‪What Is a Truly Free Will? by David Bentley Hart

I should explain. I am in the process of preparing a kind of “interim report” on my recent book That All Shall Be Saved, in preparation for a number of public events, and perhaps in anticipation of a second edition of the text. And the editors of Public Orthodoxy have kindly offered me a venue in which to issue installments of that report, in the hope of refining it in the process. A good part of that report will consist in a kind of itinerary of its overarching argument. When writing the book, I had not properly appreciated how deep an emotional attachment some of us have to the idea of a hell of perpetual torment for the derelict and unenlightened. And so I had not imagined that the final product would provoke critiques so dazzlingly unrelated to my actual argument that I would be obliged repeatedly to recapitulate the book’s basic structure. Such, however, has been the case … (continue reading)

What Is a Truly Free Will?

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19 Responses to ‪What Is a Truly Free Will? by David Bentley Hart

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    If only PO would open their comment section, oi vey.

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  2. DBH says:

    I had all but forgotten.

    This “report” was originally sent in some months ago, but the Covid 19 pandemic put everything back. Hence the mention of upcoming public events, none of which will now occur.

    Robert, I think a comment section at PO for an article of this sort would only tell us what we already know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tara Snyder says:

      “Only in him are we truly free”

      This is clearly Pandeism…NOT Theism and NOT Panentheism.
      So how about you stop binge watching Tiger King and step up my friend.

      skepticsandseekers@gmail.com

      What do I have to do to get you moving on this?
      Bribe you with a free box of n95 masks? I work in healthcare, I might able to arrange it.
      Nahhhhh….my damn conscience.
      😇

      Love and Light
      Tara

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I’m confused, Tara. Being unacquainted with the term “pandeism,” I of course turned to the infallible repository of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and found this definition: “Pandeism (or pan-deism), a theological doctrine first delineated in the 18th century, combines aspects of pantheism with aspects of deism. It holds that a creator deity became the universe (pantheism) and ceased to exist as a separate and conscious entity (deism holding that God does not interfere with the universe after its creation).” This is most emphatically NOT DBH’s understanding of divinity. For his exposition of the classical understanding which he presupposes, see his book The Experience of God. You will then find that “Only in him are we truly free” makes total sense. God is not a being. He is Being in whom we live and move and have our being.

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        • Tara Snyder says:

          I agree …God is not a Being. God ( or Consciousneess would be my preferred term) is that which creates time, space, matter and conscious beings. Hart is moving towards Philosophy of Mind and the Advaita Vedanta concepts…but correct me DBH if I’m mispresenting you.

          I try never to confuse a map for the territory, but having said that Donald D. Hoffman is trying to format a useful map. I’d like DBH to just drop Theism outright, and he probably has. The Problem of Evil is unsolvable if one insists on clinging to it and he tried to hold tight for long past what his IQ ought to have permitted. Oh well…life is a glorious journey so no need to rush to the destination.

          Love and Light
          Tara

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    • Tara Snyder says:

      Yes I’m a pest…but even so I haven’t misrepresented your views then?
      Phewwee..

      I’m am pleased about that much, and I will leave you be.
      Take care of yourself Mr ❤️.
      Strange times to say the least.

      Love and Light
      Tara

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  3. David says:

    Extremely illuminating article – thank you for highlighting it and to DBH for writing it!

    One question it’s made me consider again is the question of exactly how this ignorance of the good is introduced (or naturally embedded?) in the world, and its relation to the concept of original/ancestral sin.

    Some level of ignorance was obviously necessary for the first beings (whether human or angelic or whatever) to sin. Is this initial ignorance itself ‘original sin’, given it includes the possibility and a kind of propensity to sin? In which case does it mean that we are created sinful?

    Or maybe this initial ignorance, with the bare possibility of sin, is better characterised as kind of ‘innocent ignorance’, distinct from ‘original sinfulness’ and a more active inclination to sin, which comes later on. If that’s the case, I want to know whether the choice to go ahead and sin or not was actually inevitable or whether there was a genuine possibility of things going the other way, at least for a while. If sin was inevitable, I wonder whether that is still ‘created sinful’ with a nicer name.

