Thursday 25 April 2013

Free will implies/ entails pre-mortal existence


I find the following line of argument very convincing.

Edited, and with bold emphases added, from pages 47-51 of The God who weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens, 2012:


The greatest virtue of the idea of premortal existence, undoubtedly, is in its solution to the problem of human freedom...

If our life carries hidden within its core our own eternal past, then we are free in a way no alternate model of human existence can account for.


[The most daunting problem of free will is the challenge to understand..]

how we can freely choose, if God made us - body and soul, mind and will, genes and instincts, predispositions and predilections, tastes and desires?

One can say, God created us and He created us free. But that just substitutes a declaration for an explanation.

No, if God is the sole author of all that is, then we cannot find our way clear to believe He is not responsible for our choices. 


The ancients knew that something is free only if it is not caused or created by something else,

[ JME McTaggart wrote]

If God created our souls, He 'could have prevented all sin by creating us with better natures and in more favourable surroundings... Hence we should not be responsible for our sins to God.'

This is the same logic by which we assign blame in all other instances where there is a creator and a thing created. If a bridge collapses, we hold responsible the person that designed the bridge or executed its construction...


But the fact is, as adults with moral awareness, we sense we are responsible for our own choices.

And the reason we know is we are, is because we feel guilt when we do something wrong...


The modern era has given us a dozen reasons to explain away those legitimate feelings of guilt we all experience...

But no rationalization can allay the insistent knowledge that we all confess in moments of secret honesty: we do wrong because we make a decision to do so, and feel guilty because we know we could have acted differently.


That means we had other options than the one we chose. If we could have acted differently, then we were free to act differently at that moment of choice.

Guilt, the legitimate remorse we feel for the deliberate decision to do wrong, is all the proof we need that arguments about determinism and predestination are a philosopher's game.

Guilt is how we know we are free to choose.


In our present, earthly form, we are clearly the product of forces outside our control that influence our personality, inform our character, and shape our wants and desires.

And yet we know we are free.

How can this be, unless there is something at the heart of our identity that was not shaped by environment, not inherited from our parents, and not even created by God?


Some scholars who thought deeply about the nature of sin came to the same conclusion that only pre-existence can explain human freedom.

It is no solution simply to insist God made us free.

Sin must mean accountability... Accountability must mean the freedom to choose.


And human freedom can only have its roots [to quote Julius Muller] 'in a sphere beyond the range of time, wherein alone pure and unconditioned self-determination is possible'. 



The above seems to crystallize pretty much exactly my own feelings on this topic.

I agree that 'God created us and He created us free' is a pseudo-argument.

I also agree in rejecting the suggestion that free will is one of those things that humans cannot know, but in this matter we must simply submit to (what we imagine to be) God's will - because I find this to be not just an un-Christian, but an anti-Christian conception of the relationship between God and Man.

And I agree that pre-mortal eternal pre-existence solves the problem of free will in the way that nothing else does.


Therefore, the only remaining question is whether it is true that the human soul or spirit (of some kind) had a pre-mortal eternal existence (of some kind).

The idea of pre-mortal soul/ spirit existence is compatible with at least some authoritative, albeit unusual (some would say heretical - but that is to beg the question) views of Christianity including some Holy Fathers such as (apparently) Augustine and Origen.

There is also a great deal of indirect experiential subjective evidence implying pre-mortal existence;

and a strong metaphysical argument that if souls are eternal from mortality forwards, then this would tend to imply they are immortal from mortality backwards (i.e. if something exists eternally - as souls do, then it is hard to imagine a time when it was not existing, and was created from nothing. Easy to say this, but hard to imagine it);

and furthermore the alternative times suggested for when the human soul is created (conception, during embryonic development, birth etc) all seem to be arbitrary and implausible.


So, I conclude that it is true and the reality is that human souls eternally pre-existed mortality in some form and mortal life is (mostly) shielded from (full and explicit) knowledge of this by a veil of ignorance - such as to preserve the autonomy of mortality on the one hand; while, on the other hand, encouraging us with legitimate hope and sufficient understanding.



Matthew C. said...

