Free Will, Determinism, and Culpability

As with all such documents, a revision history is included at the bottom.



Strange…a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness multiplied seventy times seven and invented Hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him!

— Mark Twain

Are we responsible for our own actions? Can society justifiably hold us responsible for our actions through a legal system? Can God be justified in holding us responsible for our own actions through divine reward and punishment?

Welcome, my dear readers, to the free will/determinism debate.


Culpability generally requires agency, the possibility of choosing an action over alternatives. Imagine that you were knocked unconscious by an assailant, who then placed a gun in your hand and used your finger to pull the trigger, shooting the gun and killing an innocent bystander. If these were the only relevant facts of the case, I doubt anyone would hold you culpable for the death, because regardless of your finger on the trigger, it was the assailant’s actions that caused the bystander’s death, not yours. Within a society’s legal system, responsibility for crimes typically require that the accused be (a) reasonably able to foresee the criminal outcome of the actions and (b) reasonably able to have acted in another manner that would have prevented the criminal outcome. There are, certainly, subtleties to these criteria. For example, being “reasonably able to foresee the criminal outcome” doesn’t mean you did foresee it, hence charges of criminal negligence. But most of these subtleties are not likely to play a significant role in this discussion, so I’ll leave culpability at the broad-brush-stroke version for now.


Determinism is the notion that a future outcome is determined by the past state of the universe. If you push over the first domino, then, assuming you have set the system up right, what follows is completely determined by that first push. I’ve already addressed issues of linear causality (the first philosophical point in this essay, so I won’t rehash that here. But even without linear causality, it is conceivable for the universe to be fully deterministic, where a prior state of the universe fully determines a future state. A situation this extreme is known as metaphysical determinism, and is assumed by many theists, including C.S. Lewis in his treatise, Miracles, to be the natural conclusion of pure naturalism. The same essay I just linked to addresses that claim, which the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics denies.

Even without metaphysical determinism, however, individual outcomes might be determined by prior states of the universe. If the dominoes are sufficiently lined up, we know what will happen even if there is some slop in their positioning. In those cases, for all practical purposes, the outcome is determined. I call this “pragmatic determinism.”

If, however, metaphysical determinism were correct, there is nothing in metaphysical determinism that says that we would be able to do the determining. Determined does not mean predictable. James Gleick’s book Chaos is an excellent exploration of this concept.

So what we have in the end is no necessary connection between determinism on a metaphysical level and determinism from a human perspective concerning a particular outcome; all four possible combinations are at least logically coherent, even if one or more don’t match the available data.

Free Will

Determinism is often contrasted with free will, which is the contention that the mind has the power to make choices that are not predetermined by a prior state of the universe. While it is true that determinism and free will do not together fully map out the range of logical possibilities (for example, quantum mechanical indeterminism does not necessarily imply any connection to mental choices), the point of discussing these two positions in this essay is to address issues of responsibility, where the two extremes are likely to be sufficient.

It seems clear that metaphysical determinism rules out metaphysical free will. If, to a subatomic level, everything in the universe were precisely determined by the prior states of the universe, then there is no true choice that is possible. Metaphysical determinism doesn’t eliminate the phenomenological appearance of choice, for if we are not privy to the full, detailed causal chain that determines the outcome of the choice, then it will feel like a choice. Putting that another way, the experience of weighing the options and selecting one of them is experienced as a choice, even if our upbringing, history, and other factors make no choice possible other than the one we end up with.

I call this feeling of being able to choose, “pragmatic free will.” For all practical purposes, we have free will, whether we actually do at a metaphysical level or not.

Society and the Justice System

A common claim made by people who have not thought deeply about these issues is that determinism means that we should not be held responsible for our actions. After all, if the outcomes of our perceived choices are nonetheless already determined, then, the argument goes, we cannot be said to be responsible for them? It’s like the assailant pulling the trigger using our finger.

From a societal perspective, however, this is not a tenable position in cases where determinism doesn’t equate to foreknowledge. Societies, and their legal systems, are in a Darwinian sense in competition with each other. More successful societal approaches tend to survive and propagate. This is true regardless of the determinism/free will debate. A society wherein people are not held responsible for their actions leads to an environment that favors selfish behavior, and selfish behavior, when propagated up to a societal level, is likely to be less successful, again in a Darwinian sense, than the alternative. Societies that say, “Everything is permitted because you’re just going to do what you are destined to do anyway,” will fall before the cooperative efforts of societies that make the reverse claim.

There can certainly be individual cases where the causal chain is well-enough understood to shift responsibility further back. Maybe I pulled the trigger, but someone else should be held responsible because that other person had a gun to my head, forcing my actions. This might be a reasonable shifting-of-responsibility in some cases. But in large measure, my contention is that from a societal standpoint, individual responsibility will be based on pragmatic free will, not metaphysical free will. Notice that I did not say that it “should be,” or even “must be,” but rather that it “will be.” Because societies that do assign individual responsibility in this way are the ones that survive.

