148. Valentine’s Day Speculations: God, Love, and Free Will


Love, for centuries, has been associated with divine powers. Of course, it is a bit more fashionable these days, and a bit more scientific, to think of love as a function of neurochemistry. But it is interesting to consider love and its relationship to the divine…at least on Valentine’s Day! One way we can do this is by exploring Christian love.

Christian love can be understood as the altruistically motivated (acting for the sake of another) choice to enhance the freedom of others. According to one interpretation, the absolutely free God loves us by making us in His image as beings with free will. This gift empowers us to love others by enhancing their freedom primarily through acts of forgiveness and promising. Unlike eros which seeks to possess various things perceived to be valuable in order to become whole, Christian love creates value through freedom enhancement thus reducing the need for possession and the jealousy that inevitably accompanies such a need.

But is this account of love true? To answer this question we would need to, at least, give a convincing account of free will and God’s existence…not exactly an easy task. Nonetheless, what I want to do here is briefly present a few controversial arguments in defense of Christian love that I formulated to challenge my philosophy of love students. Critically assessing these arguments and the various ideas involved should help you think through this form of love and, perhaps, cast a critical eye on current efforts to approach love naturalistically.

Materialism, Determinism, and Free Will

Let’s begin by noting two plausible theses, typically embraced by scientists, which are radically at odds with the basic ideas of Christian love, namely, materialism and determinism:

• Materialism is the view that reality is nothing but matter in motion. There are no immaterial things, such as angels, souls, and God.

• Determinism is the view that every event is the necessary effect of previous causes. Causes necessitate their effects and so the way matter moves is determined. There are no possibilities in the world; only necessities. If we apply determinism to us we can argue as follows:

Premise 1: Every event in the universe has a cause.
Premise 2: Human actions are events in the universe.
Conclusion: Therefore, all human actions are caused, i.e., necessitated or determined to move the way they do.

If this argument is sound, that is, if the premises are true and the conclusion follows validly from the premises, then there is no free will. After all,

• Free will is the ability to choose from among real alternatives or possibilities, and in a determined world there are no possibilities only necessities.

So, if we just stick with materialism and determinism then it appears free will is an illusion and therefore Christian love, however coherent and attractive, is false.

Love and Free Will

Now we could, at this point, argue that the experience of love as freedom enhancement refutes determinism. After all, how can we engage in loving others in this way if there is no free will at all? This approach would rely a great deal on the experiences we have of enhancing freedom and having our own freedom enhanced. It would especially rely on experiences of forgiving and being forgiven which allow us to begin anew in ways not determined by the past. Don’t these powerful and often life-changing experiences show we have free will after all? The argument might go as follows:

Premise 1: If genuine forgiveness takes place then there is free will.
Premise 2: Genuine acts of forgiveness take place.
Conclusion: Therefore, there is free will.

A determinist might respond by saying that even so-called experiences of love as freedom enhancement, since they are events in the universe as premise two of the argument for determinism states, are caused and therefore necessitated to occur. One could respond to this response by pointing out that Christian love doesn’t reduce human action to events in the physical universe. To be sure, we have a material body. But perhaps we also have an immaterial soul and perhaps an immaterial God exists. Love, if it exists, might take place with the help of these immaterial powers. So perhaps premise two of the determinism argument is false: loving acts, far from being material events in the physical universe, would transcend the laws of nature and our material bodies. Naturally a determinist will ask for a demonstration of these immaterial powers from which love is supposed to flow. The defender of Christian love could then appeal to love as evidence for these powers as well.

Free Will and Love as Supernatural

In any case, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that free will exists (for more arguments in defense of free will go here and here). But where did it come from? It doesn’t seem plausible that free will emerges from natural forces since everything in nature appears to be determined by necessity of some kind. How could something free emerge from something determined?  True, modern physics typically construes causality as a matter of probability and accepts a degree of randomness in nature. But randomness and probability don’t entail freedom; indeed, they seem to negate it by undermining responsible agency. So if free will didn’t come from nature, whether determined, random, or both, then where did it come from? For some, our possession of free will suggests that we have an immaterial soul which is influenced by, but not determined by, natural forces. Could we then, as souls, give free will to ourselves and others? This doesn’t seem right either. Free will appears to be a given of the human condition which no one can originate and give to another. Could it be that our free will is just a brute, inexplicable fact? Perhaps. But insofar as we are contingent beings that came into being our existence as free agents calls out for an explanation. If this is the case then free will, and the love that depends upon it, seems to come from something supernatural beyond us. We can formulate the following arguments based on these ideas:

Premise 1: Free will exists.
Premise 2: Free will comes from either a natural source(s) or a supernatural source(s).
Premise 3: Free will doesn’t come from any natural source or set of sources.
Premise 4: Free will is not something we give ourselves or each other.
Conclusion: Therefore, free will comes from a supernatural source beyond both nature and human beings.

Premise 1: Love is the freely chosen enhancement of someone else’s free will.
Premise 2: Free will is supernatural.
Conclusion: Therefore, love is a function of something supernatural and cannot be reduced to the determined matter in motion of the physical world.

