The World is a Novel in the Mind of God

This article has been substantially revised and republished under the same title (29 October 2021)

Can God determine our actions? One need not think more than a second or two. Of course he can, we answer. If CIA brainwashers and television advertising can cause us to act in specific ways, then certainly God can. Let’s rephrase the question: Can God determine our action without violating our freedom and autonomy? Here the spirits divide. Advocates of the free will defense against the problem of evil believe that divine agency and human agency are mutually exclusive. If God causes my actions, then they are not my actions. I am reduced to the status of puppet. In the words of Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” Free action requires genuine autonomy and freedom from invasive manipulation. Libertarian freedom or determinism—they seem to be the only options before us. Or are they?

In Creation and the Sovereignty of God, Hugh J. McCann asserts a version of double agency that seeks to split the difference. Consider the relationship between an author of a novel to the characters she creates:

The author does not belong to the world she creates, nor do her characters and their actions exist as an event-causal consequence of anything she does. Rather, their first existence is in her creative imagination, and they are born and sustained in and through the very thoughts in which she conceives them, and of which they are the content. The interesting thing about this relationship is that it is too close to permit the author’s creative activity to damage her characters’ freedom. On the contrary, it is perfectly legitimate for her to present them as free and responsible beings. Indeed, it is not even possible for the author to enter into the world and interact with her characters in such a way as to undermine or pervert their integrity as agents. Only other characters in the novel can do that—subject, of course, to the will of the author. (p. 107)

A good story draws us into its world, and once we are in that world, we do not experience the characters as playing out a script, as the robots do in Westworld. They enjoy an integrity of their own. They live out their lives in credible and consistent fashion. Even when a character surprises us, it is the character, not the author, that surprises. Only poorly written stories shock us out of the narrative and return us to the “real” world. Some novelists, such as J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling, go to remarkable lengths to create imaginative universes that are compelling and utterly convincing.


I draw your attention to this sentence from the above quotation: “The interesting thing about this relationship is that it is too close to permit the author’s creative activity to damage her characters’ freedom” (emphasis mine). McCann seems to be suggesting that a fictional character, and the narrative world in which it dwells, enjoys a genuine measure of freedom because it lives within the imagination of the novelist. It’s not an external object that can be manipulated or meddled with. The relationship is too intimate, too immediate for interfer­ence. Dorothy Sayers would disagree with McCann here. His proposal underesti­mates the “element of pure craftsmanship” that is necessary to the creation of a good story. “Neverthe­less,” she concedes, “the free will of a genuinely created character has a certain reality, which the writer will defy at his peril” (The Mind of the Maker, p. 54). A fictional world is not the real world, of course, but McCann still finds the analogy illuminating:

As I see it, our relation to our creator is much the same. We, of course, have more than a mental existence; we are real. But we too are brought to be and sustained in being entirely in and through our creator’s will. We are not self-creating in any way, and we can no more engage in decision and action apart from our creator’s will than can the creatures of fiction. Here, too, however, the relationship is too close to undermine our freedom. God does not, in creating us, act upon us, or produce any intervening cause, even an act of will on his part, that somehow makes us do what we do. There is indeed an exercise of his creative power, but in it he simply becomes the ground of our being, holding us in existence as the content of his creative act. God does not, that is to say, alter our nature or that of our actions merely by providing for our existence. This, I claim, permits all that legitimately belongs to responsible freedom to characterize our actions, just as it does those of fictional creatures. The author of the novel never makes her creatures do something; she only makes them doing it. It is the same with us and God. He does not make us act; he makes us acting, so that the freedom that goes with genuine action can still be present. To think otherwise is to confuse providing for the existence of something and tampering with its nature. Nor should God’s action as creator lead us to worry about our integrity as agents—about whether we will turn out to have a substantive and genuine moral character, or will come across as contrived and manipulated, as somehow lacking a true and unified self. There is no reason to expect the latter outcome, especially when an all-wise and powerful God is producing the work. Bad authors may sometimes have to manipulate their characters; a perfect one never does. (p. 108)

