About Time (Not Really a Review of Arrival)

Arrival movie

I have heard a lot of good buzz for Arrival, so Leah and I rented it for a date night last week. It wasn’t what I expected, but the movie was well-made and intriguing and has been on my mind since then. What follows is less a review than a meditation on some of the movie’s ideas, but be warned: Spoilers ahead!

Arrival is an alien movie that isn’t really about the aliens. Rather, it’s about linguist Louise Banks and her efforts to communicate with a newly arrived alien spaceship on behalf of the US government. The story begins and ends with an emotional gut-punch: the slow death of Louise’s teenage daughter due to a rare congenital disease. It begins and ends that way because we watch her daughter die in the first five minutes, then learn in the last five minutes that all that suffering is still to come for Louise.

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Free Choices, God’s Sovereignty, and Apparent Contradictions

I was talking with a group of high school students last year about making wise decisions as a Christian. As I planned what I would say, I kept wanting to discuss how our ability to make meaningful choices can coexist with God’s control over all things, but I suppressed the urge to wander off into philosophical weeds that the audience would find boring and abstract. The evening of the event, I spoke briefly and then opened things up for discussion. One of the first questions was about how our ability to make meaningful choices can coexist with God’s control over all things. As was the next question. And the next. Apparently, there are a lot of us poking around in this particular clump of philosophical weeds.

Thoughtful Christians throughout history have struggled to reconcile these two plain yet paradoxical teachings of Scripture. First, the Bible is quite clear that God controls all things. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” In Daniel 4:35b, Nebuchadnezzar confesses, “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?'” Or consider the many detailed prophecies that were fulfilled centuries later. Why do God’s “best laid schemes” enjoy somewhat greater certainty than those of mice and men? One hundred percent accuracy in predicting the future is only possible for One who controls all the variables necessary to ensure the outcome He promised.

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Human freedom and divine sovereignty

I was recently listening to R.C. Sproul in an audio series on divine sovereignty when he made an argument which is rather common in such discussions, that total freedom for man and absolute sovereignty of God are mutually incompatible. If man is absolutely free, then God cannot be fully sovereign; if God is absolutely sovereign, man cannot be completely free. Sproul took the position that God’s sovereignty is absolute, while man’s freedom, though real, is limited and bounded by that sovereignty. He pointed out that the existence of “one maverick molecule,” that is, a single molecule which is truly free from divine control and capable of acting contrary to God’s will, creates at least the possibility that any or all of God’s plans might be undermined. Since God’s plans cannot be frustrated, nothing in creation can be absolutely free.

While I agree with Sproul’s point as regards his maverick molecule, in making his overall argument he is unclear on the meaning of “freedom” and thereby reaches a conclusion which is misleading at best. In fact, man may be absolutely free and God absolutely sovereign without contradiction, depending upon what is meant by the word freedom.

When we speak of human freedom, we can mean one of three things: freedom of action, volitional freedom, and freedom from obligation. Working in reverse order, freedom from obligation refers to a state in which there is no “ought,” nothing which a man should do, regardless of whether he actually does it. This is the sort of freedom demanded by French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who declared that God cannot exist because “man is free, man is freedom,” and therefore there can be no “infinite and perfect consciousness,” for such a being would necessarily imply an objective Good that would have some claim upon man.

I introduce this sort of freedom first in order to dismiss it from the discussion, because Sproul, I, and any orthodox Christian would agree that man is not free from obligation; indeed, I would argue that such freedom is an ontological impossibility. It is the other two sorts of freedom which Sproul appears to conflate.

Freedom of action is the freedom to do whatever we please. Man does not have absolute freedom of action, and a moment’s reflection would suffice to convince even an atheist of this point. Sartre himself, apostle of freedom though he was, acknowledged that one’s circumstances are necessarily limiting. Even the freest man is not free to fly like a bird, breathe underwater, or exist in multiple locations at once. The world around us imposes multitudinous constrains upon our actions, most of which are so routine that we don’t even notice them.

