God's Freedom

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Heather asks, "What does it mean to say that God is free?"

I am having a little trouble wrapping myself around that question. I am not a philosopher, as would be obvious to any philosopher who might read what I'm about to write; and I think that this is a very philosophical question.

I think part of the problem for me is also that I think of freedom as a worldly, human concept, while we humans are of a wholly different order of being from God. So how to apply this concept of freedom to God? I view each human being as an agent of free will in a complex web of events, space, time, and, of course, other humans who are also agents of free will. Our free agency constantly runs up against limitations imposed on us by our finiteness, by the opportunities available to us, by previous events, and by those other free agents that we interact with who have their own aims and their own agendas. But God is not just another agent among other agents. God, to me, is not a being but a sort of metaphysical framework that defines being itself.

If freedom is defined to be the ability of any single agent to do whatever it wants to do, then some limitations in our own freedom cannot be overcome. We are limited either because of physical reasons (I may want to be able to flap my arms and fly to the moon, but the laws of physics act as a constraint on my freedom to do so) or because actions have consequences (I may want to eat nothing but chocolate all the time, but the consequences of doing that make it impractical to do so.) We just can't do whatever we want all the time. Only in our dreams and hallucinations are there are no limitations and no consequences to our actions--and the bummer about that is that our dreams are mostly outside of our conscious control. And the problem with dreams is that they just don't matter anyway. Freedom is meaningless unless there are consequences to our actions. So the very existence of consequences that constrain our freedom is also what give freedom its meaning.

Some limitations can be surmounted by ingenuity; humans may not be able to flap their wings and fly, but they can build machines that take them into the air. Some of us have more freedom than others; rich people can afford to do things that the poor can only dream about--thus we have the basic fact that the rich have more freedom than the poor. And some limitations on our freedom--those imposed on us by other free agents who get in our way--can be overcome by brute force. Physical coercion is a means of achieving freedom at the expense of the freedom of others. Economic systems are social constructs that can also be used to grant greater freedom to some (the ruling classes and the wealthy) that necessarily come at the expense of others (the oppressed classes and the poor).

The upshot of all of this is that I find it difficult to answer this question: what does it means for anything to be free? Is freedom, as Kris Kristofferson and Janis Joplin put it, just another word for nothing left to lose? Is freedom, as I alluded earlier, the ability to do whatever you want, whenever you want to? Given the complex web of free agency that constitutes the world, how can anyone really be 100% free except at the expense of the freedom of others?

And then there's one more question that nags at me as I ponder the question of freedom, either human or Divine: what causes us to want to do something? Sometimes the motivations for our actions are fairly rational; other times, however, we want to do something, well, just because. No rational reason, no explanation--just because. Sometimes the basis of this willy-nilly nature to free choice is just that we are by nature capricious or driven by questionable agendas, but sometimes it is because we are frequently plagued with uncertainty as we try to make decisions; we have limited or incomplete knowledge with which to decide. So we are often just not afforded the opportunity to be completely rational about our decisions. For us, part of freedom includes the freedom to err and the freedom to change our minds.

None of this would apply to God. If God is perfect, and if God has infinite knowledge, then what choice does God have in making decisions? God always makes the only decision that he/she possibly can make--the right one, of course. Is rote conformance to a set of rules about decision-making the same as being free? What would be the difference between God's activity in this sense and a hypothetical infinite computer that was programmed with a set of perfect decision making algorithms and which had an infinite, complete, and accurate database of data to work from. Is God just a giant computer that carries out the "morality" algorithm to perfection? Computers don't have free will; they just follow the algorithm.

If God can never not make the right decision, then is God acting according to free will?

One of the things that has interested me about Whiteheadian process thought is that, first of all, it views free will as an inherent attribute built into the very fabric of the universe, and, second, it incorporates God into a metaphysics of free will by giving God a very special role in the exercise of that free will in the universe. According to process thought, each of the complex maze of events that take place in the history of the universe involves at some level a kind of free will. Thus there is no real question of where human free will comes from; it did not emerge out of nothing, but rather is an extension and expansion of the free will that is inherent to nature. And God's very special role in this is to coax those free choices forward according to Divine Will.

