Looking GrimJuly 9, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
My response to Geisler and Turek’s free will argument has attracted a visitor who goes by the handle of “Challenger Grim.” At least, he was here long enough to leave one comment, though I suspect that, having had his say, he has since departed the vicinity. In any case, he has left us a rich vein of blog fodder, and I am only too happy to take advantage of it.
He begins by addressing the remarks of another commenter who said,
I have NEVER understood this whole Lewis-based argument that if God revealed himself to us more openly we would be deprived of out free will. How could having better access to the information most relevant to my decisions make me less free?
Grim’s response is short and sweet, but full of potential.
Now that answer is obvious, because then you wouldn’t be atheist any more would you?
Notice, not only is Grim confusing “will” with “knowledge,” he’s also assuming that the atheist does not want to know the truth about God. Individually, they’re obvious mistakes; taken together, they may be telling us more about Grim’s mindset than he wants us to know.
Let’s start with the superficial question of whether discovery is a violation of free will. It should be evident that this is not the case. It does not violate anybody’s free will to learn that their earthly father actually exists, so why should it be a problem to make a similar discovery about one’s heavenly Father (if we had one)? As the father of two teenagers myself, I can assure you that my kids’ will has not been the slightest bit impaired by the knowledge that I exist! They usually do what I want, but only because they are willing (and because I show up in real life to interact with them and work with them on why they should be willing).
Next, let’s look at the conclusion “because then you wouldn’t be atheist any more.” That’s certainly true: if God showed up in real life, nobody would have any reason to be an atheist. According to the Gospel, that ought to be an improvement over the current situation, so why wouldn’t God be willing to implement it? This is a good example of backwards thinking versus forwards thinking. To the Christian apologist, the present-day existence of atheism is a given, so the apologist has to think backwards to come up with a reason why atheism ought to be necessary. “Free will” then becomes a viable apologetic because everybody knows there have to be atheists (because, well, um, they just do). Therefore God can’t violate your free will because then there wouldn’t be any atheists.
If, on the other hand, we start at the beginning and work forwards, we come up with a scenario that is strikingly different from what we find in real life. Let’s imagine that we’re back at the beginning of time, watching God plan out what kind of Creation He wants to create. Since no atheists exist at this point, it’s not a given that atheists must exist, so God is free to design the world however He likes. The Gospel tells us He’s a loving Father, so logically He will want to be with His children. If He wants them to have free will, all He has to do is offer them alternatives to choose from. Being a good Father, He is under no obligation to expose them to bad, dangerous, or eternally fatal alternatives. A toddler choosing between cake and ice cream is just as free as the one choosing between a squirt gun and a handgun, but only an idiot or a scumbag would offer a toddler the latter choice.
So, by forward thinking, we see that there is no reason why free will would force God to turn people into atheists by His consistent failure to show up in real life. If free will were really a priority, we ought to see a world in which God shows up to spend with His children and to give them free choices between a variety of fun, edifying, positive alternatives. The only reason for arguing differently is the unpleasant fact that the real world is not consistent with what we would expect if the Gospel were true, and therefore we have to think backwards in order to build a pseudo-realistic apologetic. In other words, we have to rationalize.
But now let’s look at that assumption that atheists don’t want to know the truth about God. I am one disproof of that assumption: I was a Christian who became an atheist through my insistence on not resting until I learned the truth about God. I have since come to the conclusion that Reality itself, personified as “Alethea,” is the true god behind all theistic beliefs (however misguided and inaccurate those beliefs might be). So technically, I’m not an atheist any more (though I am a non-supernaturalist). This sort of thing can only come about if atheists like me are willing to know the truth about God.
Remember, there are any number of believers today who boast quite proudly that they were once atheists, and that God, the great Hound of Heaven, kept at them until they gave in and stopped being atheists. If we are to accept Grim’s argument, every one of those former atheists must have had their free will violated by God, which raises some serious questions about the claim that God is not allowed to do that. Indeed, the only way any Christian could avoid accusing God of violating his or her free will is if God played no role at all in their conversion. Grim’s “obvious” answer actually creates more problems for the Gospel than it solves.
Grim’s two errors—that free will would be violated by knowing the truth about God and that atheists don’t want to know the truth about God—seem rather silly if you stop to think about them. They make perfect sense, however, if you are defining “truth” in terms of what you want to believe instead of what is consistent with reality. If the only possible reason for believing in God is because they want to believe in God, then yeah, it makes sense to conclude that someone who doesn’t believe must not want to believe. And if you base your belief on what you want to believe, and someone confronts you with the hard facts of a reality inconsistent with your beliefs, then that might indeed interfere with your ability to believe whatever you want. So both of these errors make sense IF we are defining truth as being whatever we want to believe, regardless of the facts. But is that really truth?
Obviously, I can’t speak for Grim himself. This might be a description of how he thinks, or he might merely be imitating arguments that he has heard from others who think this way. When all is said and done, however, the truth is consistent with itself, and therefore our best bet, in knowing truth, is to seek those things that are most consistent with the real world. Whenever you try to push a story that is not consistent with the truth, there are going to be flaws in your argument, and when you try and reconcile those flaws with the truth, you’re going to end up creating even more problems for yourself, as Grim did with his claim that atheist conversions violate free will. But if you start with the real world truth to begin with, and stick with it, you won’t have those problems. Truth takes care of its own self-consistency.