• Free Will and the Leap of Faith

    [Here is another guest post from Bert Bigelow – cheers!]

    I have been engaged in an ongoing discussion with several friends about the concept of human Free Will, a cornerstone of all Abrahamic religions. If humans do not have Free Will, the whole scheme of sin and salvation collapses.

    I am going to walk down some well-trodden paths here, but bear with me and you will eventually see some new and, I hope, interesting scenery. Let’s begin with some characteristics of God, as described in various sacred documents. I have selected three that are relevant to this discussion. (Source: Theopedia)

    All-powerful – God has all power. He can exercise dominion over the entire universe, carry out the purposes of his wisdom, govern the hearts of men, and even create things out of nothing.

    All-knowing – God knows all things. This includes the past, the present, and the future

    Benevolent and Merciful  – God has all wisdom. He works everything out for the good of his people. He shows His mercy by not giving us the punishment we deserve.

    The Christian concepts of Heaven, Hell and Free Will are not consistent with the divine attributes listed above.  If God is All-Powerful then he could have created us so that we could not sin, and therefore all of us would achieve salvation. Nobody would go to Hell. In fact, God could have simplified the design by eliminating Hell.

    A Christian would answer that God wanted to give us the “gift” of Free Will so that we could choose freely not to sin.  But God is All Knowing, so he knows that we will exercise our free will when we are tempted, and that every single one of us will sin. Ah, but he is also Benevolent and Merciful, so he will forgive some of us and we will be saved from Hell. But according to His own words in the Bible (Matthew 7:13), many will not be saved. They will be cast into Hell to suffer eternal punishment for the sins they committed in their short lifetimes, the blink of an eye compared to the endless torture they are condemned to suffer.  How is this consistent with a God who is Merciful?  Was Free Will a gift…or a curse?  Furthermore, according to Christian beliefs, God created Satan to tempt us, making it even more difficult to avoid sinning. This is not consistent with a God who is either benevolent or merciful.

    Taken literally, this belief system is cruel, absurd and immoral. There are many intelligent Christian believers. How can they rationalize these obvious contradictions?  The God described above is a malicious tinkerer, creating us without our permission and then forcing us to play his little game of life according to his rules, with our all-too-human nature that he designed, dooming most players to lose the game.  This is not the God that believers are taught to believe in, but it is the only God that makes any logical sense, if one is to believe in the concepts of Heaven, Hell and Free Will.

    Now, to address the issue of “faith-based” belief:  Christians who bother to read what I have written above will probably respond…”You need to stop using logic and reason, and take the ‘Leap of Faith.’  Then, it will all become clear to you.”

    I have thought about the Leap of Faith, and I view it thus: Humans start their lives on the bank of a swamp. The bank is named “Ignorance.” Across the swamp there is another bank named “Enlightenment.” The swamp is too wide to leap over, but it is easy to leap into it. The name of the swamp is “Superstition.” There is a very complicated and challenging series of floating logs that provide a passage across the swamp to the other bank. These are the logs of logic and reason. The crossing is difficult, and there are many people living in the swamp who tell those trying to cross, “Do not cross. Join us in the swamp. We are very happy here.  Take the Leap of Faith…INTO the swamp.”

    Category: FeaturedFree Will and DeterminismGod's CharacteristicsPhilosophy of ReligionReligion and Society


    Article by: Bert Bigelow

    • D Rieder

      Take the leap of faith indeed…into the swamp…but which hole. IF I was to take a leap of faith into some sort of superstition, I’d probably go with reincarnation. I’ve had psychological experiences with that and it’s the closest to spirituality I’ve come. But I doubt most Christians would agree with that leap of faith. They’d say my “experiences” were simply my mind playing tricks on me or I simply misinterpreted what were real inspirations. I wholeheartedly agree it was my mind playing tricks on me. But if my mind is capable of doing that, then why should I go after yet another superstition that, in my opinion, played tricks on my mind for ~2 decades.

      I’ll stick to the logs and keep my mind from being muddled or muddied.

      Of course the Christian would say THEY are on the logs and we atheists and nons slog through the swamp of misery and despair even though we don’t know it.

      • This point is loosely connected to prior probability and Bayes’s Theorem.

