Monday 7 February 2022

How important to you is real personal agency, free will?

It seems to me that most Christians are not, and never have been, sufficiently 'bothered' by the absolute requirement in Christianity that each Man personally must be able really to make the choice for Jesus Christ. 

It is this requirement for agency which (as far as I know) sets Christianity apart from the other religions: Christians must believe-in the reality of free will - and, in practice, that means that Christians will usually need a coherent explanation of how free will is possible

The Big Problem is that the standard theology enforced by the Catholic and Protestant churches has no place for human agency

By which I mean - all will correctly assert that free will is real and necessary - but none have a coherent explanation of how it is possible

All the 'usual' explanations are wrong - make no sense - and many are just dishonest...

('Kicking the can further down the road' type explanations - which just delay the point of explanation, in hope the enquirer will get fed-up and go-away!)

The problem is that if there is (as all mainstream Christian denominations assert) one God, omnipotent, omniscient and who created everything from nothing; then every-thing is God; and the whole of creation is Just God's Puppet

There is nothing else for it to be. 

God made every-thing, God gave every-thing all of its characteristics, God made all the laws by which every-thing happens... 

All is accounted-for by God and there is simply No Room For Personal Agency. There is nowhere other than God for personal agency to come-from. 

I do not regard this as a proposition for debate - once one has seen this incoherence, it is as clear a 'fact' as any. 

I realize that there are many, many people who do Not 'see it' - but that is simply an omission or failure on their part. The world is (and always has been) full of people who do not see problems - especially when not-seeing has important advantages. 

But once seen, one knows.

And from then it is a matter of honesty.   

This elimination of the possibility of agency is just a plain and unavoidable consequence of the concept of God that has been accepted and enforced (apparently) since early in the history of the Christian Church.   

Thus we have a truly colossal flaw at the very heart of mainstream Christian theology - moreover one that is very obvious to anyone who takes seriously the need for free agency. 

It has never been solved, never been explained by classical mainstream theology; it can only be obfuscated or made into a mystery - by asserting that both God is Like This and also There is Free Agency - and how it works is a mystery that must be accepted. 

Much hinges on whether a person is happy to accept that the core necessity of Christianity does not make common sense and cannot coherently be explained - but must be accepted as a mystery. 

Apparently there are plenty of Christians who simply see no problem in this state of affairs. And cannot be made to see that it is a problem - despite that it is (perhaps?) the main reason why non-Christians cannot become Christian. 

But once one has seen a vast incoherence at the root of the religion - as commonly expressed; it does not go down well to be told either that it doesn't exist or that one should not worry about it! That does not create a 'good impression'! 

What is the conclusion? 

Well, if you agree that personal agency/ free will is absolutely necessary to Christianity - that people really Must be able to make the choice of Jesus from themselves - then you cannot accept the assumptions of mainstream, classical, traditional Christian theology - whether Eastern or Western Catholic, or Protestant. 

(You may well accept the religions, the denominations, the churches, their practices - but you cannot in honesty accept as necessary and true the assumptions of their theology.) 

Because these systems have no space for agency; they simply Must Be Wrong - and once one has known this for oneself, it does not matter how many hundreds of years they have been wrong, nor how many great theologians have been wrong in this way

Then one must either find or devise a coherent explanation for how real personal agency/ free will is possible. 

Find or devise a Christian theology which includes and entails agency*.  

And, as usual; this is a matter of absolute importance and extreme urgency. 


* For instance.

Note: It is a secondary issue - but it may be regarded as important to have some reasonable explanation as to why so many people have been so wrong for so long - how it is that they apparently could not see this 'fatal flaw' in mainstream Christian theology. I believe the answer is to do with the development of human consciousness; and that Men of the past thought and experienced differently from us. In particular, they did not experience themselves as distinct individuals but instead (to a significant extent) as secondary-to, derived-from, the group to which they belonged. For Men of the past, mostly, group identity came first; and much of their knowledge came unconsciously, passively, absorbed from the group as tradition. In such a world, obedience and loyalty to the group/ church were primary -  and regarded as sufficient for salvation. Such questions as the necessity and consequences of individual free will were much less obvious, and were often neither spontaneous nor urgent. Indeed, Men of the past did not experience - and in that sense did not possess - personal agency to the same extent that modern alienated Man does (whether we like it or not!). This difference in consciousness is why it was possible, and probably inevitable, that the idea arose and was accepted that a Man could not relate directly to God, but must be mediated by a group: i.e. by the church of which he was a member. Salvation was then seen and experienced in group-terms. Modern Men are different from this (and by God's destiny); so we now perceive and experience differently; and we cannot honestly pretend otherwise. 


