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The Free Will Problem

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In last week’s Thursday Theology post (here) we looked at different theories of determinism. We saw that determinism is the idea that the past determines the future in a literal ’cause and effect’ way, so that theoretically, given the entirety of history and all the laws of physics, there is only one possible future in any given situation.

Determinism raises a number of questions concerning free will, and so it’s logical that following on from last week’s post we should look at different types of free will this week. I will try to condense a complex subject into a few simple definitions, and then offer my own reflections and conclusions concerning the free will problem.

Compatibilism

Compatibilism is the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism. Philosophers who believe in this thesis disagree about what exactly free will means, because they acknowledge there are constraints due to circumstances (both in a person’s life and in the world at large) that can impact our choices and decisions.

In practical terms, compatibilism is often relevant to issues of moral responsibility. We might imagine, for instance, a court situation where a jury is trying to discern whether an individual is responsible for a crime, or whether outside factors coerced him or her to commit a crime. The judge might consider how a mental illness led to an illegal act, or that a person was acting under duress, or on the other hand they might argue that the individual on trial was motivated by their own free intentions.

Contemporary compatibilists like Daniel Dennett argue that a certain definition of free will holds true if a coerced agent’s actions coincide with the agent’s personal desires and intentions.

Incompatibilism

Incompatibilists quite simply deny the compatibility of free will and determinism. They argue that if the world is deterministic then our feeling that we are able to make free choices is simply an illusion. I will have more to say about this in my conclusion, below.

Some contemporary incompatibilist philosophers, like Sam Harris, argue that our thoughts are the product of a lengthy evolutionary process, coupled with our life circumstances, so we are not free at all (to read my post entitled ‘Sam Harris and Free Will’ go here).

Libertarianism

Some incompatibilists are libertarians, which is the strongest position in favour of the freedom or ‘liberty’ of the individual. Libertarians argue that because at least some actions of some agents are free, determinism is necessarily false.

One definition of libertarianism is the thesis that an agent is able to take more than one course of action in a given set of circumstances. Some who hold to this view believe that events are influenced by the ‘non-physical’, whether it be a mind, will, or soul.

Assessment and Conclusion

As I concluded last week’s post on determinism, I argued that of crucial importance to the free will debate is the way in which we understand the nature of God. God is often left out of these discussions about determinism and free will, because we live in an age where scientism has led to a proliferation of atheism and great scepticism about God’s existence.

This scenario is unfortunate, as the solution to the problem of free will lies in correctly understanding the nature of God. Without such an understanding, there will always be confusion on this subject.

Theists generally agree that there are certain attributes that are definitional of God; attributes such as omnipotence (God is all-powerful), omniscience (God is all-knowing), and omnipresence (God is everywhere). These attributes are very relevant to the free will debate. If we believe God exists and literally possesses these attributes, then it’s quite obvious there is no room for free will at all.

Let us focus on the attribute of omnipresence. Please consider that this means that every cell of your body, and every particle in the universe, is a part of God. To deny this would be to limit God’s presence in such a way as to deny His omnipresence. This view of God naturally leads us to a panentheistic understanding of existence; panentheism being the idea that all that exists, exists within God.

In practical terms, this makes sense, as theists will happily attribute to God the ability to impact any part of His creation at any time. This would not be the case if there were distance between creator and creation. If God is truly omnipresent, and a living God, then we can rightly surmise that God is unfolding the universe by His omnipotent power in this very moment – this moment being all that actually exists (the past and the future exist only as ideas; not in reality).

It is not the case that the past necessarily leads to the future. This will only happen if God wills a particular succession of events. Being in control of existence, as He is, God is above the laws of nature, and can at any time change those laws if He wishes (which is what is happening when we observe miracles).

Ideas such as cause and effect, past and future, are simply that – ideas. Because events flow into one another, in reality there are no separate events. Similarly, because the past flows into the future without any interruption, we can see that time is illusory – it’s a way of segmenting a single eternal ‘now’ into divisions that don’t exist in reality.

All of these observations beg the question: What is real? And we can observe that there is an ‘unfolding’ happening. Wherever there is activity in existence, there must be a cause of that activity. Considering this deeply should lead us to conclude that there is an all-powerful, omnipresent God – a ‘cosmic animator’, as I like to call Him.

There are many repercussions of this view for the determinism / free will debate. If God is in control of all things, then obviously we don’t have free will. If we apply this understanding to the situation of a jury assessing the crimes of a perpetrator, it would appear to be the case that ‘anything goes’ – they cannot be found guilty because they were simply a puppet in the hands of God. While there is logic to this, I believe it’s important to point out that in reality it’s not actually the case that ‘anything goes’ – only God’s will goes.

