Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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A character in Shakespeare's Richard III notes that "... there's small choice in rotten apples." Life is like that sometimes. We like to think we're free to choose but (we might suppose) in reality life's like a box of rotten apples which offers no real choice at all.

This has been the conclusion of many. Choice is an illusion. When one gets down to brass tacks everything we do is determined by what has gone before in an endless chain of cause and effect. We are automatons sadly deluded into thinking that life is indeterminate, that choice between options is free.

If this conclusion is correct it seems to follow that the concept of accountability is meaningless. If you don't like what I'm now writing, I can't help that because you have no choice in your likes and dislikes any more than I can choose what I type into this program. If behaviour is determined, whatever happens must be "right" and not "wrong".

The outcome of the debate has often centred around what appears to be irrefutable logic. The supposition is that every statement is true until shown to be untrue, when it must be false. This sounds ridiculously obvious until one says that it must hold for statements about the future as well. Thus if I predict that the cat will die tomorrow and it does so, my statement is true. If the cat doesn't die then it's false. Either way the outcome is determined by factors other than my choice of prediction.

This turn of logic is called tertium non datur in Latin. It says that no "third-truth" besides true or false can be applied to any statement. If I say, "The cat will die tomorrow," I'm either correct or incorrect and my statement is therefore either true or false. Aristotle considered this viewpoint with some apparent perplexity. He suggested that statements about the future are neither true nor false until the predicted events have either happened or not, as the case may be.

The 20th century philosopher Gilbert Ryle clarifies Aristotle's point somewhat. He says that the true / false dichotomy applies only to propositions (statements) and not to predictions, behaviours or actions. The proposition that "I will take my weekly bath on Friday" may turn out to be correct or incorrect. But it can't properly be termed true or false. Nor can the event of bathing validly be called true or false. Events happen or don't happen. The fact of happening isn't itself true or false.

All this apparent nit-picking has a point, as Thomas Hobbes revealed when he tackled the matter in the 17th century. He wrote that freedom consists in "... the absence of all impediments to action that are not contained in the nature and intrinsical quality of the agent" [1]. Put simply, his point is that freedom (non-determined behaviour) is possible within limits. The analogy he used is that of a river. It is free to flow anywhere, provided it always flows downwards. That is, a river isn't free to flow upwards since gravity will not allow that.

Similarly, humans are free "according to their nature". Their will, says Hobbes, is a proximate action which causes another action. But the will itself is always, he argues, caused by either [a] a desire or [b] an aversion. Which prevails depends on which is the stronger. So an act of will is merely what Hobbes calls the "last appetite" under the power of which the agent cannot refrain from acting.

If I stand on the top of a high building I am restrained by knowing that if I jump, I die. Without the certainty of death, there would be no restraint. But I am free to jump if some inner desire proves stronger than my aversion to dying. What I eventually do depends on the strength of the aversion (to death) in relation to the strength of the desire (to cease living).

This seems to be the outcome, with variations, of most contemporary attempts to think logically through the issue of freedom of choice. The future is perceived as a "realm of possibilities", to quote Richard Taylor [2]. Put another way, it seems to me that determinism has a hard time of it when people concede the concept of risk. In a determined future, risk is a redundant idea. If we attempt to calculate risk, on the other hand, we by definition take it that there is more than one possible outcome of any choice - within limits, as Hobbes asserted. Certain outcomes eliminate risk. If I jump I will die. I cannot choose to jump and not to die (all factors besides gravity being equal, of course).

It turns out, therefore, that determinism doesn't survive a rigorous analysis of language and its logic. 

The most notable attempt to overcome non-determinist conclusions was made in the 20th century by the behavioural psychologist B F Skinner. He replaced Hobbes' "desire" and "aversion" with positive and negative reinforcement. Briefly, he attempted to show that all our actions are determined by learned responses to positive and negative aspects of our environment. We learn how to behave from "nice" and "nasty" experiences involving parents, society and chance events. In a real sense we're like machines in that we can't help but act in whatever way we've learned to behave.

