Stubborn Highlanders Revisited, and Antinomies of Pure Reason

Aam still thinkin’ abit it.

We’ve been discussing free will in the context of universalism.  The notion put forth by defenders of the Traditional View of Hell (TVOH) in recent times has tried to defend God from charges of wantonly tossing people to damnation by asserting that the damned damn themselves.  That is, those who choose against God, who choose to reject Him, voluntarily remove themselves from His presence.  This removal from God’s presence is Hell.  To the objection that they would surely change their minds sooner or later, the assertion is made that it is possible to reject God permanently, that is, to make an irrevocable decision from free will.  For one to assert a universalist view–that all will ultimately be saved–one must argue that no such irrevocable decision, at least regarding Hell, is possible.  This possibility of eternally irrevocable choices is what we’ve been looking at.

Let’s briefly sum up what we’ve decided thus far.  Some argue that in the afterlife time as we know it no longer applies to saved or damned souls, and thus that their choices are not irrevocable over countless aeons, but rather made once and for all in an eternal moment.  Against this, I’ve argued here and here that this can apply only to God Himself, and not to lesser beings, even immortal ones in the afterlife.  Therefore, I’ve focused on whether or not a choice, can, in fact, be eternally irrevocable.  I began that discussion here and elaborated here.  I’ve used the whimsical idea that Connor MacCleod, eponymous hero of the Highlander movies and guest star in the series, has vowed that he will never, ever eat a broccoli fudge sundae.  I’ve further specified that he is truly immortal–he will live not just for an unimaginably long time, but literally for all eternity.  Can he keep this vow?

If he does keep the vow, then it seems true to say that the probability that he’ll ever eat a broccoli fudge sundae is zero.  This, however, seems equivalent to saying that no circumstance will ever arise to make him change his mind; which seems equivalent to saying that he can’t change his mind (remember, zero probability); which in turn seems to imply that he lacks free will.

On the other hand, one could argue that given infinite time, every logically possible thing (that is, everything that is not a logical contradiction, such as a married bachelor) will sooner or later happen.  It is certainly logically possible that Connor will eat a broccoli fudge sundae; so if this interpretation of probability is true (everything that can happen will happen), then it must be true that Connor will eventually break his vow and have the sundae.  This also implies that he lacks free will, though, since he vowed not to have the sundae.

This may seem silly, but it’s vitally relevant.  If an eternally irrevocable decision can be freely made by a finite creature, then it seems that one could indeed choose eternal damnation freely; and if this is so, we can’t rule out such a choice; and this makes universalism untenable.  On the other hand, if a finite being cannot (not just will not but can not) choose eternal damnation, this seems to imply that there is no free will.  This saves universalism, but it  contradicts usual Christian belief (at least for non-Calvinists) in the freedom of the will.  We seem to have hit an impasse.

I’ve given this a lot of thought over the last several months as I’ve worked on this series, and have not been able to give an answer that satisfies me.  I am increasingly inclined to view the issue as an antinomy of pure reason.  I’m using this word in the specific sense in which the great (and often obscure) philosopher Immanuel Kant used it.  That is, an antinomy is, to quote the linked article

[T]he equally rational but contradictory results of applying to the universe of pure thought the categories or criteria of reason that are proper to the universe of sensible perception or experience (phenomena). Empirical reason cannot here play the role of establishing rational truths because it goes beyond possible experience and is applied to the sphere of that which transcends it.

For example, one cannot prove by reason alone that the universe is eternal or that it  had a beginning.  To use a layman’s exposition, to prove it’s eternal, we’d have to be able to trace its history back forever; but by definition we can’t do that.  No matter how far back we went, we’d never know if the beginning was just a few more years back, or if there is no beginning.  On the other hand, if we found a “beginning”, we’d have, by definition, no way of going past that beginning; which means that we wouldn’t know for sure that there wasn’t actually something there after all, and that the “beginning” was only apparent.  Reason alone can’t decide, since the issue transcends pure reason.

