Blind to Certain Lights

Free will is experientially undeniable. Even if we sometimes feel as though we can’t help ourselves with a specific action, most of the time we generally recognize some level of choice available to us in every situation. Often we don’t like many of the choices that we have, or we consider the choice inconsequentially different. You may be free to put on either your left sock or your right sock first, but who cares? Yet it is impossible to totally separate the inconsequential choice from the momentous. I used to live close to two grocery stores that I considered nearly equal in price and selection. I wound up shopping at one more than the other mostly out of habit and a minor preference, but I would still shop at the other from time to time. Any time I needed to go shopping I could easily have chosen one or the other. But what if choosing one particular store led to me being involved in a fatal car accident? A choice which I perceived as of no consequence and felt fully capable of choosing differently would be the definitive choice of my life.

That is why I say free will is undeniable in our experience. Whatever might be logically provable from certain suppositions, in our daily experience we would be less than honest if we said we felt we had no choice. The very feeling of having a choice could be an illusion, could be the brain chemistry equivalent of a dice bouncing around before it settles, but then so could the entire experience of consciousness. Regardless, as conscious, communicative beings, we would lie about our own perception and experience if we said we did not make choices, or at least perceive ourselves to make choices.

A God who is perfectly free to create (not bound by any prior rules of physics, but the author of those laws as well) and also all-knowing must by definition have predestined us for whatever we find in our lives. If he wanted a different outcome he could have used different inputs. This seems so manifestly necessary that I can only imagine arguing about the suppositions: is God really all-knowing? Was he really free to create or is he bound by some higher principle or power (impersonal or otherwise)? My belief in God’s omnipotence and omniscience is entirely by faith; I don’t claim to have any proof for it. But if you accept those principles I don’t know how you could avoid the conclusion. So how does one live under such a philosophy that is so evidently contradicted by experience?

Hopefully believing a proposition which is contradicted by experience is no new adventure for the Christian. Our faith is built on the belief that a man came back from the dead, a hypothesis thoroughly disproven by centuries of reproduceable results on billions of test subjects. The dead stay dead. Nothing is more scientifically certain. The most elementary teachings of our faith require that we believe in the truth of a concept with no readily apparent proof. So if I believe in resurrection while everyone I have known or known of in my lifetime will die, it is no more contradictory for me to believe in predestination while I experience free will.

Some people will not tolerate this kind of intellectual convolution and will require all explanations to align with experiences, at least as long as those explanations rest on ideas they are used to accepting. Many people will affirm the resurrection without allowing that they are believing in a scientifically disproven concept. The weight of the traditional religious teaching brings its own credence, at least in matters that don’t require direct observation. Miracles far away are fine, they say; things in my life are subject to my inspection and comprehension. I understand that people do accept the resurrection of Jesus and still believe themselves to be thoroughly scientific; I just don’t understand how people with a thinking capacity maintain both beliefs.

For those who can tolerate abstract intellectual inquiry, the tantalizing question is, what could reconcile the inevitable conclusion that God determines all things with the experience of choosing freely? Is not one a lie and the other a truth? But it is quite possible for both views to be true, depending upon the perspective employed. There is a legitimate distinction between truthfully describing what you see and truthfully describing what is. The best illustration I have for this is the concept of colorblindness. A person who cannot see red, cannot see it; and such a person would be lying if they claimed to see the color red. But it is sometimes possible for a person who cannot see red to know that the color is present. They may learn, for example, that the highest light on a traffic signal is red; and although they may not see the color of the light, they can tell when it is lit. So too with stop signs. Or perhaps also someone identifies a distinctive sweater as red, and thereafter the colorblind person knows the name of the color which is visible to others in that sweater. In the case of the traffic light, the colorblind person would technically be lying if they said they saw the red light, but also lying if they said that they did not know that the light was red. A colorblind person licensed to drive will not get out of any traffic tickets by stating they could not see the redness of the signal. But there will be other cases where the colorblind person has no context to inform them of the color of a thing, and they will in all honesty overlook it or fail to perceive it.