Many theists are uncomfortable with a worldview that sees God as the author of everything that we describe as ‘sin’ and ‘evil’. But I believe in the domain of ultimate truth, we must accept that God is indeed in control of everything that happens. This may cause us to see the world a little differently, but it’s actually an immensely liberating idea, knowing that whatever you’ve been through, and whatever you’ve done, represents God’s will for your life. Also, your future is in His hands.

My conclusion is that none of the views of free will presented in the first part of this article are accurate, for they fail to take into account the divine attributes that demonstrate God is unfolding all events in accordance with His sovereign will. There is no free will, only one almighty will; a will so powerful it can create a universe, billions of planets and billions of people, unfathomable complexity and diversity, and a historical process that lasts thousands or even millions of years.


I’m aware that the view of God described in my conclusion presents a challenge to many of the key doctrines and tenets of Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions. For a more in-depth look at the issues, I invite you to read my essay entitled An Almighty Predicament, which you can find as a downloadable PDF at the top of the Essays page.

42 comments

    1. Hi Lisa! Apologies for that. I do cover deep topics, but I do my best to try to make my points in the simplest way possible. I may not always succeed! I’m very grateful for you reading though, and for your prayers. Peace and blessings upon you! 😊

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  1. As always Steven you do make one think. I am very logical when it comes to pretty much everything. But in my faith, I am very simplistic. Many of my friends, Christian or not, always ask how can I be so analytical in all aspects of my life, except in my faith. I am intrigued by all the new and different views you share, it’s intriguing learning new, and different things. As I told you before, I never knew there were so many hahaha. I ask God to bless you Steven :):)

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    1. Thank you, Margaret. It is my intention to provoke people to think deeply about some of the issues related to faith, and religion, and a belief in God. But I also respect and understand how simplicity of faith can be a good thing – it’s in line with what Jesus taught. God bless you, too!

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      1. I understand, you do a good job, and it is appreciated. I love discussions about faith, religion, and God. I didn’t know they had names for all of them. :):)You have helped me put names to some of the topics. I can pretty much sum up everything, from my perspective, in a sentence. Fear of and love for God, and belief in Jesus, and my salvation through Him. Which when I think about it, even though it might seem simple, it is quite the opposite ;);)

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  2. Good afternoon! Quick clarification: although orthodox or historical Christian belief holds to the omnipresence of god, it doesn’t also hold that god’s omnipresence thereby means that the universe (as a whole) or our cells (in particular) are constitutive of god’s being. There’s been, historically, a fairly strong distinguishing between an omnipresent, a panentheist god, and a pantheist god. Interesting stuff to study, nevertheless!

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    1. Hi Joshua! Many thanks for your comment. If I’m understanding you correctly, then I think I agree. I’m more of a panentheist than a pantheist, as I believe the whole of creation could cease to exist and God would still be perfectly whole.

      In terms of omnipresence, I don’t know that a definition of omnipresence would be logical if it implied God’s presence was limited in any way, and if God wan’t present in the cells of our bodies then His presence would indeed be limited. Would you agree?

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  3. When I consider what you said, it must be true, for who can turn back God’s will and plans? No one. They are finite. I do think it’s more accurate to say God gave us a life to live more than anything else and choices to make, that are ultimately already a part of his sovereign plan. And you’re right that is comforting. You’re right many misconceptions come from not understanding the nature of God. From now on I think I will shy away from using the term ‘free will’.

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  4. Hi Steven,

    I find that the “omni’s” can be troublesome when talking about the nature of God. I know that we use our own experience and terms to talk about God and that can’t be helped, but I think it could be useful to not stretch them too far or make them some form of dogmatic principals. To me they just express the idea that God is ultimate and might be helpful metaphors for exploring. If one accepts that God, while being immanent in creation also has an abysmal character (infinitely transcending creation) then we should be cognizant of the limits of our language. After all the omni’s can lead to unresolvable paradoxes (Can God create a stone that God can’t lift?) so perhaps they shouldn’t take a central place in theology.

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    1. Thanks for your insights, Steve.

      I suppose an important question is whether or not it’s okay to ponder the nature of God? If it is okay, then language is a helpful tool, and I do believe the omni’s capture important ontological attributes. There is an argument that says we should just trust in God’s word, and not think deeply about the nature of God, which I understand, but personally find very difficult to do, because I have a passion for thinking about reality and what is ultimately true. I find contradictions in the Christian worldview which are hard to ignore… I wish I didn’t, but I can’t help it. I have tried to immerse myself in Christian life, hoping that the problems would go away, but they always return to the forefront of my mind whenever discussions around key Christian ideas like sin, judgment, the fall, and salvation, arise.

      How can I be an evangelist when I believe strongly that we don’t have free will?

      My essay entitled ‘An Almighty Predicament’ (here) explains the issue in more depth if you’re interested (although I realise it’s a big ask requesting someone reads an essay!).

      In any case, I’m very grateful that you took the time to read my article and leave a comment.