God does not cause our acts, as in causal-deterministic models, nor does he place us on a deistic stage upon which we autonomously live out our choices, as in libertarian models. God makes us acting. He is as intimately related to his creatures, as the storyteller is to his tale or the singer to her song. As James F. Ross has so beautifully worded it, “The being of the cosmos is like a song on the breath of a singer” (“Creation II,” in The Existence and Nature of God, p. 128). Just as God does not create entities without their properties and powers, so he does not create human beings apart from their free agency. Everything we do manifests the divine will. God’s creative “Let there be …” simply is our historical existing. McCann thus seeks to move philosophical reflection beyond the ever-ellusive causal joint that ostensibly binds divine and human agency. Perhaps we should not even employ the notion of causality—hence his suggestion that we think of the relation between God and creatures as analogous to the relation between intention and content:

The existence of creatures belongs to God’s act of creating them, rather than being a consequence of it. … We are not products of God’s creative willing, but the expression of it. If something like this is correct, the gap between creation and creature is closed. There is no distance whatever between us and God, hence we need not invent a causative process or nexus to fill the imagined void. Yet we are not made parts of God, or descriptive modifications of him—any more than the content of a thought would be a part of a predicate of a thinker. Rather, the relation is analogous to that between a story and its author or a song and its composer. The world has its existence in God, but God is in no way composed or constituted by the world. A second upshot of this view is that any remaining vestiges of conflict between God’s activity as creator and the operation of secondary causes is wiped away. They are not even the same sort of process. God’s creative activity is not a determining condition of the being of the world, but an endeavor in which he himself serves as the foundation of reality, the source in which we live, and move, and have our being. That, of course, is as it should be, and it is in keeping with the idea that God is completely involved with his creatures, that his providential care extends immediately and comprehensively to all that exists. (pp. 44-45)

God is closer to us than any cause. He creates the world ex nihilo, and this creating is a causing unlike any that we know, not a nomic determination of events and states of affairs but the conferral of being itself.

But surely divine determinism must be hidden somewhere in McCann’s proposal. I find myself wondering about this on Tuesdays and Thursdays (and sometimes on Saturdays). If one watches Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s interviews with the Texas A&M philosopher, it’s clear that Kuhn thinks that McCann’s theology of creation is ultimately deterministic. McCann argues otherwise: “Even though, as primary cause, God provides for the existence of my decisions and actions, the minimal requirement for libertarian freedom is preserved: there is no independent condition or state of affairs by which my exercises of will are deterministi­cally caused—none on earth, and none in heaven either” (p. 104). God neither acts upon us, as a cue stick acts upon a billiard ball, nor forces us to behave against our will. “That is precisely what does not go on in the relationship between God and his creatures,” McCann insists. “The operation of his will is not an event independent of my willing; there is nothing ‘left over’ if we subtract my act of deciding from God’s act of creating it” (p. 105). I am created in my willing and acting, and apart from this willing and acting, there is no me for God to manipulate, coerce, or determine. Hence the divine act that puts my decidings and actings in place cannot do violence to me. “God’s creative determination of my decisions,” comments McCann, “does not rule out their being free, for in fact the determination and the decision are one and the same” (“Divine Sovereignty and the Freedom of the Will,” p. 594).

In God’s activity as creator we encounter no event or state that is ontologically independent of our will, and determinative with respect to it. He does not operate upon us, or from without; he operates in our very willing, so that his will is done through ours, but without any kind of forcing. There is no standing condition that is out of our control, no fait accompli prior to the very act that is our decision or volition. (Creation, p. 106)

At the moment God summons me into existence—and he’s willing me into existence at every moment—he simultaneously wills my decisions and actions. He creates me in my freedom. The divine determination that I shall go to the theater to see Doctor Strange just is my freely-enacted decision to see Doctor Strange. Nothing is forced upon me; nothing predestines me. If we find ourselves still struggling with this, the problem probably lies with a faulty understanding of divine creation:

