I recently found a blog post where a Christian reprints a debate he and his friends had on Facebook with an Objectivist. It’s a very long discussion where a lot of words are written, yet very little actual debate seems to be accomplished. In skimming this wall of words, one point caught my eye: the Christian participants are claiming that what distinguishes the Christian worldview from others–and what makes it the true worldview–is that it is internally consistent, whereas other worldviews are not.
In epistemology, this view–that what makes something true is (solely) its logical consistency with an overall structure of knowledge–is called the “Coherence Theory of Truth.” To say that this epistemological view is problematic is an understatement; it really is a non-starter. My theory of truth is a version of the Correspondence Theory: the only theory I consider tenable.
But my point here is not to attack coherentism or defend correspondence. Beyond the problems of coherentism, the claim that the Christian worldview is internally consistent is blatantly false. There are several places where I could show logical contradictions, but I only need one irreconcilable contradiction to demonstrate internal inconsistency. So I will confine myself to one: the contradiction between God’s supposed omniscience and human free will. (1)
Free will vs. God’s Omniscience
Most Christians are committed, implicitly, if not explicitly, to what I regard as genuine free will. This is the idea that a person’s choice in a given situation is not necessitated by antecedent factors, but represents a selection among alternatives that could also have been chosen in the same circumstance. (In contemporary philosophy, this is called “libertarian free will” as opposed to the alleged alternative, “compatibilist free will.” I will discuss Christians who hold compatibilist views after dealing with the libertarian version.)
Christians also generally believe that God is omniscient, such that he knows the future outcome of people’s choices and can infallibly implement his divine plan. But if God currently knows, with certainty, the outcome of future choices, then this means that there must be a current fact about those outcomes for him to know. If there is a current fact about the outcome of future choices, then those choices are already predetermined. This means that those “choices” are not genuine choices, because there is only one thing that will happen, with no alternative possibilities. Any “choice” is purely illusory, and thus, there really is no free will. So Christians are logically committed both to the position that humans have free will, and to the position that they do not.
Laid out formally, with “P”s and “C”s as premises and conclusions, respectively, the typical Christian self-contradiction looks like this:
P1. Man has (libertarian) free will.
P2. If man has (libertarian) free will, then there is no current fact about the outcome of some of man’s future choices.
C1. Therefore, there is no current fact about the outcome of some of man’s future choices. [From P1 and P2]
P3. God is omniscient.
P4. If God is omniscient, then he currently knows with certainty the outcome of all of man’s future choices.
P5. All instances of current, certain knowledge imply current facts to be known.
C2. Therefore, there is a current fact about the outcome of all of man’s future choices. [From P3, P4 and P5]
C3. If there is a current fact about the outcome of all of man’s future choices, then man does not have (libertarian) free will. [Contrapositive of P2]
C4. Therefore, man does not have (libertarian) free will. [From C2 and C3.]
Note here that the contradiction is already visible by C2, since C2 is the negation of C1. But I added C3 and C4 to bring the contradiction around to P1 and make it more obvious: C4 is the negation of P1.
I have seen some interesting mental gymnastics employed in attempts by Christians to escape this contradiction. But there really is no escape, given the dual premises of human free will and God’s foreseeing omniscience. P2 simply makes explicit what it means to say man has (libertarian) free will. (2) Anyone attempting to reject P5 is rejecting the idea that knowledge refers to facts, thus rendering “knowledge” indistinguishable from fantasy and committing himself to complete subjectivism.
Compatibilism Obliterates Free Will and Moral Responsibility
Some of the more philosophically inclined Christians, such as William Lane Craig, posit a compatibilist theory of free will in an attempt to escape the above contradiction. Compatibilism is an attempt to redefine “free will” to something other than “an internally generated choice not necessitated by antecedent facts,” so that “free will” and determinism are compatible beliefs.
In discussing his own version of compatibilist free will, Craig says:
[W]hat is critical to free will is not the ability to choose differently in identical circumstances but rather not being caused to do something by causes other than oneself. It is up to me how I choose, and nothing determines my choice. Sometimes philosophers call this agent causation. The agent himself is the cause of his actions. His decisions are differentiated from random events by being done by the agent himself for reasons the agent has in mind.
In order for this deterministic “agent causation” to make any sort of sense as internally generated “free will,” the agent would have to be completely isolated from any influence by the external world. If the external world has any influence, then any “choice” the agent makes has multiple factors causing it, both internal and external. All of these influencing factors went into making the choice what it was, so one could not pick out the agent’s internal processes as entirely “controlling” in the causal chain that determines the “choice.” Given the psychological state of the agent, certain influences necessarily led to a certain decision. (3)
And then if we reason back in time and ask: What caused the current psychological state of the agent? Well, it would be the agent’s previous psychological state, along with some other influences from the external world. We can reason back like this, at each stage finding that more and more of the components that led to the agent’s psychological state originally came from external sources. By the time we get to the agent’s birth, we end up with all external influences determining the whole course of the agent’s life.
