Saturday, April 12, 2014

Free Will in the Bible: Overfitting + Confirmation Bias

A major theme of this blog is that we shouldn't force data to answer questions it doesn't actually answer. Overfitting and confirmation bias can have an insidious synergy. I believe the debate over free will in the Bible is one such example. Before I discuss it, I need to define it, because there are two types of free will that people often confuse:
  1. Free will in the legal sense: freedom to make voluntary choices without coercion. In other words, freedom to choose what we want to choose.
  2. Free will in the philosophical sense: the ability to make choices that aren't determined by prior causes. In other words, what we want to choose might be influenced by God, genetics, environment, etc. but aren't completely determined by them.
Another important term is "determinism", which is the idea that all events are caused by prior events or conditions.

Despite some caricatures I've heard, practically everyone agrees that we have free will in the legal sense, so when I say "free will" without a qualifier I'm referring to the philosophical sense. There are 4 main philosophical views of free will:

  • Hard Determinism: everything happens as a result of what happened before it. Free will is impossible because what we want to choose is determined by prior events & conditions.
  • Libertarianism: the universe is not deterministic. If it was, we wouldn't have free will. It is possible to make choices that are not determined by prior events & conditions.
  • Compatibilism: the universe is deterministic but we have free will. Free will only makes sense using the legal definition and it's pointless to talk about philosophical free will.
  • Hard Incompatibilism: whether the universe is deterministic or not, we wouldn't have free will either way.

People have debated free will for millennia and Bible-believers are no exception. According to Josephus, first century Jews were divided about it. The Essenes were hard determinists who believed that everything was determined by divine fate. The Sadducees were libertarians who denied divine fate and affirmed free will. The Pharisees' view was most similar to Compatibilism. They believed in divine fate for world events but also affirmed free will, particularly in spiritual matters, and their definition of it was more like the legal sense.

Many Christians today are either compatibilist (i.e., Calvinists) or libertarian (i.e., Arminians). Thanks to confirmation bias, it's not surprising that both believe the Bible clearly teaches their view. As readers of this blog might've guessed, I don't believe the Bible writers tried to settle this philosophical debate, so any such interpretation is overfitting. What the Bible does clearly teach is that at least some events are pre-ordained by God and that we make free choices (i.e., we have free will in the legal sense). Those teachings are consistent with all 4 views. Attempts at Bible interpretation on the topic of philosophical free will quickly abandon the original context and inevitably enter the realm of philosophy.

My biases make Hard Determinism (and Compatibilism, which I think is Hard Determinism but afraid to admit it) very attractive to me. Weather is deterministic, and I like to think everything behaves similarly to weather -- maybe because it makes me feel like I have expertise in areas in which I really don't. I see a lot of beauty in deterministic systems, and Chaos Theory provides an excellent answer for why some things appear random or "free". Hard Determinism also is an attractive solution to the problem of evil. If God causes evil, it means evil has a purpose -- a greater good. God doesn't helplessly watch, wishing things were different. Hard Determinism allows for truly divine miracles that don't violate the fundamental laws of nature, demonstrating harmonious consistency in God's interaction with the world. Biological evolution also fits very nicely. And I can feel good when reading the many Bible passages that clearly imply determinism.

I do believe it's the view that is most consistent with the Bible (sorry, Arminian friends), but I must admit that my view is totally based on philosophy, science, and personal bias, not the Bible (sorry, Calvinist friends). What makes me doubt my view is not Libertarian proof texts in the Bible (I have answers for all of them, though not without confirmation bias). What really gives me doubt is quantum mechanics. The more I learn about it, the more I see Hard Incompatibilism and Libertarianism as interesting possibilities.

It's fun to talk about the free will debate as it relates to the God of the Bible. I think the debate would be a better one if we all could admit that it is in fact a philosophical (and perhaps scientific) debate -- one in which the writers of the Bible were not participating.


  1. Good post. I myself lean toward a libertarian view of free will, but I completely agree that the Bible doesn't provide an unequivocal answer to whether or not we have it. I also don't think that science does either, for that matter, and may not even be able to in principle (despite some interesting experiments; the Libet ones come to mind, but I don't think they show what they are purported to show).