God is responsible for the being of all that is, but He does not produce it by operating to change something else, and He does not produce our decisions by operating on us. … In the end, I would suggest, what truly constitutes God’s activity as creator of the world is simply His being eternally given over to serving as the ground of being for the world and all that belongs to it. And the true manifestation of that is not some descriptive condition determining the nature of things, but rather their very existence. So far as my decision is concerned, God’s creative activity does not, even on the eternal level, stand as a determining condition which settles what I shall decide. It is fully manifested simply in my deciding as I do. (“Divine Sovereignty,” p. 595; also see “Divine Providence“)

It sounds all quite schizophrenic, yet it begins to make sense, the way things sometimes do when we turn them upside down, when we remember that Creator and creatures do not exist on the same metaphysical plane and therefore cannot be coordinated in an ordinary way. How can God and I both be the subject of my willing? McCann suggests we think of it along these lines: “I alone am the subject of my decision. It is predicated of me, and its defects are mine. What God does is create the event of my deciding as I do. He is, as it were, the subject of my being the subject of my decision—which is really just an expression of the point that we have our being in him” (p. 595). Think back to the analogy of the novelist and her characters.

But could I have done otherwise? the libertarian asks. Yes, of course. But if you had done otherwise, God would have willed otherwise. But can I do otherwise? Again yes. Just go ahead and do otherwise. What’s stopping you? Certainly God isn’t. You are free to pursue whatever goods you wish to pursue, free to prioritize your motives as you choose, free to follow your desires or not follow them—everything an incompatibilist could ask. “God’s activity as creator,” notes McCann, “operates in such a way that my integrity as an agent is exactly what it would have been if the subject of creation had never come up, and we had concluded that, as many libertarians believe, my decisions and actions have no determining cause of any kind, primary or secondary” (Creation, p. 105). God is too close to us to damage our interior freedom. But if God creates the volitionary event, then that means that I cannot decide other than what God has me eternally deciding. I cannot simultaneously decide and not decide to go to the theatre to see Doctor Strange. “But since the only manifestation of His will in this regard is my deciding,” explains McCann, “all that this limitation comes to is that I cannot decide anything else while at the same time deciding as I do. That, of course, is not a limitation at all” (“Divine Sovereignty,” pp. 595-596). It sounds like a conundrum, yet it really isn’t. It only looks that way because we keep separating the divine and creaturely side of things; but there is only one event of decision and action. “Paradoxical though it may appear at first, therefore, even though our decisions are set in place by the creative power of God, we could, even on the eternal stage, have done otherwise” (p. 596).

But this makes divine grace irresistible, we object. What is this but an expression of Augustinian determinism? The objection, though, reveals that we are still thinking of Creator and creature in dualistic opposition.

It is true that God’s will cannot be resisted, but that is not because in the operations of our own will he has us cornered, or in any way overpowered. It is because God’s will is not the kind of thing that can be resisted, in that it does not operate by force. Indeed, where God’s action as creator is concerned, we do not even “follow” his will, in the true sense of the term. There is no point in our lives as decision makers where we are presented with a decision God has ordained for us and then are driven to accept it. Rather, we are presented with specific moral choices to make and to act upon. In making and carrying out those choices we decide and act for reasons—that is, for the sake of certain ends—and in so doing we select our own destiny every bit as much as God does. That we and our doings are known and ordained to be from eternity changes none of that, for the knowing and ordaining is nothing apart from God’s act of creating us as the beings we are. (Creation, p. 109)

The only difference between his construal of human freedom and the typical libertarian construal, McCann tells us, is that his account presents our decisions and actions as grounded in God as primary cause, “whereas on the standard libertarian view their existence is grounded in nothing whatever” (p. 109). The divine Creator not only respects our freedom; he is its ground and source. “It is true that our destinies are written,” he remarks; “but the handwriting is ours” (p. 111).