So, in short, the experience of choosing directly leads to individual responsibility to society for the resulting choice, regardless of the underlying metaphysics.

God’s Judgment

The situation changes, however, from God’s perspective. If metaphysical determinism were correct, it seems to me clear that God’s judgment of and resulting reward or punishment for our behavior would be misplaced. From God’s perspective we have no choice at all in what we do. The only individual that could have made a choice turn out differently is God. So therefore, from God’s perspective, metaphysical determinism turns God into a puppet master, who rewards or punishes his puppets based on what he set them up to do. There is no fairness of any kind in such judgment.

This is, of course, why most religions include metaphysical free will as a fundamental doctrine, usually embodied in a soul or spirit that is outside of any possible naturalistic determinism, and can affect the natural world by influencing our actions. I have already discussed why I consider such supernaturalism to be an incoherent concept, so I won’t retread that ground at the moment.

Instead, let me grant the theist, for the sake of argument, nearly everything that is asked for. God exists. This God has several characteristics that are commonly associated with God, including complete knowledge of all events everywhere and everywhen (omniscience) and the role of creator of our universe including the ability to set up the universe in any logically-consistent manner he so chooses (omnipotent creation). Metaphysical free will for humans exists. Usually this set of points are reconciled by asserting that God exists outside of our timeline (though I still contend he must exist in some kind of timeline in order for him to be said to make decisions), allowing him to have perfect foreknowledge without determinism. Given that set of granted points (other possible points that might be asked for are, I believe, irrelevant), I contend that God’s judgment of and resulting reward or punishment for our behavior would still be misplaced.

Let’s go through the argument. God creates the universe, knowing at the point of creation how absolutely everything will turn out. God could have created any universe he wanted to, within the possible constraints of logical consistency, but he chose to create this one. And in this one someone sins and doesn’t repent. God could have created the universe differently where the sin didn’t happen, but he didn’t. Again, even without determinism, God is left holding the responsibility. Foreknowledge plus creation, while it doesn’t really equal metaphysical determinism, has the same effect as metaphysical determinism on any attempts to justify God’s judgment of his creation. Given this argument, such a God is unjust.

How can God get out of this logical bind? Something has to be assumed differently. Here are the choices that I can identify:

  1. God doesn’t have perfect foreknowledge.
  2. God didn’t have choice in how to create the universe.
  3. God doesn’t judge or reward/punish people.
  4. God is unjust.
  5. God doesn’t exist.

I don’t see any possible way out of the argument other than one or more of these choices.

Responses to Criticisms

Multiple readers have pointed out that the argument I am making in the last section is a variant on the “problem of evil.” While I disagree that the argument is the same, because the classic formulation of the problem has more to do with God allowing evil to exist than it does the appropriateness of God judging us to be culpable for that evil, I do agree that many discussions of the problem of evil do cover much the same ground that I have. One reader (thank you, Julia R.) pointed me to this article discussing in great detail many of the same issues I have discussed. I am actually surprised at the degree of agreement between the author of that article and my arguments above.

Based on his article, I have constructed the following flow chart of the argument.

Figure 1: Exploring the possibilities within the determinism/free will debate.

Figure 1: Exploring the possibilities within the determinism/free will debate.

The author of the article defines “libertarian free will” as the type of free will that is necessary to assign culpability. I have assigned the various outcomes of the questions I pose as either green (which are possibly consistent with the existence of libertarian free will) or red (which are not). What is striking to me is that there is really only one point of disagreement between the author of that article and me: the “yes” answer to question 3. I was expecting the biggest area of disagreement to be with the “yes” answer to question 6, but the author clearly states that such an answer to 6 leads to exactly the problem I outlined.

So what are we to make of the author’s alternate response to answering “yes” to question 3? As near as I can tell from that article, the reasoning is as follows:

  1. God does indeed hold people responsible for their actions.
  2. God must be justified in doing so.
  3. Therefore, the actions must indeed be ultimately the responsibility of the people directly performing them.
  4. Thus, people have libertarian free will, even though the only entity that could have altered the outcome of the decision is God.

This is logical poppycock. Libertarian free will is defined in a way that excludes situations described by the last half of step 4 (of the list, not the flow chart). What the author has done is argue through my flow chart to the point of eliminating all possible answers as acceptable except for the “yes” answer to question 3, and then before drawing the direct conclusion that follows, which is also not acceptable, he puts the argument on hold, and then makes an argument starting from the conclusion he wants to be true. He then works backwards to that same “yes” answer to question 3 so that he has now approached it from both sides. From one side, God determines the outcomes of decisions. From the other side, we have libertarian free will. The author then declares these contradictory conclusions to be reconciled. Argument by declaration that 1 = -1 is not convincing. The only real response is that there must be a mistake somewhere else in the development. But as we see from the flow chart, decisions about such mistakes usually lead to conclusions about the nature of God or the universe that are at odds with the common understanding of each. We could decide to throw out libertarian free will, or God’s omnipotence, or God’s perfect foreknowledge… any of these will resolve the contradiction. We could even dispense with the notion that God is just.