Francis Berger said...

I agree. This is something traditional theology does not answer satisfactorily.

If God created freedom, is the source of freedom, and determines freedom, then the freedom humans experience is not really freedom. The same goes for creativity.

As far as I have been able to determine, there are two possible "solutions" to this, both of which challenge the traditional teachings of God as Omnigod.

The first is pluralism. The second is uncreated freedom - the idea that God did not create freedom, but created from freedom and must face freedom in the same way every being in Creation must face freedom.

The two "solutions" could actually be one. Whatever the case, both provide an acceptable explanation for the existence of evil as well, which again, traditional theology lacks.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

As you know, the absolute necessity of agency is what first led me to abandon atheism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - I am, of course, a pluralist; but I had not considered the idea of 'uncreated freedom' - and how that might work in a way that was not also pluralist.

That would need to be explained to me!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - Yes, atheism cannot explain agency - to the point that it is regarded as impossible and therefore a human delusion.

As with commenters who argue that there is no freedom - all is determined, that they themselves have no agency, and urge me to believe likewise because... Beats me!

Or else people argue that 'randomness' is actually free will - because they regard freedom in a purely negative sense of freedom-from prior influence or causation. This is to answer a different question from what Christians are asking.

But for behaviour to be random is wholly inadequate for Christianity - which requires that we positively choose Christ.

Francis Berger said...

@ Bruce - "That would need to be explained to me!"

Yes, me too!

Uncreated freedom is Berdyaev's attempt to reconcile evil with an omnipotent and loving God. It's complicated, but the basic premise is simple. Freedom and God are separate. Freedom consents to Creation -- which B describes as non-being consenting to being -- but when freedom does consent to Creation, to being, it also retains some its non-being, over which God has no control. Thus being and non-being are mixed. Freedom, not God, is the source of evil. God retains his omnipotence over being, but cannot reign over non-being.

I don't know how this conceptualization might work with pluralism. I'll get back to you about that in about six months. :)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - That sounds very strange, from your summary. Somewhat like there being a primordial and impersonal deity coming before our personal Christian God. So the idea is pluralist - or, at least dual-ist - in structure.

BTW I wasn't asking you to reconcile uncreated freedom with pluralism - I was saying that pluralism allows agency to be explained simply and comprehensibly; and I was asking whether uncreated freedom did the same. So far, it seems not.

William Wildblood said...

Couldn't God in creating human souls have given something of himself to each soul so each soul is an 'I am' just as God is though on a microcosmic level? In this way God renounces his absolute omnipotence, souls have freedom and the possibility of evil arises.

Francis Berger said...

@ Bruce - Yes, you are correct. There is something primordial and impersonal in B's conceptualization. He draws on Jakob Böhme's idea of the Ungrund -- an abyss, a free nothing outside God and deeper and than God, but I don't want to clutter the comments with all that.

Suffice it to say that uncreated freedom is an attempt to reconcile freedom and agency with the traditional idea of an omnipotent God. Having said that, I agree -- I don't think it does it as simply and comprehensibly as pluralism.

Nathanael said...

Bruce have you looked into Molinism before?

Molinism, named after 16th-century Spanish Jesuit priest and Roman Catholic theologian Luis de Molina, is the thesis that God has middle knowledge. It seeks to reconcile the apparent tension of divine providence and human free will.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William W -

This is also William Arkle's attempted explanation. But I would regard that explanation as a clear instance example of 'kicking the can'. God still does everything, but at one remove instead of directly*.

If it is God's agency that provides the free will for all creation - then, no matter how subdivided or fragmented is that will, this is still God who is providing/ doing all of the free will.

Crudely - it is like God making many puppets - and giving each puppet only a part of himself to make each one different. But having just a bit of God's agency means that all the agency in creation comes from God.

*Another related example of kicking the can is to say that God is omnipotent and created everything, but God is wholly Good and is not evil because all evil comes from the devil...

Yet simultaneously asserting that the devil was wholly created by God, including whatever the devil has of agency...

So by this explanation God is after all still responsible for all the evil in the world - but the evil has just been distanced at one remove, in the person of the (God-created) devil.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - From what you say, it seems obvious that whatever the specifics of this theory - this Berdyaev conceptualization of God is not omnipotent, nor did this God create everything ex nihilo.

