Divine Providence and Free Will

Divine Providence and Free Will
by Professor Peter Kreeft

Excerpt from a lecture series given in 2006, transcribed 2019

Religious believers see their lives as parts of something like a play, with a story line that's known and planned by God, or fate, or destiny. And even if God is only impersonal karmic law, rather than a personal, providing father, still the religious world view claims that life contains destiny as well as free choice, like a great story. This is the big difference that belief in something like divine providence makes; this is the bottom line or payoff. If life is a story, it's not full of sound and fury signifying nothing, but signifying something. And then we can ask the question Sam asks Frodo as they wander through Mordor, "I wonder what kind of a story we're in?" — a nice way of asking what is the meaning of life. But that presupposes that we are in a story.

The difference between not believing in divine providence and believing is enormous so it's an issue worth thinking about. As with the issue of miracles, there may be enough data either way to make the belief more or less probable, more or less reasonable, but there doesn't seem to be any conclusive proof either way, and it's hard to evaluate this data, or even to identify it. As with the problem of evil, there seems to be no cutoff point, no specifiable amount of order or disorder that would prove or disprove divine providence. How do you know that a given event is providential or random? You intuit it, more than you prove it. Perhaps stories are more convincing than arguments, stories like Sartre's Nausea on the one hand, or Becket's Waiting for Godot that show a non-providential world; or stories like, The Lord of the Rings, or The Bridge of San Louis Rey, that claim to show a providential world. Which kind of story is more like life? That's a very difficult argument logically. You just see it.

The concept of predestination is easier to argue about. It's similar to providence but it's much stronger. Yet those who say that science contradicts religion concerning divine providence often argue not against this stronger providence or predestination, but for it! For a kind of predestination, and against human free will, but not a divine predestination. That is, many atheists argue that all human acts are determined or predetermined by a series of unfree causes, a kind of lower predestination, or a predestination without God. Therefore there is no such thing as a soul with free will. Whether you're thinking of a predestinating God from above or a chain of physical causes from below that reaches back to the origin of the universe, if they are all that is causing my acts, then those acts are not free. So those who embrace either kind of predestination, from above or from below, from a Calvinistic God or from a deterministic nature, have arguments against free will, and would argue that this notion is unscientific. They often argue this way: The acts that I call free choices either have causes or not. If they have causes, they're not free. If they don't have causes, they can't exist, for everything that exists as an event in time needs a cause.

To explore that argument we should briefly look at both kinds of predestination, from above and from below, to see whether or not they contradict free will. For free will is crucial to all three Western religions. The idea of moral responsibility and the idea of commandments both seem to presuppose free will. The theist tries to reconcile the idea of predestination with free will in three ways.

First, by pointing out that to know a thing is not to cause it, so the fact that God foreknows everything we will do doesn't mean that he does it, or causes it. We do it.

Second, the principle that God does not bypass, or rival or demean or remove natural causes but rather uses them and perfects them, and fulfills them, as a good king exalts his ministers, or as a good CEO doesn't micromanage but does things through middle management, or as light brings out all colors rather than blotting them out, or as good parents don't rival their children but try to mature them, or as good teachers try to teach their students to think for themselves and become their own teachers. If that principle is how God works, then even if God has not only foreknowledge but even causality towards human actions, that causality wouldn't destroy the nature of human actions anymore than it destroys the nature of anything else in nature. But the nature of human acts is to be free. Therefore, divine causality towards human actions would not take away their freedom; if it did it would take away their nature. How God does this I think is inconceivable.

Third, the theist could try to nuance or deliteralize the notion of predestination. God is not in time, so he cannot foreknow or predestine the future literally — that would put him in time.1 To God, everything must be present, not past or future. God would be the "eternal contemporary" of everything that happens. If some fortune teller with a crystal ball infallibly foresees that you will climb a mountain tomorrow, then you can't not climb that mountain, so you're not free. But, if someone infallibly sees you climbing it, as you're climbing it, your act can still be free.

The defense of free will against the lower determinism I think is simpler than the defense against the higher determinism of predestination. If we're only very complex machines and not free, then all our moral language would seem to be meaningless. It is meaningless to praise or blame or command or forbid or encourage or discourage or give advice and counsel to a machine. When the Coke machine fails to deliver a Coke, we don't preach to it, or try to make it feel guilty and repent, we kick it. If there is no such thing as free will, there is no moral responsibility, and if there's no moral responsibility, there's no civilization! If the determinist begins to practice what he preaches, he will stop using moral language, since that language presupposes free will and responsibility. He'll stop preaching and start kicking. And if that happens, at that point the philosopher might have to call in something stronger than arguments: he might have to call in the cops!

1For a fuller exposition on God's relationship to time, see the book God and Time by Gregory Ganssle et al.


Professor Kreeft