20 Sep 2015

Free Will vs. Determinism

Religious 31 Comments

A lot of people really don’t like the idea (which is certainly in Calvinism but is present in varying degrees in all forms of Christianity) that you have free will and yet God is in control (or “sovereign”). Another way of seeing the tension is that God knew whether you were going to be saved before you were born, right? (If He didn’t, He wouldn’t know everything.)

One way I’ve tried to handle that in the past is to liken God to a human author. For example, is Darth Vader evil? Yes. He killed innocent people, and he did it on purpose, knowing it was wrong. However, didn’t George Lucas really design the whole Star Wars universe, characters, and plot line? So there’s a sense in which Lucas “made” Vader turn evil. And yet, nobody thinks George Lucas is a murderer. In fact, a lot of people love him precisely because of the beautiful story of the fall and redemption of Anakin.

I hope you can see how the above is analogous to Christianity.

But now I’m saying something different. Back in the 1800s, the educated people believed that the physical universe was deterministic. So there was a sense in which your every bodily movement was already “set in stone” from before you were born (in their worldview). Yet they still had to live their lives, and act as if they had free will. They still held each other morally culpable for their actions. (Furthermore, it gets you nowhere to say, “It’s not his fault for robbing that bank! Look at the state of the protons in the universe at time T-2,” because we can say, “It’s not our fault for giving him the electric chair. We can’t help it.”)

So I think a Christian is in a similar situation. He knows that ultimately, even his bodily movements are carried along in an unstoppable current of God’s will, but yet he can’t help proceed as if he is making genuine moral choices.

31 Responses to “Free Will vs. Determinism”

  1. Jim WK says:

    I’m a Christian, but your Star Wars analogy doesn’t really work, as you’re comparing fiction with non-fiction. The reason no one thinks George Lucas is a murderer is because no actual murders took place in Star Wars – it was all acting. Obviously in real life there are real murders going on. However, that aside, I think the idea of God being a mass murderer when, say, a tsunami hits, is absurd. The narrative He created is one which we will all die. Every night there are thousands of elderly people that die in their sleep – but no one thinks of God as a mass murderer every night when that happens, even though it is death on a mass scale.

  2. Z says:

    George Lucas aka Carousel Egg aka Coal Egg User, would be very unhappy with Darth Vader’s actions.

  3. Major.Freedom says:


    Suppose tomorrow God changed the universe in such a way that a new reality began whereby if we were to follow God’s commands that will result not in us going to heaven but going to hell, and to disobey God’s commands will result not in going to hell but in going to heaven.

    Would you still follow God’s commands, knowing you’ll eventually go to hell, or would you start disobeying his laws, knowing you’ll eventually go to heaven? And whatever you choose, why would you choose it?

    • Keshav Srinivasan says:

      Personally, I would do follow the divine will regardless of what suffering I’d have to endure in the afterlife as a result. I’d like to tell you a brief Hindu story. There was once a man named Ramanuja who want to a teacher to learn a prayer which if chanted can get you eternal salvation. The teacher taught him the prayer, but instructed him to never tell it to anyone, and warned him that if he disobeyed the teacher, Ramanuja would suffer a terrible fate in the afterlife. But Ramanuja went to the top of the nearest hill, and shouted the prayer to everyone within hearing distance. When his teacher found out what had happened, he was furious and asked Ramanuja why he would do this. Ramanuja said “I just obtained eternal salvation for so many people. Does it really matter if I suffer in the afterlife as a result?” (For the record, he didn’t end up suffering in the afterlifez; he got eternal salvation as well.)

      The point is, doing the right thing is more important than worrying about the consequences. Now I happen to believe that doing the right thing always leads to good consequences for you, and further that it would pretty much be impossible for that not to be the case, but still if somehow we were transported to a Universe where it wasn’t the case, you should still d the right thing.

      • Keshav Srinivasan says:

        *went to a teacher

      • Major.Freedom says:

        I should mention that I am not asking the question as a gotcha.

        I don’t think in such a theistic framework there is a certain right or wrong answer. I think it is a helpful thought experiment for the theist in that it can help them understand the true reasons why they think and act in accordance with their God’s commands (no matter the religion), and it will help them understand why they believe certain acts are immoral.

        I think the same sort of question can be asked of atheists, if there is a way to tweak the scenario to make it secular, like for example suppose we are the creations of a superhuman but very much organic and physical entity, and we are told, and believe, that the common moral wrongs like murder and rape and theft, are rules the aliens set up for us, and that tomorrow the universe became a place where if abide by those rules then we’ll be tortured forever in some organic, heretofore unknown organic existence, whereas if we violate them then we’ll experience our own unique versions of organic paradise after “this” known life.

        • guest says:

          “… and it will help them understand why they believe certain acts are immoral.”

          That consideration would actually be irrelevant in your scenario.

          Regardless of what acts are immoral, you want to avoid hell at all costs.