I’m strongly inclined to the view that whether a finite, created being can make a truly free decision that is irrevocable–be that a decision never to eat a broccoli fudge sundae, or to remain in Hell–is an antinomy of pure reason.  It seems that equally plausible arguments can be made on each side of the issue, and that neither side decisively trumps the other.  Thus, neither we–nor Connor MacLeod himself–have any way of knowing if he can keep his vow or not.  This is a trivial issue for Connor, but not for us in considering Hell and universalism.  Perhaps we need to look at free will in a different light.  We’ll discuss that next time.


Posted on 29/08/2014, in Christianity, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. “one could argue that given infinite time, every logically possible thing (that is, everything that is not a logical contradiction, such as a married bachelor) will sooner or later happen.”

    How can one argue this? By the time he gets around to wanting the sundae, broccoli might well be extinct. To make the assertion you make, don’t you have to presume that all the relevant players in the scenario are immortal?

    Sorry if this is an irrelevant comment as this is my first exposure to what is apparently an ongoing analysis.

    • Here’s a discussion of some of the issues. Theoretically, given a truly infinite amount of time and an infinite universe, everything that can happen, will happen. Even if broccoli became extinct, it would eventually evolve again. The entire cosmos might go through cycles of partial or full repetition.

      Put it another way: To say that X can happen means “A certain set of circumstances, C, exists such that if C occurs, then X happens.” Now in an infinite universe with infinite time and random interaction of forces and particles, it seems that all sets of circumstances will eventually come to be, even if it takes untold billions of trillions of quadrillions of years. If this is so, then sooner or later C will come to be; and by definition, when C occurs then X occurs.

      Now as the linked article points out, there are all kinds of assumptions and priors and such, so in actuality a question like this is hard to answer. I’m inclined to think that given enough time, any logically possible state of events occurs, but I’m not at all sure. Thus, I’m not sure that I can say that Connor would give in and eat the sundae. On the other hand, it’s not clear that we could know beforehand that Connor would keep his vow not to eat the sundae. If he said he wouldn’t eat one by next Friday, then yes, we’d know for sure then. But since this is eternity we’re talking about, and no matter how many aeons passed, he might theoretically change his mind tomorrow, how could we be sure? I think the question is very vexed no matter how we look at it, and that it may be beyond our ability to say. Hence, the antinomy of pure reason.

  2. The “antinomy of pure reason” analysis seems right. I would venture a few other observations, though, which seems relevant to me, though perhaps they won’t to you:

    1. We’ve wandered somewhat afield of what people have in mind when they talk about universalism. Whether a person can irrevocably “damn himself” or not doesn’t really go to that issue — not as conventionally understood — because universalists (and their opponents) aren’t arguing about what *people* can / will / might do, but about what *God* can / will / might do. We don’t really experience the possibility that we might change our minds sometime in the indefinite future — or that we might stick to a decision and never change our minds — as a problem. What we experience as a problem is the possibility of someone ELSE doing something TO us that we find undesirable. So the “money question” is whether God damns people, not whether it’s possible for us to damn ourselves.

    2. However, on the question before the house: the idea of a person “choosing damnation” strikes me as raising a different set of definitional problems. If damnation is anything, it is an undesirable state. Can one choose an undesirable state? Doesn’t choosing it mean it’s desired? Granted, it may be a BAD state; people choose all the time to do or endure things that are objectively bad for them. But how are we defining “damnation” if a freely chosen state of things qualifies?

    3. Anyway, I don’t think that people can choose such a state, not in a way that is truly voluntary. Organic creatures, by virtue of being such, (a) want to live, and (b) do not want pain. These are features of how organisms evolved. The continuation of life implies some kind of desire for it, hence all creatures desire life until the moment they die (and then, arguably, only if they die of senescence / natural causes); and, because they desire life, they have an inborn aversion to that which threatens life, an aversion experienced (given the design of the nervous system) as pain. Hence they are averse to (= cannot want) pain.

