A theist caught in the paradoxes of free will

Can a theist believe in God’s omniscience&omnipotence and in free will? I have argued in other posts that one can think in a compatibilist way (because God wants to be freely loved) and that this entails that no punishment/ban from God’s presence can be eternal. Here I would like to test it in the case of Vedānta Deśika/Veṅkaṭanātha, a Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedāntin who also wrote Mīmāṃsā works.

From a Mīmāṃsā standpoint, free will is a fundamental presupposal, since Vedic prescriptions are in a dialectical relation with one’s desire (rāga): one always decides on the basis of the one or the other. That rāga itself might lie beyond one’s free will is an idea never discussed by Mīmāṃsā authors, possibly because they are interested in the phenomenology of free will and not in its ontology.

Can the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta point of view agree with this perspective? On the one hand, one might think that the omnipotency of God as conceived by Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta authors leads back to the initial problem. On the other, according to Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta human beings are nothing but specifications (viśeṣas) of the only existing reality, God Himself. In some forms of Vaiṣṇavism (e.g., in Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism), God can freely choose to self-delude Himself as part of His play (līlā). Thus, the child-Kṛṣṇa can willfully forget His omnipotence in order to enjoy His mother’s protection.

Can one conceive the freedom enjoyed by human beings also as a case of self-delimitation?

Further thoughts on free will in Indian Philosophy can be read here.



About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

13 thoughts on “A theist caught in the paradoxes of free will

  1. Elisa, forgive me for not being entirely clear on what you are asking for, but I offer a thought (perhaps totally unconnected to what you are interested in).

    This is something I’ve just been toying with, so take it as a provisional idea, not something I’ve worked out in the least.

    It seems that freedom, as we typically understand it, is only possible against the background of some kind of limitations or constraints. For example. Consider the statement “I am free to do x”. To fill in a value for x creates parameters; the very specification of a kind of act that one is free to perform requires limitations within which the act is possible.

    Example: “I am free to go for a jog.” This entails a host of conditions. For example, that I have a body that is able to jog. This is both a condition for the performance of an act, and a limitation that constrains my range of possible actions. I can not pass through solid objects, since I have a body. Etc.

    But this doesn’t seem to be a distinctively theistic problem. Not sure what is so relevant about God in this case.

    Thinking about God, perhaps the issue is not about what sense it makes to say that we are free but what it means to call God free. Are there parameters of the kind above that would apply to God? If not, then to speak of him as “free” may be inapt. This may be a case where the word “free” is enmeshed up in the “free/bound” duality and unfit to apply to a being like God, and the via negative is how we should operate. Or perhaps, God is minimally constrained by the laws of logic. Even then for God, freedom makes sense within constraints of a sort.

    Also: I may be misreading it, and if so, please forgive, but I think you may be conflating something early on in your post. Mimamsakas may have themselves presupposed free will or the like in their own approach to personhood, but this does not mean that from our critical perspective, their own host of metaphysical commitments do not in fact commit them to strict determinism. We, like other thinkers, may discover entailments of their views that they themselves did not anticipate. A problem to which you allude, and as some contemporary thinkers have argued, if our desires are planted in our mind by some 3rd party, and we have no control over them, then maybe we aren’t free after all.

  2. Thank you, Matthew, it is always a pleasure to discuss with you. I agree with your point that if our desires have been implanted in us, then following them does not mean being free. But from a Mīmāṃsaka point of view this sort of thought-experiment does not make sense (the worldly experience is their pramāṇa and they would not accept anything contradicting it unless it is well-grounded).
    As for God’s “boundaries”, I am personally doubtful about a God which is conceived of as part of our experience of the world (depending on the same laws of logic and so on). As soon as S/He is thought of as part of our world of common experience, I start wondering why should one admit something which cannot be proven.

  3. Elisa, I too am a bit puzzled as to the precise point of the post. All the same, I’m curious as to what you mean by “proven” in the second paragraph above (in the reply to Matthew). I have many ideals and values which, in some measure at least, are grounded in my experience, and yet they are not susceptible to deductive proof according to the formal laws of logic, is it therefore unreasonable for me to hold them? It may be the case that these ideals and values have something to do with facts or truths about the world (or ‘Being,’ etc.) that transcend my experience, say (i.e., for example), in some Platonic sense with regard to the metaphysical nature of reality. Our “experience” is relevant insofar as it either prompts or deepens the belief in God (e.g., the Pilgrim’s Progress or ‘realization discoveries’ as outlined by James Kellenberger in his 1985 volume, The Cognitivity of Religion). In any case, we cannot provide justification for all our beliefs (life is too short and must be lived in the meantime!) so at some point (at bottom as it were) all of us subscribe to some minimal set of axiomatic beliefs (as presuppositions) that lack sufficient or complete justification or demonstrative proof: hence one reason the modern conception of knowledge is fallibilist. Insofar as formal logic or mathematics is understood to exemplify demonstrative knowledge, neither is capable (after Kurt Gödel’s famous incompleteness proof of 1931) of providing us with the proofs intrinsic to a “Theory of Everything” (which is why Stephen Hawking abandoned his jocular scientific ambition to know ‘the mind of God’). Thus outside (so to speak) the closed systems or epistemic models of logic and mathematics we rely on different (and less stringent, logically speaking) “proofs” for what constitutes “justified” (or warranted) knowledge in general. (Consider a similar or analogous reason from Nicholas Rescher: ‘The fatal flaw of any purported explanatory theory of everything arises in connection with the ancient paradox of reflectivity and self-substantiation. How can any theory adequately substantiate itself? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? What are we to make of the individual—or the doctrine—that claims, ‘I stand ready to vouch for myself?’)

