If God is able to use our actions to produce a desired outcome, do we really have free will? If mankind is unable to resist sin, do we have free will? Does the existence of an all-knowing God imply that we have no free will? This group of questions came to me after finishing the story of Joseph at the end of the book of Genesis and I think they are an appropriate set of questions given Joseph’s statement to his brothers at the end of the story.
This passage implies that God had executed a design, of which the brothers were unwittingly involved, implying that God is, at the very least, capable of accurately anticipating our actions and the subsequent results of those actions. How can God do this? Well, when following the cosmological argument for God’s existence, we determine that God exists outside of time. This is due to the idea that time began with our universe, and is a force which exists within our universe. Einstein went so far as to claim that time and space are fundamentally connected and that time itself is not linear. Modern physicists have gone so far as to claim that, theoretically, every event that has happened, is happening, or will ever happen, is actually all happening at the same time and that the experience of time itself is an animalistic construct needed for our minds to be able to comprehend the world around us. In other words, time, as we know it, does not exist. If space-time is truly interconnected, then space must exist in order for time to exist, that is to say, there was no time before the beginning of the universe. If this is true, then there either was no beginning to the universe, or the even that caused the universe happened outside of time itself. Thus, if you accept that God exists, God must exist outside of time.
If God exists outside of time, then He does not experience time the way that we do. Additionally, if the modern physicists are accurate, and all-time is happening simultaneously, then God must see the whole portrait of the universe, from beginning to end, as one single event. An event of which He has total knowledge and control.
If God has total knowledge and control over the portrait of the universe, how can we have free will? As I have discussed before, I believe it would be immoral to control the actions of a person without their consent, and not many people would grant that consent to God if they do not even believe that He exists. If this is true, and God would not violate that trust, then we must have free will, the question is simply a matter of how. How can we have free will when all of our past, present, and future actions may have already happened? When God can use our actions, without our knowledge, to achieve a specific purpose? I will offer two examples in the form of analogy.
The painter conjures an image in his mind, and then makes that image a reality using the tools at his disposal. He cannot control the paint, only how much paint he uses and which types of types of paint he selects. Each type of paint available have different advantages and disadvantages, so he chooses wisely based on the canvas he is using, and the type of result he would like to achieve. Some paints are more runny, some are more thick. Some paints dry faster, others take longer. Some paints mix better than others.
The painter does not force the paint to work in a way that is against it’s nature, but rather, the painter selects a paint that will naturally work in the way he desires. Some paints may need to be a certain temperature for this to happen, other may need to be applied to a specific brush or spray mechanism, and perhaps others are ready to just be splashed in the right direction. In this way, the painter prepares the paint for it’s particular use, again never by force.
If we view God as the painter, us as the paint, and all of time as the portrait that God is painting, then this analogy explains free will. God will never force us to take an action that is against our nature, but He will instead use other paints (people), brushes (situations), and time (preparation), to ready us for His purpose. In this way, we determine how God can use us, whether it be for a direct good like Joseph, or for an indirect good as was the case with Joseph’s brothers. But, good or bad, God will use our decisions like paint, to create a beautiful portrait against the canvas of the universe.
The Time Traveler
The time traveler is a more direct example of free will. One human being cannot force another human being to make a specific choice right? Well, a time traveler could conceivably do this. Let’s assume that a particular time traveler wants you to miss work one day and meet a particular person by the coffee machine in the mechanic’s shop. The time traveler has already arranged for the other person to be there, now it is time to focus on you. First, your car needs to break down. Then, the tow truck driver needs to get your car to the specific shop. Finally, you need to desire something by the coffee machine. These are easy things to control, without controlling free will. For example, the tow truck driver will likely recommend shops that he knows and are close to where your car breaks down. So the first thing that the time traveler must do is ensure that you have the contact information for a tow truck driver that will recommend the specific shop. He can do this by drawing your attention to the television during a commercial from the tow truck company. This way the commercial will be fresh in your mind when your car breaks down. Next, he needs to ensure that the car breaks down at the appropriate time. This will likely take a lot of trial and error, but sabotaging a car so that it breaks down within a certain window of time is not impossible. Finally, you need to be thirsty. Maybe you have to sit and wait in a hot car before you get picked up by the tow truck, or perhaps your coffee pot broke the day before and you haven’t gotten a new one yet. Either way, you will likely desire a drink, or coffee once you get situated in the shop.
Now we have all of the events in place that will put you in the right place, at the right time, to make the desired decision, and the decision is still entirely your own. You are the one that will decide to get a drink, and you are the one who will decide to speak to the person at the coffee machine. No one is controlling your actions, merely the situation in which you find yourself at that key moment. Everything in your life before this moment has been a result of your decisions, and everything in your life beyond this moment will be the result of those cumulative decisions regardless of what takes place at the mechanic shop. The time traveler has merely put you in one specific situation.
The person at the coffee machine invites you to church. Whether or not you go is up to you, the time traveler merely ensured that you received the invitation. The painter decided when to use the paint, you will decide how you dry. No matter what you choose, you will be a part of a masterpiece.
P.S. There are of course, paradoxes and issues with the time travel example, but it’s an analogy, so ignore them.
P.P.S. If there is no such thing as free will, then I no choice but to write this. There is no point in arguing with me, because I have no choice in my beliefs, therefore it would be wise for you to make better use of your time than to debate with me.