Monday, 30 September 2013

Understanding free will


I have always regarded free will as axiomatically real - in the sense that if you doubt free will then you doubt everything - but always had a problem in saying what it was, how it worked, how (in a world of cause and effects) anything could be free. 

When I became a Christian, at first this did not change. I was pleased to find that Thomas Aquinas firmly asserted the reality of free will, but was disappointed to discover that he did not elucidate it but simply regarded it as a gift from God.

I was happy with this until I began to discuss the matter with 'WmJas' on his blog 'Bugs to Fearen Babes Withal'. The thing about WmJas is that if he does not understand something, he does not pretend to understand it - and he could not understand my attempted Aquinas summary (probably because there isn't really anything to 'understand' - it is simply a set of doctrines set down next to each other).

WmJas shook my faith in the adequacy of the Aquinas approach. I began to think: it is all very well to say we have free will and why - but what is it that we have?


The problem is that we generally talk and think as if everything has a cause, and every cause has a cause, and this leads to an infinite regress - so there is no space for free will to enter in to the causal chain.

My approach was then to ask where or what there is that that certainly does have free will?

The answer for secular materialists is - nothing. Free will is excluded by the assumptions.

But for Christians? God has free will for sure.


God has free will because God is an uncaused cause.

In fact, that is one of the divine attributes - albeit not expressed in this kind of philosophical language; but people understand that God wants and chooses without being 'influenced' by anyone or anything - he is the primary origin of motivations and actions.

I found this helpful, indeed it made a big difference to know that free will entails the property of being an uncaused cause.

But then, if God has free will, do humans have free will?

We already know that answer to that; and the answer is yes, humans do have free will - because divine revelation (e.g. the Bible) tells us that humans must be able to choose, in and of and from themselves, because humans are again and again choosing God, or choosing to reject God.

In fact, Christianity does not make any sense as Christianity unless humans have real free will. The ability really to choose is absolutely at the core of it.


So, since humans have free will - does that mean that everything alive also has free will?

No, only humans, and maybe a few other entities - but the point is that free will is not a universal property.

(Indeed it strikes me that a universe of universal free will would be a universe without causality - chaotic.)


But how could it be that only God and humans have free will? That is a very important question - and the answer is not one likely to be universally agreed on. But the obvious inference seems to be that God and Man share free will because God and Man share 'divinity' - and free will is a divine attribute.

This is NOT to say God and Man are the same, that would be absurd and is false - but that, at least to this important extent, God and Man are of the same kind: they are both the kind of thing which have free will, are autonomous agents, sharing the capacity to originate action: both God and Man are uncaused causes.  


My conclusion - Humans have free will for sure, and this is an essential component of Christianity, and the only other sure example of free will is God - thus free will is a divine attribute - something we share with God.

And this implies that humans, even as they are in mortal earthly life and in sin, are divine beings - since only divine beings are autonomous agents.

(For Aquinas, the need for an uncaused cause, and unmoved mover, is one of the strongest arguments for a god.)


Does this analysis make a difference? To me it certainly does. I now feel I know what kind of thing free will is, what essential properties it has and what it means.

This description also clarifies why secular materialism (mainstream modern culture) cannot talk sense about free will - because they deny the divine and without the divine there can be no uncaused causes and  no space for free will - merely an infinite regress of causation.

It also clarifies that any Christians who deny free will, and the autonomy of human agency, are (to that extent) wrong - and it is also wrong to overemphasize the earthly and sinful nature of Man when the reality is that we are mixed beings who contain this divine attribute of free will - and (since this is a divine attribute, not a mortal contingency) this is true no matter how depraved we are.


In other words, getting a clearer understanding of free will has led to a clearer understanding of much else - it has turned out to be a very important 'breakthrough' indeed!

(Thanks to the stubborn refusal of WmJas to acknowledge that my previous mode of understanding was adequate. The Socratic method, perhaps?) 



  1. This insight--that free will is the same thing as being an uncaused cause--was a genuine philosophical 'aha!' moment in reading your blog. Maybe its obvious to most people, but I had never made that intuitively correct connection until you pointed it out. It got around one of my objections to libertarian free will.

  2. @AG - For me too. I got it from reflecting on Givens writings. It feels like a breakthrough!

  3. Don't forget that angels have free will too, not least of all satan.

    Edward Feser writes quite a bit about unmoved movers and cause-and-effect in his book "The Last Atheist". I still haven't fully understood his arguments, but one point he makes is that Aristotle and Aquinas had a very different understanding of cause and effect than we do. We tend toward a clockwork, pool-table-collisions view where causes temporally precede effects. A and A viewed cause and effect as simultaneous; the skin parting as the knife cuts it. For reasons I don't entirely grok, Feser claims that the infinite regress of cause and effect is a metaphysical fallacy caused by our mistaken modern view. (I am still working my way through the book, but I've read enough to recommend it highly.)

    I disagree that secular materialism is incompatible with uncaused causes. If quantum physics really is random, then it's full of uncaused causes--though if quantum states are merely coin flips, they are trivial uncaused causes compared to free will. But we don't know that they are merely coin flips, and there is nothing that rules out the future discovery of physical laws that introduce additional uncaused causes.

    As you have pointed out here in the past, material scientists' objection to uncaused causes is nothing more than an a priori metaphysical assumption, not something for which there is evidence. Perhaps initiated by Descartes' over-application of Occam's Razor, and surely supported by some people's rebellion against God.