In a Newtonian universe, one could have argued that free will was purely an illusion, that each and every event, including the choices that we make, was actually just predetermined by every event that preceded it, through an endless chain of cause and effect that goes back to the creation of the universe. However, in the world of modern physics, determinism was called into question. Einstein famously objected to this with his statement about God playing dice. But the genius of Alfred North Whitehead, in my view, was in his ability to incorporate the indeterminate universe of modern physics into a metaphysics that incorporated both free will and God. God acts, according to Whitehead, by persuasion, not by coercion, thus granting the universe a complete measure of free will for itself.

Combine two ideas--that God acts not by coercion but by persuasion, and that God always makes the perfect decision--and we see a huge consequence for the whole concept of intercessory prayer. Trying to coax God into making a decision to act in a certain way because we ask him/her to do so doesn't make sense to me. This is because, as suggested above, God always makes the perfect decision, regardless of what we ask God to do; and second, because (according to this view) the very actions that God takes are not of the same order as the actions that we take as agents in the physical universe. As I mentioned above, I don't see God as a being, but as a framework for being itself. God's active role in this view is to serve as a purposeful lure upon the actions that we make, rather than to simply perform as another agent among many (albeit a very powerful one). This does not, by the way, mean that I think that intercessory prayer in the sense of laying before God our fears and hopes for better outcomes in the world is meaningless. On the contrary, I think it is extremely valuable as a means of being in God's presence and listening to what God has to tell us. But I do believe that God's activity in the world is not of the same order as our own activity, and those actions that God takes are not determined by what we ask God to do.

10 comments:

Matthew said...

"However, in the world of modern physics, determinism was called into question."

Well, sort of. When Einstein said "God does not play dice with the universe", he was asserting that the universe must be deterministic. (more about that here)

Quantum theory introduces some wiggle room into the deterministic model of the universe, but the wiggle room seems to be very small, on the subatomic level, and in no obvious way related to things at higher levels like our perception of choice. Much more compelling is the neurological evidence that suggests that our perception of free will is, by and large, an illusion. So if we do have the ability to make choices, it seems that those choices must be very limited.

Matthew said...

>>Our free agency constantly runs up against limitations imposed on us by our finiteness, by the opportunities available to us, by previous events, and by those other free agents that we interact with who have their own aims and their own agendas.


If freedom is defined to be the ability of any single agent to do whatever it wants to do....<<

Mystical Seeker...what do you make of the statement, 'The truth will set you free'?

Truth is much simpler to find than most people think. It's all around us and inside us. People look for truth where they WANT to find it, not WHERE it is found. (It's interesting to compare the meaning of 'sin', that of 'missing the mark', with how people look for truth... interesting, don't you think?)

Perhaps this story will clarify what I'm saying;

A man was walking home late one night when he saw the Mulla Nasrudin searching under a street light on hands and knees for something on the ground. "Mulla, what have you lost?" he asked.

"The key to my house," Nasrudin said.

"I'll help you look," the man said.

Soon, both men were down on their knees, looking for the key.

After a number of minutes, the man asked, "Where exactly did you drop it?"

Nasrudin waved his arm back toward the darkness. "Over there, in my house."

The first man jumped up. "Then why are you looking for it here?"

"Because there is more light here than inside my house."

Neither wealth nor education give preferential access to freedom.

Your presuppositions about limitations of being have created the conflict you sense.

Peace,
Matthew

Mystical Seeker said...

Neither wealth nor education give preferential access to freedom.

Matthew, I'm not sure I understand how your story relates to the point about wealth and poverty influencing how much freedom people have. I would suggest that people who are starving to death because they don't have enough money to buy food clearly don't have the same options available to them for acquiring food that those with plenty of money do. Thus they have, in a very real sense that matters, less freedom.

Mystical Seeker said...

Much more compelling is the neurological evidence that suggests that our perception of free will is, by and large, an illusion.

But is the mind the same as the brain? It seems to me that to draw a philosophical inference about the nature of the mind from a neurological experiment can be tricky.

Matthew said...

