Libertarian Free Will & Prayer

by John Feinberg

Excerpt from John Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Foundations of Evangelical Theology, pp. 705-706.

If I [believe in libertarian freedom and] plead with God to remove my friend’s illness, that is not absurd, for God can answer that prayer without negating anyone’s freedom. But what about the request that God change the attitudes and actions of my friend’s tyrannical boss? What about petitions that ask God to move those processing applications for graduate school to accept my friend? Or what about prayers that ask God to keep my enemies at work from bothering me? And what about pleading with God to save a dear relative or friend? In all of these cases, what am I asking God to do, if libertarian free will obtains? I am either asking God to override others’ freedom, or I am asking him to move them to do something freely in spite of the fact that my belief in libertarian free will means that I believe Gold cannot get anybody to do anything freely. If I truly value libertarian free will as much as libertarians say they do, why would I ask God to override it just because of my petition? . . . Libertarians may be asking God to try to persuade their friends, but I repeat that God can only guarantee their persuasion by casual determinism, and that abridges libertarian free will.

On the other hand, if I am not asking God to override someone else’s freedom, then I’m asking him to do something which I believe he cannot do (make it the case that someone else does something freely). I may ask him to try to persuade the person, but I know that without God overriding their freedom, he cannot guarantee that they will change. In fact, since at the moment of free decision making nothing decisively inclines their will, regardless of what God or anyone else does or says, the matter may be hopeless. In light of such problems with interceding with God to change someone’s incompatibilistically free actions or attitudes, there is good reason for anyone committed to libertarian free will who understands the implications of the position to think twice before offering intercessory prayers of the kind mentioned. In fact, prayer to change either our or others’ actions seems problematic.

Foundations of Evangelical Theology, pp. 705.

…[W]ith libertarian free will many prayers make no sense. . . .

…[C]onsider petitions about ourselves that do involve our free will. Suppose we ask the Lord to help us be more faithful in Bible reading, prayer, and witnessing. Or suppose we pray that the Lord will help us treat our family or neighbor better. I maintain that if libertarian free will obtains in our world, these are to a large degree absurd requests. For what are we asking God to do? In order for me to be more faithful in Bible reading, prayer, and witnessing, won’t I have to decide to do these things? But if I have libertarian free will and am allowed to exercise it, how can God fulfill my request? If he doesn’t override my libertarian freedom, he cannot guarantee the fulfillment of my request. So what am I asking him to do? Override my freedom? Make it the case that I freely decide to do these things? But here libertarians tell us that, if God brings it about that we do anything, we don’t do it freely. It seems that God cannot be certain to grant my request unless he overrides my freedom, but why would God want me to engage in these spiritual exercises because I’m forced to do so (according to my libertarian free will, I would be forced, but God wants my love and devotion freely!)? Shouldn’t I, then, petition myself in an attempt to convince myself to do these things? After all, only I can freely effect what I choose to do, given libertarian free will. But if I did petition myself, wouldn’t that usually mean I had already decided to do these things, and if so, the petition becomes unnecessary? I submit, then, that unless I really want God to override my freedom, what I ask him in these cases is absurd. If he doesn’t tamper with my libertarian free will, he can’t do what I ask; only I can, but petitioning myself engages me in the further absurdities mentioned.