    My leanings stem partially from my understanding of God as Love, and the overall thrust of the New Testament in particular in this regard. I find it hard to reconcile God being loving if his children's choices are ultimately determined (this is one reason why I reject Calvinism, but that's for another day). In particular, it's hard (for me) to see how he could punish them justly for wrongdoing under this state of affairs. Philosophically speaking, it's also hard for me to conceive of a loving act that is not freely chosen (in the libertarian sense). But, I'm open to other views on this matter.

    Another reason why I lean libertarian (in this sense, not the political philosophy ;)) is that I find philosophical arguments for at least an immaterial *aspect* to consciousness compelling. That is, on most days I'm some sort of dualist (and every once in a while I wax alternately idealist or materialist, as I think these are still possibilities). I could provide more of my reasoning for this leaning, but that would get us too far off topic, I think. Of course, even if it is true that we have some sort of immaterial mind or soul, it doesn't follow that we therefore have libertarian free will (they are separate concepts). However, if true, I think that it does open up more room for the possibility of true libertarian free will in addition to the possibilities offered by the material realm (you mentioned quantum mechanics as possibly providing this).

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Dan! I think you make a good case for libertarianism here, and I really think you should post something like it on your blog, as you bring up some interesting points. I disagree, mostly because I think libertarianism introduces new problems while not quite solving the one(s) you brought up. For example, if God knows what we will do, can we choose to do otherwise? I think the only way to be consistent at that point is to accept open theism -- which is an interesting possibility but has its own problems regarding the attributes of God. I agree though that hard determinism also has its problems, and I'm quite open to changing my view if something pushes me in a different direction.

    2. Thanks Matt! And thanks for the blog post idea. I'm drafting one up, but have to decide how much I want to cover (it's a big topic!).

      Well, I don't agree that open theism is the only way one could reconcile libertarianism with God's foreknowledge (by essentially denying or restricting the latter!). You might take a look at Molinism, which I find somewhat attractive as an alternative.

      But, as I stated above, I don't hold to any particular view on these matters too strongly, as I agree with you that they all have their problems (and it's still a tough one even if God isn't in the picture, as Chuck pointed out)!

  2. I'm still mulling over these questions and so have no hard position. I lean toward hard determinism and that our perception of free will could be something of an illusion.

    As for free will in the context of abrahamic religions, it seems to boil down to whether or not one believes the deity is everywhere, controlling everything, all the time - or not. Since I have no good reason to believe in the god of the bible, my answer to that is obvious.

    1. Ironically, I'm pretty much right where you are on this issue (excluding the part about no good reason to believe in God, of course). I mostly agree with your assessment that it boils down to one's view of God, but I also think there's a substantial percentage (perhaps even a majority) for whom it's the other way around -- their view of God depends on their philosophical beliefs (including but not limited to free will). For me I'd probably have to say it's a little of both.

  3. I stay with those that suggest... if your choice is entirely determined by outside factors... then how can we really be held responsible for those choices?

    I have come to realization that the issue of free will is one that teeters into this seemingly incompatible reality of both (not too different from the peculiarly dual nature of some of the complex quantum ideas).
    I look at Judas. At once, it was predestined that from the dawn of time, he would make that choice, and yet at the same time, he entirely made that choice. It was no less destined, but also no less his entire, self-chosen choice. Two seemingly incompatible things. I picture also a college student, much as myself. I was lazy. I didn't want to go to class. And at times my brain would dance into the "well, whatever I choose has already been chosen for me" thinking. Be it by God, or by environment, or whatever.
    Yet I came to see that while it may well be quite a real reality that my decision was predisposed, I still had to make a real choice.
    Lazyness is the ultimate choice. And while you can suggest that it's chemicals causing those "choices"... that doesn't seem to match a God who would punish people for making bad choices.

    The idea seems peculiar. But so does a God both outside of time, unchanging, the creator of time, and yet coming into the world at a set time. Or a God who is the creator of all, created us to know Him, yet somehow allowed us choice, to choose against Him. I cannot be at peace with the idea of a God who chooses "evil" as His method of bringing us to Him, to guiding us to not choose evil. I can be at peace with a God who will manipulate, work past the evil to yet bring about good (as He did with Joseph being sold into slavery, with Jesus' crucifixion, with all that happened with Bathsheba and for Abigail).