>>Matthew, I'm not sure I understand how your story relates to the point about wealth and poverty influencing how much freedom people have.<<

Wealth and poverty have no effect on freedom. We can be free, even when living in poverty.

If I understand your point, it's that 'freedom' comes from having money to buy consumer goods and services. That without wealth, one is less free, because goods and services are less available, or unavailable.

The opposite seems to be the case- that people becomes ensnared through dependency on wealth, and what it provides...not freer. This is why Jesus told the rich young man to give away what he owned. He knew his wealth (which you say provides access to freedom) was a hindrance, not a help. He idolized his wealth (and what it bought), and was a slave to it.

Freedom, in Christianity, comes from giving up our reliance on self. It means we stop trying to be in charge, deferring that power to God. When we follow God's will, we discover, much to our surprise, that we're complete, lacking nothing! What possible freedom could come from goods or services?

Does this clarify the point I was making?

Matthew

Mystical Seeker said...

If I understand your point, it's that 'freedom' comes from having money to buy consumer goods and services. That without wealth, one is less free, because goods and services are less available, or unavailable.

I am saying that freedom is influenced by the options that are available to a person. The more options you have, the more freedom you have. That doesn't mean that you should avail yourself of those options.

What possible freedom could come from goods or services?

The freedom to eat. The freedom to pay for health care. The freedom to have a roof over your head. Those who cannot afford to eat and who die as a result of not having the option of buying food would probably like to have the option of living.

It means we stop trying to be in charge, deferring that power to God.

I do not believe that God will suddenly start feeding me if I stop trying to go to work each day. God isn't going to magically solve our problems for us. I believe that we are obligated to take care of each other, not wait for divine intervention. One of the ways that we take care of each other is through social justice--by making society more just. To claim that inequality doesn't matter because every one is really free is a way of avoiding the task of building a more just society.

Matthew said...

Heh. I have become a Janus-faced Matthew ... so I'll refer to myself as Janus for the rest of this discussion. =)

I agree with your responses to the other Matthew and your perspectives on freedom and options ... "the freedom to eat" is a great example.

And I wouldn't want to be guilty of reducing the mind to the brain ... reductionism is bad.

I'm just pointing out that there's a lot of neurological evidence that people's behavior corresponds to brain states in a physical environment, even though it may not be reducible to such.

I think the idea of people having Radical Freedom is self-contradictory and downright harmful, leading to poor treatment of people whose circumstances compel their behavior, as well as bad explanations of why God allows evil. It's also inconsistent with our experience of the world.

Mystical Seeker said...

Hi Janus :),

Yes, I do agree that it is clear that mental states are influenced by neurology. I just don't think that this proves reductionism.

I think that the problem with telling the poor that they should just be satisfied with their condition is that this is what the rich and powerful have been telling the poor for thousands of years. It is a way of keeping them in their place. This is one of the ways that religion has been misused, in my view.

Katherine E. said...

Mystical Seeker, a question for clarification here---

When I first read the question, in what sense is God free?, my first thought was that God IS freedom itself, so it's sort of nonsensical to ask how is God free. And I thought you were pretty much going there with me when I read that you do not view God as a being, but a sort of "metaphysical framework that defines being itself."

But then later you say that "God always makes the right decision." I guess I've stopped thinking of God as one who, or that which, "makes decisions." God's power is an influential power, a power used for good. God's power lures us toward what is best for us and the world in each situation (it's beyond me to know what that looks like, but in my reading of process thought, that's been a precept that deeply appeals to me). If God is a "metaphysical framework that defines being itself," help me understand what you mean vis-a-vis God making decisions. (Do you mean, perhaps, the decision to lure in a particular direction?)

Thanks for a great post. I read your blog with great interest and appreciation.

Mystical Seeker said...

Katherine,

Yes, I do mean, as you said, "the decision to lure in a particular direction". To me, at any particular moment, God reacts to the situation at hand and lures each event in the world in a certain way. What I was trying to say is that the particular lure at any given moment is always the perfect one.

I was probably confusing the issue a little by not making myself clear on that point. Thanks for helping me clarify.