But whichever of these postulates is thrown out does severe damage to the traditional theistic views of God.  The only logically-consistent conclusion is that the traditional theistic God doesn’t exist. Some other God might, but not the God that is specified simultaneously by the postulates within this argument.

So which God is the real one? If any?

Revision History

  • September 9, 2014: Added the concluding section.


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    • (Edited at your request to change the “#6” to “#5”)

      Thanks for linking to your analysis. I will definitely take a look at that.

      I agree with you that the most common response to #4 is that we don’t have God’s perspective. But I don’t think there’s any meat to that argument. What my analysis demonstrates is that the traditional description of God has him holding us responsible for things that only he had any possibility to change, where “holding us responsible” includes rewards and/or punishments. Calling that “just” would take the language so far out of common usage that I could not assent to such a definition.


    • Interesting essay. It seems you and I are tackling very similar problems, but with very different methodological choices. You have a larger, richer set of premises, and consequently have a larger, richer set of possible objections. I agree that you have dealt with those objections quite well, and thus have more comprehensively laid out the arguments.

      My approach was different in that I tried to find a minimal set of premises that led to a contradiction. I don’t make the claim that God is perfectly holy, because I think a contradiction can be reached with a lesser assumption, that he is minimally just. I did not introduce a restriction against God adding evil to the world because it doesn’t affect the outcome of God holding us responsible for his decisions.

      I like your analysis for its breadth. I, on the other hand, wanted to boil the argument down to its bare essentials so that there would be fewer points of potential confusion or disagreement. I think both approaches are useful.


      • That’s a fair assessment, though I still think that #4 is vulnerable. If the preservation of free will holds a very high moral value then God allowing us to sin, despite his foreknowledge, could be the best outcome even if it seems unjust to us. As I see it this doesn’t alter the definition of ‘just’, it just says that we have an incomplete or misinformed perspective on how things should be. I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent there, but it does leave one feeling quite uneasy about God’s moral nature – especially after you’ve spent some time really thinking about it.

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  3. I believe that I have been created by God and given free will. Even though God knows what I will choose to do by His perfect foreknowledge, that does not mean that He “wills” me to do it. I still exercise free will in those choices and God permits those choices to be made. So, the responsibility for my decisions still lies with me.

    I think this article entitled Divine Providence by Hugh J. McCann, Professor at Texas A&M, Ph.D. Philosophy addresses several of these issues in an intelligent and meaningful way: I believe the entire article is worth reading, but sections 6 and 7 deal specifically with sin and responsibility in light of free will.

    The gist of the article is that God (having both free will and foreknowledge) creates a universe in which moral evil is allowed (as an option), for only through having that option (to sin) is it possible for us to develop our own moral identity, and make informed and responsible choices regarding all manner of things, most important of which is our choice to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. We must know what it is to be sinful in order to accept God’s grace and forgiveness. And this is “just” in the sense that God honors the choice of those who reject Him just as He honors the choice of those who accept Him.

    I hope that you will read the article and share your thoughts on it as time allows.


    • Ok, this reply turned out much longer than I expected. I apologize for the tl;dr.

      The main point of the article you linked to is to address the classical “Problem of Evil.” I am not arguing that problem. I am not claiming that the existence of evil is inconsistent with an omniscient, omnipotent creator. I’m not even claiming that it is inconsistent with such a creator that is also omnibenevolent. I am claiming that such a creator, in holding *us* responsible for that evil, is unjust.

      For example, “Perhaps there is some good or goods that are possible only in a world that contains or at least permits evil, and without which creation would be vastly inferior to what it is. If that were true, then an all-good and all-loving God would not shrink from creating a world that contained the evil necessary for that good or goods to be achieved.” Fine. I have no problem with that assertion at all. Instead, I counter that the problem in reasoning is with God holding parts of his creation to be responsible for the evil that he created within the world. While the people performing the evil actions are the proximate cause of that evil, they are not, from God’s perspective, culpable for it, because the only entity that, from God’s omniscient perspective, could have prevented that evil is God himself. An atheist meme that seems appropriate here says, “And the angel said to him, Stop hitting yourself! But he could not stop, for the angel was hitting him with his own hands.”

      Hmmm. I hadn’t really planned on doing a chronological response to the article you linked me to, but I am now tempted to do so. I have an essay partway done on Intelligent Design that I was planning to finish tonight to post as a new essay; however, since what I am really aiming at with this blog is dialog… an opportunity for me to learn from people who are engaging me… I think I’m going to spend my time working on a response to this essay instead. I do very much appreciate pointing me in the direction of the sections of the essay that most directly relate to the points I was trying to make; thank you for that. I think, however, I’m going to try to do a more thorough job of reading it, and respond as I go. I hope that will give you some insights into my thinking, and it is always useful for *me* to get my analysis down as I work through it. Normally I do that in my lab book, to it’s a bit disconcerting to do it in a public manner, but what the hey.

