Did you have a free choice to read this?

doorsI love the program “The Big Questions”.

Hats off to the makers and to Nicky Campbell. They get a really good range of people on it and tackle questions that really matter. In this show (sorry if it’s no longer available) they ask if we have free will.

So do we? Well, what is free will? I would say it is being able to make choices that are not completely determined by past natural causes. If you think we are just biological machines then I would have thought that rules out free will. It is just an illusion. If, however, you believe we are more than that, then the door for free choice is left open. You could even argue the other way: given I know I have free will (the truth of that being so axiomatic and existential) I must be more than a machine. There must be a non-natural part of me.

If that seems too rash a step, try heaping up the implications of not having free will. If I think that my choices are not actually free, in that they are entirely constrained by natural causes and effects, then it leads to a number of conclusions that I know are simply not true. It would remove me from any moral responsibility. It would also undermine any confidence I have in my thinking process. Why bother agonising over a decision if it’s predetermined? I challenge you to make choices while simultaneously knowing that they are not real. The belief that we are not free is self-defeating in multiple ways.

Thinking more theologically, the Bible is another source of data I can use to answer the free will question. It seems at first to help, but then it gets more tricky. First, God asks us to make choices. He must do so with some kind of integrity, knowing that he is speaking to individuals that can make choices, and not robots – all be it complex biological robots, simply ticking and whirring along. Second, he calls us to account for the things we do. We do have moral responsibility for the things we do. Third, we are in his image, and God himself is not a robot whose thoughts are causally determined. For a start, there was a time when there was only God, hence no external cause and effect mechanism. Internally, I guess you could argue for some kind of predeterminism in God’s choices, but since God is spirit, we are outside of the realm of the natural world and the cause and effect mechanism we know. It makes more sense just to think about God as a being who makes free choices. In fact, you could say free choice is grounded in him.

Anyway, the next stage of complexity comes when we ask if God knows what our choices are going to be.  If he does, are we really free in the choices we make? Well, yes he does know what we are going to do, and yes we still make genuine choices. How can that be? Well, all I can do is build that into my understanding of God. He is a being that knows the future, including what I will choose, in such a way that does not undermine my choices.


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