Last time we looked at whether God could have created truly free beings that either could not or would not sin, and concluded that likely He could not do so. In short, truly free beings must have the possibility of sinning, and given enough time, at least some are almost certain to do so. A third question we posed and saved until later, to wit:
Given the assumption (which I accept) that God made the spiritual world and the incorporeal intelligences (what we call angels, etc.), why did He make embodied intelligences–i.e. us, as well as any other intelligent species that may exist here on Earth or elsewhere in the cosmos?
This question seems to be on a tangent from the questions about the ability of beings to sin, but there is a subtlety involved, which I’ll get to a few posts down the road. In the meantime, I want to look at possible answers. After all, the various Christian accounts of creation, orthodox, Gnostic, and other, all agree that God began creation by making the incorporeal–bodiless–intelligences that we call angels, demons and (perhaps) other types of spirits. Embodied intelligences (such as ourselves), and for that mater, the material cosmos as a whole, were not created until after the spirit realm. In most traditional religions, though, the spirit realm is thought of as being “higher”. The question, then, is if this is so, why did God bother with the “lower” realm–our realm–and with us? Weren’t we a bit of a come-down from the angels?
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?
Because I’ve been thinking it’s been way too long since we’ve had some Gaga here–and how better to celebrate my 1500th post?
I’m writing this as a standalone, though it has some relevance to some of my other posts on religion. In speaking of God, one has to remember that one is always talking in terms of analogy. However, given that we can’t help using language, we have to use analogy whether we like it or not. The danger, of course, is too much anthropomorphism. We have to steer between the Scylla of not being able to talk about God at all and the Charybdis of making Him appear too much like one of us. There are different ways of plotting this course, and the one I want to talk about here is one that began a couple of decades or so ago: open theism.
Before we can talk about open theism, we have to lay a bit of background. The foundational religions of the West are the Abrahamic religions; and the foundational text for all of them, to one degree or another, is the Old Testament (known to Jews as the Tanakh, or often in English as the Hebrew Bible). One of the most prominent aspects of the Old Testament is the way it portrays God. The OT, by and large, is extremely anthropomorphic in its description of God. He is described as having various bodily parts, and Moses is granted the favor of actually seeing Him from behind (Exodus 33:18-23). He is depicted as having limited knowledge (Genesis 18:21) and as apparently forgetting things (Genesis 8:8, where He is implied to have suddenly remembered Noah after having forgotten about the Flood for the last forty days). He is depicted as changing His mind back and forth (Exodus 32:8-14). According to the Old Testament, God orders genocide with little compunction (Joshua, all throughout) and smites His own people, including innocents, for totally capricious reasons (2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21). Examples could be multiplied, but hopefully these are enough to get the picture of a God who is rather disturbing, who is–well, psycho. This, for anyone past the barbarian tribesman phase, is a problem.
This post is a short aside in which to put a necessary part of an argument I’m making in its own place. I’ve discussed what I’m going to talk about in other posts, in bits and pieces; but this way it’ll be a one-stop shop that I can always link back to.
God is typically defined as being omnipotent–Almighty or All-Powerful. This is conventionally understood to mean that He can do anything. Of course, when it comes to philosophy or theology, sooner or later someone will toss out a question such as this: Can God make a married bachelor? Can he make it so that 2 + 2 = 5? Of course, the classic question of this type is, “Can God make a rock so big even He can’t lift it?” In classical theism, the answer to all these questions is “No.” What I want to do in this post is to show why.
As a slight but necessary tangent to my series on free will and choice, which is itself a slight but necessary tangent to the issue of universalism, it’s necessary here to discuss the three basic views (there are subcategories, but these are the main ones to consider) regarding free will, or the lack thereof.
Libertarianism (not to be confused, in this context, with the odious political party or the even more odious political philosophy) is the belief that humans do indeed have free will. Free will, in short, is real, not an illusion. Just so we’re clear, we’re talking about the commonsense definition of “free will” as “the ability to do whatever you want, within the constraints of ability and duress”. The last clause is important. I am not free to flap my arms and fly to the moon, since that’s impossible. The poor man is not free to eat at the Ritz, as the saying goes, since he lacks the money. If I’m in jail or under the influence of drugs, my free choices may be prevented (I can’t just walk out of jail) or suppressed (I might do things under the influence that I normally wouldn’t). Still, the basic definition–that I can do what I want, if I’m able to do so–is a good one for free will.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it is worth saying at this juncture that free will implies moral responsibility for one’s actions. If I freely do something bad, I am responsible for that and worthy of blame, or even imprisonment or execution, if what I do is bad enough. If I do something good through my own free will, I am worthy of praise and perhaps even honors and accolades. This accords with the commonsense view of what free will is and what it entails.
Alas, my theological writings seem to be a series of matryoshka dolls. In order to make certain points or establish the groundwork for certain areas relevant to the main topic, it is necessary to develop ancillary topics. These in turn expand until in order to keep track of them I have to assign them series of their own. This is what I find I’m having to do with my discussions on free will, which are necessary to the topic of universalism, which in turn is a big part of my series on the Fall. Sigh. Anyway, I decided I might as well index the posts on free will here, along with some even more ancillary posts I needed to develop the ideas there. Thus, without further ado, my latest index!