      All right, moving on down the article. I’m now in section 2, “The Free Will Defense.” I am thoroughly fascinated by a particular passage: “It may be possible, however, to minimize God’s involvement in the evil of the universe. That is the aim of what is perhaps the most prominent strategy employed in recent theodicy, which is based on the concept of free will, and its importance in the plan of creation.” What is startling to me is how openly the author acknowledges that the *motivation* for introducing free will is to address a previously-identified problem with biblical interpretations. The author does *not* claim that free will came directly from scriptural interpretation; nor does he claim that it necessarily follows from the previously-posited “omnis” (omniscience, omipotence, etc.), and thus that it is philosophically primary. Rather he states quite directly that free will is a strategy employed by biblical apologists (I have always found that term striking) to attempt to deal with a serious counterargument to theism. This does *not*, of course, mean that free will is incorrect. But this interpretation of the origins of the free will position seems to run counter to what I have experienced to be the common Christian understanding. To which I say (in my best Mr. Spock voice), “Fascinating.”

      The author then goes into a discussion of various types of evil. The top-level distinction is between “moral” evil and “natural” evil. Much of the point of this distinction is to address issues such as natural disasters, which from God’s perspective might be preventable, but which from the human perspective are not. I have no problem with this distinction. In fact, I have a hard time considering “natural evil” to be evil at all, because evil is a moral judgement. My argument concerns God holding people responsible for their actions, and moral evil is the only type that is relevant to that discussion. We could have a separate discussion about whether God is responsible for natural evil, and that is an interesting topic, but that goes beyond my current argument and so I am content, as is the author of this article, to leave natural evil aside for the time being.

      The further distinctions between types of moral evil (e.g., intrinsic vs. extrinsic) are, I believe, irrelevant to my argument. All that matters for my argument is that some people do in fact choose to perform evil acts. If I have misinterpreted something here, I welcome a correction; but for the time being, I will move forward granting that moral evil exists, at whatever level of severity or proximate responsibility is desired by whomever I am discussing this with.

      This seems to be the crux of the argument so far. “That all of sin and so much of suffering counts as moral evil is advantageous to free will theodicy, for according to the free will defense moral evil is not to be blamed upon God.” This is precisely where I claim that theism has missed an obvious left turn. Most discussions of this type that I have had in the past have, at this point in the argument, resulted in the theist waving “free will” like a flag that absolves God of responsibility for human actions. What is never explained, however, is how, from God’s perspective, it the outcome of the choice that led to evil could have ever come out any other way. The only individual that could change the outcome is God himself. God knows how I will act. God could have created me in a different way in which I would have chosen to act differently. But he didn’t. It doesn’t matter how much the phrase “free will” is thrown at this problem, it doesn’t stick. The perfect foreknowledge of God plus his ability to have created the universe any way he wished means that he, and only he, ultimately could have made my choices any different. This places the “blame,” as the author of the article puts it, squarely on God’s shoulders, and any judgement he passes on me is misplaced. I was literally unable to act in any way *except* in accordance with what he foresaw.

      The article’s author attempts to get out of this bind by defining “free will” in the “libertarian” sense. “We exercise libertarian freedom in forming or executing an intention only if our deciding or willing is not the product of deterministic causation — that is, provided there is not set of conditions independent of our exercise of will which, together with scientific law, makes it certain that we shall decide or will as we do.” But deterministic causation is irrelevant in the presence of precise foreknowledge! Again, the only entity in the universe that, from God’s perspective, could have changed the outcome is God. Even if it isn’t deterministic. Because God exists outside of our timeline and perceives all actions together, and because he has the power to choose how to create the universe WITH that perfect knowledge, our universe is *determined* in his eyes, even if the laws that govern it are not *deterministic*. And our universe is *determined* by him and him alone.

      Remember our philosophical starting point. I am *not* saying that God determines our choices, at least not as we are making them. I am not saying that we are destined to act in a certain way. I *am* saying that God determined our *universe*, and within that universe, he already knows how we will choose to act. By choosing the universe that he has chosen, he has by extension chosen our choices for us. *Because* he sees it all at once. In this scenerio, I cannot choose to act against what God has foreseen. From my perspective, I can choose, because I don’t know what God has seen. From God’s perspective, however, I have already chosen. In accordance with his choice of the universe we inhabit. In that description of the universe, how is it *fair* for me to be held responsible for my actions, given that the only individual that could have changed those actions is God? It isn’t.

      My argument is not about ontology or epistimology. It is about justice. It is about the inherent unfairness of God in holding us responsible for choices that only he could have changed, and rewarding or punishing us accordingly. This is not about the existance of God; that’s the so-called “problem of evil,” which is not what I am arguing. It is about the *character* that directly follows from the traditional theistic conception of God. If the God of Christianity exists… if he is omnipotent, omniscient, the creator of the universe, and judging of souls (at least based on the traditional understandings of those descriptions), then it necessarily follows that this God rewards or punishes us, his playthings, based on his choices, not ours.