The sovereignty of God is a color to which we are all blind. Sometimes there are clues by which we can detect or infer the hand of God directing events, and this can be a beautiful and blessed vision indeed; but we are by nature incapable of seeing how God directs all things, how every atom of creation is an unfolding revelation of his will. We can’t see it; we would lie if we said that we did see it, everywhere and all the time. And we tell the truth when we say that we chose — the truth as we see it.

We are not held to account for what we cannot see, except insofar as we have learned better. Just as the driver is responsible to stop at the signal regardless of whether they see the color red or not, there are times when we can see what God has done and if we fail to acknowledge that we condemn ourselves. But in the main there is nothing dishonest in us speaking and acting as though we choose for ourselves. This is the light that we have; this is the portion of the spectrum that we can see. The Bible sometimes speaks as though we have a choice in our affairs, or even indeed that God himself is undecided about things. But the Bible also speaks of God as having decided things far in advance, before any precedent was set. There needn’t be any contradiction, if the statements about choices and changes are written from our perspective, dealing with what we as people could see and observe, while the statements about predestination are written to describe a truth that is out of our sight.

Although this framework for reconciling the sovereignty of God with our perceived free will allows us to speak honestly about our perceptions and deal honestly with the Biblical teaching about God, it does suggest that in the ultimate sense the perception of free will is a misperception, even a lie you might say, and that we are totally predestined. The roll of a die in the palm of the hand most of us cannot understand, so we consider the outcome random, arbitrary, unplanned; but we can also acknowledge that there are very definite physics governing how the corners of the die bounce of the curves of the hand, and that if one knows how the die is shaken one could predict the number it will turn up. To think of ourselves as being like that die–too complex for us to understand, but entirely known to the sly and canny creator who can manipulate the dice to exactly his will–that is a terrifying thought.

It is also an outrageous thought. If we are totally known and predicted, how can we have any agency? How can we be considered “responsible” any more than any other inert thing, acted upon by physics? Yet when this very complaint was anticipated by Paul, he did not contradict it at all but confirmed it (see also Isaiah and Jeremiah). We can indeed be considered in the eyes of God to have as much agency as a lump of clay; and in that perspective we are no more to be faulted for our own destruction than a piece of clay is blamed for being refashioned from one thing into another. But the thing about being colorblind is that you can’t see red just because you know it is there. Even if it is true that God shapes and makes us into exactly what he wants – whether for death or eternal life – it is still true that we perceive ourselves to have a choice. You cannot see yourself differently. There is no point arguing that if God predestines us, then he is responsible for our choices–because if God does predestine us, then included in that is the self-perception that we are making choices, and we can only honestly discuss what we see. Just as you cannot run a red light by claiming you did not see it, you cannot excuse immoral and rebellious choices by claiming that you really had no choice. You in your own perception saw the choice and made it. What God did with what he saw and knew and controlled is up to him; what you did with what you saw and knew and controlled is on you.

It is an utterly hopeless place to be; your fate is entirely out of your hands. You will see a choice, and choose wrongly, and for that you will suffer; but all of it was known and planned and even designed by God in advance, and there is no possibility that it might be differently, any more than you can play the same movie twice and get a different ending. The book has already been written

At the same time it is the only place of rest and freedom, because if God has secretly written what will be, and what your fate will be, then there is literally nothing for you to do but to trust him. This does not mean that you give up on breathing and eating and all the other aspects of your existence – because that is the first thing that God has already given you. You accept your involuntary breaths and your voluntary choice of food as equally gifts from God, and you take your choices as you find them. Yet you trust that your final fate is entirely in the hands of God, and not subject to any mistake you could possibly make. And if you can even find yourself at a point where you can consider this, you have considerable assurance that God has indeed chosen to preserve you; for rebellion against God is fundamentally nothing other than refusing to allow him to have his own way.