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Metaphysics, Predestination and Free Will

by Anthony Ross

Metaphysics is the philosophical science that seeks to construct a 'unified field theory' (if you will) of reality. Metaphysics undertakes the Herculean task of defining a road map that transcends not only the limits of thinking, but also the limits of the mundane world.

There is nothing particularly special about the methods of metaphysics; negative dialectic, the reality principle, or rational argument, nor is there anything uniquely special about it's subject matter; ultimate truth, an immaterial soul, omniscient being, free will, etc. Both method and subject have been speculated on and argued for centuries. Yet, what, is special about both the discourse and methods of metaphysics is that each of them continues to excite, challenge and frustrate the philosopher with the quest for the 'ultimate'. This mythic quest that metaphysics embodies never ceases to draw the more curious mind to its endless shores just as it drew the philosopher Thales. Now, that's special.

One of the oldest metaphysical arguments is the question of whether or not man has free will or if his destiny and fate was prewritten in a celestial book somewhere by a divine being long before humans came into existence. Does mankind have free will?

This a very thought provoking and transcendent question, and for many religious believers the answer is irrefutable. But let's examine this question objectively. In theory, and in fact, if some divine being has predetermined the upshot of your every action, yet invested you with a 'hypothetical' free will, then it doesn't matter what choices you think you are making because you are in truth being guided by behavioural determinism, or in this case, theological determinism. St. Augustine emphasized: 'That though God foresees all events, they don't happen because he knows they will.' This rationale and others like it have been used throughout history to confront the contradiction in predestination. The attempts of St. Augustine and others to reconcile God's omniscience with man's free will is an attempt that falls in the face of the fact that God's foreknowledge constitutes a pre-eminent threat to man's free will. In his classic novel Crime and Punishment Dostoyevsky treats the consequence of free will unleashed in society, and at the same time attempts to find a force to restrain the free will. This force is God. But God in turn poses a contradiction as the pursuit of human happiness collides with the existing social structure and everything is destroyed. God thus restrains the destructive aspect of free will by destroying freedom.

What is clear is that some extraordinary leaps in logic must be made in order to give mankind free will without any strings attached. For example, let's bestow you with omnipotent and omniscient power. And let's say you predestined a child to become a great musician, but while growing up the child suffers several crippling accidents and becomes paralyzed. Instead of becoming a great musician the child decides (out of physical necessity) to become an artist who paints by sticking a paint brush between his teeth. Does this mean the child has free will or that God rewrote the original predestination chapter of the child? The idea of God changing what he'd already written, again nullifies free will. For if we were like the characters in a fictional story who have no control over their actions, save from what the author gives them, then we don't possess the free will to alter the outcome of the story nor change it somewhere in the middle, thus any free will the author gives us is imaginary. But on the other hand once the novel has been published the story is fixed and the author can't change the ending even if he comes to dislike it.

The doctrine of election and predestination sinks in its own quicksand. And if we accept St. Aquinas position with respect to God's omnipotence: that God is omnipotent not in the sense that he can do anything whatsoever, but rather he can do anything that is possible, then the contradiction of free will remains the same. As the eighteenth century American theologian Jonathan Edwards stated: 'Foreknowledge does not cause things to happen, but it nonetheless renders them certain, and therefore inevitable.' Consider the scenario of the undercover cop who dresses dishevelly, acts like a drunk, and displays wads of money to entice possible robbers. Does the cop eliminate the robber's free will by his knowledge of human greed? Suppose the robber is being driven by the forces of poverty and hunger, does such forces eliminate choice? The question is more problematic when the concept of predestination is factored in. Christians believe without doubt that God knows in advance every action (and every sin of course) that man is going to commit. If this is so then we are reduced to mere instinct not free will.

If the school of theological determinism is to stand without absurd contradiction then it must accept the plausibility of God absent from the choices man makes. Moreover, whenever we speak of the influence of God or a divine being on man's behavior and actions we limit our understanding of the relationship between the "I" and the 'ultimate'. Free will cannot be an illusional dynamic. It must stand apart from the dictates of any other stream of consciousness or intellect in order to work and be independent, yet at the same time be congruent with the laws of science and nature.


Paul Edwards The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

© Anthony Ross 2003

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