    Ergo, a human being who “wants” (or rather, professes to want) either to do or to experience pain is — if I may put it this way — objectively disordered, or in a word, sick. The notion that God would permit people to freely choose a condition of suffering (let alone for all eternity!) amounts, then, to saying that God indulges sickness, or worse, damns the sick, or at least allows them to be damned — *for being sick.* Such a God is even worse than a God who merely damns the morally deficient. Universalism is surely the rejection of such a notion of God, and therefore a rejection of the idea that God permits people to “damn themselves” (i.e. “voluntarily” choose to suffer, because as just argued this cannot really be voluntary unless we accept some dubious definitions of terms).

    Those are my thoughts.

    • I would pretty much agree with you, Jeff. In regard to your point 1, I do not think God damns people; that’s my answer to the “money question”. The bigger picture is this: There seem to be two kinds of people who believe in Hell. One is the type I described here. These are the ones who get off on the notion of damnation–damnation for others, of course. I’ve had discussions with these types before, and it’s a total waste of time.

      The others feel compelled, for whatever reason, to accept the existence of Hell but feel conflicted about it because they realize that tossing people into Hell makes God look bad. Some of this latter group try to square the circle by arguing that damning people for eternity–sometimes for what seems to be trivial things–is somehow not incompatible with God’s purported infinite love and desire that none be lost. Some refuse to think about the contradiction. The most honest realize that this doesn’t work; but, feeling compelled by tradition or whatever to believe that there is a Hell, and that it’s populated, try to turn it around and say, “God doesn’t damn anyone–those who are damned, damn themselves!”

      As you rightly say here–and as I’ve alluded to here and here, this would be tantamount to damning the sick for being sick. However, it’s even worse than that. If God is truly omnipotent and omniscient, then He knows ahead of time that some proportion of the human race will turn out sick–wanting to choose Hell. He knows this before He has actually created anyone; yet knowing this, He structures the universe such that those sick people will end up separated from Him eternally–in Hell. He knows that some people will “damn themselves” and yet instead of planning treatment for those sick people, He’s setting up a system in which they go to Hell forever. Not only is he sending the sick to Hell, He planned it that way!

      Actually, when I started, I thought that the best strategy to argue for universalism would be to say, in effect, “People would not choose to damn themselves eternally, because they’d change their minds, sooner or later.” Proponents of Hell argue that it’s possible to make an eternal, irrevocable decision to stay in Hell. That seemed to me intuitively wrong; hence the series on free will. As has happened more than once in the time I’ve had this blog, though, I found after digging into the nuts and bolts of the argument that it turned out differently than I’d previously thought. As I admitted in this post, I don’t think I can prove (as I had formerly thought I could) that one could never make such a stupid decision. I can’t prove the opposite, either.

      Meanwhile, I’d gradually come to the conclusion that the assertion that God “respects our free choices” is a bit of a chimera, and a red herring. Why the hell (no pun intended) would God respect the decision of someone who is, as we both agree in this context, mentally ill? We humans don’t do that–why would God?

      However, having begun the series on free will, I wanted at least to give it some kind of conclusion, even if that conclusion was that there was no possible conclusion. It was a fun excursion, but an admitted dead end. As to the universalism, I think I still have a post or two that will bring it back to the illness model and the implications thereof.

      • Turmarion, thanks for that reply. I’ll be interested in seeing what more you have to say about the illness model. I think over the course of this century, as the brain becomes better understood, it’s going to become ever harder to blame people for most dysfunctional and antisocial conditions. My guess is that a basic concept of “free will” will survive, but more as a way of describing how people choose among different healthy (or only mildly unhealthy) possibilities — the really pathological states will be understood as nothing that anyone would ever willingly choose. This will certainly have implications for theology along with much else. (I say that’s my “guess,” and I think it extrapolates current trends, but obviously I don’t know; maybe there will be a renaissance in blaming the mentally ill, accusing them of witchcraft or demonic possession, etc. Hope not, though!)

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