          (Aside: In the biblical paradigm, you can’t do goog works to get to heaven.)

          • Major.Freedom says:

            Looks like I am helping!

            Guest, who are you referring to when you said “you” want to avoid hell at all costs?

            Are you not presuming a tacit ethic there? That it is your contention that it is moral to disobey God’s commands because avoiding hell justifies it?

            Keep going, and you’ll see it isn’t irrelevant.

    • Grane Peer says:

      Major, I think all one would have to do is follow gods commands and then not repent on your death bed.

      • Major.Freedom says:

        Clever, though I didn’t have in mind one bad deed negating all previous good deeds, or rather I should say one rewarding deed negating all previous costly deeds.

        The obverse is the Christian dogma, which means I can’t say your response is unfair.


        Since the common response to me bringing up the Christianity sanctioned life of committing evil on Earth one’s whole life and then repenting on one’s deathbed to get into heaven is “You can try that, but God will know what is really in your heart, so you have to actually believe what you did in whole life was wrong”, then I can turn that around as it would pertain to my initial post and say ” OK Grane, you can try to life of obeying God’s commands, like don’t murder people, and then repent on your deathbed, but you have to actually believe in your heart that you did something wrong and that you really are sorry about disobeying his commands.”

  4. Keshav Srinivasan says:

    “And yet, nobody thinks George Lucas is a murderer.” Bob, you’ve made this point numerous times, but I don’t think it works. The reason we don’t think Lucas is a murderer is that his characters don’t exist, not because he’s their creator. If George Lucas were a physicist who somehow really created an entirely new Universe ex nihilo, and starting killing its inhabitants, I daresay people would call him a murderer.

    • Major.Freedom says:

      Yeah I’m with you on that point. I never found the Lucas – Galaxy / God – Universe analogy compelling.

      I never knew what “there is a sense in which” actually meant when he says “There is a sense in which Lucas “made” Vader evil.”

      The reason people do not call Lucas a murderer is not because Vader rather than Lucas killed those innocent people. It is because people do not have that “sense” in which Lucas’ story of a galaxy far, far away is our own universe.

      Story versus reality is a pret-ty big versus.

  5. Keshav Srinivasan says:

    Bob, I’m in complete agreement with you, because Hindus also believe that our actions are predestined by fate, but our choices still matter morally. But I’m curious, since you’re an Austrian, how would you respond to Roderick Long’s praxeological argument that Newcomb’s paradox demonstrates that believing in determinism leads to a performative contradiction?


  6. Jared says:

    Just because God knows the outcome does not mean he predetermined it. The ability to choose to sin grants a genuine free moral agency. The knowledge of the outcome does not violate the legitimate free choices being made.

    There is no real way to illustrate this because we can’t create free morale agents.

    We still have to choose. That choice grants legitimacy tour relationship with the Almighty, thus validating the purpose of our existiance, to have a real relationship with the creator based on what is good (which are qualities that come from God).

    Further, we can choose to pursue things that are not good. This world will teach us if we can find satisfaction in those things for our spiritual desires. Some people have ears that hear and learn that the physical world can’t offer spiritual satisfaction.

    Most people don’t learn. Fortunately, all people have the gift of grace if they choose it, even if they don’t really learn the lesson.

  7. Kevin Regal says:


    Good point, but how is it really different from your Darth Vader example? To me the two seem to fit together well.

  8. Yancey Ward says:

    If one doesn’t get into Heaven, then that is because God is simply being too tight with the definition of Good.

    • Grane Peer says:

      A few rounds of moral easing and when that doesn’t work, bring out the negative morals rate.

  9. Steve Dincher says:

    I disagree, Bob. Sovereignty does not imply determinism, nor does foreknowledge. I believe Greg Boyd has an interesting opinion on this debate. It is worth looking into.

  10. E. Harding says:

    “And yet, nobody thinks George Lucas is a murderer.”

    -That’s because Star Wars is fiction!

    “I hope you can see how the above is analogous to Christianity.”

    -It’s really not. Or are we all actors?

    “So I think a Christian is in a similar situation. He knows that ultimately, even his bodily movements are carried along in an unstoppable current of God’s will, but yet he can’t help proceed as if he is making genuine moral choices.”

    -Bingo. The atheist is in a similar boat.

    • Tel says:

      It’s really not. Or are we all actors?

      If there really is a God, you would have to presume that from the transcendental perspective, yes we would actually be characters in the story (not actors, who know deep down they are just playing the character). After all, being omnipotent must also imply being able to wind back time, reset everything and try again, possibly many times over, and maybe this quite often does happen. How would you tell?

      To us of course, it’s real, but then in a good story the characters should also think what they are doing is real.

  11. Andrew_FL says:

    Well, they don’t think he’s a murderer, but the way the fall part of Anakin’s story was written left a lot to be desired. I believe childhoods and another form of especially heinous crime were invoked.