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  5. Read your essay. Well written and argued. I agree with you that God suffers. Where we would probably disagree is in ontology. In my ontology, https://dlcommunion.wordpress.com/%20aspect-monism/ , God is the one who is doing the actual suffering. Everything is an aspect of God, in the Divine Life. This has similarities to panentheism but I believe is a more radical monism than it usually describes.

    I suppose an important question is whether or not it’s okay to ponder the nature of God?

    Good question. I think if one wants to do theology it is inevitable that there is talk about what God is like or doing. The question is, where and how to go with this. If a certain avenue leads to logical contradictions and paradoxes then maybe it’s best to tread lightly. For instance, how does one deal with statements like this:

    Can God choose to not know something?
    Can God choose to be bad?
    Can God choose to forget?
    Can God choose to not be someplace?
    Can God give up God’s power?

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    1. Hi Steve!

      Great to be discussing these things with you, it seems that we’ve grappled with a lot of the same issues. Thank you for taking the time to read An Almighty Predicament (and I think you may have read my essay on God and Suffering as well – thank you).

      I read your article on ‘aspect monism’. I agree with you that everything is an aspect of God. And a panentheistic understanding of reality makes good sense to me. I believe all is God and that all of creation is in God. Would you mind explaining in a little more detail where our ontology differs as I’m not quite understanding that right now?

      Concerning the questions at the close of your comment, I would have to give a different answer to each question. I have absolutely no problem arguing that there are certain things God cannot do. I have argued this in other articles. For instance, God cannot create another omnipresent God. God cannot cease to exist. So the way I put it is that God is omnipotent only in respect of reality. He is limited in certain ways.

      I agree that treading lightly when it comes to difficult questions about God is wise. I also agree that when we discuss theology, difficult questions about God do arise. God seems to reveal certain understandings to our minds.

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          1. Hi Steve,
            I wonder if the following will add to the conversation of your topic?

            Dr. Alvin Plantinga appeals to the notion of “morally significant actions”. This parallels a Gospel narrative where Jesus asks a rhetorical question: Does the master commend his slave for carrying out those actions the master determined the slave do? Jesus answers: “I think not”.

            The slave is merely functioning as an instrument on the master’s behalf. Any moral significance having to do with the slave’s actions are attributed to the master who functions as the effectual determining agent.

            The slave exists within a modal condition of restricted freedom. Christian philosophers would note that if he were not a slave, he could “Do otherwise” than what the master determined him do. But since he is a slave, he cannot (for all practical purposes) “Do Otherwise”.

            This modal characteristic of “Do Otherwise” is acknowledged as unique to, and pivotal to, libertarian freedom.

            Plantinga then imagines a theoretical world, in which God determines all things, which come to pass. (aka Theological Determinism). In this world, God determines that persons can only think/say/do things, which are morally good. These persons cannot think/say/do anything morally evil, because God has not made morally evil thoughts/choices/actions accessible to them.

            Plantinga then argues the people of this world are not performing morally significant actions because (like the slave) they cannot “Do Otherwise”. Any attribution (praise or blame) could not be attributed to them.

            Plantinga then argues the modal condition of freedom the people in this world have, parallels the modal condition of freedom, which a robot has, when it is programmed to throw an empty soda can into the correct recycle bin. The robot is not performing a morally significant action, because (like the slave and the people in theoretical world) the robot cannot “Do Otherwise” than what an external agent has determined it to do.

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  6. Would you mind explaining in a little more detail where our ontology differs as I’m not quite understanding that right now?

    Ok, I’ll give it a shot. I’ll try to explain where I’m coming from and then you can decide if there are any differences.
    First, a little history. I’m not a scholar in this, by any means, but I’ll share what I think I’ve learned. Over three thousand years ago polytheism was on the wane in Greece and India (as well as Egypt and Mesopotamia) . Around 600-700 BCE in Greece there were many attempts to merge the gods into one. One thing that emerged was monotheism. In India the same thing was happening but what primarily emerged was a monism. These may seem the same but there are differences. The question that was being grappled with was the problem of the “One and the Many”. If there is just one God then how do we deal with “the many”. This is a difficult question to sort out and there are many subtleties involved. I think a helpful way to think about it, is to look at distinctions that are posited between God and the world. In Christianity there is only one God and God creates the world. Now what distinctions are made varies within Christianity. For some there is stark distinction made between God and the world. In other cases (panentheism for instance) the distinctions are there but more subtle. One thing that does seem to be common is the idea of the fall or estrangement from God. So that also represents a distinction.