As Christians, we would add God to the list of things which can constrain our freedom of action. The Red Sea blocked the Egyptian’s freedom of action and a sudden appetite for grass blocked Nebuchadnezzar’s, while a large hole in the ground effectively constrained that of Korah and his household. One could open practically any page of Scripture and find an example to support the point that our sovereign God, against whose will even Satan himself is powerless, can and does limit our freedom of action. If God could not constrain our freedom of action – or that of any would-be maverick molecules – he would indeed cease to be sovereign.

But there is a third and more morally significant kind of freedom: volitional freedom. This is the freedom to choose. When we speak of “free will,” we mean volitional freedom. It could be defined as the freedom to select from an array of options whichever one is most appealing to us at the moment of decision.

I said this freedom is more morally significant than the freedom to act, and that is because this freedom is the source of good and evil deeds. Our choices are the stuff of vice or virtue. Without choice a “bad” act is not sinful. This is why, for example, the church has always carefully distinguished between rape and adultery. On the other hand, a “good” act absent volition is not virtuous. If a man absentmindedly stumbles and knocks another out of the path of a falling brick his act was certainly convenient for the one who was saved, but it was hardly morally praiseworthy. Going all the way back in time to the Garden, Adam’s sin lay not in eating the fruit, but in choosing to eat it. Had Satan somehow compelled Adam to consume the forbidden fruit against his will, the Fall would not have occurred. The act of choosing matters. In fact, morally it is all that matters.

One may be volitionally free without possessing absolute freedom of action. Paul and Silas, imprisoned in Philippi, were severely constrained in their freedom of action, but they could still choose to respond to their situation in whatever manner they chose. In fact, man is always and absolutely volitionally free. The choice, whatever it is, is always ours to make. This, not due to any inherent power on our part, but merely because the sovereign God has decreed it so. If we were not free, then God could not justly hold us guilty for our sin, because, as noted earlier, free choice is a necessary ingredient of sin. To quote Augustine, “Evil deeds are punished by the justice of God. They would not be punished justly if they had not been performed voluntarily.”

How, then, does man’s volitional freedom coexist with divine sovereignty? Very easily. Remember that volitional freedom does not imply freedom of action. Our maverick molecule (or, perhaps, angel of light) may choose to rebel against God, but the actualization, circumstances, and fortunes of the actual rebellion are all controlled by God. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Man may choose whatever he will, but God determines the result. As the old proverb reminds us,

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The omnipotent, omniscient God who holds in his hands all horseshoe nails, horseshoes, horses, riders, battles, and kingdoms is as little threatened by the freedom he has granted to his human creation as a doctor is troubled by the freedom of an infant to kick while being delivered. As Mordecai reminded Esther when she quailed at the thought of risking her life to save her people, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” Her choice rested in her hands alone, but the ultimate end was not in doubt.

Absolute human freedom of action is indeed incompatible with divine sovereignty. But a blanket statement that human freedom is incompatible with the absolute sovereignty of God ignores the more morally significant freedom of volition, because it is in fact possible for man to be completely free to choose without compromising the absolute sovereignty of God over all creation.

Genetic influence and human responsibility

Via FuturePundit, an interesting look at the influence of genetic factors on human behavior. New Scientist reports a new study of twins that suggests genetic factors affect the age of first intercourse.

“It’s not like there’s a gene for having a sex at a certain date,” says Nancy Segal, a psychologist at California State University in Fullerton who led the new study. Instead, heritable behavioural traits such as impulsivity could help determine when people first have sex, she says.

As genetic determinism goes, the new findings are modest. Segal’s team found that genes explain a third of the differences in participants’ age at first intercourse – which was, on average, a little over 19 years old. By comparison, roughly 80% of variations in height across a population can be explained by genes alone.

The study nicely illustrates a larger point about the relationship between our genetic makeup and our behavior. Contrary to what some Christians have argued (particularly in regards to homosexuality), our genes indisputably shape our personalities and lives in powerful ways. However, this does not mean, as others argue, that we are simply the sum of our genetic predispositions.