Only if you had a complete separation of the agent’s mind from influences of the external world, would there be a real distinction between “agent caused” and “externally caused,” under determinism. But such a separation is clearly absurd, given that so many of our choices are in response to external facts, that there is an observed correlation between a person’s religion and that of his parents, etc.
So, under this compatibilist idea of free will, a human being has no more actual choice in what he does than any physical system, such as a robot or tornado. And this compatibilist account of free will could just as well be applied to either of those things as a predetermined human. A robot would be doing things of its own “free will” if it was mostly acting on its programming, rather than having its programming bypassed by a magnet or a push from something else. A tornado would be acting on its “free will” to the extent that its internal winds were making it do what it does, rather than external air movement.
In regard to morality, there would be no genuine moral responsibility under determinism and a compatibilist version of free will. Since everyone’s “choices” and character would merely be inevitable products of external influences, moral language would merely be one of the various ways that predetermined human beings caused each other to do things they have no choice about. And it would be senseless for God to judge these automatons for things they had no other choice but to do. God and man would reward or punish people for how they happened to be born, and what they happened to have absorbed from the world.
(Of course, this sort of arbitrary injustice is what some Christians believe God does anyway, when they hold the doctrine of Predestination.)
So, as I have shown, you simply cannot hold both the idea of human free will and God’s foreseeing omniscience together in a self-consistent way. Traditional Christianity is not internally consistent, but rather is a hodgepodge of contradictory ideas thrown together into an irrational worldview. This is also evidenced by the tremendous implausibilities and contradictions in the Bible, itself. (See: The Bible (New Testament) as Evidence).
Compatibilist determinism (or at least William Lane Craig’s version of it) doesn’t actually allow for genuine choices for which the agent can be causally and morally responsible. It merely pushes some of the external factors fully determining the agent’s action back to the agent’s childhood and birth. It also reduces moral language to one predetermined cause of inevitable events among many, like one computer triggering another to switch algorithms, or even, one distant star influencing another by gravity.
If you’re looking for a philosophy that can provide a self-consistent worldview while acknowledging human free will, then Objectivism is what you want to study. If you want to learn about the Objectivist theory of free will, please see this post: The Formal Refutation of Determinism and The Validation of Free Will (Libertarian Volition). The Objectivist theory is described especially in the later portion of the post.
(1) Other examples of internal contradictions would include the traditional Christian view of the Trinity, God as both completely just and merciful, Biblical statements confirming salvation by passive faith (belief) alone, and by faith plus earthly works, etc.
(2) There’s an article on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy that claims to show a fallacy in setting free will and perfect foreknowledge against each other. The article refers to it as “The Modal Fallacy.” The article uses so-called “modal logic” to show this alleged fallacy. But the problem with the argument is that it uses the concept of “contingent truths,” without a proper understanding of what it means for something to be a “contingent truth.” A contingent truth is a truth that refers to a fact that is caused to be a fact by the choice of an agent with free will. (See my essay “The Meaning of ‘Necessary’ Versus ‘Contingent’ Truth” for explanation and defense of this.) A choice is an act of an agent that occurs at a certain time, and whose outcome is not necessitated by any factors in existence prior to that time. Something that always was to be, eternally–i.e. always had to be–is not a choice made by a person. (If God chose to make it so at the start of time in the universe, then it was God’s choice, not the person’s.)
The IEP article treats contingent truths as eternal and unchanging–as “abstract objects” floating out there in the structure of the universe. But this is not what any truths are, especially including contingent truths. Truths are human judgments that have been checked against the facts of reality and found to successfully correspond to those facts (as mediated by the processes of concept formation and concept application.) The fact of the outcome of a freely willed choice does not exist before the choice is made. Thus, if man has free will, there is nothing definitive to know about his genuine choices before they are made. There is no contingent truth about the outcome, before the choice is made. Only if man’s choices are not genuine choices, and man does not have free will, can the outcomes of his “choices” be known beforehand with certainty. (One can speak of influences on free choices–things that make a certain choice harder or easier–but what makes them choices is that nothing actually necessitates the selection of one alternative or the other. Thus, one can posit likely outcomes of a choice, based on those influences. But one cannot know with certainty the actual outcome that will result.)
(3) Note that William Lane Craig contrasts his view with what he calls “determinism.” But this is a misuse of that term: Determinism does not mean the denial of any internally operating causes in humans, but rather that every event is fully necessitated by prior events, both internal and external to humans.
[Edited 7-26-19 to add Footnote (2).]