    Monistic systems vary as well. In some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism any distinctions are merely illusions. In Vishishtadvaita Vedanta Hinduism, however, while there is only the One, there are real distinctions or qualifications but they are within the One. (A metaphor might be your different personality traits or talents). This is very similar to my aspect monism. In my system there is only the One, and everything from quarks, to rocks, to plants, to animals, to humans are all aspects of the One. God has chosen to live and this is that life. Everything is an aspect of the Divine Life. So, the distinctions are not of a separation or fallenness but the One living within the constrains of each being. So each person (and everything else) is literally part of God. God does not just “dwell within” each person. Each being is literally part of God’s life. Two metaphors I employ to illustrate this are the Author/Story metaphor I talked about in the Aspect Monism essay and “God and an RPG Metaphor” blog post: https://dlcommunion.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/god-and-an-rpg-metaphor/

    So are there significant differences between my ontology and Christianity? I think there are. In Christianity God may dwell in the believer but there is also some sort of separation, be it called rebellion, estrangement, fallenness, etc. To me this represents a negative connotation to creation where creation must be “fixed” with the eschaton. In an aspect monism there is no such separation. However, there is an eternal struggle between the good and the evil and that must and can be dealt with by probing and embracing the divine depth in all things.

    Now, having said all that, I don’t know which is correct. I greatly respect Christianity (was raised Lutheran and went to a Lutheran seminary) and I find much wisdom, inspiration, and guidance in it. I just couldn’t get past some of the problems I came to see in it.

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    1. Hi Steve,

      Sorry for the slow reply, we’re in different time zones and I needed to sleep 🙂 Thank you for your detailed response. I have spent some time on your blog today reading through a few of your articles, which are very interesting, although full of quite complex terminology so it’s a bit of a brain-ache at times. You’re obviously a clear thinker, but your style is quite academic.

      Anyway, to respond to just a few things from your comment/blog…

      In respect of your ‘aspect monism’. You say in one of your essays, “there is a relational whole (one thing) and all things are aspects of it”. I agree with this, but I just don’t tend to use those words. Whereas you say ‘everything is an aspect of God’s life’, I would say ‘everything is an expression of the being of God’.

      You say that “God has chosen to live”. I disagree with this, because I believe in the concept of God’s aseity – that is, God is necessarily existing. I believe living is part of His nature. Creation, however, isn’t a part of His nature, so that’s why panentheism makes a lot of sense to me.

      While you use the RPG metaphor on your blog, I prefer to use a puppet show analogy, with God being the puppeteer and creatures being puppets.

      I agree that everything is literally a part of God, and this is necessarily the case if God is omnipresent. This perspective is not compatible with free will, so it’s one of the main reasons why I struggle with Christianity.

      Does the ‘Contact’ form on your blog work? If so, I’d like to drop you an email as I have some suggestions to put to you. Alternatively, you can email me via my Contact page if you prefer?

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

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  7. In respect of your ‘aspect monism’. You say in one of your essays, “there is a relational whole (one thing) and all things are aspects of it”. I agree with this, but I just don’t tend to use those words. Whereas you say ‘everything is an aspect of God’s life’, I would say ‘everything is an expression of the being of God’.

    This seems like the “image of God” posited in Christianity. Could be. But what does “expression” mean? Omnipresence seems to mean that the very being of God is everywhere, in every fundamental particle up to the mind. Not just an expression. An expression implies some sort of distinction.

    It tend to rebel against dualistic tendencies in theology. In dualism there is a “difference” in ontology or being. I think this creates problems for theology. Things like free will and the problem of evil arise. If the ontology of being is different then where does free will come from? In regards to the problem of evil, if there is a distinct ontology does this mean that God is just an interested party observing suffering and perhaps “feeling” it but only powerlessly empathizing from a distance. This is the process theology point of view and seems cruel to me. If everything is literally a part of God then it is God in God’s self who suffers. The freedom that we may have is actually a constrained freedom that is endowed from God’s ultimate freedom.

    You say that “God has chosen to live”. I disagree with this, because I believe in the concept of God’s aseity – that is, God is necessarily existing. I believe living is part of His nature. Creation, however, isn’t a part of His nature, so that’s why panentheism makes a lot of sense to me.

    Ok, could be. Perhaps God just lives. But how does God live is the question? Does God create something distinct from God’s own being or does God portion out a part to accept the constrains of being alive and live that way? The difference is important because if it is distinct then it has its own freedom and its own suffering. God might be “present” but only in a somehow separate fashion.

    While you use the RPG metaphor on your blog, I prefer to use a puppet show analogy, with God being the puppeteer and creatures being puppets.

    I view this as psychologically untenable. This is really no different from the materialist worldview that necessity and chance determine everything. It means that you can’t do otherwise than take the positions you take. I don’t see how a person can think about this constantly and maintain any sense of meaning. In other words, how does it feel to be a puppet?

    I agree that everything is literally a part of God, and this is necessarily the case if God is omnipresent. This perspective is not compatible with free will, so it’s one of the main reasons why I struggle with Christianity.