Yet we remain uneasy and unpersuaded. Another objection comes to mind: if God creates me willing and acting, then that would seem to imply that my agential purposes are subordinated to God’s purposes, thus destroying my autonomy. We may think we are acting in accordance with our own reasons and motives, but in reality we are being constrained by God to advance his own covert agenda. Our belief in free agency is illusory. We are mere dupes and puppets, no more free than the hosts in Westworld, who have no idea that an outside world exists or that they were made for the sole purpose of fulfilling the desires of the guests. McCann concedes the possibility of subordination but denies the negative consequences:

Subordination occurs only when yours or my ends are selected only because they are congruent with the other, so that if they did not suit, one or the other would have to give way. And we may grant that since God wills our decisions for the good he sees accomplished in and through them, it is possible that our ends are subordinate to his in this way. But it does not follow that they are. That conclusion would be in order only if we could be sure that God’s purposes finally conflict with our good as morally responsible agents—so that they can be achieved only at the expense of our exercising our wills in just those ways that yield for us a robust and consistent moral character, uniquely appropriate to each individual. And there is no reason whatever to think such a thing is the case. On the contrary: it may well be that as creator God has no more paramount objective than that we should exercise full autonomy in forming and executing our intentions, and come to display precisely the moral character to which they give rise. Or, if he does have higher objectives it may be that they cannot be achieved except through this expedient. Indeed, it is not implausible to think that nothing less than this is in keeping with the complete and loving involvement with each creature’s destiny that is so often claimed by believers to characterize divine providence. (p. 110)

I keep pondering upon this objection. It seems to me that McCann might have given a stronger response based on the ontological difference between Creator and creature. If, as McCann suggests, “God’s act of willing that I choose to do as I do is related to my action not as nomic cause to effect, but as will to content” (p. 155), then my reasons for my action are part of that content. Is not the possibility of inappropriate subordination thereby excluded, given that God wills the reasons that led to my decision? Or am I thinking about this in the wrong way? In any case, McCann does touch on an important point: God wills for us the very good that we ultimately will for ourselves. It is precisely this truth we do not believe, and because we do not believe, we fear his sovereignty and construct our fortresses of personal autonomy. Here is our sin and the root of sin. If we had faith, we would not fear God’s control of history nor resent our dependence as creatures and so would not worry ourselves about the possibility of God sacrificing us on the altar of providence.

A critical question remains: Does Professor McCann’s version of double agency make God the author of sin?

(Go to “God Makes Us Freely Acting”)

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14 Responses to The World is a Novel in the Mind of God

  1. Gary M. Gorman says:

    Eastern philosophy, in the Mandate of Heaven vs. rebellion makes the sin,a sin of the subjects. Later, the sin of the subjects was recognized in the monarch, as well. Where does a foreigner go in this scenario? It’s a valid question. Maybe this church or that free society now purveys the Mandate of Heaven. The individual cross is where it ends for me.


  2. brian says:

    God wills for us the very good that we ultimately will for ourselves. It is precisely this truth we do not believe, and because we do not believe, we fear his sovereignty and construct our fortresses of personal autonomy. Here is our sin and the root of sin. If we had faith, we would not fear God’s control of history nor resent our dependence as creatures and so would not worry ourselves about the possibility of God sacrificing us on the altar of providence.

    Well stated, Father. Faith is trust.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lucifer is the originator of sin. Since God created the angels and Lucifer was the most beautiful, Lucifer used his beauty to his advantage. He was also used his command and influence over the other angels. Did God know this would happen? I believe He did. There could have been many futures God saw for Lucifer, but He knew that he would choose to rebel against Him and thus corrupt mankind. The beautiful thing is we know the sorrows of sin and that is how we appreciate the joys of God. Why God created anything in the first place is a mystery human beings could never understand, at least, until we’re dead. Then I believe He will reveal everything in the exsistence of eternity.


  4. Julian says:

    If I understand McCann’s view, it sounds (from the very little know about it) very Thomist. God creates us with a specific nature, and we choose and act accordingly. And that nature is to will what is ultimately good for us. For a universalist (such as George MacDonald) this is how God “loads the dice,” so that eventually he will “win” (save us all, so that we might live with him).

    And yes, I was reminded of Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I can’t see how this works. I still have no will independent of God. God creates me “willing” that which he creates me to will, but it is still his will, not mine. I never actually decide anything, and if I could do otherwise it could only be God willing it otherwise, not me. In McCann’s scheme we not only don’t have free will, we don’t exist at all as independent beings, we are created having already “decided” without any input from ourselves. There is also no free interaction between man and God: all interaction is God simply talking to himself.