      Ok, I’ve gotten sidetracked from responding to the article you pointed me to. I’m going to go back to it, but will try to be more restrained in my responses, because I suspect that my arguments have jumped ahead of the author’s.

      The author acknowledges the problem that I describe above, but doesn’t seem to apprehend the enormity of it. “Independent conditions — our motives and beliefs, for example — may incline us toward one or another intention or action. But they cannot guarantee it, because what we decide and what we strive to achieve is finally up to us. Were it not so, we could not be held accountable for our actions. We would be no more responsible than someone who acted out of a psychological compulsion such as kleptomaina or who was a victim of addiction, hypnosis or the like.” Notice how this argument is formulated! The fact that we are held accountable for our actions is *assumed*, and exactly the point that I have made is then used to explain a necessary component of the so-called “libertarian free will.” But that component is only necessary if we are to *justifiably* be held responsible for our actions. No recognition is offered that we have already reached a contradiction. This is what I meant by how “free will” is waved like a flag in the argument as though it explains something. Theists of the type of the author of this article argue from one direction until they are nearly at a contradiction, and then argue toward that contradiction from the other side, and when one step remains which necessarily is contradictory, a definition is introduced *because*it*must*be*so* in order to avoid a contradiction. This is sloppy philosophy, plain and simple.

      This argument is followed by another example of the same sloppy reasoning. “Indeed, the argument runs, it would be logically impossible for God to create creatures possessed of libertarian freedom, and at the same time have the operations of their will fall under his creative fiat.” Exactly. Which means that within a universe with such a God, libertarian free will is itself a logical contradiction. Claiming that it isn’t is like saying that God created a positive number that was simultaneously negative. The end of that particular paragraph is particularly telling. “… the theist concludes [one] is simply mistaken in thinking such a God could create free creatures with a guarantee that they would never sin.” But does God know at the point of creation who will sin and who will ask for forgiveness sufficient to warrant redemption? The traditional theist response is “yes.” Could God have created the universe in a way where different people sinned to different extents and different ones sufficiently asked for forgiveness, and would he have been able to predict *that* at the point of creation? Again, the traditional answer is “yes.” That is all that is required to place the blame for our sins in God’s hands rather than ours. Sure, maybe someone has to sin (maybe even everyone). Sure, maybe not everyone can successfully ask for forgiveness. But which people? That is in God’s hands, because he is the only one that could have chosen differently. Again, I am not arguing the problem of evil. I am arguing that God’s rewarding or punishing us is unjust.

      The next argument in the article is about God’s sovereignty, and his willful relinquishing of it to allow free will. This is a fascinating argument. It essentially says that God willfully blinds himself to the outcomes in choosing the starting conditions of the universe, basically saying, “Here is how I will start the universe, and to preserve the idea of free will I will deliberately not look at what the outcomes are going to be until I have started it… no take backs.” It might be that this saves the philosophy, but at the expense of the common understanding of “God.” This God may be omniscient, but in the interest of the greater good chooses to wall off some of that omniscience, and at the same time limit his omnipotence somewhat. I would call this God a “gamemaster” God. It reminds me of the original Star Trek Episode, The Gamemasters of Triskelion. If someone really wants to argue in favor of this interpretation, I would love to hear a coherent explanation, particularly made in front of the vast majority of adherents who believe otherwise.

      Ok, in to section 3. Wow, this is going to be long, isn’t it. But I am finding it useful, at least in honing my own thinking. Hopefully I will be able to pick up the pace a bit, though, so that this isn’t an interminable read for any patient souls that are still with me.

      In general, section 3 seems to be an acknowledgement of the problems I have raised. A God that exists within the timeline of creation, if there is libertarian free will, cannot have foreknowledge; a God that exists outside of the timeline of creation cannot be guided by his foreknowledge without sacrificing libertarian free will. I am in complete agreement.

      Section 4. Basically God has foreknowledge in a limited sense, but not in an absolute sense (termed “middle knowledge”). But the author concludes that this approach fails, so I don’t think I need to add anything to the analysis.

      Section 5. The first paragraph explores the implications of throwing true foreknowledge out the window. He may have foreknowledge in a probabilistic sense, but not in detail. God, therefore, takes risks with his creation, not knowing how it is going to turn out. As the author points out in the following paragraph, this throws away the possibility of prophesy, which (unfortunately for a theistic philosopher that goes this route) is found in scripture repeatedly. Further, it places our individual outcomes out of God’s control, and that seems to run counter to the traditional vision of God. Basically, this leaves God as a tinkerer trying to continually nudge creation toward his desired outcomes. The author seems to reject this approach.