    In Greek thought and Christianity there is the idea of kenosis, a self emptying or renunciation of the divine nature. In Christianity this what God did in the incarnation. This is why I listed the “omni” questions. Can God choose to limit God’s self in a particular situation? If so then while God may be present in all things, there is a limitation imposed by God. Limits in power and knowledge. If God is living in each being then since God is free the future is not known to God. I see this also as a reason that aspect monism has a great advantage. If God chooses to create limits, then God is free to do so. Each creature, as a part of God then determines the future, which God in that aspect creates, so it is unknown to God. God as an aspect of life is free to determine the future, within the limits imposed by God’s Divine Live parameters.

    Does the ‘Contact’ form on your blog work? If so, I’d like to drop you an email as I have some suggestions to put to you. Alternatively, you can email me via my Contact page if you prefer?

    Yes, the contact page works. I would absolutely appreciate suggestions. For a long time I haven’t been too satisfied with the way I have been presenting my ideas, so I would love suggestions.

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    1. This seems like the “image of God” posited in Christianity.

      It’s possible that God has given human beings characteristics that are closer to His nature than those of animals and plants and objects. But that’s not what I was getting at in my comment.

      But what does “expression” mean? Omnipresence seems to mean that the very being of God is everywhere, in every fundamental particle up to the mind. Not just an expression. An expression implies some sort of distinction.

      I use the word expression to mean a manifestation of God’s creative potential. I don’t mean to imply any kind of distinction, which I hope is clear to you from my insistence that God is literally omnipresent (down to every atom in existence).

      I tend to rebel against dualistic tendencies in theology. In dualism there is a “difference” in ontology or being. I think this creates problems for theology. Things like free will and the problem of evil arise.

      I would agree with this. I do not believe God is separate from creation, so the dualism problem doesn’t arise for me. It’s something that Christians have to grapple with, and they run into all kinds of problems with free will and concept of evil. It’s quite simple for me – we have no free will, because all will is God’s will, and God is in control of everything that a human might define as ‘good’ or ‘evil’.

      Does God create something distinct from God’s own being or does God portion out a part to accept the constrains of being alive and live that way? The difference is important because if it is distinct then it has its own freedom and its own suffering. God might be “present” but only in a somehow separate fashion.

      I believe it’s impossible for God to create something that is distinct from His being – omnipresence means that whatever God creates is created ‘in God’ (we’re back to panentheism). I believe that every experience we have is also experienced by God, but that God is also more than that experience and so doesn’t experience it as we do. God is experiencing everything at once, where as we experience things in ‘the human dimension’ (that’s the phrase I use in my book, Ultimate Truth: God Beyond Religion).

      Regarding my puppet show analogy you said this:

      I view this as psychologically untenable. This is really no different from the materialist worldview that necessity and chance determine everything. It means that you can’t do otherwise than take the positions you take. I don’t see how a person can think about this constantly and maintain any sense of meaning. In other words, how does it feel to be a puppet?

      It’s actually very different to a materialist/deterministic worldview. In a puppet show, events are not determined beforehand (other than that the puppet master will likely have a plan for the performance). Actually, the puppet master unfolds the show from moment to moment. This is exactly what I believe God is doing. He is a living God, acting right now in the single eternal moment. How does it feel to be a puppet? Well, you tell me! Sometimes I am happy, sometimes sad, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes asleep, sometimes aware of God, sometimes caught up in writing. God gives us a wealth of different experiences as part of the puppet show.

      Can God choose to limit God’s self in a particular situation?

      This is an argument often used by Christians, but I don’t think so. God is eternally existing, He can’t limit that. God is omnipresent, He can’t limit that. God is living, He can’t die. I came across the idea of kenosis while studying Philosophy and Religion and it’s not an idea I’m comfortable with.

      If God chooses to create limits, then God is free to do so. Each creature, as a part of God then determines the future, which God in that aspect creates, so it is unknown to God.

      Unfortunately, this makes no sense to me. You seem to be suggesting that creatures can act in a way that God isn’t aware of. That’s something I can’t accept. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding your point. Are you arguing for a kind of free will?

      Sorry for the long comment, but I felt you raised a lot of questions that warranted a response. You are welcome to respond here or by email, or it might be best if we just offer readers the opportunity to explore your (excellent) website and mine. I’m sure they will get a feel for our beliefs and theological perspectives by doing that.

      I may email you soon!

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

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  8. It’s quite simple for me – we have no free will, because all will is God’s will, and God is in control of everything that a human might define as ‘good’ or ‘evil’.

    [Sorry for the long post. Just got going and couldn’t stop]

    I agree that all is the will of God. The way I approach the problem of evil, within my ontology, is that God actually does both the good and evil. So how would this work? Well, in an aspect monism the way the will of God occurs in everything is that each entity is a part of God. So whatever we do is actually God doing it (in that aspect) so it is the will of God. I think this may be a difference in our ontological views. Where you see no free will, I see it because each individual is part of God and shares (within constraints) the ultimate freedom that God has.

