September 2007

First, I’d like to thank you for the more frequent updates to your webpage recently. I hope you still manage to get some free time!

I live in Sweden, where you typically don’t have to pass through a “christian phase” before being an atheist, as seems to be common on the other side of the pond.

You seem to be well versed in religious thinking, so I’d like to ask a question about the “free will” argument.

As I understand it, the claim is that God designed humans with the ability to make their own descisions on moral and other matters and this somehow lets God off the hook of responsibility for the human’s actions, enabling him to judge and punish/reward depending on the choices made.

But.. that same God supposedly designed the human’s mind/soul and other equipment used for thinking and also the rest of the universe, i.e. every stimilus the human mind could be subjected to. Hasn’t God then, if indirectly, specified every future action the human will make? Since I’m a programmer, I’d like to make this analogy: I write a program that can play chess. At every turn it has several legal moves available and uses the code I supplied to evaluate them and consider possible responses. Eventually, it makes a choice and moves a piece. Within its limited world, I think this program has a “free will”. It knew about all its options, considered them and made a choice. I didn’t force it to open with e2-e4, it figured that out by itself. Now let’s say it turns out that the program plays a poor game of chess and is not the master player I had hoped for. What should I do? Sending it to “hell” by running it on a slow machine with little memory? That would be childish. I can of course blame no one but myself for its lousy performance.

I can see that a free will would make one human responsible for his actions with respect to another human, but not to a designer God. A God could of course choose to be a bully and judge human’s actions anyway, but I can’t see that he would have any moral right to do so. How do religious people reason about this? (You might wonder why I ask *you* this rather than some nearby religious guy: it is because I don’t know any and it also would not be polite to open a discussion with “I think I found a flaw in your world-view…”)

This is a good question, and I think it is best answered by trying to see it from the religious point of view.

Your description of free will — particularly in relation to computer software — implies that free will is essentially an illusion in a mechanistic universe. I would agree with this. But the kind of theist we are discussing believes that free will is a real thing — something that exists outside of determinism. For this reason, humanity’s “programmer” is not responsible for human behavior because it is not deterministically set at the moment of conception.

So the contradiction you see is really a function of the mixing of deterministic and theistic world views. If you stick completely within one world view or the other, there is no contradiction.

Does that help?

(By the way, I completely adore the concept of sending bad software to hell by making it run on a slow machine. I have many hunks of code I’d like to nominate for such torture!)

Posted on September 24, 2007 at 1:19 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Morality

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