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The Miracle of Choice (part 1 of 2)

Posted by thethousandmarch on May 4, 2014 at 6:05 PM

This post was inspired by an interview with physicist Leonard Mlodinow on the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett


Many scientists, philosophers and even theologians will tell us that “free will” is an illusion. If their models are correct then there are no real choices to be made, all our actions are predetermined. Yet despite the logic of the arguments put forward by various determinists I persist in believing (perhaps irrationally) that I do have at least some sense of real choice – meaning I have at least a small, yet significant, control over my destiny.


To be clear I don’t actually think my belief is irrational. Here is the progression of my propositions leading to my conclusion:


1. There is a God – the creator and supreme authority/ruler

2. The Bible is a unique revelation from God to humans – it is a message from God to us

3. In various places in the Bible, humans are instructed to make choices

4. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that God holds humans responsible for their choices and actions


Conclusion: Humans have choice – a real though limited sense of self-determination.


Of course there are many Christians who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, believe in human responsibility, and even believe in free will, who don’t really believe humans have any real sense of control over their destiny. What kind of choice am I talking about; free will is not the real issue. Even determinists agree that we are free to choose to do what we desire to do. However our choices, our desires, and therefore our actions are ultimately determined by our character. Our character is determined by a variety of factors, none of which we have any control over. This means we don’t actually determine who we are or who we become, our true nature is simply revealed.


However if this is the case this means that humans cannot actually be held responsible for their actions. To be sure our actions reveal who we are – they show us to be good or bad. But we bear no responsibility for being good or bad. We may like the good and want to destroy the bad, but no moral guilt can be assigned. I don’t think weeds are morally responsible for corrupting my garden, nor do I think dogs are morally responsible for biting and killing (especially if their natural tendencies have been accentuated by their breeding and training) – we simply destroy what hurts us. But there is no guilt, nor is their justice in such a circumstance.


Yet I believe that we humans actually have the ability to make choices which change our desires and change our character. It is not simply that we have the freedom to choose what we will. If that was the extent of our choice, then all of our choices would still ultimately be determined by our genetics, our environment, coincidence, the laws of nature, God, etc. We would therefore have no real ability to change who we are; we would have no control over who we become. Yet this is exactly the choice I believe we do have - to put our faith in God or something else, to respond positively or negatively to the grace he bestows upon us all, to seek to have our desires fulfilled in him or something else, to choose the good or the bad. It is this choice which can change our character; it is this choice which determines our actions and it is this choice for which we are held responsible.


But if the scientists, philosophers and even the theologians are correct, how can such a choice be possible? Perhaps it is a miracle. If a miracle is an “exception to the laws of nature” (Leonard Mlodinow), then I would propose that perhaps choice is a miracle. A truly free choice as I’ve described it is not common, but is common enough that we do not recognize its miraculous nature. But consider how remarkable it is when a person’s nature is transformed. When we examine the evidence we may be unable to see where there is any room for a real sense of self-determination. It may seem that we are slaves to the tyranny of cause and effect. We may acknowledge that though we feel that we make choices, our feelings are superficial and illusory. I actually agree that most of our choices are predetermined by outside forces. But I do believe we possess a freedom and this freedom may have no natural explanation. It may be quite appropriate to call it a miracle.


Categories: Basic Christian Belief, Science