    Let me illustrate this with a metaphor (for those who may have not read my essays). The metaphor is Author/Story. God is the author and creates a narrative of life. In the narrative there is everything in this life. The setting is the universe and with it “characters”, including quarks, rocks, plants, animals, humans, etc. Now since this narrative is in the mind of God, it is part of God. Everything is in God so we have a monism. Now in each aspect, God takes on the constrains of that entity. Kind of like kenosis. God lives that life. Each aspect also shares, within constraints, the nature of God: freedom, consciousness, intent, morality, etc. So in each aspect there is a limited free will but it is still the will of God.

    Now an interesting question is what’s going on with the Author? I think two things. God the Author has goals and purposes for the narrative and leads it towards those ends. However, each aspect has a life somewhat independent of the Author and as such may or may not embrace those goals. Since we (as aspects of God) are constrained in power and knowledge we must probe the divine depth within us to ascertain what God, the Author, would want. Then we must embrace it and make it happen. So the Author, God, lives lifes. Each life does both good and evil. Each makes choices. Each searches for meaning and purpose.

    The reasons I was led to this ontology was theological problem solving. In order for there to be free will, there must be a source of freedom. God is ultimately free and can share that freedom in finite ways with us. The problem of subjective consciousness which is a problem for materialism fits in nicely because everything is mental in the mind of God and God shares God’s subjective experience with us. Then there is the problem of evil. A sticky issue for many with this system might be that God actually does the evil. But in an aspect monism this is true. However, there are two mitigating factors. One is that life is worth it. It’s worth the potential for evil to live. The second is that it is actually God who is suffering. The evil that God does also inflicts suffering on God. Live is about struggle. And so God struggles in each life. Sometimes God inflicts pain and sometimes God suffers the pain.

    The issue for me was how to “solve” multiple problems all at once. In my view, the religious traditions get locked into a certain ontology that prevents them from dealing with problems sufficiently. Now no theological system may be totally satisfying. Mine is no different. First, it’s got a lot of speculation and not grounded in any particular codified revelation. So there is no objective authority granted to it. I believe it is grounded in our own religious intuitions and draws from ideas found in the wisdom literature that are considered revelatory, but each individual must decide for themselves. So the approach I take to theology is to try to solve problems in a reasonable way but also speak to the religious sensibilities we have. I believe that the divine is in everything and if presented with a true picture of God, it can be recognized. However, I think a healthy humility and skepticism is also in order. I call this a faithing fallibilism. I hope this long post clears up where I’m coming from.

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  9. Hello Steven,

    This was a thought-provoking post as I have not personally encountered someone who mixes panentheism and determinism in quite the way you have proposed here. A couple of questions came up as I read it. (Forgive me if you have already answered them elsewhere. I tried to skim over some of your other posts.)

    As a disclaimer, I have some affinity with panentheism. I think it is proper to say that we are incorporated within, infused throughout, and sustained by God. However, I am uncomfortable with the idea that God’s omnipresence is so radical that it does not allow for an individual human’s expression and differentiated experience. In your system, is our individual experience completely undifferentiated from God’s experience? Another way of phrasing the question would be, “how do you define the limits and boundaries of a human individual within an omnipresent God?”

    If the line between the individual’s will and God’s expression is completely erased such that “only God’s will goes,” then the argument logically precedes as you have plotted it above. However, if there is any conceivable way to differentiate the human individual from God, then there is the possibility of driving a wedge between that individual’s will and God’s. Then the question shifts to the relationship between God’s omnipotence and human agency. Why does God’s omnipotence have to be expressed as the direct control of a marionette rather than being conceived of as simply an ability to control?

    Finally, if “only God’s will goes,” then it seems that most popular conceptions of morality are abolished. Are God’s actions constrained to being loving and just? If so, then all that happens is loving and just. We simply lack the perspective to see it as such. Or can God commit both good and evils deeds? Or is the dichotomy between good/evil shattered and everything simply “is?” Sorry for the string of questions, but I think they reveal my thought process as I question the ramifications of your conception of God’s omnipresence and omnipotence in regard to ethics.

    I should also reveal my bias in that I generally fall under the libertarian umbrella, particularly when it concerns religious agency and experience of the divine. That is primarily because libertarianism makes the most intuitive sense of the world for me. The rationale follows later. That being said, these questions are born out of curiosity and I truly mean for them to be constructive. I am not at all meaning to be combative. You have liked a few of my post (thanks!), so I came here and was compelled enough to comment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Daniel!

      Thank you so much for engaging with me on this – I appreciate it. You raise excellent points and I’m grateful for the considerate tone of your comment. I will try to answer all your points, but please forgive me if I miss anything, you’re welcome to respond.

      The first thing to say is that I don’t consider myself a determinist in the sense that events are predetermined by God. I consider God to be living and active right now, unfolding events in the present moment. God is not in any way separate from all that happening right now, on the contrary, He is causing it. Often determinists see God as somehow detached from a reality that He kickstarted, and I just want to emphasise that’s not my position.