So his explanation still entails refuting the mainstream/ orthodox/ traditional concept of God regarded as dogma by the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Berdyaev seems only to have two layers to the explanation; but in style it reminds me of the Ancient Egyptian creation myth, which begins with unchanging nothingness ('chaos'), from which the divinities 'condense' out; starting with abstract-like primordial potentialities, through more personalized powers/ aspects, becoming more personal and human-like with each new layer until the familiar Egyptian gods emerge.

William Wildblood said...

I have to say that I don't see how this is 'kicking the can'. Everything does originally come from God but if God gives us part of himself at creation then we are part of God but also ourselves. We have complete free will so God doesn't do everything.

God is responsible for evil to the extent that he gave created beings the power to go against him which he had to do if they were truly to have freedom.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - well, I can only urge you to think about it some more; because I am sure you are mistaken!

Nathanael said...

You may like this short article.

"One of the remarkable discoveries in my life has been that mankind is evolving. Now you can say: Yes, you should have learned that at school and so on, you know the theory of evolution, don't you? But I don't mean that, I mean that there is not only an external development going on, but that humanity is also developing within."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathaniel - Yes. The thing is, it cannot be *proved* that mankind is or is not evolving spiritually - they are rival metaphysical hypotheses. And there are many meanings and implications to 'evolving' that get in the way of understanding. Minimally it means changing - but for a Christian it means that Men of different ages (and, potentially, of different cultures/ races) have different consciousness's - experience and understand the world differently, think differently - and that such differences are part of God's plans for Men's souls.

Dave Bagwill said...

Good conversation on a topic that has concerned me for quite some time.

Does the concept of 'free will' (FW) entail that we are free from all restraint?
Is Reality a restraint?
What I mean is: freedom is always within the boundaries of the Real. There is a Givenness to our experience that dictates the options from which we can choose.

If there is FW, it must be exercised within a boundary - so it already is 'free' in a limited sense only. Even for monads.

Now - does the Source of the Real dictate the boundary of free will? Does it matter to freedom whether an 'Omni-God' or pure blind chance (plus time) has provided us the environment within which we would ply our freedom of will?

I would think not. The 'given' is what it is, and we live and move and have our being within it.

But - maybe the source of the given does matter. And matters to our freedom.

If against all reasoning - imo - we are strict materialists - iow, the Source of all things is a pre-existing matter/energy/super string/quantum-foam/cyclical inflatable-deflatable multiverse- what have you - whatever freedom we think we have is imaginary.
Yes that is a big statement about which many books have been written. But I think I can justify that statement. Not here and now. But the materialist cannot explain consciousness or freedom.

So. Freedom: is it true that if an all-wise, all-benevolent, all-knowing and all-powerful God created all things, we would have less freedom than if Chance or Chaos was the source of all? Or is God the giver of all the freedom that created beings can possibly have?
Can we imagine any possible world where human beings would have unfettered freedom? Freedom from biological constraints such as instinct, habit, or social pressures, the need to eat, poop, our emotions - and that list could go on?

So. Freedom - are we, necessarily, unfree puppets in a reality created by a God who is wise and powerful? Necessarily?
I think not. There is within the concept - and I would hazard to say, the truth - of Creation Ex Nihilo, plenty of explanatory power for a true Creation, leading not to pantheism or panentheism, but to real Theism. And robust humanity.

AS for the purported eternal universe, or infinite time - Robert Spitzer [resents the case for a one-time event of creation that considers all we know of our physical universe, and all we can know about time which cannot be infinite, in his book "New Proofs for the Existence of God". This is not your grandfather's Aquinas re-hashed. This is for now. At least, I liked it.

I think the cases he makes are important to thinking about God and reality, and being human. And these things have incredible importance for our thinking about FW.

Erika said...

Love God with all your heart and soul and mind.
(primary commandment emphasized by Jesus)

Free will to reject or choose love.
Love that is predetermined or coerced isn't really love.

Warfare Theodicy - the works of Dr. Greg Boyd talk about the difference between the Blueprint God of Orthodox and Protestant Christianity (that plans every detail including every baby who dies in a snuff film) and the OPEN view of God who acts through history re calibrating to the choices made by the free will proponents (kinda like "Adjustment Bureau" film). God knows the beginning and the end; but in the dance with creation recalculates based on every move made by free will players determining HIS final outcome.

Just thought i would mention it in the off chance someone hadn't heard of it.

Alan Roebuck said...

Because I experience myself as a free person, I am not disturbed by ideas that, in the domain of God, beyond the possibility of my perception, God has somehow made me unfree by His predestination or something else that seems to interfere with my freedom.