      Section 6. “If the views considered thus far all fail,” which I contend they do, and the author of the article seems to agree, “theists have no choice but to place the decisions and willings of rational creatures under God’s creative authority. Only by so doing is it possible to restore to him complete control over the course of events in the world, and only in this way can he know as creator what world he is creating, and so be omniscient.” Wow… really… he’s making my argument for me. “If all of our decisions and actions occur by God’s creative decree, then all possible worlds are made feasible for him. He can create as he wishes, with full assurance as to the outcome. And he can know how things will go, in particular how we will decide and act, simply by knowing his own intentions as to what our decisions and actions will be. Clearly, there are respects in which this approach is to be preferred.” And here is my point very well stated: “One can readily anticipate the response that if complete sovereignty for God and libertarian freedom for his creatures cannot both be had, then the devout… philosopher would be well served to endorse the former, that anything less is not just out of keeping with the mainstream of theological tradition, but actually borders on blasphemy.”

      So before we keep going, let’s sum up. The author seems by this point in the argument to agree with me, that free will and the combination of divine omniscience, omnipotence, and creation (called by the author, divine sovereignty) results in a contradiction. What the author has done by this point is summarize and interpret theodicy up through Thomas Aquinas. And he doesn’t seem to have done a bad job of it. I find it striking that issues as fundamental as whether we have free will or not, how sovereign God is, and whether we or God are ultimately responsible for our actions in a moral sense had no convincing argument leading to consensus for the first 1200 years of the Church’s existence. I think that should tell us something about whether the philosophy inherently makes sense, or whether it requires a constructed apology (hence the term apologist) to shoehorn it into rationality. Regardless, let’s see how well Aquinas does.

      The route Aquinas seems to take (at least in the author’s interpretation of Aquinas) is to suggest that the seeming contradiction can be resolved by recognizing that God can cause people to change their minds. Hmmm. I’ve read this section about three times, and yes, that’s what I’m pretty sure the author is saying. By recognizing that God can change our minds for us, we are somehow allowed to reconcile libertarian free will with God’s sovereignty. The analogy the author uses is the author of a novel who, “does not enter into the story herself, nor does she act upon the characters in such a way as to force them to do the things they do. Rather, she creates them in their doings, so that they are able to behave freely in the world of the novel.”

      So let me see if I’ve got this straight. God creating us on the fly, including our decisions, somehow means that we are indeed acting freely. Wow. That’s just… I mean… there are no words for how insane that is. Particularly coupled with the idea that God rewards or punishes us based on our decisions, which not only did he set up in the first place, but when they ran counter to what he wanted (how did that even happen if he was as sovereign as Aquinas wants to make him?) he stepped in and changed us so that we would choose differently?

      Even assuming that’s what Aquinas actually meant, it took 1200 years for philosophy to come up with *that*?

      No. Just no. None of this handwaving gets around the fundamental problem that every outcome was determined by the choices of God, either in choosing to set up the universe the way he did, or in, apparently, stepping in to modify our decisions as we go. In this scenario, we *still* have no ability to alter the outcome. If we think we do, then either God foresaw it and chose the universe in which we would make that choice, or he stepped in and made us choose the way he wanted. It’s like… it’s like… man, what kind of analogy illustrates how bad this philosophy is? Ok, my earlier one… we need a negative number in order to have free will. But all the reasoning we can muster gives us a positive number (i.e., actions decided by someone else). So to solve the problem we *add*a*positive*number*? We take God determining the universe and then make him determine EVEN MORE, and that step gives us back free will?

      Does this guy have tenure?

      Ok. I’ll try make it through the rest of this. I really do appreciate that the author of this article has laid out as many objections to the accepted views as he has. That is quite intellectually honest of him, and he has done a good job, for the most part, of explaining the issues. But I am honestly baffled at how anyone can get to this point in the argument and not see very clearly that the argument is a conclusion in search of a route to reach it.

      All right, section 7. The author at least recognizes that he has argued himself into a corner. “God is as much the cause of our sinful actions as of our virtuous ones, or of any other event.” He seems to argue that in spite of this, the decision is still ours, and thus the responsibility is still ours. “… it is still I who act, still I who decide. God’s willing that I decide as I do does not make my decision God’s.”

      What? Uhm… yes it does. Without his willing it, you would have decided otherwise. With his willing it, you decided in accordance with his wishes. That means that *you*had*no*influence*on*the*decision*. It absolutely means that the decision was God’s.

      The next part of the article discusses the consequences of where the responsibility lies on the relationship a person has with God. It is argued at length that a removal of our libertarian free will would make us puppets of God rather than people who can enter into a meaningful relationship with God. None of that discussion changes the fundamental arguments we have heard to this point, so I have to conclude that the common conception of a sovereign God means that we are his puppets. Arguing, as the author does, about the negative consequences of this doesn’t in any way affect the argument. We can’t change logic because we don’t like the answer.

      The author sums up quite well. “… freedom is indeed crucial to moral evil…. As creator, [God] is fully involved in those acts in which we sin, for they can occur only through his will.” Unfortunately, the author goes off the rails with, “But he incurs no blame for them, for they are our acts, not his….” This. Simply. Does. Not. Follow. Saying that they are our acts after explaining carefully that they occur only through his will is self-contradictory.

