Friday, December 6, 2013

John Milton - Paradise Lost - Free Will and Predestination




In Paradise Lost, John Milton takes a stab at the seeming paradox of predestination versus free will that is inherent in Christian theology. The classic question is as follows: if God is omnipotent and knows the future, can it be reasoned that the future is set? If the future is indeed locked into place, how can humans have free will? Since free will is an integral component of most Christian belief systems, there is, on the surface at least, a problem.


In a passage where God himself is speaking to Jesus, God explains that even if he foresaw Satan’s rebellion, there was no abrogation of Satan’s and his followers’ free will.  In referring to the Satanic Rebels,



So were created, nor can justly accuse 
Thir maker, or thir making, or thir Fate; 
As if Predestination over-rul’d
Thir will, dispos’d by absolute Decree 
Or high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed
Thir own revolt, not I: if I foreknew, 
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,
Which had no less prov’d certain unforeknown. 
So without least impulse or shadow of Fate, 
Or aught by me immutablie foreseen, 
They trespass, Authors to themselves in all 
Both what they judge and what they choose; for so 
I formd them free, and free they must remain, 
Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change 
Thir nature, and revoke the high Decree 
Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain’d  
Thir freedom, they themselves ordain’d thir fall.  
The first sort by thir own suggestion fell,  


I find that Milton’s God’s reasoning makes sense, at least intuitively. Even if God can see the future, and thus the future is cast, individuals (this includes the character of Satan as well as ourselves) are, from our own point of view, creatures moving and acting in linear time. We still freely make our own decisions. When God says,

Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,

It seems to mean that even if the future is set, it is the individual (in this case, Satan and his followers) who sets it. Thus, the mechanism of free will is still operating.

Another way I look at it is like viewing the actions of creatures that exercised choice in the past.  If I know a person robbed a bank last week, it is an inconvertible fact that the person robbed the bank; it is set into the universe that he robbed the bank. This does not alter the fact that the person exercised free will when choosing to rob the bank.

Assuming that God is talking for Milton here, the conclusion is that the paradox of free will versus predestination is a false paradox. The two are not mutually exclusive. Though this is all a bit mind bending to me, I concur with Milton here. There are some scientific models that relate to the fields of physics and neuroscience which suggest that certain events and actions are set into our natures and the  Universe and in a way are pre - determined, and that brings into question the role of free will in humans (These are neither universally accepted nor have they been proven.). Though not entirely congruous in comparison to Milton’s universe, in regards to these models, I find Milton’s reasoning enlightening and thought provoking.


The other striking thing about the above passage is how eloquently and artistically Milton is able to communicate what are complex philosophical and metaphysical concepts. I find that one way sublime art is made is to take these big questions that are inherent to life and existence and express them in aesthetically satisfying forms. Even if one ultimately disagrees with what the author is getting at, the results here are still sublime. 



45 comments:

Rosalind minett said...

Actually, I always read it as meaning that foreknowledge wouldn't have changed anything. Ie there's a tendency to follow a path willy nilly until enlightenment comes.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Roseland - That may be, however that would mean that everything was predestined and there was no free will in Milton' s Worldview.

James said...

"for so I formd them free, and free they must remain"
Milton's poetry astounds one with its philosophic elegance. Raised in the Wesleyan tradition I have always bridled at the Calvinist (and others') notion of pre-destination. Your commentary reminds us of the importance of Milton's poetic reasoning even in our modern scientific-centered culture.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I do think that there is a universality to the predestination verses free will concept.

Suko said...

Brian, your post is thoughtful and thought-provoking. I haven't read Paradise Lost yet, but I plan on reading it in the future, probably sooner now that I've been reminded of its importance.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Thanks!

I would love to read what you have to say about this work when you read it.

Naida said...

Interesting Brian. Such food for thought, free will and destiny and how much of life is already pre-destined to happen.

Sharon Henning said...

Excellent review, Brian, and very insightful.

God is outside the bounds of time. So nothing is actually "in the future" for Him.

Also, God is absolutely sovereign, but from the Christian's point of view, man does not have absolute free will. He can only act or think according to his nature which was corrupted after the fall.

And as a Christian that is why I call Christ the Savior of mankind because it is from this corrupted nature that He has redeemed us from.

I'm glad you're reviewing this book. I'm reminded how much I need to read this book. I've already downloaded on my Kindle.

Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - indeed this is almost as timely now as it was 400 years ago.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Though I would argue that if there is a God, we have little idea as to the nature of such a Being, I think that many folks, including many Christians, put an enormous weight upon free will. Of course as you point out, an Omniscient God, that is outside of time, seems to in some ways contradict this notion. What I find striking is how Milton attempted to tackle these weighty questions in what was a work of literary art.

Pete Gaskell said...

Yes ,Milton used his epic to explore the Big Questions of his time, including the controversy about the Earth being the fixed centre of the Universe. Check Book VIII in particular...and the Tuscsn artist he refers to is Galileo





Pete Gaskell said...

from Book VIII.....When I behold this goodly frame, this world, Of Heaven and Earth consisting; and computeTheir magnitudes; this Earth, a spot, a grain,An atom, with the firmament compared And all her numbered stars, that seem to roll Spaces incomprehensible, (for suchTheir distance argues, and their swift return Diurnal,) merely to officiate light Round this opacous Earth, this punctual spot, One day and night; in all her vast survey Useless besides; reasoning I oft admire,How Nature wise and frugal could commit Such disproportions, with superfluous handSo many nobler bodies to create,Greater so manifold, to this one use,For aught appears, and on their orbs imposeSuch restless revolution day by dayRepeated; while the sedentary Earth,That better might with far less compass move,Served by more noble than herself, attainsHer end without least motion, and receives,As tribute, such a sumless journey broughtOf incorporeal speed, her warmth and light;Speed, to describe whose swiftness number fails.

Pete Gaskell said...

If all Is predetermined as Milton's God suggests, and foreknown by God because he caused it (being omnipotent and omniscient), then free will must be an illusion.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Pete - Thanks for stopping by.

I did not pick up the Galileo reference.


I see Milton as defending the concept of free will here. Almost as if God created the personalities and then let them exercise choices. Again, I think that even if he could see what choices they would make, one can say that Free Will is operating. I still point to any events that happened in the past that involve people. If we look bacc know what happened, free will still operated upon reality and helped to determined the outcome.

Guy Savage said...

Have you read Steinbeck's East of Eden, Brian, as it sort of tackles that issue of free will

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I have read East of Eden. It has been a little while. However I remember the book somewhat distinctly. I will need to give this theme some thought on how it relates to that book.

Brian Joseph said...

After a quick refresh with the of of professor Google I see how Steinbeck was indeed a proponent of Free Will.

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

In this view, then, God knows the future but men's actions are still free; he invented time and space, but when it comes to men they're free to make decisions. But He also knows beforehand the decisions they'll make - it must be a heavy burden for Him, to know everything that'll happen, and not to change. Doesn't this mean that God then is also bound to destiny and a predetermined universe?

Harvee said...

I like the new (?) name of your blog though I don't find it babbling at all. Bubbling, maybe?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - I will say that I too have thought about this view an omnipotent God, which I would hazard to say that most believers advocate, knowing everything beforehand. Yes he would seem to be bound himself by fate. The burden, it seems to me would have a lot to do with being bored if he knew the outcome of everything beforehand.

Pete Gaskell said...

hi Brian - I'm glad of the opportunity to join you in your exploration of Milton's thought :-)
The reference to Galileo relates to a visit he is understood to have made to the astronomer while he was under house arrest at home in Tuscany. I imagine he was given the opportunity of looking through the ,'Tuscan artist's' telescope at the moon which likens to Satan,'s shield..this from Book I...
Satan,'s)  ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large, and round
Behind him cast. The broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening, from the top of Fesole
Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands
Rivers, or mountains, in her spotty globe.. take your point

Pete Gaskell said...

I think you're correct in your interpretation of Milton's view about free will. I just don’t share it. If past, present and future are predestined, we cannot really be free agents although we have the illusion that we are. Research into brain functionality proves that we are disposed to take a particular course of action while consciously we have yet to form a decision..

Brian Joseph said...

Hi pete - Absolutely fascinating story relating to Galileo, That is a great passage comparing Satan's shield to the moon.

I did allude to the brain research leaning towards the fact that free will may be an illusion. I admit that my knowledge of the results may border upon the superficial. With that said I do think that this is yet not yet settled and that the jury is still out on this. Granted that it may indeed be accurate. If so, the philosophical implications are profound.

Caroline said...