    It all seems to encapsulate in situations, the events can both be God's will, and yet also against what God would truly will. And that He rules and orders all, yet all the while letting us make our choices in those times.

    It's definitely something I've spent a lot of life pondering. I was the weirdest kid, this stuff weighed heavily on my mind. And long before accepting and becoming a Christian.
    And it can really be confusing. There seems to be no easy answer. But the key thing I've learned is that the complexity of it doesn't remove from the simple fact that we will be held accountable for our choices.

    1. Interesting thoughts, Shane! It sounds like a lot of your (and Dan's) view comes from seeing hell as the punishment for sin, and that it wouldn't be just to receive that punishment if our sinful choices were pre-ordained. That makes sense, given that starting point. My starting point is different.

      When the Torah was given, it was very clear what the rewards and punishments for sin would be; and hell wasn't one of them. The punishments were the consequences (in this world) of their sin (given on a national basis, not an individual basis). Sheol (the word translated as "hell") was the abode of the dead, where everyone went when they died, not necessarily to be punished. I think a lot of our modern views of hell are based more on medieval stories than the Bible.

      You might say that doesn't make a difference, that it's still unjust to be punished in this world for pre-ordained choices. But we know that it happens. People do suffer because of things that were pre-ordained. For example, people born with genetic diseases. If God would be unjust for making people suffer because of pre-ordained choices that they willingly make, why isn't he unjust for making people suffer because of genes (totally beyond their control)? I don't think libertarians have a good answer for that. Maybe you have one that I haven't heard?

    2. I actually didn't have hell in mind when I made the above comment, but rather simply punishment from God in the abstract (which admittedly could include eschatological punishment; I agree that's not the same thing as Sheol in the OT, but the NT has a lot of talk of such, no?).

      Also, you seem to be conflating suffering with punishment, unless I'm misunderstanding your point. Yes, of course people suffer from pre-ordained circumstances, but that doesn't mean they are being *punished*. I certainly don't think that all, or even most suffering, particularly of the kinds you mentioned (genetic diseases) is due to God punishing people. Speaking from a Christian perspective, didn't Jesus explode this idea? The question of why people suffer is certainly a perennially tough one, but the question at hand is whether God would be just to punish people for *choices* they are preordained to carry out, not why people suffer from pre-ordained circumstances. I think these are different problems (though there may be some overlap), wouldn't you agree?

    3. Ugh, just to be clear, my previous comment was in reply to Matt's reply to Shane!

    4. Dan, I agree that not all suffering is punishment, which is part of my point. Causing suffering without a good reason would be unloving/unjust, and punishment is only problematic to the extent that it involves suffering of some kind, so I don't think the distinction makes any practical difference here. If God can make people suffer for no wrongdoing at all and still be loving/just, why would he be unloving or unjust to do the same in response to pre-ordained choices that we willingly make?

      I'm familiar with Molinism and like some aspects of it. I think it's a nice way to get around libertarianism's foreknowledge problem, but it introduces new problems and complexity without compelling reasons to do so, IMO.

      I'm very open to a new option though. They all have problems, as you said.

    5. Matt, I see the point you are trying to make now, and thanks for clarifying. I still feel there is a distinction in some sense, which largely depends on the nature of free will or the lack thereof, but I'll have to think about it. This has been a fascinating conversation with much food for thought!

    6. Thanks Dan! Definitely fascinating stuff. Just to be clear, I don't think my argument implies that libertarianism is wrong, just that it ultimately has similar issues as determinism regarding God's love & justice. I think the solution is to rethink our view of God or our view of love and justice, but at that point libertarianism loses its biggest advantage.

  4. If not all suffering is punishment, how does one tell the difference between suffering as punishment for some transgression and suffering for some other reason (as yet unspecified), or perhaps no reason at all?

    1. Chuck, one could identify it as punishment if the suffering happens because of one's own wrongdoing. "Consequence" is probably a more accurate term than "punishment". The Torah's commandments were practical things that would lead to increased prosperity if followed. Not following them would naturally lead to less prosperity and more suffering. "Prosperity" in this context doesn't mean zero suffering. There is some level of suffering that always exists and is not a result of anyone's wrongdoing.