"So, I conclude that it is true and the reality is that human souls eternally pre-existed mortality in some form and mortal life is (mostly) shielded from (full and explicit) knowledge of this by a veil of ignorance - such as to preserve the autonomy of mortality on the one hand; while, on the other hand, encouraging us with legitimate hope and sufficient understanding."

There can be no doubt for a thoughtful person that some aspect of ourselves stands outside the space and time and experiences of our personal life and does, in fact, have the ability to choose the good freely (or to not do so!) For all the reasons you outlined in this post.

Anonymous said...

What about the traditional philosophical view that freedom = the ability to do what one wants? On that kind of view, we are indeed able to act differently from the way we do act, but that just means that nothing external to the self prevents the self from choosing or acting as it wants. (So "I could have done otherwise" means something like "If I had wanted to something else then that's what I would have done instead".) If this is right, there's no contradiction at all between the claim that we are free and the claim that God created us (or that all is causally determined). I agree that _if_ this view is wrong, and if freedom and determinism are incompatible, _then_ there is a strong case for pre-mortal existence. But don't we need to address this important philosophical view of freeedom?

Agellius said...

"One can say, God created us and He created us free. But that just substitutes a declaration for an explanation."

But the declaration that "we have just always existed" itself begs for an explanation. A God who is necessary being and who creates us, at least explains how we got here.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon - I think your view denies that reality of free will and the autonomy of human choice.

@Agell - Well, what we are doing is metaphysics, and at the root of any metaphysical system are assumptions.

You are correct, of course, to say that 'we have always existed' is an assumption.

What I am saying is that *this* assumption is 1. plausible, in terms of intuitions and experiences and 2. solves the problem of the reality of free will.

Agellius said...

"If God created our souls, He 'could have prevented all sin by creating us with better natures and in more favourable surroundings... Hence we should not be responsible for our sins to God.'"

The argument here is basically, that if God created us, he created us with a defective nature and put us in unfavorable surroundings. If that's the case then when we sin it's God's fault, not ours. Thus the defective nature and unfavorable surroundings rob us of culpability and therefore of free will.

But I don't see how preexistence solves this problem. If a defective nature and unfavorable surroundings rob us of free will, then we're robbed of free will whether we preexisted or not.

But if we can have free will despite our defective nature and unfavorable surroundings, then that's true whether we preexisted or not.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - If God made us and our situation as it is, then He is responsible for everything and there can be no free will - everything is determined by how it has been set-up;

but if we have an eternal pre-existence then we are the kinds of entities which can be free, and we are not wholly a *product* of nature and surroundings

- therefore (whatever our nature and surroundings) we are ultimately *responsible* for our choices, and can legitimately be blamed or rewarded for them.

Agellius said...

I get that you're saying that because we preexisted, therefore we are not *wholly* a product of our nature and surroundings in this world. But what difference does that make to our culpability for sin, exactly? Presumably your point is that whatever we were in our preexistence affects the kinds of choices we make in this life: If we were already good, then we'll be good in this life, and if we were already bad, then we'll be bad in this life, and it's not entirely the fault of things that affect us in this life. Something like that?

But aren't you just pushing it back a step? Because what made us good or bad in our preexistence? If some of us were better than others, was it due to the defective preexistent natures or unfavorable preexistent surroundings of some of us?

Unless we created ourselves -- created our own natures and our own surroundings (which of course is absurd) -- then there has to be some element of our nature or surroundings that we were just "born" with or "born" into, and are therefore not responsible for, and to that extent we lack free will.

Thus I acknowledge that free will is not absolutely free, but we are nevertheless free enough to be responsible for our choices within the limited scope of choices presented to us, and the limits and capabilities of our nature. But this would be the case whether we were created or just popped into existence uncreated. So I don't see specifically how being created makes us more un-free than the alternative.

It seems to me that the real issue is not whether we preexisted, but to what extent our free will is limited by things over which we have no control. You seem to be making the argument that if we were created then we have no control over our nature and surroundings and therefore are unfree; whereas if we are uncreated then we do. But from what you've said so far, I don't see how being uncreated ultimately gives us any more control over what we are and where we find ourselves than being created.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - I'm a bit stuck as how to proceed in the argument! I suppose what has to be done is to develop a contrast between the kind of entity which plausibly has ultimate free will, agency, autonomous choice - and one that does not. I am not clear that you have any 'model' of what an entity with free will would be like *in contrast to* one that does not. For me, free will is rooted in autonomy, which would be provided by being rooted in the nature of things.