If God is omnipotent that doesn't exactly mean that he knows everything. Just that he could change it, no?
Maybe that's too simplistic.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - That is a good question. I think that If God knows almost everything, except that he does NOT know for certain what he will do, then that would be a different story and opens up an entirely new set of questions.

Pete Gaskell said...

So there is the paradox that this means Man has free will but God doesn't?

Tracy Terry said...

Loving the thought that obviously went into this post, your passion shines through.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Pete - My head is spinning :)

I think that there are two separate issues. What Milton thinks and what we think. (Perhaps that should be many issues since there are many of us commenting here)

Milton certainly believed that man had free will. He does not go all the way with and speculate about God. Perhaps he would have said the question is unknowable???

I think that humans likely have what we consider free will. However, I admit that science might prove this wrong, the jury is still out. But in the end I think, my GUESS is that the science will leave free will intact.


I doubt the existence of God. But it is possible he does exist. If so we know so little of his nature and I do not know if he has free will or not.

On the other hand, my rudimentary understanding of time and matter and the big bang and all that fun stuff makes me wonder if these concepts may actually have less meaning then we attribute to them.


We may be asking the wrong questions.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Terry. I really love to read and discuss this stuff :)

JaneGS said...

I always had trouble reading philosophy but philosophical ideas presented via stories/fiction come through beautifully for me. Art has a medium for discourse is powerful.

I'm still not sure where I stand on predestination--you really shouldn't have to do mental gymnastics to understand a truth.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Indeed this is beautiful art.

The mental gymnastics may be my fault. I dragged everyone into this discussion :) Perhaps one should just read the verse.

Heidi’sbooks said...

Great post again. I've always wondered why free will and pre-determination have to be mutually exclusive. If free will were standing alone then we'd have a weak God who never involved Himself in anything. If predestination stood alone, then we'd be robots. We would never be responsible for our own choices.

However, what if they are two sides of the same coin, working together? God wants us to have a choice to love Him. You can't force someone to love you or it isn't really love. But, He loves in return, so He continually works to take our mistakes and our victories and work it towards some ultimate purpose. People can definitely screw things up.

As you say, our own pat understandings may not be right because we may not even be asking the right questions. But it is awesome to discuss and try to wrap our heads around.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - I like the way that you summed it up. As per Milton, and perhaps as per the Universe works, Free Will and Predestination are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

An old question, that one. It would be great to have a black or white answer but more often than not the truth is in the grey area. Or maybe that's what we tell ourselves. Who knows...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - Personally I am excited about scientific discoveries in the area of physics and neuroscience, they may, and I stress MAY, provide us with some answers.

Harvee said...

I like the idea of free will and being in control. I'd feel lost if I believed in predestination, I think.

Harvee
Book Dilettante

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Of course as we have seen it it is possible to believe in both :)

In my day to day life I act and believe 100% in free will. Ant predestination reflected in physics or neuroscience seems to me, at least on a practical level. an intellectual curiosity.

Rachel Bradford said...

I tend to agree with Milton's point of view as well, though I haven't finished my study of Paradise Lost - I'm struggling a bit with the language.

On the other hand, there's some wishy-washy part of me that feels that time really isn't a rigid line, but is simply another dimension like space. I sometimes also view reality as a spectrum - reality can change based on who you are and how you view it. And that's when everything starts getting really mind-bending. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel. - I do think that you are on to something regarding your comments regarding time, it seems similar though not entirely identical to the other dimensions. I ages that such oddities concerning time may be a reason why the paradox is false.

I do believe that there is a solid reality to the universe. However I think that there may be some big surprises to de discovered that may change the way that we look at it.

Thanks for another great comment.

Rachel Bradford said...

"I do believe that there is a solid reality to the universe."

Yes, there are clearly solid laws of physics - and those realities can not be questions - or at the very least, it is generally a bit pointless to question them. But there is also a less firm reality of perception. Just like there are two sides to every story - if the different sides to the story are at great variance, it doesn't mean that someone is wrong or that someone is lying - it could simply mean that there are two perfectly valid points of view on the subject.

And that's how I view religion. Just because a Christian believes that Jesus is God and the savior and the Jews believe that the savior is yet to come, does that make one group more "right" than another? Does religion have a solid reality like the laws of physics? I think not. Religion is a human philosophy that helps us to make peace with the world around us. And it can change to fit the needs of each individual. As long as the religion (or atheist / agnostic philosophy) is based on an appreciation for what you have received in life, a drive to be the best person you can be, and a love of fellow humans then how can it be wrong?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel – Thanks for coming back and leaving such thoughtful comments.