      The rest of section 7 contains some ideas that I certainly could respond to, but I don’t think my responses would be particularly surprising at this point. With one exception… I found the brief mention of God’s “authority as first cause” interesting. I’ve already addressed the argument from first cause in a separate essay, but that’s not really the issue here. The issue is the notion that being the first cause confers authority. What that says about the character of God is troubling, particularly if that authority has to be asserted in this fashion.

      Home stretch. Section 8. This section is a reasonable one to address at if I were arguing the problem of evil. I am not. Same thing for section 9. And actually section 10.

      So, what are we left with after this long, but interesting (at least to me) slog? It seems to me that the author of this article agrees with me on nearly every point, except at one step where he refuses to acknowledge that the fact that the outcomes of decisions being wholly in the hands of God leads to God’s culpability rather than ours. The baffling thing is that this may be the most obvious step, being almost definitional. Put a person in the engine of a train; have his boss tell them him to hit the brakes to avoid running over innocent people. The person hits the brakes, and in the process the train derails and passengers die. Who is responsible for the deaths, the person who hit the brakes or the person who gave the instructions? Now change the scenario such that the person in the engine cannot choose to ignore the boss’s instructions. In no conceivable way is the person in the engine responsible for the result, and any attempt to punish them would be ludicrous.

      Given a standard interpretation of a sovereign God, heaven and hell make as little sense, and are the marks of a petty tyrant.


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  5. I like the flow chart that you added. It helped to confirm for me the point that I want to address, but first I would like to address some of the statements you made in your response to the article you critiqued.

    You state, “By choosing the universe that He has chosen, He has by extension chosen our choices for us.” I disagree. What God foresees is not necessarily what He wills. Willing something is not the same thing as allowing something. I will for my son to make good choices and can even offer guidance and multiple opportunities for him to make the types of choices I desire (will) him to make. There are times when I can even force him to make those choices, but I want him to learn to make those types of choices of his own free will. Therefore, from time to time, I allow my son to make a choice that I can certainly foresee will have a less than desirable outcome. In these instances, I have not willed my son to make a bad decision, but I have allowed it. Could I have stepped in to prevent such a choice from being made and therefore provided a different outcome? Certainly. Since I didn’t, does it mean that I am the one responsible for my child’s decision and its consequences? Does it mean that I willed my child to make a bad decision? No. So, I have allowed my child to make his own choice, and it is he who will pay the consequences. Does that make me unjust?

    God did not create evil but the universe that He created is capable of allowing evil to exist. Since He did not create evil and does not Himself choose evil then He cannot and should not be held responsible for the evil that exists in the world and/or the evil choices we make throughout our lives. You assert that only God Himself could have prevented evil, but I don’t believe that to be true either. God created a good world and gave mankind the ongoing choice to choose good or to choose evil. In this sense, mankind, if continuously choosing good, could have prevented evil.

    You state, “The perfect foreknowledge of God plus his ability to have created the universe any way he wished means that he, and only he, ultimately could have made my choices any different…I was literally unable to act in any way *except* in accordance with what he foresaw.” I disagree. God is not making our choices for us, and although He know what choices we will make, that does not take away from us our ability to choose differently. It’s like watching a football game that was recorded earlier. Once you’ve seen it play out, you know that the quarterback is going to make a bad decision and throw the ball to a receiver who is covered up, and the ball is going to be intercepted. Another receiver was clearly wide open and you know the better decision would have been to throw to that receiver instead. No matter how many times you watch it, it is not going to play out any differently, but that does not mean that the quarterback did not have a choice in who to throw the ball to at the time that it happened.

    Now, to address the point in your original essay and the one that you also present in your flow chart of “God didn’t have choice in how to create the universe.” Upon first reading, I think, “Of course God had a choice in how to create the universe!” And then I reread your essay, specifically your section on God’s Judgment where you grant the theist God’s ability “to set up the universe in any logically-consistent manner he so chooses.” Thank you. With that, I agree. And that is where I would argue that perhaps God could not have created just any type of universe. As you yourself have asserted, God’s omnipotence does not mean that He can create something that is logically impossible. And perhaps it is logically impossible for people with free will to exist without those people also choosing evil. So, your statement that “God didn’t have choice in how to create the universe” could be true to the degree that He did not logically have the choice to grant free will without also allowing for the possibility of evil. And since God is holy, without evil and without sin, then His laws against evil and punishment for evil must be in place. God would be unjust if He did not, in fact, enforce those laws and consequences.


    • I’m glad you like the flow chart! As always, thanks for your input!

      It seems to me that you are arguing about question 6 on the flowchart; am I correct in interpreting what you wrote that way? I am going to continue in my response assuming that I have correctly interpreted your comments on at least that point, but will happily backtrack if I have misinterpreted you, so please let me know.

      I find it interesting that you are arguing that point given that you originally directed me to the article that you did, because it seems that you are in significant disagreement with Prof. McCann, its author. McCann, in my reading of his arguments, convincingly deduces that all of the arguments presented up to and including section 5 fail, and thus, “… theists have no choice but to place the decisions and willings of rational creatures under God’s creative authority,” as I quoted before.

