Do we have free will? Both Christians and atheists have varying views on this question, which are sometimes related to their beliefs in various types of determinism. The intention of this blog is to examine biological and theological determinism and to explain the relationship of the latter to God’s omniscience and our free will.
Biological determinism refers to the belief that human behavior is determined by our genes, rather than by our social or environmental circumstances. In his book, “The Moral Landscape,” Sam Harris offers his support of this idea (pp. 71-72):
“All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion. For instance, the physiologist Benjamin Libet famously demonstrated that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 350 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move. Another lab recently used fMRI data to show that some “conscious” decisions can be predicted up to 10 seconds before they enter awareness (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet). Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions. Notice that distinction between “higher” and “lower” systems in the brain gets us nowhere: for I no more initiate events in executive regions of my prefrontal cortex than I cause the creaturely outbursts of my limbic system. The truth seems inescapable: I, as the subject of my experience, cannot know what I will next think or do until a thought or intention arises; and thoughts and intentions are caused by physical events and mental stirrings of which I am not aware.”
“…As Daniel Dennett has pointed out, many people confuse determinism with fatalism. This gives rise to questions like, “If everything is determined, why should I do anything? Why not just sit back and see what happens?” But the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they do not matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn’t have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being. Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe. And to “just sit back and see what happens” is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences. It is also extremely difficult to do: just try staying in bed all day waiting for something to happen; you will find yourself assailed by the impulse to get up and do something, which will require increasingly heroic efforts to resist.”
In summary, biological (or genetic) determinism asserts that the actions we take and the decisions we make are best explained by our genetic composition and not by our environment or social circumstances.
In contrast to biological determinism, in which individuals are seemingly held hostage to their own DNA, theological determinism refers to the belief that everything we do and all events that occur in the world have been pre-ordained, or pre-determined by God who knows our actions in advance through His omniscience. Yet if God has pre-determined our actions, this belief stands in stark contrast to what the Bible says about our free will.
Bible verses on God’s omniscience
Psalm 147:5 says “Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.” 1 John 3:20 states, “In whatever our heart condemns; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things.” Psalm 139:4 indicates, “Even before there is a word on my tongue, Behold, O LORD, you know it all.”
Bible verses on our free will
In John 7:17, it says “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” Joshua 24:15 states, “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” Proverbs 16:9 indicates “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.
Atheists use theological determinism to state that free will and God’s omniscience are at odds with one another, saying that God cannot be omniscient if we have free will. Yet their view conflates God’s omniscience with His control over us.* He knows what we’ll do to respond to the pathway He set before us, but He does not control our actions and responses. We are free to make our own decisions as to how we carry out our lives and whether we choose to love and serve our Lord. Just as a parent plans aspects of his child’s life to foster success and excellence, the Lord plans for triumphs through tribulations in our lives to enhance, shape and cultivate our spiritual strengths.
How does the Lord know what we will do in our lives? Revelation 1:8 tells us that He is concurrently in our past, present, and future. He is unbounded by linear time.
“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty’” Revelation 1:8.
He therefore sees and has seen all of the choices we will make over our lifetimes and has written the names of those who have finished strong and will finish strong in His Lamb’s Book of Life.
Using the words of George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis explained the human experience quite well. “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing and you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself” (Lewis, 1952, pp.163).
One might posit that those who endorse beliefs in biological or theological determination may be influenced by some desire to absolve themselves from responsibility for their own decisions. That is a pity, because God holds us accountable. And the fact that we know we are externally held accountable should be a source of comfort as such knowledge likely leads to more moral decisions.
* Now also please note that this essay primarily attends to the sort of choices that are unstructured, non-routine and complex, such as how we decide to attend to our relationships with God and our fellow human beings. This essay does not concern the sort of routine, structured pre-programmed decisions in our brains, such as the way our motor skills operate when we walk, eat, and do other routine tasks.
Thank you for your time.
Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York, NY: Free Press.
Lewis, C.S. (1952). Mere Christianity. New York, NYL Harper One.