Rather, our genetic makeup provides us with traits, tendencies, and predispositions that influence but do not determine our behavior. As Dr. Segal explains in the quote above, personality traits such as impulsivity are genetically-linked, and such traits certainly affect the likelihood that one will lose one’s virginity at an earlier age. If we picture an axis ranging from Strong Self Control on one end to Significant Impulsivity on the other, our genetic makeup contributes to where we fall on that axis; and where we fall on the axis is certainly relevant to the question of how easily sexual temptations will be resisted.

However, genetic predisposition does not equal necessity, a point that the study also makes. “On the other hand, conservative social mores might delay a teen’s first sexual experience… Indeed, Segal’s team noticed a less pronounced genetic effect among twins born before 1948, compared with those who came of age in the 1960s or later.” As FuturePundit’s Randall Parker explains, “This supports an argument I’ve made here previously: the breakdown of old cultural constraints on behavior frees up people to follow genetically driven desires and impulses. We become more genetically driven as external constraints weaken.” Or, looking at the flip side, the stronger our internalized moral code, the more likely it is to overcome genetic predispositions towards illicit behavior.

Our genetic makeup matters. It creates the set of traits, tendencies, and predispositions – the “raw material” – that we have to work with, and different people have different raw material. What we make of what we are, though, is ultimately up to us.

A definition of “free will”

A good working definition of “free will” is, “The ability of a creature to choose for itself on the basis of subjective values.”

When speaking of free will, we generally focus on choice, but our choices are determined by what we value, because we will always choose what we consider to be the most valuable option. Any conception of free will that does not allow the creature to set its own subjective and ever-changing hierarchy of values will ultimately end in determinism.

(Note: To say that decisions are based on subjective values is not a relativistic objection to the idea of objective value. Objective values exist, but we make our decisions based on subjective values, i.e. the values we actually personally assign to a given option. The existence of sin testifies to the human ability to act on the basis of subjective values that do not reflective objective reality.)

Free will and divine sovereignty

The reconciliation of the paradoxical realities of human free will and divine sovereignty has challenged theologians for two millennia. Various systems have been proposed, tending variously to emphasize either free will or sovereignty; all most likely missing the truth to greater or lesser degrees. While biblical teaching on the intersection of free will and sovereignty is sufficiently equivocal to render doubtful any claim of certainty, a lack of absolute confidence in any one position should not prevent us from concluding that certain views are clearly false.

One such view emphasizes divine sovereignty at the expense of human free will to such an extend that the individual’s moral choices are viewed as ultimately originating only from God’s will, to the exclusion of man’s. This position is usually associated with Calvinism, though it is doubtful if a majority of Calvinists now or throughout history have espoused it. In fact, the great Calvinist preacher Charles Spurgeon offered a different perspective on free will that is worth noting:

I see one place, God presiding over all in providence; and yet I see and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in great measure. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no precedence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism. That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. (Emphasis mine.)

It is when divine sovereignty looms so large that we deny the reality of human free will that we fall into the error I am now addressing: to paraphrase Spurgeon, God predestines, and that is all. In the following paragraphs, I will consider what is meant by “free will,” how real human freedom can exist in a universe ruled by a sovereign God, and finally, why God’s testimony regarding his own nature tells us that humans possess free moral will.

When I speak of a creature having free will, I mean that its choices originate within itself; in other words, that the mind which chooses for the creature is in fact its own. This idea of free will forms the basis of our concept of criminal intent. If someone carried out a crime while under hypnosis, we would pity him as a victim, not condemn him as a criminal, because he was not acting on the basis of his free will. It was not his mind which chose to commit the crime.

