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Religious Implications

This lesson is a part of an audio course Free Will by Lottie Pike

Hello, and welcome back to the course 'Free Will' on Listenable – last time, we discussed the general moral implications of determinism, and today we're going to look at something a bit more specific: the religious implications. This requires a bit of background knowledge of religion and religious teachings on free will, predestination, and the like, so I'll briefly run through that, and then we can discuss specifically the relationship between determinism and religious faith. It is also worth pointing out that different religions teach different things when it comes to human action and God, but for today's episode, I'm mainly going to be focusing on Christianity as this is the one most brought up within the free will debate.

The key piece of information here is to remember that, on the whole, Christianity teaches that humans have free will. This is for a number of reasons – so that humans can freely choose to believe in God and have a relationship with Him, so that they can learn from their mistakes and develop their souls throughout their lives, and so on. There is also an argument that uses human free will to explain the presence of evil in the world, called the Augustinian theodicy, named after the philosopher and theologian St Augustine. Of course, there is a diverse range of opinions within Christianity about free will and God's relationship with human action, but for the sake of argument, we're going to be discussing the religious implications of determinism based on the Christian view that all humans have God-given free will.

There is an expansive literature on religion and free will, one of the key texts being 'The Consolation of Philosophy,' written by the 6th-century Roman senator and philosopher Boethius. The book was written in extraordinary circumstances, since Boethius was at the time in prison awaiting execution – as a result, the book explores topics such as self-reflection when faced with imminent death, injustice, and – most importantly for us – God's nature, predestination and ultimately, free will.

The issue that Boethius was faced with was the compatibility of God's foreknowledge and human freedom of action. The issue was as follows: God is omniscient, meaning that he is all-knowing. Supposedly, this knowledge extends to all parts of experience – thought, action, and even time. As a result, it would follow that God has knowledge of the past, present, and future – his foreknowledge. The reason why this presents an issue for libertarians and compatibilists is because, if God has knowledge of all future human actions, it would suggest that the future is somehow set, somehow certain. Boethius writes: 'There seems to be a considerable contradiction and inconsistency…between God's foreknowing all things and the existence of my free will…if God has prior knowledge from eternity not only of men's actions but also of their plans and wishes, there will be no freedom of will'. For Boethius, this conclusion is highly insufficient: being a Christian, he wishes to reconcile the omniscience of God and freedom of human action – he describes doing away with God's omniscience to retain free will as 'sacrilege.'

There are a few ways that some philosophers have tried to get around this issue. One is that, though God has foreknowledge of human action, this foreknowledge is not necessarily the cause of the action; rather, that the action is the cause of God's foreknowledge. Boethius, though he rejects it, describes this argument as claiming 'that things foreseen do not, therefore, happen by necessity, but that things which will happen are necessarily foreseen.' Boethius argues that this answer struggles too much with the notion of causality and doesn't account for the actual problem at hand. He concludes that 'the outcome of something foreknown cannot be avoided,' which seems to make sense. However, this still presents the problem of a fixed future, and therefore a subsequent lack of human free will – Boethius writes that people will 'have been impelled to commit good or evil not by their own will, but by the unchanging necessity of what will be.' Now, it would be useful to compare the view set out here to determinism. Boethius appears to be suggesting that the cause of human action lies in the future, specifically of God's knowledge of the future. However, determinism, on the other hand, suggests that the cause of human action lies in the past. This is an interesting distinction to make. The answer, Boethius argues, lies within the understanding of God's relationship with time. Boethius sees God as living in an 'eternal present' – this is pretty hard to get your head around, but Boethius generally argues that 'God discerns all things not as a sort of foreknowledge of the future, but as knowledge of the unceasingly present moment.' So, that's one way that Christians may try to reconcile the nature of God with free will.

Another aspect of God's nature that could be rendered problematic were we to take a deterministic outlook would be his judgment of humans. This is similar to the political issues that will be discussed in the next episode, but the concept of eternal punishment, if we cannot be held fully responsible for our actions, seems a bit…well, unfair. But that's a whole other debate.

That's it from me for now – in the next episode, we're going to be looking at the political implications of determinism, hopefully bringing together all of our knowledge we've acquired, as well as both the moral and religious issues arisen from the debate. Bye for now!

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Written by

Lottie Pike