The notion that classical theology is unacceptable because it nullifies human freedom strikes me as more an esthetic than a metaphysical judgment. To some people, it Just Seems Wrong.

If you experience yourself as a free person, what exactly is the problem with regarding yourself as actually, truly free in the only ways that matter, regardless of what some theologies may hold?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Erika - I have read Greg Boyd; but he only makes one of those 'God as Playwright' arguments for agency which I endeavor to refute as incoherent in today's post.

@Alan - "If you experience yourself as a free person, what exactly is the problem with regarding yourself as actually, truly free in the only ways that matter, regardless of what some theologies may hold?"

As I have stated, that is not 'a problem' - it is the 'agency is real but a mystery' strategy, which has worked, and still works, for many Christians. But people like me can't accept as a mystery something right at the very core of Christianity - especially when we regard the Omni-God and Not a part of Christianity, being neither 'Biblical', nor Gospel - and especially not Fourth Gospel.

It seems probable that the Omni-God was imported into Christianity - indeed made the frame of Christianity - from pagan philosophy; and it is Long overdue that Christians discarded it - especially considering the problems that it has caused from almost the beginning.

eg. The lethal and schismatic Christology disputes of the early church, such as the Monophysite wars which was apparently the first - and permanently harmful - breaking of the church). Understanding the nature of Christ was crippled from early on by the insistence on the Omni-God concept - and again was 'solved' only by making it an incomprehensible mystery.

Is it really *necessary* for Christianity to have its core theological principles (the nature of Christ, the reality of agency, the origins of evil etc) nearly-all encapsulated as incomprehensible mysteries, when all these problems arise from the alien-pagan concept of the Omni-God?

Eidolon said...

I'm sure I haven't given it as much thought as you have, but there seems to me to be an alternative that isn't discussed in your references to Omni-God.

Implicit in your criticism of the idea of Omni-God is the idea that if He can control everything, then He will or must. Would Omni-God have to act all the time? Would he have to use all his power at all times? Surely he could choose not to do so, if such was His nature?

I would analogize the world as a terrarium. It needs Him to power it or else it ceases to function, but provided with power and maintenance, the plants and animals inside it operate within the conditions set up by the creator, not necessitating His direct intervention unless He chooses to do so. If He decides a rock is too sharp and it's causing harm, He can remove it through divine intervention from above. If the creatures indicate that they're having a problem, He can act e.g. to adjust the temperature.

Even if He is Omni-God, He could be such that He created matter to operate according to rules that He established, rather than requiring Him to directly control it. A man could hold his frogs all the time and make sure they hop to the food and take it from his hand, etc., but he could instead set up the terrarium with conditions which allow for the frog to do what it should and then let the frog carry out that behavior, taking the risk that they may not do so (e.g. the frog might refuse to eat and starve). Whether He could control everything directly or not doesn't seem as important a question to me, since He wouldn't have to even if He could.

Alan Roebuck said...

I would like to know what you mean by 'agency is real but a mystery,' the supposed Christian position you are disputing. Are you saying something like that mainstream Christianity does not give a mechanism that makes it plausible for you that man has agency and also God predestines at the same time?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Alan - Predestination wasn't what I intended - because it is only a minority of Christians who believe in predestination.

I meant that the Christians who believe in the Omni-God concept including regarding God as creating ex nihilo can only account for agency as a mystery; because they can provide no 'mechanism' for where agency comes from when everything (by definition) comes from God. Therefore for them agency is real but is a 'mystery'.

Alan Roebuck said...

Bruce, your response clarifies things. Quite a lot, actually.

I presume you have found / created what you regard as a plausible mechanism for the coexistence of human agency and God, and it includes “demoting” God from His traditional Omni status.

But if the Bible is superintended / authorized / “breathed out” / however you put it by God, then what the Bible says is fully true. And it does say (perhaps in other words) that God is what you call Omni: creator of all (except Himself), able to do whatever He pleases, and so on.

I presume you would agree that God, in both of our understandings of Him, is greater than man and therefore man is not able fully to understand Him. That being so, is it not better to believe what He says, even if it seems counter-intuitive?

I presume you would respond that portions of the Bible are mistaken, or at least wrong as normally interpreted by mankind. But then by what means other than your own sense do you decide which parts to accept and which to reject/reinterpret? If the Bible really is a message from God, your approach risks disagreeing with God Himself.

Unless the existence of the “Omni” (i.e., traditional Christian understanding of) God creates an actual contradiction, not just a “mystery,” man is better off going with the traditional understanding of God.