If human free will is real, then when Cain killed Abel, King David slept with Bathsheba, and Judas betrayed Jesus, they did so because they chose to. It was their minds which decided to commit the act. This means they could have also chosen not to do so, because choice cannot exist without real options. We laugh at Henry Ford’s promise that “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black,” because it is oxymoronic – a choice without a choice. We can only say that Judas chose to betray Christ for 30 pieces of silver if we also believe he might have chosen not to do so. Otherwise, we can only say that Judas did betray Christ, much as one says that a flat tire caused a car wreck or a spooked horse caused a broken arm.

If we affirm this view of free will, are we diminishing divine sovereignty? After all, if the creature’s mind determines its actions, then the Creator’s mind does not. Only one ultimate cause is possible. Either God decided that Cain would kill Abel, or Cain decided that Cain would kill Abel. Even if God decided that Cain would kill Abel, while causing Cain to think he came up with the idea on his own, Cain’s perception does not alter the fact that his intention ultimately originated in God’s mind. If free will is real – if Cain decided “out of his own head” to kill Abel – then not all events originate in the mind or will of God.

If this means that human free will forms some sort of inviolable barrier to God’s will, divine sovereignty is certainly diminished, or rather, destroyed. (There is no such thing as semi-omnipotence.) However, free will does not necessarily entail a diminution of divine power. An NFL linebacker who refrains from flattening his son in a game of backyard football in no way diminishes the strength he chooses to restrain. Similarly, an absence of divine determinism is better understood as “God does not,” rather than “God cannot.” God’s covenant with Noah means he will never again send a worldwide flood, not because some obstacle prevents him, but because he chooses not to. If God chose to sovereignly grant to men the capacity to make free moral choices, the subsequent existence of human free will testifies not to a diminution of his power, but only to the fact that with God “there is no variation or shifting shadow.”

As a practical matter, however, it may be difficult to see how God could truly command the course of history while allowing humans the freedom to choose their actions. What if Judas had chosen not to betray Jesus? Let us suppose God had a “second-string betrayer” lined up. What if he also chose not to betray the Christ? And so on. If men are truly free to choose, how can any future event be certain?

While a full explanation of how this might be possible is beyond the scope of this article – and perhaps beyond the scope of the human mind – we catch an interesting hint in Mordecai’s words to Esther when she feared to approach the king on behalf of her people. “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Esther’s choice determined her fate, but God’s will would ultimately be fulfilled regardless.

Jesus seemed to make a similar assumption when he told his disciples, “For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” Jesus would be betrayed. He would die. That much was settled. But the man who did the betraying would still bear the responsibility for his choice.

This concept of moral responsibility brings us to the crux of my argument that God’s revealed nature requires the existence of human free will. It is interesting to note that in Spurgeon’s comments quoted above, he apparently considered free will so intertwined with moral responsibility that he completely substituted the one for the other by the end, writing only, “man is responsible.” A legal principle going back from our criminal laws through the common law to early Hebraic law is the mens rea, the “guilty mind.” The mind which directs the crime bears the guilt. When terrorists use children or mentally-disabled people to carry out suicide bombings, we direct our horror at those who recruited and directed the attackers, because it was they who planned the carnage. They bear the responsibility. What matters is not whose body carries out the guilty act, but whose mind and will are responsible for it.

This fundamental moral principle creates an apparently insurmountable problem for the view that God’s sovereignty means that he chooses our actions for us. We are told God is so holy that he cannot even tempt us (James 1:13-14), let alone commit evil. If, however, God’s mind is the ultimate originator of every human choice, that means he causes every evil, every perversion, every cruelty, that we see around us. It is not twisted warlords who kidnap and train child soldiers in African. It is God. It is not the serial killer who tortures his victims. It is God. We can only Paul’s cry, in a different context: “May it never be!”

The problem is that twisted evil, like every other effect, requires a sufficient cause. Torture, rape, and murder don’t just spontaneously occur. A mind directs them, and that mind is responsible for them. Either these evils originate with man, or they originate with God. There are no other options. If the latter, then evil flows from God just as surely as does good, and we are forced to ask if we can even meaningfully distinguish between the two. If good and evil originate from the same source, we are left with a pantheistic morality, where good and evil are just different parts of the universal pattern. This is a god who cannot be shoehorned into anything close to the Being we find in scripture.

