In the discussion on my last post GD took the discussion into the area of human freedom (which, as usual in discussing origins questions, I had avoided because of the TE tendency to conflate free-will with free-nature, whatever they mean by that). But having raised it maybe looking at some aspects of free-will itself may be of value to some.
The discussion between penman, GD and myself suffers the disadvantage that we all agree, I think, on a classical theological concept of human freedom as being within, and subsumed by, God’s overarching sovereign purpose. But that’s not the commonest view nowadays. So I want to set up some questions and scenarios arising from what I take to be the more prevalent way of seeing things.
At the heart of the quasi-Arminian view of free will most commonly met nowadays, certainly in popular evangelicalism, is the concept of autonomy. The starting point is often the axiom that I must be free to choose what wouldn’t have otherwise happened, or I’m no better than a robot. It follows from that that my decision cannot have been in any way determined or even unduly influenced by nature, and still less by God. Indeed, even God’s infallible foreseeing of it presents a problem to many, which largely explains the rise of Open Theism in which the future is undecided and/or God doesn’t know it.
Given that autonomy, then, for most the idea of God’s directly “interfering” (note that word, familiar from the origins debate – there is parallel thinking going on!) with my will, say to turn it away from some evil act directly, is a no-no. I would then be a robot. For some, even God’s knowing what I plan to do is an infringement of liberty, for I wouldn’t be able to change it to something else.
But supposing that God does know our free decisions, yet would be morally prevented, or incapable, of changing them, as I have outlined? Could he not prevent the evil by, say, striking us down physically with a thunderbolt? Morally, on this model, that’s just as coercive – you can decide what you like, but the thought police will prevent its coming to fruition by night arrests and execution. That, they say, is a practical denial of free will. Note the widespread abhorrence of the acts of judgement recorded in the Bible nowadays: part of that disbelief might be due to thinking that God doesn’t really do miracles, but mostly it is that he oughtn’t to if we are to be free humans.
The same “moral” considerations apply if God were to direct natural means to control any evil actions we might will: for example if the dictator dies of an infection that prevents his genocidal intent. After all, much of the theodical approach to divine sovereignty in modern theology generally, as well as in origins questions, is that we can only be free if God leaves us alone to be evil (and in evolutionary discussion, also allows the Universe to be evil and to produce polioviruses and homicidal apes).
But here there’s the additional “scientific” assertion of God’s non-interference (that word again) in natural events. If God is hands-off with regard to polioviruses, then he certainly wouldn’t, or couldn’t, use them to take out our genocidal dictator. So not only ought God not to monkey with nature to direct history, but he can’t, having set it up to run on natural laws and/or having endowed it with its own freedom to create itself without his constant and inappropriate tinkering.
In the same way, God could not use a good man to prevent the evil man’s action, because that would imply manipulating the good man’s will, which is no better than turning aside the bad one’s. If evil men’s wills are sancrosanct, how much more the good man’s?
So, as far as I have seen over the years, this is how many Christians see things. A large number of people assert that human will is, and must necessarily be, completely independent of any outside controls, especially from the loving, non-coercive God. This is, I think, a necessary corollary of placing human will outside of God’s greater purposes. So here’s a scenario based on one of my comments to GD on the last thread.
We know from experience that the human will can become distorted in evil ways. Gunmen with a grievance will quietly plan to take out as many innocent people as possible before they’re killed, if only to make a name for themselves. Jihadists can persuade themselves it’s Allah’s will to destroy every infidel in the assurance that they themselves and all the true Muslims caught in their cross-fire will go straight to paradise. We even know that serious scientific minds have suggested that humanity is an infection that mustn’t be allowed to spread its evil across the Universe.
Imagine that history had been slightly different (and why not, if it is ruled only by arbitrary human will rather than God’s sovereignty?), and that the Cold War of the 60s, with its massive nuclear arsenals and policies of mutually-assured destruction, were being waged not against communism, but against jihadic extremism. Further imagine that an African-American US president actually were, unlike Obama, not only a closet Muslim but a closet jihadist. Either that, or the stresses of office led him to paranoia and dirty tricks … not an unknown phenomenon amongst presidents.
So, quietly becoming more and more obsessed, over a period of time our world leader contrives to bypass the checks and balances on the nuclear deterrent and, hoping to make his name in heaven, or galactic history, by wiping out the infidel and bringing the saints of whatever persuasion to glory, he launches all out nuclear war, triggering the inevitable holocaust. Unlike the films, there are no struggling survivors:. The world is uninhabitable, as Tom Lehrer foretold with humour but serious intent.
Given the autonomous concept of freedom I have outlined, such a scenario would be plausible, and it is certainly technically feasible (or was before arms reduction). There is, however, no reason to think that this was the way God planned that the world should end. On many understandings he didn’t even know about it – the future was open. Whatever God had intended within his eternal plan to redeem the earth – including the sufferings of Jesus – would be wiped out at a nuclear stroke by the actions of one pathetically deranged – but wholly autonomous – man.
So before we think in terms of freedom as being subject to God’s sovereignty, as I believe it must be to be true to Christian revelation, have I covered the bases on the popular autonomy view? Is God really such a risk-taker, or do the open theists and so on have ways of explaining why my doomsday scenario could not happen?