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Free Will Revisited February 21, 2008

Posted by Tim in Religion, Thoughts.
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Recently I was participating in a discussion which touched on “Christians and the State”. I was disappointed at the direction it went because it ended up being the typical assertions of “God is in control” that has been regurgitated many times – we didn’t manage to discuss the practical issues that concern all of us today.

I took issue with one point in particular: the pastor wrote on the board that governments were “appointed by God”. I pointed out that if I were to vote for the opposition, knowing full well that the current ruling party would return to power anyway, then that’s saying I’m going against what God wants. To which the other side backtracked and said that God grants us free will to choose, but will use whatever government that is in place to carry out his plans. The pastor also added that we should pray that we choose according to God’s will.

The root issue here is free will. In fact, the pastor adhered nearly exactly to an earlier post that I made, the Superlative God.

First you have an argument along the lines of Calvinism: God appoints the government. This would, of course, be very attractive if you are in government yourself.

Next you have the Arminian-influenced belief: God has granted you the “free will” to choose, but we should all try to choose our candidate according to His will.

The last alternative is in the fashion of Open Theism: People do indeed freely elect their own governments, based on the qualities they want in the candidate or party.

Many, if not all denominations will say they believe in “free will”, but I’ve realized that most of the time it starts and stops with the Garden of Eden. Just far enough to blame Eve for the apple.

The rest of the time what most people do is “pray” that they will “follow God’s will” – often I wonder if they really mean what they say. I have never, for example, seen a patient just diagnosed with cancer immediately ask whether it is God’s will for them to be cured or to seek treatment; but (if) the patient passes on everyone says it was God’s will and part of God’s plan. On an exam graded according to a bell curve ( where a fixed percentage of students will get a certain grade ), you won’t find any students – or their parents – thinking that it’s God’s will for them to NOT be at the top.

The most cynical interpretation of this phenomenon is that people use God’s mandate for their actions. Mike Huckabee, for example, claimed divine intervention when his poll numbers unexpectedly improved. And of course we have Rafidah Aziz – Malaysians saw a weak PM not daring to fire her, while she claimed a mandate from God.

A more empathic way to see this, which is probably closest to the truth, is that humans will usually only leave it “up to God’s will” when they are unable to help themselves or have no other recourse. The more devout will seek God’s will to override their own, the egoistical claim that whatever they do is by God’s will.

Here the questions arise: how sacred is free will to God, and how important is it to you? There are plenty of instances in the Bible, for example, where God manipulates man’s will, the most famous being the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart [Exodus 7:1-3], followed by horrific plagues upon Egypt because of his refusal(?) to let the Israelites go.

How important is free will to you? I can already imagine some looking up a rebuttal to the verse I quoted; it might save you time if I gave you the typical answer: “Pharaohs heart was already hardened, God merely completed the process”. To which I would reply: how receptive would you be if your neighbour came up to you and demanded that you release your Indonesian maid? More to the point, what decision would Pharaoh have made if God hadn’t hardened his heart? If Pharaoh would have decided to let the Hebrew slaves go anyway, why did God harden his heart and kill the firstborn of all Egypt?

The Free Will Defense, a term coined by Alvin Plantinga, is a popular argument that tries to explain the problem of evil. The problem of evil has its roots in the very first chapters of the Bible: Why did God place the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, and allow Eve to eat it? The proponent of FWD argues that humans must have the free will to choose God of their own accord. Here free will becomes a sacred thing.

But the question now is this: what is the “free” in “free will”? The mere ability to choose has no meaning, just like randomly crossing boxes on a ballot wastes your right to vote. Some people misuse the FWD by saying that “God cannot reveal himself to us because it violates our free will; we would have no choice but to believe”. But free will is only meaningful when you acquire or are provided enough knowledge to weigh the pros and cons and make an informed decision – something that comes across as ironic, since Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from the Tree that would provide them this very ability.

I would like to take time here to discuss whether God himself has free will – if God knows the future, he knows what decisions he is going to make. Even if you bring forward the argument that God is outside time, basic principles of logic dictate that you need to be capable of logical sequences (if A, then B ) – but it’s getting late, my brain hurts, and wills me to stop :).

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