      Let’s look at that from the perspective of the analogies you used… first that of a parent choosing to not step in to stop a child from making a poor choice. In that analogy, you are explaining why an interventionist parent/God who chooses to not intervene does not remove the responsibility of the child/person. If this proposed interventionism (or the withholding of it) were the issue in question, I would agree with you. But it isn’t. If the parent, instead, knew from the moment of conception every choice the child will make over his/her entire life, and if the parent had the choice to not just intervene at specific points, but to choose among all of the possible children’s lives that are possible, the analogy would be closer. Add to that the parent then judging the outcome of the child’s life and providing eternal reward or punishment, and the analogy is better still.

      Think very carefully about that scenario. From the perspective of the *child* each choice is that of the *child*. This is precisely what I described as “pragmatic free will.” From the perspective of the parent, however, the child couldn’t have chosen anything any differently, because the parent knew beforehand the outcome of all of the child’s choices, and indeed the parent is the one that chose *this* child over all of the other possible children. From the *parent’s* perspective, the only individual that could have changed the outcome of the child’s life as a whole is the *parent*. This is what McCann is clearly saying when he states that, “… the decisions and willings of rational creatures [are] under God’s creative authority.” God’s creative authority *limits* the range of possible choices that any of us will make… in fact it limits that range so far that there is only a single choice in each situation. From God’s perspective, we cannot have chosen otherwise.

      Let me introduce an analogy of my own. Let’s suppose that I know that the venom of a black mamba is highly poisonous to humans. I also know that reptiles are generally quite attracted to warmth and that mammals (such as humans) are warm-blooded. I know that both mammals and reptiles, when startled, are likely to lash out. Therefore I have reasonable foreknowledge that if I release a black mamba into a cold bedroom where a person is sleeping, the outcome is very likely to be that the snake will crawl up next to the human, the human will wake and lash out, the snake will respond in kind, and the person will die. It would be ludicrous for me to try to dodge the blame for murder in such a situation by claiming the snake had “free will.” I created the situation; I could have created any number of other situations instead (using a nonpoisonous corn snake, or even no snake at all); I had only modest foreknowledge. I am completely to blame. The big differences between my analogy and the God argument are, (a) God’s foreknowledge is much more sure than mine, and (b) God has an even wider range of creative possibilities available to him.

      Your second paragraph in your most recent response asserts that God did not create evil. This also is at odds with McCann’s article. “… the implications of libertarian agency are such that its purpose in God’s plan could not be achieved without the occurrence of sin…. As creator, he is fully involved in those acts in which we sin, for they can occur only through his will.” McCann goes on to explain why, in his view, this direct involvement in sin doesn’t lead to God’s responsibility *for* that sin, but McCann’s argument on this point relies on his different interpretation of question 3 on my flowchart… he has already agreed with my interpretation of question 6. McCann is saying that the answer to question 3 is, “yes,” and, if I am interpreting your argument correctly, you are saying it is, “no.” I have already given my response to McCann’s differing interpretation of the “yes” answer to that question, and since you didn’t challenge that part of my response, I won’t beat that point into the ground.

      Basically, McCann and I seem to agree that a God of the Christian type necessarily created evil, because evil clearly exists and God is the author of all things. Neither he nor I have a particular problem with that, because of *course* it may be that some evil is necessary in order to maximize the overall good. This is why I have said several times that I am not arguing the traditional “problem of evil” route. It seems to me, however, that you disagree with both McCann and me on this point. Am I interpreting you correctly here?

      Ok, next in your reply you use another analogy, that of a recorded football game. Here again you are modeling part of the situation but leaving out the other important parts. In the parent/child analogy you modeled intervention and limited foreknowledge, but left out perfect foreknowledge and creative control. In the football recording analogy you are modeling perfect foreknowledge but are leaving out creative control. God, to run with your analogy, sees in its entirety not only the single football game that was recorded, but every possible football game that could have been played. And he chose this one. Sure, the quarterback feels as though he is making choices, but God really made them by choosing which football game is the one that was recorded.

      And then he punishes or rewards the quarterback.

      Ok, on to your last paragraph. You state, “And perhaps it is logically impossible for people with free will to exist without those people also choosing evil.” Sure, that is reasonable. That is why I am not arguing the traditional “problem of evil.” But the traditional vision of a Christian God is that he ends up rewarding some people and not others based on whether they met some criteria (depending on the sect, it could be works or acceptance of Jesus Christ or even something else), and, at least in some sects, he punishes others. Do you believe that it is logically impossible for God to have created a world in which a different set of people met those criteria? If your answer is yes, then the limitations you have imposed on God go far beyond what you suggested in your last paragraph. If your answer is no, then God is responsible for which universe he created. And a consequence of that is that those within that universe *could*not*have*changed* the outcomes of the decisions that God foresaw when he chose to create that universe.


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