If a good God cannot be responsible for evil, and God is good, we can safely conclude that he is not responsible for evil. Having already seen that the mind which conceives evil is ultimately responsible for it, it follows that evil cannot originate in the mind of God, which leaves only one other possibility: the mind of man. The choice to do evil, then, is made by man, and man alone. The choice does not surprise our omniscient God. It does not please our loving God. It does not confound our omnipotent God. And it does not originate with our good God.

In defense of the Free Will Theodicy

I recently read Winfried Corduan’s No Doubt About It and was surprised by his argument that the Free Will Theodicy is invalid. (In a nutshell, this response to the problem of evil argues that moral evil exists in the world because God granted human beings the freedom to make significant moral choices.) Corduan argues, “The idea of freedom prohibits God’s directly influencing our choices, but there is another way of making sure of the desired outcome, namely by limiting the circumstances within which we choose.”

Corduan begins his argument by making the legitimate point that we do not have absolute freedom because our choices are constrained by external circumstances. “I cannot sensibly choose to be a world-class oboe player or the olympic gold medalist in butterfly swimming; I just do not have what it takes. I cannot reasonably choose to spend next semester on Mars: the laws of the universe and the policies of my university will not permit it. In short, pure unbounded freedom of choice does not exist. If we do choose freely, it is still within the limit of options given us.”

Because our choices are constrained by our situation, Corduan argues that God “could have arranged our available choices in such a way that we would be free but would only freely choose to obey Him.” As an example, he suggests that God could have created the Garden of Eden without the tree of temptation, thereby avoiding giving Adam and Eve the opportunity to rebel against him.

I believe a twofold response to these assertions is possible. First, Corduan misses a significant element of the Free Will Theodicy. The emphasis should not only be on moral freedom as intrinsically good, but also on free moral choices rightly made as a means for spiritual development. As James writes, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). Can courage come in the absence of danger? Patience or hope in the absence of trials? Forgiveness without sin? Even love itself is best cultivated when directed towards one who has wronged us (Matthew 5:43-47).

The decision to choose the right when confronted with a genuine choice is the only way to cultivate many of the greatest virtues. For a perfect being – God – such moral development is not necessary. However, God in his wisdom chose to create mankind capable of moral growth, and such growth appears to only be possible in the presence of real temptation.

This is not to say that sin is necessary for moral development. One need not ever play the coward in order to be courageous, but courage in the absence of danger is no great virtue, nor will it create a more courageous creature. Adam and Eve did not need to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to grow morally, but they did need to be able to choose not to eat.

With this in mind, it seems that a universe so arranged that mankind was free to choose, but only from an array of virtuous choices, would miss the point of free moral will. Further, however, I believe Corduan’s position has a second and even more fundamental flaw, because the possibility of evil is inherent to the creation of a morally free, self-aware being.

Satan did not need a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to fall. All he needed were two things: himself and God. As soon as a being with free moral will is aware of itself as not-God, it can choose to value itself above God. And that is evil. If God’s only act of creation was to craft a disembodied mind floating in nothingness, that mind could not not be capable to sin if it was (1) morally free and (2) aware of itself (3) as not-God.

Because the nature of evil makes it logically impossible for a morally free, self-aware creature to exist in any set of circumstances without the possibilty of sin, even an omnipotent, omniscient God could not create such a situation. (See “Things God Cannot Do”.) God could choose not to create. He could choose not to create a self-aware creature. He could choose not to grant that self-aware creature free moral will. But he could not choose to create a self-aware creature with free moral will that could not sin, any more than he could create a circle that was square, or an inanimate object that was alive.

Because the real possibility of sin is necessary for true moral freedom, and because creation of a morally free, self-aware being necessarily makes evil possible, Corduan’s response does not adequately refute the Free Will Theodicy.