I always tend to classify religious and philosophic writings dualistically. When a material fact is purported we can say either it is correct or it happened or it did not happen. Some people do put a great deal of emphasis on what they believe to be these facts that are laid out by religion. I think that it is a fair to discuss whether such facts are valid or not.

Of course, much of religious and philosophical thinking involves subjective truths, ideas and beliefs which as you point out, are philosophies which hopefully help us to live and think in better ways. I myself pace great value upon many of these ideas.

So in regards to this, I agree with you, no single belief system is right or wrong. With that said, you and I can have subjective opinions about these various belief systems. For instance, in very general terms I much of what is in the Old Testament and the Koran as mixed bag of marvelous ethical and moral innovations that helped to shape much that is good in the world, combined with other values that are morally reprehensible. But that is indeed just my subjective human opinion. I think that it is fair to have such opinions, views and discussions about these belief systems as long as we recognize that these are subjective and they are based on opinions with no real right or wrong final answers.

Rachel Bradford said...

"When a material fact is purported we can say either it is correct or it happened or it did not happen."

Yes and no. As a scientist I'm afraid I've become a little skeptical of scientific theories. Perhaps I should consider myself a "fallen away scientist." ;)

Speaking as a biomedical scientist, I can say that we do a scientific experiment, then we say "here's what we did, and here's the data." But that's not all we do. We put a spin on what the data MEAN. And even the least theoretical interpretations are inundated with a foundation of assumptions and canonical thinking. We assume things are true because our fore-scientists assumed they were true. Sometimes, these things aren't actually true. Sometimes we figure out that our fore-scientists had it all wrong, and the data has been misinterpreted for decades or even centuries.

So what is "truth?" What is "reality?" If we have a model that works - say, the electron, which is really just the solution to a set of partial differential / wave equations - does it "really" exist as a physical entity? Or is it just an excellent model for a set of phenomena? A model that works well...at least until some brave souls decide to fight the legions of canonical scientists and say "but, what if?"

Personally, I accept these models as one form of reality. But I'm also an "electron agnostic." I recognize that it really IS just a "theory" and that it is subject to tweaking or even complete overthrow.

The sad part about reality is that it can be broken down into way too many "what ifs."

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - really good points about science and our modern scientific culture. I have just finished up a book called Lonely Planets by David Grinspoon. The author touches on some of the points that you mentioned. I will be blogging about it soon.


With that, I still think that there is a hard reality out there (OK, I might be willing to qualify this statement a bit knowing a little bit about Quantum weirdness). It is our scientific method that may be imperfect and flawed (though it works amazing well) and sometimes it leads us to the wrong, or more often, too generalized, conclusions about this hard reality.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

This is indeed a highly complex issue, one that has occupied the minds of thinkers throughout the ages. I have often wondered about it myself. My personal take on it is that humans do have free will – to a point. I feel that one’s genetic makeup, inborn temperament, innate talents and abilities, as well as upbringing, all play a part in determining one’s actions. In other words, we are free within the limits imposed by the above factors. Whether I choose to do something or not has a lot to do with these things.

Even the type of reading a person does is limited by these factors. I think it has a lot to do with at least one of them - temperament. Sensitive people, for instance, would not choose to read true crime books, nor would they be likely to pick up a horror novel. (I am one such person.) So, in this particular instance, I’m really not completely free to decide whether or not I want to read such books. Because of my innate temperament, I really have no choice – I MUST avoid such books.

As for the seeming paradox of God’s foreknowledge, I think that, although He can see what we are going to do, He refuses to intervene in our decisions, whether these are wise or not. However, being Almighty God, He is the creator of the innate limits we have been born with. So this continues to be a paradox to me….why should God choose to limit us from birth?

Art does indeed offer a potent vehicle for pondering these profound matters. Milton, like Shakespeare, was a master at synthesizing complex concepts in beautiful verse. All the more reason for me to get this masterpiece under my belt!
Thanks for the fascinating commentary!!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - thanks for the great comment. I think that your interpretation of Free will and God is very much in line with that of Milton.

As for genes upbringing etc. I agree, we have certain innate tendencies and it is up to us as individuals to go with some, take advantage of some, and resist others. When one accounts for things like mental illness it gets complicated. I certainly do do not have all the answers.