    If sin wasn’t inevitable given this ‘innocent ignorance’, all well and good, but in that case I want to understand exactly what the moral status of that decision was. If Adam is automatically created with a kind of epistemic distance and innocent ignorance of the good, such that he genuinely isn’t sure whether the good is best served either by eating the fruit or not, is that really a moral decision in the ordinary way that we think we make moral decisions now? i.e. given Adam’s initial ignorance, isn’t the ‘decision’ to either fall into original sinfulness or not more a kind of good or bad luck – as with choosing the tiger or the maiden – than a moral decision? And is that a problem or not? Maybe not!

    (sorry for the litany of question marks, but then they say it’s always the best articles that spark the most questions, even if they’re usually based on the reader’s misunderstandings!)

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Great question, David. It gets raised frequently in response to That All Shall Be Saved. Perhaps we can prevail on DBH to share with us his speculations (hint, hint).

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      • DBH says:

        Guys,

        You’re free to understand or allegorize the myth of Eden as you like. But it is a myth. As Origen understood so well, the “tree” was not really a tree. It is not an event that actually occurred in human history as we know it. In its origins, the story was a fable about how humans lost access to immortality and how the snake lost its feet. Its later theological usage varied in accord with the prevailing understanding of “original sin,” which was never a single clear doctrine; but that is not what the ad litteram rendering of the story in Genesis is about. So there is no actual straightforward answer.

        But, that said, the Eastern fathers on the whole saw the fall (however it happened or is happening) as the consequence of an infantine ignorance on the part of created spirits. As such, the culpability attaching to that fall would indeed have to be something less than absolute.

        If I were to wax Bulgakovian here, I would say this. There was no moment in the past when a woman, man, or angel, fully cognizant of her or his own nature and fully aware of the reality of God, rejected the Good in full freedom and knowledge. That is the impossible possibility from which we are always being saved, by being created from nothingness in our last end, which is deification. Each of us–each Adam or Eve that we are–makes many false choices and many errors on the way to that end; but ultimately none of us can fail to find it, as it alone is the eternal premise of our existence. Our eternal assent to that end is the foundation of our temporal existence as living spirits. It is only sub specie aeternitatis that we fully exist as the creatures we are, and that eternal perspective is what Gregory of Nyssa called “the Man of the first creation” (i.e., Genesis 1:27), the fully realized plenitude of humanity in the one eternal body of the Logos, the eternal company of gods created in God.

        All very obscure, I know. But not really. Obvious, if you think about it.

        Liked by 3 people

        • David says:

          Thank you for addressing these questions DBH.

          I hope I made clear in my original post, when I said that ‘some level of ignorance was obviously necessary for the first beings (whether human or angelic or whatever) to sin’, that I am in full agreement with you that original sin is not a matter of some perfect superman, with full freedom and knowledge and awareness of God, some paradoxically rejecting his own nature.

          You note that ‘the Eastern fathers on the whole saw the fall (however it happened or is happening) as the *consequence* of an infantine ignorance on the part of created spirits.’

          I think my questions, poorly expressed as they were, really hinge on what you mean by ‘consequence’ here – i.e. ‘infantine ignorance’, as you call it, is clearly built into the nature of finite beings, but does its consequence (fallenness) follow as a tragically inevitable consequence, or is it just a possibility which may or may not be realised (for those of us not lucky enough to be God incarnate I mean)? Is fallenness an inevitable consequence of ‘infantine ignorance’, or could a being with such ignorance continue to grow in the good without ever becoming fallen? (Good angels? Or are there just bad angels and half-decent angels until the eschaton? In all seriousness, it would be enlightening to know how ‘unfallen angels’, if there are such beings, fit into your scheme)

          The answer you have already given may also deal with this of course – your reference to each one of us being our own Adam and Eve sounds more like a conception of original sin as a kind of timeless existential condition we all inevitably find ourselves in an enslaved by, rather than something following from a finite act carried out in the dim and distant past by the first human or angel or whatever – but being a poor interpreter of both your own and other’s thought, I find myself seeking an even more explicit answer – especially when that obscurity of obscurities, angelogy, imagines there to be at least some beings who, despite undergoing their own infantine ignorance, managed to avoid the existential conditions of original sin along the path of growth.