So if humans souls/ spirits were (in some form, but not the form they are in now) had their being in eternity - they were 'always there' - like God - then this seems to provide the necessary autonomy required for free will and choice.

On the other hand, if human souls/ spirits are wholly made by God, then (by common sense reasoning) they seem to lack autonomy.

I find this an extremely satisfying answer, indeed the only satisfying answer I have come across, to the need to explain how humans can have free will, and how we could choose salvation (or choose to reject it) - indeed, how humans can only *choose* salvation - how salvation could not be anything but chosen - how choice could not (even in theory) be coerced (because an eternal spirit cannot be coerced).

Agellius said...

I don't want to try your patience, so I'll just say that I'm just not seeing any specific way in which being uncreated makes us freer. As far as I can tell it's just an assertion. I'm not saying you're necessarily wrong, I'm just not seeing it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - maybe reading some of Terryl Givens work, or listening to one of his online talks, might clarify this?

To me it feels like common sense - if we regard God/ Christ as having free will - then insofar as we share that divine nature so do we. But if we are created from nothing by God, at a moment around our conception or birth, into a world created from nothing by the same God (as it were) then there doesn't seem anyplace where free will could enter in. Yet we know for sure free will is real.

Agellius said...

"if we regard God/ Christ as having free will - then insofar as we share that divine nature so do we"

Well, of course, insofar as we share the same nature as God, we would have absolutely free will. But we would also be omniscient, omnipotent, etc.!

I understand that you're not assuming the traditional understanding of God's nature. Rather than bringing us up to the level of the traditional God, you're bringing him down to our level, so to speak. But for me that doesn't lead to the conclusion that we are as free as I always conceived of Him as being. Rather, it leads to the conclusion that he's not as powerful, and therefore not as free, as I always thought he was.

We're all equally free, but none of us is perfectly free, if none of us is omniscient and omnipotent. Limitations on power lead to limitations on our actions and choices. God (traditionally) is perfectly free not because (or not only because) he is uncreated, but because he is unlimited by anything outside himself. I don't believe that could apply to us, either in this life or in any preexistence.

Agellius said...

It occurs to me where I might be missing you: If I might take a guess, I'm wondering if the issue for you is something along the lines of not wanting to be beholden to anyone, or wanting to be able to take credit for what you accomplish and not owe it to someone else. If you do owe it to someone else then it's not really an accomplishment of your own.

Could this be the sense in which you mean that if we and the world we live in are created from scratch by an all-powerful God, then we're not truly free? Whereas if we and God are on an equal level, so to speak, at least in terms of our origins, then we don't owe our existence and our very lives to God, and therefore we're more free? In a similar sense to that in which a man who works hard, educates himself, earns money and supports his family, without assistance from other individuals or charity or government, is more free than one who receives assistance every step of the way?

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - no, I'm afraid you are on the wrong track here!

Terryl Givens is a Mormon, and he has done a lot of historical work on the idea of pre-mortal existence (I am currently reading his monograph on the topic).

I am agreeing with Sterling McMurrin that the concept of an abstract and absolute God really does have a serious problem with giving an account of free will - in fact it *cannot* give a comprehensible account of free will but must just assert that it is given by God in an unexplained and mysterious fashion.

The Mormon concept of God, which sticks *much* more closely to God as He is portrayed in Biblical narratives - and essentially ignores post Apostolic abstractions and mysteries, and assumes that God wants to be understood by us so we can have a relationship with Him, and indeed Love Him - this Mormon concept of God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ and mankind as Sons of God - has the advantage that it provides a clear and comprehensible account of free will.

Of course, the God of Mormons is explained in a substantially different way than the God of mainstream Christianity - He is explained in a common sense, linear narrative within-time - but this is what I would term at the second level of explanation: at the primary level of explanation (scripture) this Mormon God is the same God and the same Jesus and Holy Ghost - derived from the same text, but read and understood straightforwardly, plainly.

Agellius said...

"The Mormon concept of God, which sticks *much* more closely to God as He is portrayed in Biblical narratives ..."

Well, that's a whole different discussion isn't it? : )