      In your system, is our individual experience completely undifferentiated from God’s experience? Another way of phrasing the question would be, “how do you define the limits and boundaries of a human individual within an omnipresent God?”

      I believe that God is in control of all human thought and action, but maintains a broader (omniscient) perspective. The way I describe it is that we experience life in the ‘human dimension’ and God experiences life in the ‘God dimension’. There is definitely a distinction, as God is coordinating all that exists, whereas we merely experience a small aspect of the total reality (certainly during life, although this may change after death).

      Why does God’s omnipotence have to be expressed as the direct control of a marionette rather than being conceived of as simply an ability to control?

      I believe it is a fact of reality that God exists and is omnipresent. Omnipresence is really the key word here. I believe that free will and divine omnipresence are logically contradictory, for if God is truly everywhere (his being extends to every cell of our bodies) then there is literally no room for free will. Free will necessarily puts boundaries on the omnipresence of God, which I am unable to accept, as I see God as boundless.

      Finally, if “only God’s will goes,” then it seems that most popular conceptions of morality are abolished. Are God’s actions constrained to being loving and just? If so, then all that happens is loving and just. We simply lack the perspective to see it as such. Or can God commit both good and evils deeds? Or is the dichotomy between good/evil shattered and everything simply “is?” Sorry for the string of questions, but I think they reveal my thought process as I question the ramifications of your conception of God’s omnipresence and omnipotence in regard to ethics.

      I believe God is in control of all things – both those things that we call ‘good’ and those things that we call ‘evil’. It makes no sense to me that God would somehow be dipping in and out of reality, doing good things but then our free will would somehow take over for all the evil stuff. Christians often stumble with this, as they will gladly say ‘God planted me in a great church’ or ‘God blessed me with a wonderful spouse’ (these things imply God’s total sovereign control over our lives) but at the same time ‘I freely abandoned my church’ or ‘I chose to divorce my spouse’. It just doesn’t make sense. It seems obvious to me that God is in control of every aspect of our lives, not just the good bits.

      I accept that the above perspective makes us look at morality differently. It places a much greater emphasis on God than Christians normally would. But I like the puppet show analogy, as in a puppet show you can have characters behaving in certain ways and reaping the consequences, even though in reality the puppet master is in control.

      If hope the above responses are helpful – feel free to respond with any point / questions that come to mind.

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

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  10. Is it possible for God to be omnipotent and not in control? Or, maybe it’s possible the God can simultaneously be in control and for each individual to be in control of their own lives? Maybe God, having the ultimate control/power to do as He pleases, has willed for us to each be made in His image, thus being in control of our own lives.

    Think of the director of an institution. They have designed some protocols for how the institution should run. Under the director, there are several employees, who should follow such protocols. Ultimately, the protocols of the institution are as designed by the director. However, individual employees each choose to either uphold or violate the protocols. This does not change the power of the director. It is only an indication of that employees respect of that director and his/her will. If I leave work early, that does not mean that my boss does not have the power to dictate my schedule. It simply means I chose my own will over theirs. I will likely suffer negative consequences for doing so (at a minimum, I’m causing damage to my conscience).

    That being said, it may also be possible that in some higher sense than is perceivable by mankind, God is truly in control of all things. Taking on faith that God is love, we must believe that even the horrible things that happen are somehow the result of the will of Love. His ways are higher than our ways. This is possible. This still might not negate the existence of free will on our part. This is hard to explain, but…imagine a video game with some very well executed seemingly random, but meaningful interactions between non-playable characters. These characters have been programmed by a software engineer. They really have absolutely no agency over their own lives. However, if you imagine that they have some form of awareness (perhaps they were programmed with artificial self-awareness), they might imagine (as they might be programmed to do so) that they have free will. They go about their simulated lives, doing this or that as they so feel inclined (as some random choice algorithm dictates). But really, so far as they are capable of understanding free will, they have that form of free will. In fact, in the realm of their entire universe, they do have free will as it is known to be.

    Likewise, though we are incapable of understanding how, it might be possible that God is in complete control, while we in our realm of existence have free will. God may be in complete control, and yet we can still do things He’d rather we not do. In fact, we can do things that He has commanded us not to do…every day.

    One final thought: His will is that all be saved. Yet, His word also indicates that not all will be saved. This is truth. He is not a liar. He is not double minded. Several times throughout the bible, there are accounts of His will being ignored and even contradicted by humans.

    Perhaps being omnipotent does not mean dictating the sequence of events. For me, I currently assume that I have free will, and it is thus my responsibility to apply my free will as I see fit. If I have chosen to submit my will to that of God, then I should be virtuous – being a bodily extension of God. If not, then I am not being a proper representative of Christ.

    Admittedly, I have no idea. But this is one of my favorite problems to consider.