    A personal belief in God can be presumptive or even grounded in “faith” (in Pascal’s sense that the heart has its reasons that reason as such is not privy to), and like other beliefs, be challenged by the evidence. But it’s hard to envisage what evidence (indeed, evidentiary standard) is acceptable to both the theist and non-theist so as to count as decisive (consider how ‘the fool’ and the ‘Psalmist’ both look upon the natural beauty or grandeur of the world) by way of either logical confirmation or disconfirmation of such belief. Of course we can analytically and logically evaluate specific “arguments” for belief in God, but belief in God as such is not amenable to decisive logical disproof. Science is not the source of our epistemic standards in this case if only because it cannot rule out the possibility that it is perfectly rational to hold belief in God that transcends our existing and future knowledge of the physical or material world. Moreover, insofar as science provides us with useful “maps” of reality (that is, accurately represent correspondences with ‘reality’ or the world as it appears to us ), its representations remain just that, they cannot be said to provide us with the final or absolute or universal metaphysical map of reality as such. The theist, subject to the identical fallibilism of the non-theist, may be wrong about her belief in God, but we lack the standards of epistemic justification or verifiability sufficient to definitively or demonstratively “prove” her wrong. There is indeed a world independent of our thinking there is one, but the world or reality always outruns our best theories of it: This is a lesson we might have learned from the history of science if only because, as Rescher writes, “we shall ultimately recognize many or most of our current scientific theories to be false and that what we proudly vaunt as scientific knowledge is a tissue of hypotheses—of tentatively adopted contentions many or most of which we will ultimately come to regard needing serious revision or perhaps even abandonment.”

    The theist is subject to the same metaphysical and epistemic constraints as the non-theist, in the words of my dear friend and former teacher, Nandini Iyer (in a Festschrift for the great Sāmkhya and Yoga scholar, Gerald James Larson): “The conceptual frameworks we build in the realm of rational thought are not useless just because they cannot describe Ultimate Reality. Serious examination of, reflection on, these explanatory and interpretive schemes, their differences and overlaps, are crucial to expanding and deepening our understanding of reality, even if these conceptual frameworks (any or all possible combinations and collections of them) cannot bring us the Absolute Truth. If nothing else, they enable us to understand the relativity of conceptual truths and structures, and make us see what Pascal meant when he said that the highest function of reason is to show us the limitations of reason.”*
    * “To affirm that there can be several different systems all giving us, at the same time, varying and yet legitimate ‘true’ metaphysical descriptions of the world does not…necessarily entail that there are many realities, that nothing is absolutely real, or, put less dramatically, that there is no such thing as a single, context neutral description or account of the world, that is, as the world really is. It only means that no metaphysical description of it can be outside every possible conceptual framework, but Reality itself is. Nor does it follow that any assertions about this ‘real’ or ‘true’ world beyond all conceptual frameworks, are nonsense. We need not accept a very different solution, such as that offered by Kant—that there is a world in which there exists the ‘thing-in-itself,’ but that we can never directly know this world.”

    In short, while God may be part of our experience of the world, who or what God is conceptually transcends that experience (like the properties or attributes of omniscience or omnipotence transcend our experience). God is “immanent” for the theist with regard to her experience, while at the same time “transcendent” insofar as the true nature of God’s properties or attributes intellectually elude us. We can speak only speculatively, “second-hand,” or indirectly about God’s “freedom:” in no way can such talk be said to define the “absolute” or true nature of God’s “freedom.” The theist’s belief in God may be considered para-, supra-, or even non-rational, which is not to say that it is therefore irrational.

    • Thank you very much, Patrick, for your thoughtful comment and apologies for coming back to it just now. You made me realise that my answer to Matthew was not clear enough. What I meant is:
      1. I am suspicious of ways of pulling God within the boundaries of the ordinary world. I do not find discussions with “natural scientists” looking for “hard proofs” for God fruitful. No one will ever win in such discussions and they do not bring anywhere.
      2. For the same reasons, I am also suspicious about imposing on God the laws of nature. I would not think that discussions such as the following really help the debate (I cannot locate the exact wording, but promise I read it): By now, and considered that St. Mary’s body was a *physical* body, it can at most have reached stars or planets which are … (billions km…) away from the earth.
      I agree with many of your points: —for the theist, God is immanent (I was not trying to deny this with the points 1 and 2 above, I hope this is now clear); —Kant was a great thinker; —“natural scientific” truths are provisional and although we think that current scientists have said the last possible word on X or Z, future scientists will look upon them just like we now look upon Ptolomaeus; —since I work on Mīmāṃsā, I cannot but agree with the falsificability principle. Life is too short and any claim to externally validate our cognitions is deemed to fail. BUT, I think that you would also agree in condemning people who hold beliefs which are blatently false (say: “If I buy a lottery ticket on a Friday the 13th, I will certainly win”), since they had enough tools to falsify them. If we pull God in the arena of the ordinary world, S/He will also become part of this set of beliefs (just like ghosts and the like, see this post of mine: http://elisafreschi.com/2014/01/06/do-we-need-to-waste-our-times-proving-that-unicorns-do-not-exist/).