He turns out to be largely correct in relation to lower-order animal life. But there is now ample evidence that humans appear not to be motivated entirely by positive or negative experiences. Every time someone sets out to prove otherwise, exceptions surface without fail.

But it is possible that Skinner is correct and that we just don't have the apparatus to analyse stimulus and response in sufficient depth. In other words, certain stimuli may be beyond our present skill to detect. More likely, however, is that [a] we are able to re-learn our responses to primitive stimuli, and [b] that there is a wide range of behaviours which cannot be shown to derive from previous stimuli.

Be that as it may, the waters are muddied considerably when God is introduced. Socrates held that God can do only good. This is in essence a proposition which has driven Christian theology from the first. But if God can choose only one way, then this amounts to having no choice at all. It also implies that if God created the world, then it must be good as it is. Therefore humans must also be good - in which case they cannot choose what is not good, since that doesn't exist in creation. God's perfection leads to determinism.

A very similar set of conclusions derive from the assertion that God must by definition know everything. Thus if God knows what's going to happen, then what does happen must be what had to happen. If what God knew had to happen doesn't happen, then God couldn't have known about it. Omniscience leads to determinism.

Augustine of Hippo and later Thomas Aquinas did their best to get round this problem. It persisted because they were unable to preserve traditional doctrines about God and also to draw reasoned conclusions about freedom of choice. Augustine suggested that God's prescience is like man's memory. Just as remembering an act doesn't render it involuntary, so God's foreknowledge about an event doesn't render any one outcome necessary. God's position in eternity is by definition outside time and therefore independent of cause and effect.

The latter argument is, I think, no more than a neat sidestep. We know that time can't be separated from space. We live in a space/time continuum. Change one and you change the other. If God is "outside" space/time then we cannot by definition know anything about God except in terms of what we can know in space/time. Which is the same as saying that we can know nothing about God - an ancient and time-honoured conclusion.

To say "God knows everything" is to make a nonsensical statement - unless we acknowledge that what we're really saying is that it is possible to know everything, even the future. To say that "God is all-powerful" is to maintain that anything is possible, that there are no limits to freedom. 

Of course, anyone is free to choose these two definitions of "God". But if they do, they're no longer free to choose, since each leads to determinism - a distinct contradiction to get oneself into.

More serious for traditional Christianity is the position arrived at with regard to sin. Without the concept of sin, there is no point to being a Christian. It's because humanity is defined as sinful, that Christian theology from the earliest times proposed the remedy of Jesus of Nazareth. Using various metaphors derived from religion of the time (like sacrifice and redeem) it is proposed that Jesus "takes away the sin of the world" (John 1.29) and puts us right with God.

But sin is possible only if we can choose between "good " and "bad" behaviours - however those two words are defined. Determinism renders sin impossible and therefore Christianity of no importance.

To sum up, it seems to me that the consensus is a yes/no answer to the question, "Can we freely choose?" Yes, we can choose between options over a very wide range of matters. Our behaviour, though very strongly influenced by our genes, needs, upbringing and social contexts, is largely free. And no, we often can't choose freely because there are limits past which we can't talk about having free choices. I as an English speaker cannot choose to immediately speak Russian. But I can choose to begin learning how to speak it. If I persist in that choice (and choices are frequently more than a single act of will) I might one day succeed.

Suppose it's possible to argue conclusively that there is ultimately no such thing as free choice, that the choices we make are mere illusion. I would respond that a choice, regardless of whether it's illusory, is nevertheless a choice if that's how it seems to us. If I think I have made a choice, if I have agonised over options, risks and outcomes, a choice has been made even if the outcome was determined before I imagined I chose. 

Finally, it's worth pointing out that any rational argument requires choosing between [a] ways of thinking, and [b] final conclusions, between differing rational steps, and differing evidence. To say that behaviour is determined is to subvert the very means by which a conclusion is reached. In short, a deterministic universe in which every outcome is predetermined rules out all but an illusion of reason, since only one conclusion is ever possible.

[1] Determinism in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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