It’s hard to find a soul here, in this crowd of skin and bones.–Susanna Hoffs, “Made of Stone”
We’ve seen why the troubles besetting Connor MacLeod and the murky possibility of predestination do not apply to God. Now we return to the issue of how humans make choices (if in fact the can do so), and if they can hold to these choices forever. One possible perspective needs to be dealt with before I go on to a fuller consideration of the issue. That perspective deals with the nature of our mind.
First, I am most definitely a New Mysterian–that is to say, I think the so-called “hard problem of consciousness” cannot be solved by humans or human science. Beyond that, I take it as axiomatic that humans indeed have souls, and that these souls are immaterial and survive death. I’m not interested in defending these assertions at this point. As a believer, I take for granted the traditional Christian teaching on the existence of the soul. If I didn’t believe in the existence of souls, then none of the increasingly large number of posts here would have the slightest significance and I could be spending my time in some more fruitful pursuit. Thus, the presupposition that we have souls that are immaterial underlies all the follows from here.
It occurs to me that we’ll need to take a short detour at this point. We’ve been discussing the issues involved in freely made but irrevocable choices made by immortal beings. We’ve already seen some philosophical issues. On the one hand, it seems as if any such irrevocable choice would eventually have to be revoked. On the other, if such a being were successful in carrying out such a choice, it seems as if this would indicate that it lacked free will in the first place. Before we move on to examine these problems more, I think we need to revisit a previous post and consider how all this applies to God.
My argument there was that these issues do not apply to God, since He is eternal, properly so-called. That is, He is outside of time altogether. I’m essentially repeating that argument here, with slightly different nuance. The last time I was making the argument in terms of probabilities. The last two posts have been subtly different in their analysis, and I want to address that here.
Last time we looked at the philosophically perplexing case of a finite but immortal being that makes an irrevocable choice. The whimsical example we used was of Highlander Connor MacLeod, who resolves that he will never eat a broccoli fudge sundae throughout eternity. To do so is not a logical impossibility as being a married bachelor would be, for example. It seems common sense, then, to say that Connor at any point could eat the sundae; he just doesn’t want to, or has chosen not to. However, to say that a thing could happen–which is the same thing as saying it’s possible–seems to imply that, given a sufficiently long period of time, it will happen. I didn’t give the term last time, but this idea is sometimes called the plenitude principle. This principle seems to imply that if it’s logically possible to eat a broccoli fudge sundae–which it certainly is, aesthetics aside–that sooner or later Connor will indeed eat it, given that he has literally all the time in the world. This, however, seems to imply that Connor does not have the free will to eternally refrain from such sundaes.
On the other hand, if we say that Connor can indeed go forever without eating the sundae, that seems to mean that there is zero probability that it will happen; which seems equivalent to saying that it cannot happen; which seems to say it is not possible; which seems to conflict with the notion of what it means to say that it is logically possible, and with the plenitude principle. It’s even worse than that in that Connor’s ability to forever forgo broccoli fudge sundaes by an act of free will seems, paradoxically, to undermine the notion that he has free will. To see why, we need now to discuss naval battles.
Now that we’ve recapped, let’s explore the free will of immortals again.
Going back to here, let’s examine the following scenario:
Connor MacLeod has solemnly vowed never to eat a broccoli fudge sundae. Though we don’t and probably can’t, know that the universe is, in fact, eternal, for purposes of the discussion we’ll assume it is. Further, we’ll assume that Connor has the means to planet hop in case Earth ever becomes uninhabitable. Thus he will truly live forever, not just until the universe’s heat death. Thus, for Connor, “never” means never through all eternity.
Now, in probability, the likelihood of something occurring is between zero (it cannot occur–more on this later) and one (it must occur–this needs to be unpacked, too, but we’ll hold off for just a bit). Things that must occur (bachelors must be single, two plus two must be four, a finite whole must be larger than any of its parts) are necessary truths with a probability of one (mathematically, P=1); things that cannot occur (a bachelor being married, two plus two equaling 85, a finite part being bigger than its associated whole) are logical contradictions with a probability of zero (P=0). Everything else is a possibility of greater or lesser likelihood (high likelihood of the sun rising tomorrow, P>0.9999999999 ; low likelihood of Klingon invasion, P<0.000000001). It’s important to note that a probability higher than zero, no matter how small, is still a possibility (this, too, is an important point). The sun almost certainly will rise, but it might not; Klingon invasion is vanishingly unlikely, but it could occur.
If we assume that Connor keeps his word, forever, this appears to be equivalent to saying that the probability that he eats a broccoli fudge sundae is zero (mathematically, P(B)=0, where B means “Connor does eat the sundae,” and P(B)=0 means “the probability of Connor eating the sundae equals zero). This, is indeed puzzling, though. How can even an immortal say with one hundred percent certainty that he will never, never, ever eat such a sundae? One can imagine (especially if you’re a scriptwriter for Highlander) hypotheticals that might tie the hands of even an immortal and force a change of mind.