          Liked by 1 person

          • DBH says:

            Understand, I believe in a fall. I just think that the entirety of cosmic time as we know it is fallen, and that the fall is not an event that can be located within that history. As such, its nature eludes our understanding.

            Liked by 1 person

          • David says:

            Thanks DBH – I suppose I was imagining that, while we could never know the details of the fall, it might at least be possible to affirm whether or not the fall was in some sense inevitable and consider these questions in a very general sense – but I suppose even our notions of necessity and contingency are conditioned by fallen time.

            If the entirety of cosmic time is fallen – and cosmic time is something in which all beings participate – then I wonder how we can make sense of the notion of unfallen beings. That is, if the entire spatiotemporal whole of reality, bar the Incarnate one, is infected with (though not completely succumbing to) evil, how is it that certain spiritual beings avoid it? Is it that they just didn’t happen to mess up in this pre-cosmic time whereas we did? Or is the nature of ‘good angels’ totally unique from the start, so that it’s not a matter of moral luck that we messed up and they didn’t, but that their natures are somehow completely different to the demons and the other more ambiguous spiritual beings – e.g. a bit more like Barth’s angelic ‘ambassadors’ that automatically do their master’s bidding, with the demons being a totally different kettle of fish altogether, rather than angels gone wrong. Or perhaps the good angels are not so good after all, e.g. angels, like the saints, are redeemed and ‘on the right side’, but not always completely free from the cognitive distortions of fallenness.

            I apologise if that’s all overly speculative or otherwise nonsense – I suppose that really I was only interested in whether you thought there were any beings (good angels or whatever) who have possessed ‘infantine ignorance’ but do not advance into ‘fallenness’ or ‘original sin’ (however that is understood to have occurred) or whether all beings are behold to this universal chain of sinfulness somehow or at some time or another. Perhaps another question with an inaccessible answer.

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  4. brian says:

    Just to recaptulate in somewhat pithy manner: Moderns accept and are emotionally attached to voluntarist, libertarian notions of arbitrary choice freed from the intellect’s grasp of the Good. They tend to resent the teleological and interpret it as a fascist concept meant to impose ideological constraints on liberty. Further, they identify the “brute event” of mere spontaneity as the signature of freedom. This nihilist “common sense” absorbed like mother’s milk with the zeitgeist and ignorantly promoted by both popular culture and academe generally lacks historical and metaphysical awareness. Advocates then accuse those who hold the classical understanding of freedom and reason of introducing novel and distorting notions. When one lucidly discerns the transcendental structure of thought and willing, it is evident that no choice for a determinate good could satisfy; at the same time, what is attractive in a finite good is “always already” a creaturely participation in the transcendental Good. Finite goods analogically point towards an eschatological elsewhere. Only God can actually answer to the ontological yearning of the creature. In short, all choice implicitly aims at theosis. Hence, the more one achieves genuine freedom of the natural will, the closer one reduces libertarian choice (gnomic deliberation) to zero. Moderns then interpret the reduction of wandering error as loss of freedom and the abnegation of human dignity. The transcendental structure that makes thinking and acting rational is deemed equivalent to determinism. All this is sad enough, but when Christians embrace an incoherent concept of freedom and wed it to an obdurate understanding of tradition, the result is intransigence without charity, eschatological imagination, or any capacity to discern the power of revelation in the always new existential moment in which they live and breathe and have their being.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. G.A. says:

    I wish the argument tried out some different sets of choices people might be faced with. When Satan tempted Jesus, he didn’t offer Him an obvious choice between a famished tiger and His mission.
    Suppose Satan visited the same handsome young courtier and offered him a life free of responsibility. He could either get eaten by a tiger, marry the king’s daughter, grow old together with her and then die facing the unknown, or he could live a life of perpetual bodily pleasure, intellectual stimulation, technological progress, exploration of the Universe in a starship, psychedelic experiences at will, never growing old, enjoying countless sensual experiences with partners that never wrinkle, that don’t require commitment, that don’t pose any moral challenge whatsoever.
    From the Christian point of he is “enslaved” by his passions or ignorance of the Beatific Vision, and his “life” would be a dead end. But if you were to ask the man “did you understand the options ahead of you?” he’s likely to answer in the affirmative. Perhaps he even read “That All Shall be Saved” and figured that the purifying fires of a finite Hell are something he’d rather avoid, and the more time he spends in this life of pleasure, the harsher those fires might get, while the biggest risk with Satan’s offer is that he might get bored, and plus, he isn’t hurting anyone, is he?
    David Hart mentions in his book that God will find a way to arrange things such that the man will see the error of his ways. But for a long time, he could just feel that he doesn’t really mind living that life, and enough time passes between doing the same things that they seem novel every time. He might be deluding himself that he has reached a theoretical ultimate purpose, but it doesn’t feel that way for him. Is he in Hell or isn’t he? He’s missing out on the Beatific Vision, but as long as he isn’t aware of that he doesn’t experience subjective discomfort or distress.
    One may just hope that after billions and billions of years, he might get tired, decide to just end it all, and rejoin the bulk of humanity.
    But this is a different scenario than the typical infernalist view that people boil in cauldrons while getting poked with pitchforks by pointy-eared devils.

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  6. DBH says:

    GA,

    You seem to have missed the point. Of course the choice between the lady and the tiger is a simple one–a reductio ad absurdum. The issue here is not the opposition between absolute freedom and absolute unfreedom, but between full or unrestricted freedom and partial or restricted freedom. It is simply obvious that, the more one knows and the saner one’s understanding of what one knows, the more free one is. So, even if your hypothetical immortal man thinks he understood the choices before him, he clearly did not; his choice was based on a measurable degree of ignorance regarding his own nature and the reality of what God is. It does not matter whether he feels comfortable with that ignorance, for the simple reason that he was never truly confronted with an absolute choice of the sort that–according to the free-will defense of hell–justifies an eternity of torment.

    Please pay attention to the actual argument.

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    • G.A. says:

      I don’t think you’re wrong on the matter, and I’ve always disliked any suggestion of an “eternity of torment”.

      I like to come up with thought experiments that bring up questions that aren’t immediately obvious when the argument is made in the abstract. Such as Hell not being a state of outright torment, but a sort of lulling mediocre existence where the Devils can parasitize the squandered gifts of an inebriated prodigal son. Of course nobody would choose (freely or not) to be tormented eternally. But they might accept a comfortable ignorance rather than face the unknown, this is very familiar to our experience. Supporters of the “Hell is locked on the inside” idea could always fall back on that. But then again, Jesus liberated Paul by showing him how mistaken he was, He didn’t let him stay in ignorance.

      Talking through these possible loopholes is helpful for me.
      So thank you for your reply.

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  7. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    This article reminds me very much of the way that Tom Talbott speaks of true freedom in The Inescapable Love of God. It was a major “aha” moment for me when I realized that perfect freedom could *look* like determinism from the outside, because a perfectly rational, perfectly informed, and otherwise unrestrained (aka perfectly free) agent would make certain choices 100% of the time. Viewing freedom as the unhindered ability to reach the good ends determined by one’s nature (which I think is an adequate paraphrase of Dr. Hart), made the fog of the libertarianism/determinism/compatibilism quagmire dissipate entirely. It’s difficult for me to imagine freedom in other terms at this point, since it seemed almost blindingly obvious once I grasped it. Perfect freedom requires an agent possess the genuine power to make a choice, full knowledge of all aspects/consequences of that choice, and a perfectly rational nature, which would inevitably lead to a perfectly predictable decision in cases where the choice was between good and evil. One thing that I think a lot of folks miss who argue that this is tantamount to determinism, is that this guarantee only applies to situations where the decision can rightly be placed on a continuum between good and bad. A perfectly free man need not be entirely predictable with his dessert choice at a restaurant or in how he arranges the flowers in a bouquet for his wife.

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