The Problem of Free Will and Divine Judgment

Judgment by an omniscient deity is an important, common theme among the world religions.

In explaining this judgment, religions assert that we have free will. The type of free will that we are supposed to have is the kind that allows for us to be responsible for our actions from God’s perspective (hence we hear of divine judgment). We are supposed to hold sufficient responsibility for our choices for God to hold us morally accountable, who then judges us on the spectrum of good and evil.

The possibility of the necessary type of free for this judgment to make sense is under increasing scrutiny by scientists and philosophers. As we learn more about the mind and the effects of environment and genetics on our decisions, we are able to attribute an increasingly greater amount of the reasons for our choices to these outside factors, leaving less room for the ultimate cause of decisions to originate from within ourselves.

The problem of determinism challenges this fundamental theme of judgment that is shared across religions: unless we are at least in some manner the ultimate cause of our choices, the notion of praise and blame from a god’s-eye perspective is inconsistent with our idea of fair judgment.

The problem is this:

There will always be an explanation for our decisions (however complex it may be), or a causal regress explaining how we came to the point where we made that decision. There is a story to be told for why we have certain values over others. You have the freedom to show compassion over violence; but did you have the freedom to be shaped into the type of person to favors compassion? It seems we cannot possibly have ultimacy if our agency itself is always completely determined by prior events. We simply lack the ability to see and explain the link, giving rise to the illusion of a freedom of an ability to do otherwise than that which we did.

Without free will from a gods-eye perspective, the notion of divine judgment becomes rather absurd. A flawless system designer with perfect, complete knowledge would not praise or blame his system for its behavior – just as an omniscient being, who would completely understand our behavior (a part of the system he created) would have no more reason to hold us morally accountable than we have to seek retribution on a kitchen knife for an accidental, self-inflected cut. If the universe is completely controlled and understood by an omniscient being, it would not make sense to speak about our actions as “good” or “bad” with respect to the creator’s point of view; all actions would be precisely in line with and predicted by the creator’s laws of the universe and its initial conditions, leaving us morally neutral from the creator’s perspective.

The thoughts in this post are inspired by William Ramsey’s intro philosophy course at Notre Dame, Shuan Nichols‘ work, and Sam Harris‘ book, “Free Will.”

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