        A Christian would say the prior probability of a miracle claim being true was higher, partly on account of miracles being a real thing etc etc. The whole paradigm then shifts.

        • D Rieder

          Interestingly enough, NOT in the direction theist would wish. Miracles might be the result of a God’s actions. But miracles, where supernatural powers actually alter the course of the natural universe, do not prove or even highly suggest the existence of (a) God. All it would require is a form of supernatural energy which (certain) people can tap into and, using their own supernatural power, create miracles. How could one tell the difference between a miracle wrought by God or a miracle wrought by someone tapping into a blind/mindless supernatural power?

          Where would such a power come from?

          Who knows…the same place a God might come from, it would simply exist eternally. Frankly I would be more credulous of a blind/mindless supernatural power than accepting that this power has mega powers, a will, and intelligence.

        • Kevin L

          Gives Bayes a bad name imo. Defining priors based on fallacious (question begging) reasoning is an abuse of the system. Bayes is amazing for formal decision making, but, if abused, will predictably lead to improbable beliefs and irrational behavior.

          • It does, indeed become circular, based on probabilities, I would posit, derived from the first miracle considered, but also on background knowledge. It is this background knowledge thing which can be misappropriated.

            • Kevin L

              Agreed. People who abuse it in this way are also conflating knowledge and assumption, which actually makes their priors less probable, as unjustified assumptions represent complexity. Especially with the broad hypothesis space that exists for metaphysical hypotheses.

    • John Grove

      And that’s just mainstream Christendom. Now, consider the Calvinists in light of your comment that states:

      “If God is All-Powerful then he could have created us so that we could not sin, and therefore all of us would achieve salvation.”

      According to Calvinism that statement is true, but that was not his plan. His plan decreed that sin would also be a part of His plan and the death and descruction of countless billions. And Calvinists consider God to be all loving in that at least he spared a “few” because he was under no compulsion to save “any”.

      Worship that? No thank you…………

      • Hi John
        Hope you are well.
        Just checking to see if you are aware of the change of online address! patheos.com/blogs/tippling/
        Subject: Re: Comment on Free Will and the Leap of Faith

        • John Grove

          I just saw it, awesome. I put it on my favorites! Great job my brother.

    • Collin237

      So in order to defeat the dogma of sin and salvation, you replace it with the dogma of determinism?

      Free will is any process that turns small-scale randomness into large-scale adaptation to its surroundings. It can happen to any large system. Determinists deny that it happens at all. Christians accept that it happens to people, but deny it for everything else.

      When natural disasters occur, people outside of Abrahamic dogma know that sometimes things organize themselves and cause chaos. They know it’s just part of the physical world, and not a punishment from anything. But it was the consensus of Christian conquerors that they were “animists” blaming the disasters on “spirits”. It was Christians who insisted that only people are capable of chaos, whereas natural forces are ordained by God. It was Christians who declared that physics is deterministic, whereas people have free will outside of physics.

      • BertB

        Not determinism. I think we make decisions based on our genetic heritage and the experiences we have in life. And then, there is a random element which I characterize as “am I hungry or horny?” But there are lots of other random inputs to our decision making process. Whether there is also an element of Free Will is debatable. Many nonbelievers think there is. I am skeptical, but I don’t have a hard-over opinion on it.

        • Collin237

          You have a heading “Science of Determinism” on the leaderboard of this site. There is no such thing.

          Furthermore, there is no evidence that genes influence human decisions. What appear to be genetic correlations are actually the effects of how we react to the perception — primarily visual — of one another’s bodies.

          • BertB

            1. It is not “my site.” I have permission to post articles here. If you read the beginning of this article, Jonathan Pearce, the site owner, introduces me as a “guest.” This was one of the first articles I posted here, a little over two years ago.
            2. I don’t want to argue about it, but I have read many articles on Free Will, and all of them cite genetic heritage as one of the factors that influences human decision-making. Maybe they are all wrong and you are right. For the benefit of any readers who might come back to this ancient thread, you could post some links that support your position.

            • Collin237

              I’m not going to be a link-dropper. My position is not original at all. It’s the consensus of anthropologists. It’s just as well known as any other scientific consensus. I have no more of a duty to explain it to you than a biologist has to explain things to a Creationist.