God as the Ground of Free Will and Christian Love

But these arguments don’t demonstrate that God exists as the ground of free will. The above argument from the experience of love may work for some. But a more rigorous argument would be preferable. We can approach such an argument with the help of Rene Descartes who, in his Meditations On First Philosophy (see Meditation Four), argues that our will is as unlimited as God’s will:

“And what appears to me here to be highly remarkable is that, of all the other properties I possess, there is none so great and perfect as that I do not clearly discern it could be still greater and more perfect. For, to take an example, if I consider the faculty of understanding which I possess, I find that it is of very small extent, and greatly limited, and at the same time I form the idea of another faculty of the same nature, much more ample and even infinite, and seeing that I can frame the idea of it, I discover, from this circumstance alone, that it pertains to the nature of God. In the same way, if I examine the faculty of memory or imagination, or any other faculty I possess, I find none that is not small and circumscribed, and in God immense [and infinite]. It is the faculty of will only, or freedom of choice, which I experience to be so great that I am unable to conceive the idea of another that shall be more ample and extended; so that it is chiefly my will which leads me to discern that I bear a certain image and similitude of Deity. For although the faculty of will is incomparably greater in God than in myself, as well in respect of the knowledge and power that are conjoined with it, and that render it stronger and more efficacious, as in respect of the object, since in him it extends to a greater number of things, it does not, nevertheless, appear to me greater, considered in itself formally and precisely: for the power of will consists only in this, that we are able to do or not to do the same thing (that is, to affirm or deny, to pursue or shun it), or rather in this alone, that in affirming or denying, pursuing or shunning, what is proposed to us by the understanding, we so act that we are not conscious of being determined to a particular action by any external force.”

Obviously, God would have far more power to act on His will and would have more objects to consider in making choices. But Descartes’ point is that the will, taken in-itself as the ability to choose from among alternatives without being necessitated to do so, is as unlimited as God’s will is. I think Descartes’ insight about the nature of our will, when combined with both insights we established above and some other plausible propositions, can help us construct a better, although still very abstract and controversial, argument for God as the ground of free will and thus Christian love. I leave it to you to determine its weaknesses and strengths.

An Argument for God from the Reality of Free Will

Premise 1: Everything that exists has a sufficient reason that fully accounts for it and makes it intelligible (this is one version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason or PSR). The reasons can, in the case of something brought into being by a cause, refer to a cause. But in the case of something which does not have a cause, the sufficient reason would have to be found in the thing itself. So according to the PSR, causes can be enlisted as reasons for something’s existence but not all reasons are causes.

Premise 2: We came into existence as beings with free will or the ability to choose from among alternative possibilities without being necessitated to do so by antecedent conditions.

Premise 3: So our existence as free beings requires a sufficient explanation in accordance with the PSR.

Premise 4: An unfree source of free will is impossible: a determined thing cannot give rise to free will in itself or others.

Premise 5: Randomness cannot be the source of free will either since free will requires responsible agency and such agency isn’t random.

Premise 6: So nature’s determined and/or random processes cannot cause our free will.

Premise 7: Our free will appears as a given of the human condition which we did not originate and can’t give to others.

Premise 8: So our free will was caused by a supernatural, free, inhuman source(s).

Premise 9: A contingent being is a being whose existence is not necessary and which depends for its existence on another.

Premise 10: A necessary being is an independent being which always exists and never came into being nor will it go out of being.

Premise 11: The cause of our existence as free beings is either a free contingent being(s) or a free necessary being(s).

Premise 12: Our will, unlike our other faculties such as memory, sensation, understanding, and imagination, is not limited.

Premise 13: There is as much reality as there is in the effect, i.e., something cannot give what it does not have (the causal adequacy principle or CAP).

Premie 14: So whatever caused our unlimited will must have, in accordance with the CAP, an unlimited will itself and the ability to give rise to an unlimited will in us.

Premise 15: Something limited cannot give rise to something without limits.

Premise 16: A contingent being, since it is dependent on something else for its existence, is limited.

Premise 17: A necessary being is not dependent or contingent on anything else and so has no limits.

Premise 18: So our existence as free beings with unlimited wills comes from an unlimited and free necessary being(s).

Premise 19: Two things are identical if, and only if, they simultaneously share exactly the same properties (The Identity of Indiscernibles Principle).

Premise 20: The way to distinguish between two beings is through what they lack (e.g., I can distinguish one car from another because each car has properties the other car lacks).

Premise 21: A necessary being lacks nothing since it has no limits.

Premise 22: So if, as is impossible, there were two or more necessary beings then they would have exactly the same properties and so, in accordance with The Identity of Indiscernibles, they would be identical.

Premise 23: So there is only one free necessary being which originates our freedom.

Premise 24: This necessary being would not need any further reason for its existence since the sufficient reason for its existence is found in the fact that its essence is to exist (unlike humans whose essence doesn’t not include existence).

Premise 25: A being with no limits would have no ignorance and thus be all knowing; would have no weakness and thus be all powerful; and have no privation of goodness (evil) and thus be all good.

Premise 26: A necessary, free, inhuman, supernatural, unlimited, all knowing, all powerful, and all good being which is the cause of the free will that makes Christian love possible is God.

Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.

For my argument that a comprehensive science of Eros is not possible, go here.

For my series on love and death, go here.

For my divine conceptualist argument for God’s existence, go here.

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