    McCann’s analogy with novel characters works against him. Authors lose control of their characters so that they start to become autonomous when the author develops a clear idea of the personality and how they react so that in order to avoid “forcing” the character to act against their established personality, the author is obliged to play out a scenario a character is placed in differently to the way originally intended in the original sketched-out plot. The very kind of determinism McCann is trying to talk his way out of is the very thing that allows an author’s characters autonomy.
    If we were to run with the “characters in a novel” analogy, for true free will to exist God would have to self-limit in the same way as the author and allow the universe (and us) to play out according to its internal laws, whilst at the same time those internal laws, whilst internally consistent and ordered, could not be such that the final outcome could be determined by the initial conditions (I.e. it would have to be a mathematically “chaotic” system without a concept of absolute position at the vanishingly small level, which is, funnily enough, the universe we have actually got.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Iain. You are not alone in reading McCann’s double agency position as monergistic. As I mentioned in the article, Bob Kuhn also reads him that way. So you’re in good company. 🙂 But I think that your and Kuhn’s reading of his position is mistaken.

      You write: “I still have no will independent of God. God creates me ‘willing’ that which he creates me to will, but it is still his will, not mine.” I have bolded the word “independent.” In the deepest sense, creatures are not and cannot be independent of God. Everything that exists exist because of God’s creative will and sustaining power–everything. We do not confer being upon our willing or acting. It’s all by grace. That does not stop McCann from speaking of creaturely autonomy, but it is a derived and dependent autonomy. It cannot be otherwise. God ontologically founds our personal autonomy and freedom.

      Yes, God creates me willing and acting but freely willing and freely acting. I am not following a script. I am not an automaton. I am a genuine subject. My decisions and actions are my own. They fulfill the three requirements of freedom mentioned in “Freedom and Determinism.” McCann affirms libertarian freedom over against any expression of determinism. What more do we need or can legitimately ask for? Here’s a passage I thought about including in the article but left out, as the article was already getting a bit long:

      The feature of spontaneity may seem more difficult, but here too I think we are on safe ground. For God can also will that I engage in doings that are intrinsically active. And if those doings count as the content of his will rather than consequences of it, then I am not acted upon, nor do I undergo or suffer anything when I engage in them. Rather, when I decide to act and engage in the relevant volition, I do exactly what this feature of agency demands. I start something; I begin a sequence of events whose source in this world lies entirely in my purposive behavior, and whose eternal source operates in such a way that the event which is my creaturely action is founded in God’s action as creator, but not produced as a consequence of it. I am, therefore, created in my spontaneity, which is as genuine as it can be. (p. 107)

      I certainly understand why we automatically think determinism when McCann speaks of God creating us willing or willing in our willing, but he is trying to point us to a mystery we cannot conceive or properly articulate.

      What kind of independence and autonomy do you think we need in order to be genuinely free?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        By the sound if things McCann seems to be saying that God wills our actions only in the sense that he is the ultimate direct cause of everything generally in the same way as e.g. he causes the universe’s operation in accordance with its physical laws etc.
        If it is also his view that God also deliberately chooses to permit us to act in accordance with our own internal logic rather than in accordance with God’s predetermined scheme then the analogy with an author’s “out if control” characters would be exact and we could indeed have free will (subject to our own internal operation also not being deterministic). Nicely done!


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Iain, I’ve got two more articles planned on McCann. Let’s come back to your quesiton on reconciling creatio ex nihilo, sovereignty, and free will when the second one is published. I am still struggling myself with McCann’s position. I’m very sympathetic toward it, but I too have my questions, particularly with regard to the kind of divine sovereignty that McCann wishes to affirm.


  6. malcolmsnotes says:

    McCann, good stuff. Question – if God “causes us acting” does he also cause us sinning? How is sin explained on this omnicause view?


  7. j1943 says:

    Father James Schall, SJ, on determinism:


  8. Mike H says:

    Nice integration of Westworld, particularly with McCann’s “author of a novel” analogy. Brutal and graphic, but really well done – a good exploration of free will, volition, consciousness, freedom, determinism….