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    1. Hey! (I’m not sure whether to call you Christian or Thomas).

      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m really tired so won’t go into depth in this comment, but if you have the opportunity to read a few of my other theology posts, and perhaps my essay entitled ‘An Almighty Predicament’ (on my Essays page), you will understand my perspective on the points you raise.

      Essentially, I don’t believe free will and an omnipresent God are logically compatible ideas. I don’t believe God’s being has boundaries, and as such, He is literally everywhere (including in every cell of our bodies). How can we then be free? Is it not God that beats our hearts, circulates our blood, grows our bodies, digests our food, etc? Or do you believe these are simply the effects of an evolved brain? Is God not living right now and unfolding all events in accordance with His will? I believe He is.

      Please do explore my other writing for further elaboration.

      Best wishes,

      Steven

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for your detailed reply! I will certainly read more of your posts.

        Briefly, since God is literally everywhere (as you describe, there is no place where he ends and we begin, we are one in the same), and God is without bounds in space, time, and power, then we – being parts of God – are able to be autonomous instances of God. In that way, we do have pure free will, which also (since we and God are one and the same) is an exercise of God’s free will. If God and man are indistinguishable at an existential level, then to say that I do not have free will is to say that God does not have free will.

        I trust, however, that since you’ve written on this before, you’ve probably put much more thought into this than I have. I look forward to reading your other related posts! It’s very enjoyable sharing such thoughts. Iron sharpens iron.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks, bro 🙂

          I often use the puppet show analogy – puppets are distinct from the puppeteer, and yet the puppeteer is perfectly in control of the puppets. This analogy captures something of the way I see the relationship between God and human beings.

          Always happy to discuss further. Thanks again!

          Steven

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  11. One of the reasons I enjoy blogging, is reading outside my usual realm of ideas. I must admit, I am pretty simplistic but here are my honed down thoughts on your presentation. (By the way, it is well-developed and sufficiently simplified for my reflection.)
    1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. I would add “holy”. Even though he has many other attributes, I need this one for point 2.
    2. I know he exists and is separate from me, because I am none of those things.
    3. I believe but can’t prove, that God “gave” me free will. I can only see and experience in my life, this product of God. I have never witnessed the moment an egg and sperm become a human being, He must have limited himself in some way for me to have free will.
    The question then becomes, why? Why would God create a being, able to make decisions incongruent with his attributes?
    The answer I have come to accept is love. Without free will, there is no love, only slaves or robots.
    I realize that I introduced “experience” into the mix of what was a very “heady” discussion. However, in my speculation of the attributes of God, my body and spirit must participate. I have to bring everything to the table and then still concede that he is too great for me to understand.
    Love this! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Basically, this is the age old debate of free will verses pre-destiny. A very wise minister once told me that it is not a matter of one versus the other. It’s a matter of the two existing in harmony with one another that defies all human understanding. In a way only God can understand, free will and pre-destiny can and do co-exist. We can’t explain it. As Billy Graham said a long time ago, “I’m not told anywhere in the Bible that I have to understand everything about God and His plan for our salvation. I’m only told I have to believe, and anyone can believe.”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Steven,

    I admire your blog, particularly the way you raise important and complex issues in an accessible and inviting style.

    I appreciated the piece on free will and determinism. I wonder, though, about the validity of your premise. You say that omnipresence “means that every cell of your body, and every particle in the universe, is a part of God” and that “[t]o deny this would be to limit God’s presence in such a way as to deny His omnipresence.” I don’t know of any orthodox Christian theologians who would agree.

    Augustine, for example, denied that God’s omnipresence was corporeal, He told us we must not think that God is present materially, whether in cells or particles. Anselm, who believed God to be present in every place at all times could nevertheless state that God is in no place at no time, based once again on the distinction between corporeality and non-corporeality, or between matter and spirit.

    Jurgen Moltmann argued that God made ontological space by retreating within himself. N.T. Wright, however, argues that God in love “creates new space for there to be things that are genuinely other than God.” This is similar to the argument of the 19th century Scots thinker and writer George Macdonald, who believed God created over a period of aeons in order to provide distance from himself for his creatures to experience autonomy. He chosen method of creation was designed for that very purpose.

    Thank you for making room on your site for the exchange of ideas. Best to you.

    Shayne

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Shayne,

      Many thanks for your comment and for that brief tour through the thoughts of a few well-known theologians.

      All I can really do is disagree with the arguments you have put forward. I believe God is boundless – there are no limits to His being, and His omnipresence is therefore literal. It is impossible for God to be separate from some part of reality by ‘retreating within Himself’, that idea seems illogical to me.

      I do understand that theologians often place limits on God so that their arguments for free will can be maintained. But I don’t believe we have free will, so I don’t have to wrestle with that problem.

      Thanks again for the thoughts, for your gracious tone, and for following my blog.

      Peace and blessings to you,

      Steven

      Like

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