Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Free Will

I’m reading The Brother’s Karamazov so I’m thinking a lot about the classic arguments for and against God. Nothing new here really, but I think I cover a lot of the poor solutions to the usual questions about why God acts like He does. I start with “free will” and cover not only the objections to it, but the objections to the objections.

Free will, as used by a believer in God to explain why God doesn’t simply show Himself and clear up all the confusion, does not work as a solution to that confusion. It explains why we experience having a choice to love God or not but only by matching up the explanation to the experience, not by examining where that experience might have come from or what other purposes it might serve. This makes the explanation no better than Rudyard Kipling’s story of how the leopard got his spots. The failure of the explanation can be found by attempting to understand God’s mercy and looking at His track record of justice here on earth.

If God is perfectly merciful, if all sins will be forgiven, then He can’t tell us. If He does, he has no way to mete out justice, he can no longer threaten punishment for sin. To be perfectly just, he must at some point decide that a sinner’s free will must be restricted, that they have lost their right to choose for themselves. Even if only some sins under certain conditions are forgiven, we can’t be told what those conditions are, because then we would just meet them, knowing we could get away with the sin.

If God is only postponing the punishment until after life, that is no more merciful than punishing us while we are here. Depending on how long after life the punishment lasts, it could be less merciful. Acts of justice and mercy by living people are not usurpations of God, they are attempts to guess what he is thinking, knowing that He can’t tell us. Most traditions say we can’t fully know the mind of God.

If we don’t have a clear statement of what is a sin and what the punishment is there can’t be justice. People have put their full faith in the hands of religious leaders to interpret justice and they have had that trust broken time and again. If no exceptions are allowed to the system of justice, there can be no mercy. God is either merciless or powerless.

Regardless of how much power he actually has, he can’t wield it in any way that makes a difference in our lives. If he did, we would come to know him through time as we experienced those differences. This leads us back to those who claim they do know God and know what is just. Anyone can make a claim, but they must demonstrate their knowledge leads to a world where sinners are met with justice and forgiveness is given when it is warranted and that their claims match whatever historical documentation they are claiming as their source.

The free will answer to Euthyphro’s dilemma leaves us in the position of making decisions for justice and mercy based on our knowledge of the world and our ability to reason. If that knowledge and ability is given to us by God, so be it. Our use of it ends up with the same result as a natural world that doesn’t seem to care about justice or mercy. Free will as defined by religion looks exactly like consciousness as defined by evolution.