  4. Elisa, you mention: “No one will ever win in such discussions and they do not bring anywhere.”

    I am not sure if this is a good reason to say that an argument or debate is irrelevant or should be abandoned. Practically no debate of deep philosophical importance is settled decisively: free will, the reality of universals, God, moral truths, etc., etc. And yet, people do in fact take their stand on what they think is the truth in such cases.If we really take what you’ve said as a standard, we should perhaps abandon philosophy itself, along with the attempt to articulate reasons for political beliefs, etc.

    (BTW, I am just rehashing an argument from Peter van Inwagen. (http://comp.uark.edu/~senor/wrong.html)

    But, even in the absence of consensus, individuals do become changed as they become informed of discussions and arguments that are of relevance to them. Anthony Flew became a theist late in life precisely because of the “fine tuning” arguments that you seem to think are irrelevant. Now, I don’t mean that therefore these arguments are sound, but rather, they sure seemed relevant to a guy who was deeply invested in debates about the rationality of theistic belief (and for almost all of his life, argued against it).

    • good point, Matthew. I am all for endless conversations on free will, etc., I just do not think that it makes sense to argue if one does not even know what the other is talking about. I mean, suppose a scientist asks you (it happened to me): “Did Adam and Eve really existed?” A creationist or a fundamental evangelical might find the discussion interesting, I would think that there is a radical misconception at its basis. But I am happy to discuss with people who are open to new perspectives.

      • Fair enough, but it seems to me a major straw man, often deployed by certain “new” nirishvaravadins, to act like theism = stupid fundamentalism. Indeed, this is a good example of “not even knowing what the other is talking about”

        This is why Nyaya is a good example. They argue over the God of natural theology, a fairly generic sort of creator.

        • Yes, I agree (they create their own objector), I just cannot understand why some alleged theists are so stupid to engage in such discussions. And, yes, Nyāya is a great example. I don’t even think that one needs to speak in Deistic terms in order to make rational theology, though (in case you were suggesting it).

          • What you bring up is a very challenging issue: when is it simply reasonable to ignore an objector? At times, it makes the most sense. John Henry Newman once said that when you are clear about both you and your opponent’s views, then usually debate is either useless or unnecessary.

            At other times, it is really an act of smug condescension and intellectual weakness. I can think of some modern examples, but I don’t want to offend anybody. . .

  5. BTW, it’s funny that you say “alleged” for theist, like an “alleged” kidnapper, or “alleged” murderer.

    (It’s fun to embed that word in other contexts:

    Your alleged friend,


    • Well, hopefully more than an alleged friend…
      Anyway, my point was to suggest that people who label themselves as deep believers but are then completely dependent on “scientific” proofs of their beliefs (e.g., on miracles) or are afraid of school teachers teaching about dinosaurs do not seem to me to correspond to what I would expect from a genuine theist.

      • Let us embrace the allegations, they are true, my friend!

        There are two things here clustered together, both are interesting.

        Should religious belief (or theistic belief) depend on proof? Wouldn’t the Indian tradition, at least apart from certain mystical or skeptical strains, say that belief in anything should be traceable to a properly functioning pramana of some kind or other, whether perception, inference, testimony, or whatever? This seems completely harmonious with being a good sort of theist.

        The other stuff about dinosaurs is, maybe, a red herring. But maybe, there is something of relevance there too. You have spent much time working through the question of the validity of the Veda for Mimamsa. Mimamsa has one strategy to defend scripture: drain it of descriptive content re: the world, and make it a source of dharma alone. Other sorts of scripture-adherents, who hold that scripture is both transcendentally authoritative and descriptive re: the world have to somehow navigate apparent contradictions between what scripture says and how the world seems to us.

        Fairly unsophisticated people may just say “science bad”. But this doesn’t make them less theistic. The two seem like very different sorts of issues.

        • Matthew, thanks for the interesting points.
          1) You are right, one needs proper pramāṇas. This is why the investigation of śabdapramāṇa is so important and it is dangerous to neglect it, thinking that “scientific” observations alone suffice.
          2) You are also right in pointing to what my answer would be. One might disagree with the Mīmāṃsā stance, but, still, measuring faith-contents with the metrum of natural sciences is, in my opinion, a mistake. And one that shows that one ultimately believes more in natural sciences than in one’s (*allegedly* Sacred) Texts.

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