John COWBURN, S.J., Free Will, Predestination and Determinism. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Marquette University Press, 2008. pp. 268. ISBN-13: 978-0-87462-754-1 pbk.:alk.paper).
Reviewed by Nathan R. KOLLAR, St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY 14618

Humans have free will and chance happens. Humans are fated to do what nature or God wants them to do. Both of these statements are supported by philosophers, theologians, and experience. If you are fortunate enough to read Free Will, Predestination, and Determinism you will see what reasoned argument supports.

Cowburn begins, naturally, with a definition of free will. Free will means two things, he says, that it is possible for a person to make one decision, and it is also possible for that person to make at least one other decision concerning the same matter. You can easily tell when people believe in free will, he says, when they think about different things which they can do, establish a number of possibilities open to them, and intend to make a choice as to what they will do. Free will always involves multiple possibilities and self-determination. If a person is absolutely not free to do something in a particular situation then that person does not have free will. But that word “absolute” is important because we seldom are deprived of all possibility and all self determination. Within the limits of one’s freedom and free will resides responsibility. We are responsible inasmuch as we have free will. We cannot talk about responsibility if we hold that we are fated. Nor can we talk of merit, or choosing, or virtue, or sin, or following God’s will, if we hold that God determines all we do – i.e. “It’s God’s will.” Free will presupposes that sometimes we will do things because we chose to do them not because of nature, nurture, or reason. That’s how we’re built and, actually, that’s how any culture that demands responsibility is built. That makes human actions sometimes indeterminate.

When non-human actions are indeterminate we call that chance. Chance is not the same as free will but chance happens. Those “laws of nature” that were discovered with the advance of classic physics? They still exist. Sort of. The “this therefore that” classic physics has certainly been replaced by probability, relativity, quantum and chaos theories. Which, by the way, have been tested in real life.

So where does that lead Catholics who, in official documents, seem to try to hold on to both our opening statements? Rather confused really. Cowburn reviews, in a typical scholastic manner, scripture, doctrinal statements, and theologians in an attempt to sort out the confusion. Two interesting asides, I think, were 1) that when someone spends a great deal of time discovering God’s will, and is certain of that discovery, others can expect that that person will see opposition to that discovered will as also opposition to God’s will, i.e. evil. 2) A church that supports free will should support freedom for choosing one’s religion – a support only recently given.

A re-reading of the Grand Inquisitor speech reminds one of the consequences of free will and, shall we say, the obligations of those who support it? Could religious authorities support mystery in the face of knowing God’s will? Choice in the face of “God’s Chosen People?” Ripping apart the psychological bonds resulting from the double bind of seeking the Father’s will? Treating people as adults capable of making decisions rather than humans who must be herded into the proper channels of grace? Read the Grand Inquisitor speech for why they should not. Read Cowburn for why they should.

The consequences of free will impinge on many central Christian religious metaphors: God, prayer, creation, and community (church) to name a few. Cowburn hints at these but seldom expands on them. It would have been more honest to develop, at lest in a footnote reference, for example, how an indeterminate God would look or the key role of mystery in seeking to understand our life in God.

Cowburn argues for free will and against predestination but he provides the reader with arguments pro and con. Perhaps in reading his arguments you chose to disagree with him. Would your disagreement be because of your free will, God’s will, or natural inclinations?

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