Saturday, April 9, 2011

Deconstructing theological determinism

Robert Wegner has posted his philosophical thesis on Man's free will on facebook. In it, he attempts to demonstrate that the concept of free will is self-contradictory and thus does not exist. He does so completely by the philosophical tool of reason, not theology, even though his ultimate purpose is to serve the glory of God. His essay his quite long, you can read it here.

It is my contention that his thesis is not only incorrect from a philosophical perspective, but is flawed and almost satanic from a theological one. This may be a little long, so buckle up. He writes:
I will show you this today with the doctrine of man having no Free Will. I began by looking at what the word “Free Will” actually means. In Webster’s Dictionary, free will is defined as, “The power of making free choices unconstrained by external agencies.[1]” Also, we will look up “Conformity” for another term that I will use. Conformity means, “Acting according to certain accepted standards.

It is good to see him take a tip from Socrates in that he starts off by defining his terms before he seeks to pontificate on them. I don't see anything wrong with the accepted definitions above, except that I don't think they prove what he thinks they do. He goes on:
One thing you see when you look back into history is the progression of inventions and knowledge. We don’t see a jump between the creation of the wheel and the creation of airplane. After they created the wheel, they had to figure how to use it, and after many years of using the idea and advancing the idea to make new ideas, we have the airplane. People based advancements on what was already there, in this case, the wheel. When people made a progression on the wheel to make it work better, they had to take the original idea and transform it. When they used it to travel, a man how to adapt, or conform, to the idea of using the wheel and the idea of transport, which was based on legs walking or maybe even horse riding. When conforms to these two ideas, he can make a chariot because he bases his actions off things before him. This isn’t very hard to understand, but it will help us later on.

We can say the same thing about man’s knowledge. Remember when we defined “Conformity” earlier on? Well, there are some people who call themselves “Nonconformist”. These people believe that they can conform to nothing and do exactly what they want, not using any idea previously given to them. This definition sounds a lot like our definition of “Free Will”, not being restrained to outside resources.
This an adulterated and incorrect definition of conformity as "they can conform to nothing and do exactly what they want, not using any idea previously given to them" does not follow from "not acting according to accepted standards" Moreover, he commits a basic bait and switch by confusing "choice" with "imagination." The relevant point here is that the nonconformist can choose which standards he can abide. Much like the moral parasitic that picks and chooses which moral standards he wishes to follow without accepting the moral system from which those morals are derived, the nonconformist is free to choose to adopt whatever he likes. He can do so without be bounded by any pressure but himself. This is not to say that environment does not affect him - it most certainly does. Merely that he is not necessarily and unconditionally controlled by it.

As I mentioned before, Wegner confuses choice with imagination. For while it is true that it is difficult for a person to go his own path wholly unaffected by convention, much like it is difficult to conceive an airplane from the wheel, the fact remains that the person still has a choice about which actions he takes, even if his imagination is severely limited. He goes on:
However, what is funny about Nonconformist is that they actually are conforming, but they don’t really realize it. Lets say a guy named Ian comes to me and tells me that he is a Nonconformist. I would reply with saying, “So you’re conforming to an idea that says that you don’t?” Sounds like a complete oxymoron, does it not? However, this is actually exactly what they are doing. They are conforming to a statement that says, “We will not conform to anything,” but if they are agreeing with this idea, then they are conforming, which completely contradicts their motives. As we see, it is impossible to be a Nonconformist.
Again, he wrongly defines "Nonconformist." I don't know anybody who would think that a Nonconformist is somebody that doesn't confirm to anything ; just that they don't necessarily conform to "accepted standards." He goes on:
Remember when we said that being a Nonconformist was a lot like someone who had Free Will? Well, since we already said that there is no such thing as nonconformity, there must be no such thing as free will, because the two are exactly the same by definition.
Wegner seems to be under the impression that Nonconformity and Free Will operate under no determinates. This may be because "determinism" is the opposing view to Free Will. But regardless of the reasons behind his erroneous assumption, the fact remains the there is one specific determinant that guides both the nonconformist and the free agent. And that is internal choice, which is affected, but not completely controlled, by the outside environment.

Wegner states that the notion free will is contradictory (except with an entity outside of time, as he will see later on), because nonconformity is. But this is mere hand waving under the guise of reason. His analysis is a disconnect because his extension of the definition of nonconformity from "one that doesn't act from accepted standards" to "one that doesn't act from any standards" is not only incorrect, but is not perfectly analogous to the issue of free will even it it was true.

The salient point is that free will is not total isolation from external circumstances; it is an internal reaction to them. Your free will is guided by many factors that include environment but are by no means determined by it. The natural extension that flows is that free will is liberation, not isolation, as Wegner wrongly assumes throughout his essay.

After some pontification on how God can have free will because He is not bounded by the limits of time, Wegner makes an appeal to Christian theology:
All of this goes to say there indeed is no such thing as free will considering man. We say that we have free will, we, maybe not intentionally, are putting ourselves equal with God. We want to have free will just like agnostics want no God. For what reason? Because the accountability level is next to nothing. Sure, there are still laws that you could live by, but unless you truly see that you aren’t even close to being like a perfect God, you can’t truly understand the grace that you receive.
Positing the existence of human free will absolutely IS NOT tantamount to asserting we are equal with God. For how could it be, if because we have free will we have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God? From Man's first inception, he was separated from other animals by being made in the image of God, being endowed with free will and domain over the earth. Unfortunately, he abused his freedom by choosing evil, satan over God. For what is freedom, if not the ability to chose what is wrong as well as right? For without free will, there is no sin, no volition that violates the Will of God. And without sin, Christianity has no purpose, its savior has accomplished nothing, and Christians, in the words of the apostle Paul, are "most to be pitied." For if free will is only possessed by God, and God the creator of all things, then all evil stems from God. Since Man is said to have some control over evil, then man has partial control over God. A notion that is far more heretical and Biblically unsound that the concept of human freedom.

This is why Richard Wegner's paper would have been more aptly entitled "Man has no sin"


  1. For one thing I think you gave free will a new definition than Robert did. I also don't think it follows that if man has no free will there is no sin. Freedom is not constituted by merely the ability to choose right and wrong. Freedom is the ability to choose anything. We are definitely not in control of everything and thus cannot make a choice about everything. That man has SOME degree of free will I dont dispute. However the issue of predestination vs. God's sovereignty is somthing I have struggled with for a while and am still not totally sure how it works out.

  2. Thanks for your input, Luke. But I would like to note several things.

    1. The 2nd sentence doesn't follow from the 3nd. If freedom "is not constituted by merely the ability to choose right and wrong", then it is true that free will features a moral aspect. If sin is the violation of the Divine Will, then the existence of some agent that can contradict His Will is necessary for sin to exist.

    2. Proponents of free will don't assert that we are in control of all the events that occur. Free will simply means that we can make a choice on how we react to it. Even if we feel like there isn't much of a choice....

    3. Reading Robert's articles, I got the impression that we weren't discussing God's sovereignty or predestination at all. The issue was whether God was all-dictating and whether man was just a puppet possessing no will of his own. Many people are under a false equivalency between predestination and omni-dictation (or, omniderigence), which is why the topic is often muddled.

    4. I think the issue between predestination and Armenianism is far from settled from a theological perspective. And I believe there is room for a middle ground. However, the sort of hyper Calvinism that Robert is espousing is provably and demonstrably flawed and stands in complete opposition to the view presented through both the old and new testaments.