Why I am a Universalist, Comment: A Soteriology for All Possible Worlds

I was talking today with Nolan Rampy one of my Masters thesis advisees (BTW, for readers of Freud's Ghost Nolan is doing his thesis on Terror Management Theory and religion). We were discussing my post on the post-cartesian world and the crisis of free will. On my Facebook account (which imports this blog) Nolan made this comment to that post:

Dr. Beck,
While neuroscience is rapidly disproving the notion of free will, from what i understand, research in quantum mechanics (i.e. heisenberg's uncertainty principle) is keeping the possibility of free will alive. i have done a reasonably good job of keeping up with the free will debate from the neuroscience perspective; however, i am in over my head when it comes to quantum mechanics, i would love to hear from you regarding a reconciliation of these two fields of research. or it may be that i have misunderstood the implications of quantum mechanics regarding the free will debate, in which case some clarification would be greatly appericiated.

This is a really interesting point. I had this reply:

After my universalism series, I ought to blog about free will. I think I will. However, here's a quick hit.

Some people think you can save free will from causality by rooting it in a non-deterministic mechanism (e.g., a randomizing devise). Quantum mechanics seems to deliver the goods on this. If free will were linked to quantum randomness you would, indeed, have a non-deterministic will. Success!

But what have you lost in this success? You still loose moral accountability and any notion of character. For if your choices are inherently random you still cannot be morally praised or blamed for your actions. Choice reduces to a random (albeit quantum) flip of the coin.

In the end, from my understanding and reading, quantum mechanics can defeat determinism but it produces a kind of will that is more troubling than the entity (a causal will) it was created to replace. Kind of like a volitional Frankenstein.

Anyway, Nolan and I were kicking this stuff around today when I said something to him I'd like to share here.

Basically, it has to do with the anxiety surrounding the free will debate. Lots of people worry about it.

Part of the worry stems from the fact that free will is a pivotal theological feature in soteriological systems like Arminianism. Free will functions like the keystone in the Arminian arch. If the keystone falters the whole system falters. Free will is carrying a heavy theological burden.

This is so very risky. Free will is one of the most controversial issues in philosophy. It seems a bit wacky to rest an entire soteriological system upon such a shaky construct. Yet most of the people I know do just that.

Another problem with Arminian free will systems is that they are very brittle. Specifically, Arminianism requires the world to be a particular way. And if the world turns out NOT to be this certain way, then the system fails. It's brittle.

Because of this brittleness, when Arminian believers debate issues of free will they get very anxious. And this is understandable. A lot is at stake for them in that debate. The debate (i.e., the world) has to come out a certain way. If it doesn't, the worldview cracks. And when you are faced with such a theological debacle you don't reason effectively or dispassionately. You get emotional and fail to treat you opponent's arguments charitably. So lots of Arminian believers just aren't fun to talk to. Too much is at stake for them.

By contrast, one of the things I really like about universalism is that it is robust across all possible theological worlds. Debates about free will can come out any which way. Our will might be quantum, deterministic, compatabilistic (jargon for affectionados), free or whatever. Universalists really don't care. However it turns out, nothing is at stake for universalists. Either way, any ol' way, God will be all in all.

I like this robustness for selfish philosophical reasons. I can wade into abstract philosophical discussions with an open mind. Free of anxiety to pursue the best argument I see. At the end of the day, I know my soteriological system can handle it.

I find that comforting.

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7 thoughts on “Why I am a Universalist, Comment: A Soteriology for All Possible Worlds”

  1. Hey, Nolan Rampy! Nolan was a senior at Brentwood Christian School in Austin when I started working there in 2000. Good to hear he's doing well.

    As for free will, I think I lean toward compatibilistic will--I understand the term as meaning I'm free to choose from a set of options that external factors have limited me to (free, but not entirely). If I'm misunderstanding the term, please let me know.

    As to neuroscience shedding doubt on and/or disproving free will, could they really come to any other conclusion? If a neuroscientist approaches his studies with the view of materialism, then ideas like a "soul," or if not "soul" then "self" or "image of God"--and other non-material arguments for free will--will be discarded because they can't be measured or detected scientifically. However, if one considers the possibility of a non-material force, then it becomes much easier to make a tenable argument for free will of some variety--see my attempt at metaphor from the post on Pinker and Bloom.

    Without a consideration of non-material factors, I don't see how it's possible to argue for anything other than determinism or quantum will.

    Lastly, I find some of your other arguments for universalism decidedly more credible than this one. Universalism's handiness doesn't help confirm its validity or lack thereof.

  2. Great post. You help me come at this thing I support, called Universalism, from more than the theological angle. Wow, that sounds a little strange at first. I don't like coming from a theological angle in the first place. It just doesn't fit into my spiritual belief system. UR does, however, fit quite well.

  3. @Richard - "Part of the worry stems from the fact that free will is a pivotal theological feature in soteriological systems like Arminianism."

    Not only that, but it's a pivotal feature in many theodicies. In these theodicies, God gets off the hook for evil because evil must be allowed as a by-product of free will.

    Take away free will, and these theodicies fall apart.

    @Jason - "... non-material arguments for free will--will be discarded because they can't be measured or detected scientifically."

    I think it's a good deal more substantial than that. It's not just that the neuroscientist can't seem to measure a soul, it's that poking the brain with a stick, so to speak, actually seems to result in predictable behavior. So if certain parts of the brain are damaged, a person's personality is likely to change in a certain way.

    In other words, it's not just that we're failing to find some sort of spiritual-physical interface in the pituitary gland, it's that we are actually finding that behavior maps directly onto brain activity. So while it's possible that spiritual beings are responsible for, say, the gravitational force, it seems kind of unlikely.

  4. Matthew,
    Great point.

    Last year I wrote a draft of a book about neuroscience and the soul. It's not a particularly good book, so I didn't try to have it published. However, in the book I tried to articulate a theological position that would work in a post-Cartesian world without free will. I think it is possible to work out good soteriological responses (e.g., universalism) or eschatological responses (e.g., a bodily resurrection). The hard part? Theodicy. I'll look over what I wrote to see if it is worthy of posting. If I remember correctly, it won't be.

  5. While I readily agree that we are living in a largely post-Cartesian world, I don't see that the fundamental problems of a purely materialist viewpoint of neurology, personhood, volition, rationality, noetic coherence, or even basic consciousness are even remotely addressed.

    The fact that "poking a stick" at the brain produces the same behavior as when a person makes a particular "choice" of behavior seems irrelevant as to the existence of the soul or other non-material connection to the brain. I can randomly inject voltage into a radio or TV or computer, and if done properly, have any of those devices produce the visible signs of computational activity - though no computation occured within the device itself.

  6. I can't see how any scientific endeavor could either prove or disprove the existence of a soul. We're back to step one where our belief is either more reasonable or less reasonable to ourselves and others, but nothing more.

    Fascinating writings and I'm off to read a bit more.

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