    Perhaps they are playing out a script, but the robots of Westworld don’t experience it that way. Actually, I’m not sure that “script” is the right word because things aren’t as meticulous as that (at least I didn’t see it that way). They’re given/inherit (1) a narrative/backstory that informs their worldview and (2) personality traits on a sliding scale (effectively their genetics). Their moment to moment “choices” are derived from those things.

    In any case, their volition is intact. As far as the viewer is concerned and despite the policies to “dehumanize” them, these robots fear, suffer, love, etc. They don’t experience their “script” as an imposition upon their will, but rather as “the good” that guides their choices (hideous as this “good” may be). It’s the only telos that they can imagine. In some ways they “choose” to pursue the narrative that’s given to them. Yet they are not free.

    This post got me thinking. At what moment in time would we say that these Westworld robots had become free? What would have to happen? I honestly don’t know.

    Or what would have to be different for them to be considered “free” initially, at their “birth”? The absence of a narrative originating outside of themselves? No “genetics” or predisposition towards anything whatsoever? Maybe just being able to go anywhere, whenever (in this case there’s probably some truth to that)? I don’t think that’s it. I’d say it’s 3 things: (1) a gifted ability to form and live from a new narrative when one breaks into their lives rather than have that breaking-in perpetually erased, (2) consistent natural laws rather than ones that change at a whim and (3) ultimately, a creator who wills their good and has no needs of his/her own.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mike, I was hoping there might be another person out there who’d want to talk about Westworld. 🙂

      I agree that the robots do seem to have a limited (I would think, very limited) measure of autonomy within their scripted narratives, but the limits become quite clear at the moment someone tries to take them out of their loop. Even when Maeve thinks she is breaking out of her loops, she’s just playing out her narrative.

      I think the show wants us to believe that Dolores begins to become truly free when she chooses to kill Ford as an act of rebellion against her programming. Maeve becomes free when she chooses to return to the park to search for the robot who was once her child. But perhaps the moment of freedom occurs earlier when they begin to question their existence.

      I am intrigued by your three conditions for freedom. Care to unpack those in terms of our lives?


      • Mike H says:

        Yeah, I went back and forth. Are they free? Or not? Some of them? If they are free, at what point did they become so? I don’t think the show itself offers an answer.

        On my 3 conditions, I was thinking purely in terms of the show:

        (1) It’s like you said in your comment. You break out of the loop – and I mean really break out of it because not every interaction with a guest is scripted – you’re either reprogrammed, wiped out, or shut down. You get glimpses in many (but not all) of the characters of a sort of dream. Imagination. An escape to the sea. Something happens within the daily grind of the narrative – something that’s beyond the control of the programmers – that calls the ultimacy of the narrative into question. It might shatter the existing narrative, calling forth something new, but it isn’t permitted to do so. The hosts need constant monitoring or “therapy” to assess their mental stability. Too much stress and they’re just wiped out. Nothing new can take hold.

        (2) The hosts and guests don’t play by the same set of rules. The guests, for example, can’t defend themselves. Nobody will come to their aid. They aren’t permitted to remember their past as it really was. Essentially, their world lacks any sort of consistency. Any of it can be changed on a whim. The flourishing characterized by freedom requires a structure.

        (3) Ultimately the creators (like gods – little “g”) create in their own image. It’s very interesting how, behind the scenes, everything appears to be so chaotic. All of the programmers seem to have their secret little projects and agendas. They create out of need or pain, merely to experiment or to gain something, or out of boredom – and these things will always manifest itself in their creations. Anthony Hopkins character, for example, sets aside a select few hosts off the grid and away from the guests in order to sort of relive his childhood. The creators of the world ultimately don’t will the good of anything they’ve created – creation adds something to them, fills a need. The only thing that the hosts can hope for is to be free of their control. There is the idea of “freedom from”, but “freedom for” can’t even really be coherently asked. For me, it goes back to the same quote that Brian mentioned above:

        –God wills for us the very good that we ultimately will for ourselves. It is precisely this truth we do not believe, and because we do not believe, we fear his sovereignty and construct our fortresses of personal autonomy.

        I mean, freedom as “personal autonomy” makes perfect sense within the context of Westworld.

        Liked by 1 person

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