The problem with Butt’s problem
I recently stumbled upon a response to Dan Barker’s Freewill Argument for the Non-existence of God (FANG).1 The author of the response, Kyle Butt, begins by summarizing Barker’s argument. Butt believes Barker’s argument has “several problems” for this argument. The first problem, according to Butt, is how Barker can maintain that personal beings have free will, yet not believe humans, who are personal beings, have free will. In order to support this, Butt quotes Barker from his debate with Peter Payne, where he thinks free will is an illusion. Barker considers himself “a strict determinist.”
I thought to myself what relevance does this have if Barker actually doesn’t believe free will exists? It doesn’t seem to have an relevance, since Barker doesn’t consider himself omniscient. I decided I’d be charitable in my interpretation of what Barker meant by free will being an illusion and what he meant by “strict determinist”. Having been able to actually read Barker’s argument, I feel that I have been charitable. I don’t doubt Butt read Barker’s argument, but it seems strange that Butt could have missed this.
According to Christians, personal beings have free will.
This doesn’t state that Barker himself believes personal beings have free will, so I don’t think there’s anything difficult for Barker to maintain. In fact, Butt quotes Barker from his book, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. This is what Barker says.2
I am a determinist, which means that I don’t think complete libertarian free will exists. Since we don’t know the future . . . we have the illusion of free will, which to me is what ‘free will’ actually means.
I think if Butt had used the principle of charity, he wouldn’t have fallen into a misrepresentation of what Barker actually believes. Reading Barker’s words, it seemed to me that when he said he doesn’t think complete libertarian free will exists, he wasn’t denying free will. He was simply denying the libertarian definition of free will. In fact, I decided to see what it was that Barker actually believes. Ironically, Butt should have known better,3 unless his article was written prior to his FANG response. From Barker’s same book,4
By the way, this contributes to my compatibilist position on human free will.
Perhaps Butt simply overlooked this if his response to the FANG argument was written afterwards. Either way, it’s clear that Barker believes in some kind of free will, just not the libertarian kind, which he considers illusory. Butt thinks this is a “devious switch”, but it honestly isn’t. Even Calvinists accept compatibilism. There is no specific definition of free will, since humans are bound by their physical bodies. It doesn’t seem to me problematic that humans are incapable of breathing underwater, whereas fish are incapable of surviving outside of water. There are restrictions, regardless.
Does free will require that you don’t know the future?
Barker believes that free will requires that you don’t know the future, but Butt dismisses this as “an assertion, with no factual or logical backing. Who says that free will requires that you not know the future?” Either Barker thinks this is simply common sense, or perhaps there’s an enthymeme. It seems reasonable to me that in order to have free will, you must lack foreknowledge of the future. After all, knowing what is in store for you means there’s nothing you can do to alter the future. It simply will happen. This is probably what Barker means. Butt disagrees.
In fact, free will does not require that a person be ignorant of the future. Could a person know what would happen in the future, have the ability and power to change it, but still choose what he knew would happen? Yes. The life of Jesus Christ gives a perfect case in point. In Isaiah 53:9, the Bible says that the Messiah would not lie. This prophecy was written about 700 years before Jesus walked the Earth. According to Dan, that must mean that since God knew that Jesus (God in the flesh) would not lie, then Jesus did not have the ability or choice to lie. Yet, when we look to the New Testament, we see that Jesus was tempted in all ways like other humans are (Hebrews 4:15), but He did not sin. Did Jesus have the ability to lie? Yes. Did He have the opportunity to lie every day of His life on Earth? Yes. But did Jesus know that He would not lie? Yes. We see, then, that foreknowledge of an event does not rob a person of the ability to change the event. It is not that God, by knowing His future actions, cannot change them. It is simply that He does not choose to change them.
It seems Butt misses the point. In fact, Barker addresses this in his FANG argument. Suppose God could know what will happen in the future and has the ability to change it, but chooses to go with what would happen. Is it really a choice that he made? Or does he simply think he made that choice, since he knew full well what would occur? If God knows what will happen and decides to pursue it, then his decision is illusory. If God can change the future, but decides not to, then this comes off as illusory as well.
Let’s work with the example of Jesus that Butt provided us. Since it’s most likely that Butt believes Jesus was the incarnation of God, then Jesus wouldn’t be capable of lying anyway. His humanity may be brought up, but who are Christians fooling? I doubt they would believe that Jesus’ humanity would be more powerful than his divinity, as if his humanity could somehow override the desires of his divinity. It’s doubtful that Jesus could even sin, since if Jesus is God incarnate, and if God cannot be tempted, then Jesus couldn’t be tempted.
Butt thinks that it’s not that God cannot change his future actions, but instead chooses not to change them. Well, this is also a problem, especially since it is likely Butt’s understanding of God originates from classical theism. The classical view is that God is immutable. Thus, it’s not that God chooses not to change. He simply cannot change. If Butt thinks God can change, but chooses not to, then omniscience must be redefined. Process theism would be able to address this problem.
While I can agree with Butt that knowledge of a future event doesn’t mean that it is the cause of the future event, I find his example to be faulty. If the person in question is simply a human being who has decided that at 12 p.m. tomorrow is going to drink coffee, then all is well if such an event takes place. However, this means that the future cause occurred because he decided for it to. He could have done otherwise, not knowing the future. After all, suppose this man looked forward to drinking coffee at 12 p.m., but ended up in a vehicular accident. Butt continues:
To further illustrate this fact, consider the idea of God’s omnipresence in relation to the actions of humans. According to the biblical definition, used by Barker to form FANG, does God know all future actions of every human? Yes. So, God knew that you would be reading this information at this moment. Does God’s advance knowledge cause a person’s actions? No, because foreknowledge does not equal causality.
It seems Butt isn’t grasping the point. If God knew that I would read the article at this moment, then this moment could not have been performed otherwise. I could not have decided to perform a different action. It might be that God isn’t causing me to read Butt’s article at this moment, but he knows fully and completely without so much as an atom deviating its course that I would read Butt’s article. I could not have done otherwise. It might be thought that God has set up the future this way, so he would have indirectly caused this event.
- The FANG Argument: A Refutation by Kyle Butt
- Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, p. 128; since I don’t have the book in my possession, I quoted what Kyle presented.
- Does God’s Existence Rest Upon Human Consensus? by Kyle Butt
- Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, p. 213