each one. I also realize that this has been an incredibly simple presentation of a topic that is incredibly complex and that there are shades of gray between each of the major theories that I have presented. I am simply trying to set the stage for future posts on this subject.
In Part 2 of this topic, I would like to begin examining some of the more sophisticated attempts that have been made at producing a solution to the quandary of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will.
Until then, I would be very interested in hearing anyone else’s thoughts on these weighty matters.