Monday, 22 July 2013

Revisiting Pascal's argument for the Hidden God in light of radical free agency

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In his Pensees, Pascal outlines an argument that this world has enough evidence of the truth of Christianity to support faith, but not so much as to compel faith.

That God is hidden, always findable to one who seeks Him - but hidden so that one who does not seek, will not find Him.

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While I was convinced by this argument, I am now re-evaluating the point of whether God could really, even in principle, provide so much evidence that it would compel belief.

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I don't think belief can be compelled because Man's free agency really is free - free will cannot be compelled, not even by God - so there never could be such a weight of evidence that would compel belief in God without need for faith.

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I think this is shown throughout the Bible - where there is always the possibility and often the actuality, of refusing faith; but perhaps especially in the New Testament, when even the actual presence of Christ - his teaching, his works - is not sufficient to compel faith; nor to prevent the apostasy of Judas, the denials of Peter, and the backsliding of most of the Apostles at and immediately after the crucifixion.

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So I don't find the argument as compelling as I did - but then, neither (from a perspective of Mormon theology and the plan of salvation) do I perceive a need for this argument - the need is probably a by-product of Classical Theology based on Greek philosophy which denies the radical freedom of Man's will in a world where creation-from-nothing implies that God's knowledge and power are absolute, unbounded and comprehensive - with no exclusions.

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In the world of Classical Theology, free will is a quantitative kind of thing, the kind of thing which can be compelled by a sufficient degree of evidence - therefore not radically autonomous of God's will - indeed, ultimately, on this conception, free will is a delusion and God is doing everything - and Christianity collapses into the bewildered, self-refuting but inescapable fatalism of trying to believe that we are both merely cogs in a gigantic machinery yet also to blame for our motions...

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Lucky, then, that most Christians always have rejected Classical Theology in practice - even when they passionately assent to it in theory!

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13 comments:

Adam G. said...

There is still some place for the argument because our free will interacts with evidence.

So while I can certainly understand the viewpoint that a particularly damned soul, Satan say, could choose to reject the evidence of his physical and spiritual senses and disbelieve in God, most folks wouldn't, even quite hardened sinners. So God choosing to remain partially hidden provides more scope for free will, which God prizes. There is also the psychological aspect--the process of seeking God is a refining process.

Regardless, I somewhat doubt that free will actually fundamentally applies to our beliefs. The scriptures say that every knee will bow and every tongue confess. They also say that even the devils believe. So it seems to me more likely that our free will applies to our responses to the facts, but that our ability to will our perception of the facts is limited. Satan can rage against God, he can say that he denies him, but he cannot deny him--which makes Satan's existence hellish.

ajb said...

One aspect of the Doubting Thomas story I have found interesting is that, when Thomas demands a very high level of evidence in Christ's bodily resurrection, God provides it!

deconstructingleftism said...

>> is not sufficient to compel faith; nor to prevent the apostasy of Judas, the denials of Peter, and the backsliding of most of the Apostles at and immediately after the crucifixion.<<

I was reading John 3 last night. It would seem to say to me, that only the presence of the Holy Spirit enables belief.

ajb said...

What is meant be 'faith' here - belief that God exists (not the question in the New or Old Testaments, where the problem was if anything the opposite - people were believing in too many gods), belief in a specific character or attributes of God (God is Good, God can be usefully thought of as a spiritual 'Abba'), belief that Jesus of Nazareth is in some sense God, or rather developing a trusting relationship with God, or developing a trusting relationship with Jesus Christ (in some way made distinct from the previous idea)?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - *As I recall* (I haven't checked), Pascal was talking about God, that God exists rather than nothing - in a non-specific, theistic kind of way.

Kevin Nowell said...

Whence do you draw the conclusion that "[i}n the world of Classical Theology, free will is a quantitative kind of thing, the kind of thing which can be compelled by a sufficient degree of evidence"?

This is not evident to me. It is not illogical to say that God could and did create creatures, from nothing, with absolute free will.

alexi de sadesky said...

Bruce,

"in a world where creation-from-nothing implies that God's knowledge and power are absolute, unbounded and comprehensive - with no exclusions."

I can understand the problem, but what do you put forth as a solution? What do limits on God's power mean? The image you create here is appealing in a very warm and comforting way, which leads me to believe it has real merit and could quite possibly be the truth. I may have to go look back as I think you've already addressed this issue, but if you had to sum it up in a couple of quick sentences... what does a limited God mean for a Christian?

Thanks as always.

Wm Jas said...

I don't think belief itself is directly subject to the will, although we can do many things to influence it. I can choose to seek out or ignore evidence of various kinds; I can choose to entertain a line of thought or suppress it -- but in the end I can't simply will myself to think something is true.

A volitional "leap of faith" is not in fact a choice to believe that a particular proposition is true, but a choice to act as if it is true. We can choose to assume, but we cannot choose to believe.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - "I don't think belief itself is directly subject to the will, although we can do many things to influence it. "

Agreed - because action is not directly subject to the will. We can and must choose, but what happens next is not under our control.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kevin - You need to search this blog for free will - I've written a lot about this in the past few months.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ads - "what does a limited God mean for a Christian"

It means believing the kind of God described in the Bible; rather than reading the Bible through a lens of Classical Philosophy.

This shouldn't be too much to ask! - but you will find that in practice many people (especially intellectuals) are prepared to 'throw God under the bus' (please pardon the crude metaphor) rather than dispense with their *philosophical* assumptions about the nature of God/ the Holy Trinity, time and eternity etc.

Kevin Nowell said...

Bruce,

I have read all your posts on free will; but, my earlier statement still stands. Nowhere have I found where you have proven the logical contradicition in an omnipotent God creating creatures with a free will. You merely assert that "[i]f God wrote the plans, made the ingredients, assembled the creature - and it runs by His rules, and is indeed sustained in existence by him on a moment-to-moment basis..then where does the freedom come in?"; but, this assertion has no backing other than your inability to conceive of God having this ability. I agree its hard to imagine how this was done; but, everything about God is hard to imagine.

Their is also nothing in Scripture that says this is not possible. In fact, in Colossians 1:16 it states "For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and [b]invisible[/b], whether thrones or [b]powers[/b] or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him."

What is free will but an invisible power? Yet St Paul says that all powers are created by God.

Christian tradition has always believed this. Do you know of a quote from a Church Father or a great Christian Saint or Martyr or Theologian outside of the Mormon tradition of not even 200 years that denies this?

Bruce Charlton said...

@KN - Look, if you don't have a problem with this - when why would I want to persuade you there is a problem?

But I didn't invent this problem - for those that perceive it, and I know plenty - it is a major obstacle to faith and a lot else beside.

The problem is in the hard version of omnipotence where everything that happens at every level is sustained by God moment by moment.