    A lot of people hate George Lucas for ruining his own creation.

    Sorry for getting sidetracked by the analogy.

  12. Edgardo Tenreiro says:

    That freedom is an illusion is the most solid foundation for Anarcho-Capitalism.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Not to put too strong an emphasis on it, but there is no one person/governing body who can state definitively what Calvinists believe…the obvious conclusion is that, before you make a definitive statement you have to convince your co-religionists that Calvinists do not, in fact, believe in strict predestination, i.e. you’re either headed to heaven or to hell and you cannot change God’s mind.

    That being said, I think that the Lucas analogy is a good start. However, the words of the Preacher (Ecclesiastes), “He has put eternity into man’s heart.” is most useful in interpreting man as he stands in the presence of his Creator. God knows for all eternity (past, present, and future), each person’s place and share in His glory.

    • khodge says:

      Bob, I get the feeling that quite a few of the anonymous posts are from people who are expecting their name and email to auto-populate. Do you see any advantage to leaving the anonymous option out there?
      – anon khodge.

  14. trent steele says:

    “So I think a Christian is in a similar situation. He knows that ultimately, even his bodily movements are carried along in an unstoppable current of God’s will, but yet he can’t help proceed as if he is making genuine moral choices.”

    Let me get this straight then: The universe is deterministic (according to the above, by God’s plan/will, not by the physical nature of it, tho they amount to the same thing since he also made the physical nature) but some people/creations of God live for a short while on Earth believing they are making the “bad” choices they make and then are eternally tortured in hell (after the psychological torture on earth of knowing they’re likely going to hell)?

    And does anyone want to mention the people for whom God’s plan does not include learning about Him, and therefore they go to hell? Including children?

    Mind you, I have no problem (in the moral sense) with people believing things like this, but I do get itchy because of what the less intelligent or more dastardly do with these beliefs. I’m not worried about Bob using them as a justification for “wickedness,” but history (God’s novel?) is full of not-Bobs.

  15. John Arthur says:

    Hi Bob,

    I am puzzled as to how you relate Calvinism to your Austrian views on economics. How can God know everything or determine everything in advance if the human sciences (Miserian version) are based on methodological individualism and subjectivism? If humans choose between alternative courses of action, choosing those things that have higher preferences for them over those with lower ranked preferences then how can genuine human choices be determined in advance by any being other than the individual who makes the choices?

    John Arthur

    • Bob Murphy says:

      John Mises in Human Action says that it may very well be that the physical world is deterministic. Even so, we proceed as if we have free will, because it seems we do. (I’m paraphrasing but that’s the gist of his position I believe.)

  16. RVS says:

    From the fact that omniscience knows the full extent of our decisions it does not follow that these decisions do not exist.

  17. Grane Peer says:

    If our choices are not really our choices but are contingent on god’s intentionality then god cannot know before hand what our choices will be unless god himself is deterministic not intentional and so, contingent and not god.

    I don’t know why it would be unreasonable to posit that god created a deterministic universe and populated it with intentional beings. As far as god’s knowing the future, it is a difficult concept to grasp from the perspective of beings within time but a being that is necessarily outside or beyond time, for lack of precise wording, would probably know the future because there is no past, present, or future from his perspective.

    It is one thing to say that god has put us here to play out existence from the confines of a deterministic universe. It is quite another to say that makes us deterministic characters and not intentional actors. After all, I am sure there was some ad-libbing in Star Wars.

  18. Innocent says:

    Okay, so lets try this on one for size. ‘Knowing’ something is not the same as arranging it to occur. So lets say that God is a 4th dimensional being. He can perceive all things. He can enlighten people, yet now lets say He has very strict rules that He must abide by in order to act. (Yes I know this to some means God is not ‘All Powerful’ if He is constrained by rules ).

    I think that is a better way of talking about things. Did God actually harden Pharaoh’s heart, or could the words of God not Soften the already hard heart of Pharaoh? Based on the majority of what I have seen come from God 99.999% of it is knowledge based. They are if then statements. For instance Isiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel.

    If you do not do X then Y will occur to you. Spoken in the language of the Jew and in their cultural style.

    Lets take the Star Wars analogy, and change it a little. Lets say that the audience is as God is. It is not Lucas that is God. It is us who have gained a knowledge of the events. Now when we watch it a second time with someone who has never watched it, the foreknowledge of the plot does not ‘change’ the outcome.

    The analogy does not go far enough because then we start going off into alternate dimensions and additional realities as God intervenes or does not intervene in giving knowledge etc… But being ‘all knowing’ does not mean He makes you do things.

    I don’t know if this goes far enough but it is simply a different take on an old discussion.

  19. Colombo says:

    Best South Park episode ever!

    Canadians building a wall.
    Where my country gone?

    The job of satirists never ends.

    Ah, the 80’s!


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