    It's not hard to see how uncaused causes might be introduced. Charged pool balls on a magnetized pool table move in curved paths, seemingly defying Newton's laws; the discovery of electromagnetism dispels the mystery by positing new forces. Likewise, I strongly suspect that where there is life, there are additional physical laws in play that have not been elucidated. Trying to explain life as an epiphenomenon of the physics we know strikes me a bit like trying to explain charged pool balls following curved paths as a consequence of collisions with impertinent air molecules. And I suspect that consciousness/souls/spirits add another layer of laws. These laws might involve uncaused causes, Jungian archetypes, Sheldrake's morphogenetic fields, Lord knows what else.

  4. Glad my stubbornness was useful to someone. It's the sort of thing people rarely thank me for.

    The key step in my transition from atheism was the realization that an argument I had just made for the necessity of free will was exactly the same as the traditional "first cause" argument for God.

    The "unmoved mover" model of free will still has serious problems, though -- because in addition to having free will, human beings very obviously are subject to outside influences (and to inside influences which are not volitional -- preexisting dispositions etc.). We are, at least partially, moved movers. This is a huge metaphysical problem, and I have been working on it lately with no success whatsoever. I may be posting on it fairly soon, either to announce that I've finally solved it (unlikely!) or to throw out some inadequate-but-promising ideas and try to get some helpful feedback.

  5. Nicholas Fulford1 October 2013 at 05:09

    Free will is not possible in a purely physical universe. Only a functional equivalent of free will occurs, and which is the subjective sense of choosing. That is sufficient for legal and ethical accountability.

    Please note, that a tri-omni God has no free will either, (if such an entity is.) Why? Because anything which is expressed is bound to God. i.e. Manifestation follows from the qualities of God, not as an action by God.

    Another way to think about it is: God is to universe, as fractal equation is to iterating fractal form. The equation "contains" anything expressible by instantiation and iteration of the fractal equation, while any point or segment in the unfolding fractal form is not an action of the equation but a manifestation of the equation's properties. This fits with the notion of God as eternal, unchanging, necessary and sufficient in itself. Hence, God does not act, because to act is act upon something outside of God, and nothing is outside of God due to strong omnipresence. It also indicates an insufficiency, (as to act, follows from a desire or need to change, and God being sufficient in itself has no such need.)

    Therefore, if tri-omni God is, God is the virtual and necessary basis for anything that exists.

  6. @WmJas - "We are, at least partially, moved movers. This is a huge metaphysical problem, "

    It may be, but only if it is felt to be so. I don't feel it; and there is no obligation on us to solve all the metaphysical problems.

    This is the problem which stands at the heart of Systems Theory - in the form of the impossibility of communication.

    (Refs in the appendix of my book The Modernization Imperative

    The 'solution' here was that a system communicates only with itself, and 'models' its environment - and the system then either grows or diminishes - and depending on this the system may alter its model of the environment.

    The systems understanding of its environment in simple the inference that 'if I am growing, then my understanding of the environment (my model) is correct'.


    But that kind of systems explanation would not suffice for the Christian God - since he would be required to know us directly.

    However, it may provide a clue in focusing upon the 'problem' of communication.

  7. Titus Didius Tacitus3 October 2013 at 03:46

    Nicholas Fulford: "Free will is not possible in a purely physical universe."

    That follows, as "will", free or otherwise, is not physical.

    Nicholas Fulford: "Only a functional equivalent of free will occurs, and which is the subjective sense of choosing."

    Subjective senses aren't physical either. Nor is there anyone to have them, in a universe that amounts to billiard balls blindly bouncing off each other, observed by no-one.

    Nicholas Fulford: "That is sufficient for legal and ethical accountability."

    Ethics aren't physical either.

    The "materialistic" universe doesn't work, or it "works" only by shoving more and more facts that conflict with it under a rug labelled "mind" and then claiming that since everything else has been explained away (by classifying it as "mind" and thus ultimately unreal) materialism is on a roll and mind itself is bound to be explained away Real Soon Now.

    The check is in the mail... and has been for centuries. It will never arrive. It can't.

  8. I feel like I'm missing part of your argument, but you seem to be arguing that

    A Free will is a divine attribute
    B God and man have free will
    C Therefore God and man are divine


    But as to premiss B, there is a major difference: We have free will within limits. God has free will without limits -- or rather, without externally imposed limits.

    What St. Thomas says is that we have free will because God wills that we should have it. That is, he wills that we should have it within limits, and sets the limits.[1]

    It is evident that we can't freely choose everything. St. Paul himself says so: "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it." Rom. 7:19-20 ff.

    But it's not only in the area of morality that we don't choose what to do. Our very bodies prevent us from doing as we please.

    I would agree that we are divine in a sense, since the scriptures themselves say that we are made in God's image. But it seems to me that the key word is "made" in his image. We have some of the attributes that God has, but it doesn't follow that we are like him in every way. Thus having the attribute of free will doesn't lead necessarily to the conclusion that we are unmade.

    Yes it's possible, in the sense of not being incoherent, that we have free will for the same reason God has it, that is, because we are unmade. But it's also not incoherent to say that we have free will because God made us in his image, i.e. like himself in some ways; specifically, with the ability to choose freely albeit within certain limits.

    This may present some metaphysical problems with regard to the extent or the mechanism or the nature of our free will, but as you say, "there is no obligation on us to solve all the metaphysical problems".

    [1] For example, "The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow; but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the plan of divine providence conceives to happen from contingency."

  9. @Ag - No, this isn't a syllogism, its a bit of 'scientific' style reasoning - I am (I was) trying to understand what kind of a thing free will could be.

    Thus - "It is evident that we can't freely choose everything." - turns out to be untrue. I mean our will is utterly free, although it takes into account many things, and it is our behaviour/ action which is constrained.

    But I have realized that this kind of metaphysical re-framing is only of value to those who are dissatisfied with the frame they posses - which presumably does not include you!

    I have explained the problems with the Aquinas view, from my perspective it is incoherent. But if you don't feel it, you won't be convinced.