God, free will – and a lemon meringue

How does the Christian concept of God as the all-powerful creator of the universe fit with authentic human choice and random events in the natural world? Philosophy professor Michael Murray thinks through the issues, with the help of some chess moves and a lemon meringue.

Professor Murray, what attracted you to study philosophy?

I became a Christian right before I went to university. My intention was to study chemistry. I was also very interested in the intersection of science and faith. At university, I kept running into people who had philosophical questions and concerns. One of my room-mates had a philosophy professor who was notorious for his atheism. He would challenge his classes, saying: ‘If anybody give me a reason why I should believe in God from a philosophical point of view, then they can teach the whole class.’

I went to the professor and asked whether he would be interested in getting someone in who could argue for God. He told me that one of his goals was to have every one of his students leave his class as an atheist. I was shocked to hear that. Then I wondered if there was anyone representing the case for religious belief. At that moment, I decided that was what I wanted to do as a career. So, I cancelled chemistry and signed up for philosophy.

So you’re a man on a mission?

I guess. I just think that religious belief is a respectable point of view that should be represented at the academic level.

Does life have inherent meaning or are meaning and purpose things that we read into life?

As a Christian theist, I think meaning is intrinsic to life. God created the cosmos and human beings as a way of manifesting his glory and manifesting his image and glory. The goal of creation, ultimately, is to manifest the glory of God. It does that in a way that has been frustrated by the introduction of sin and death. But, ultimately, God redeems this cosmos and perfects it. As an intentional agent, God imposes meaning and has built into the nature of creatures a teleological drive towards their own perfection.

So you reject nihilism?

Yes. Humans are intuitively and intrinsically motivated to seek meaning in the world. Some elements of the meaning can be discerned without thinking of ourselves as creatures of the divine, but the fullness of human flourishing comes in our recognition of ourselves as creatures of God.

Is life a product of accident or of design?

I am not an advocate of the intelligent design theory but there are reasons to think that the Universe and life itself are designed. The Universe is finely tuned to allow life and intelligence to exist. And there are long-term directional trends in biological evolution that suggest there are intrinsic features of the cosmos that drive life towards certain ends.

Some people interpret the fact that evolution produces seemingly random results as an indication that life is happenstance. Can evolution be design-driven?

It’s about purposiveness – the condition of displaying conscious intention. Evolutionary change is driven by processes that people describe as ‘random’. These changes probably don’t take place because God sticks his finger into the cosmos and rearranges the DNA; they are due to gamma radiation, transcription errors, cell division and so on. The question of how God’s purposes are played out through those apparently random processes – the nature of the relationship between chance and providence – is hard.

However, we might think about God’s providence over indeterministic natural processes as analogous to providence over free human actions. For me, there is nothing intrinsically different about God realising his providential aims through human free will and the uncertainty of human decision-making from God’s providential purposes being played out through physical processes that involve chance and randomness, such as evolution.

To what extent is the idea that God is prepared to work through fallible humans a denial of divine omnipotence and omniscience?

A chess grandmaster will know the moves an amateur will make, even before they have made them. Even before the first move, the grandmaster knows that they will win the game.

Similarly, God knows every possible move we could make and knows what we would do in reaction to the moves that he’s going to make. So, whether or not we freely choose to make those moves, the outcome is going to be one that God providentially superintends.

Most amateurs also recognise that the result would be a foregone conclusion. So, how much truly free will has God given to people?

The choices we make are authentic and meaningful. Over a lifetime, the path we choose is something that makes us the person we are and gives us an authentic and genuine life. But that does not mean that God does not also exercise providential control over those actions.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine I’m having some friends over for dinner and I am deciding what to cook. My friend’s wife calls me and says: ‘Mark has been putting on a few pounds lately, so could you be mindful of that when you’re deciding the menu?’ I ask: ‘What should I do?’ She says: ‘He loves anything with chocolate but hates lemon, so if you just make a lemon dessert, that would really help.’ I make a lemon meringue. During dinner, I ask Mark if he’d like some dessert. When I tell him that it’s lemon meringue, he passes.

The question is, who is responsible for Mark not eating any lemon meringue? He is. He chooses not to eat it. But so am I, because I knew the conditions. I engineered the circumstances, but nothing about the scenario diminishes Mark’s responsibility for not eating dessert.

Is that how divine providence works? God knows the choices we’d make and as a result he points us in a certain direction.

But the idea of such a manipulative God suggests that life is a series of predetermined paths over which humans have no authentic selfdetermining choice.

I guess that depends on how we think about Mark’s choice in my example. Was his choice an authentic self-determining choice? I think so. Any circumstances that we are in limit the choices available to us in some way. And creating necessarily implies putting us in particular circumstances. So when God creates us in this or that circumstance, all I claim is that he knows how we will choose.

Does faith come about through nature or nurture?

Both. Humans have very natural dispositions to believe that there are supernatural agents who have concern about human behaviour. Throughout human history, there is evidence that religious belief is a pervasive cultural phenomenon.

New atheism describes a world where science has all the answers and where faith is a blind leap in the dark in the teeth of evidence. To what extent is new atheism credible?

In the 20th century, naturalism made no progress in trying to solve the major philosophical questions, such as: What grounds moral truths, what provides moral motivation, how do we account for mathematical truth, what is the nature of mind, how do we account for the origins of contingency?

New atheism has done no better than old atheism. The rise of new atheism is closely related to the events surrounding 9/11. But the moral misdeeds of one religious sect does not provide us with good grounds for opposing religion altogether. In people such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, new atheism has charismatic leaders but it is not sustainable.

Why does new atheism interpret the theory of evolution as an indication that the Universe did not need a divine Creator?

At various junctures throughout the history of ideas, and especially in the early 1800s, there were a number of apologetic arguments about the well-suitedness of organisms to their environment providing evidence for a designing agent.

With Darwin it looked as though there was no longer a need to appeal directly to a divine agency for the origins of life. There was now a purely naturalistic way of accounting for the most interesting features of the biological landscape: human beings, their cognitive capacity, their moral abilities and their religious sensibility – all these things now seem to be susceptible to a purely naturalistic explanation. So the lack of a divine agency fits well in the new atheist narrative.

In addition, the random processes associated with evolution are interpreted by some as incompatible with a providential God who intends for that process to generate life that manifests the divine image. Finally, to some people, the pain, suffering and death endemic to evolution seem incompatible with the existence of God.

Some Christians find evolution incompatible with their faith because the Bible says that there was no death before the Fall, while death is an integral component of the modification process within evolution. How satisfying an argument is that against evolution?

There is no doubt that death and suffering existed in the world before the emergence of Homo sapiens. Is this incompatible with the teaching of Scripture? Some think so for sure. However, there is good reason to believe that Genesis was never intended by God or its human authors to be a scientific account of origins. And claims about the origins of death in creation in the New Testament are not clearly referring to physical death. So it may be that we have misunderstood these texts in the past.

Michael Murray is a visiting scholar at the Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Executive Vice-President for Programmes at the Templeton Foundation, an organisation that promotes research on spirituality and science

This interview was conducted by Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The War Cry. It is used here with permission

Photo by Nigel Bovey