Thursday 8 September 2011

Free will - its centrality to Christianity


Free will - the capacity for choice that is neither determined nor random but a property of personal will - is central to Christianity, it is necessary to Christianity.

A Christian must accept as axiomatic that there is such a thing as free will; he may seek to elucidate the concept, but that there is free will cannot be doubted, nor should empirical or rational justification for its existence be sought, since there cannot be any such justification.

It is a perilous misdirection of motivation to look for a justification which intrinsically cannot be found.


That humans posses free will is indeed common sense: the knowledge is spontaneous, ineradicable common sense; almost all of our behavior and social life is built on the assumption that free will is real.

The scope of free will, whether it is operative in a specific situation, the ways by which it is influenced by habit or coercion - such matters are legitimate topics for discussion or investigation; but that free will exists cannot coherently be challenged; and for Christians the fundamental operation of free will is a necessary component of the bedrock of reality. 

Free will may therefore be considered an aspect of natural law; an aspect without which other aspects of natural law make no sense.


To doubt such axioms as free will is not a coherent strategy: all specific doubts must be based on (at least implicit, if not explicit) acceptance of axioms. Universal skepticism is rationally impossible. To doubt free will is simply incoherent. 


However, precisely because free will is so fundamental a phenomenon, and even though we know what free will does, it is impossible to define with precision what free will is or how it works.

So the mechanism of free will, its inner causality, its strength, physics, psychology, neuroscience... such matters cannot be investigated nor analyzed.

Obviously not.


Those who have a problem with free will, who are puzzled by it (which puzzlement has more of the nature of a pathology than of a legitimate topic for curiosity) are likely to be misled by the questions they ask.

The framing of specific questions that are intrinsically unanswerable leads, with a strong tendency, to misleading or plain false answers - because when a question is irrelevant the answer must be a non sequitur.

Curiosity based on mistaken formulation of the nature of free will cannot, therefore, legitimately be satisfied: at most curiosity may become distracted or simply exhausted.

Or the failure to satisfy personal curiosity or to allay personal dissatisfaction may be interpreted as some kind of refutation.


For Christians, free will is one of the essential attributes of Man. Christian salvation entails free will: it is only understandable on the basis that Man is a creature with free will.

Other attributes are necessary for salvation as well as free will; and it is assumed that other creatures than Man may also possess free will - for instance angels.

But Man's free will constrains the whole scheme and system of Christian salvation - without free will the human condition - Man's meaning, purpose and relation with God - is nonsense.


Therefore one cannot be a Christian and deny the reality of free will.

Of course what people say about free will, what people think they believe about free will, may not be an accurate description of their true beliefs.

But whatever he may say, or imagine, the Christian must truly believe in free will.


This in itself is not a problem - since there is no genuine alternative.

However confusions over free will may have the effect of blocking Christian conviction: when a person thinks that free will may not be true, or may not be coherent, or may be explained away in terms of (say) social pressure, psychology or neuroscience... then such doubts and worries may also block consideration of Christianity since it is correctly perceived that the Christian model necessarily entails the operation of free will.

Because understanding (even at the most basic level) Christian salvation, entails understanding that free will is intrinsic to Man.

Free will is not an optional extra or added bonus, but intrinsic to humanity and to individual destiny.

Reality only makes sense in terms of free will.  


Why then does free will strike so many modern people as so vague and elusive and doubtful a concept?

The answer is that this is precisely what happens when humans try to deny the validity of their built-in nature and knowledge; when human challenge, subvert and invert natural law. When humans try to pursue a strategy of skepticism.

What results is not a deeper and more secure understanding - but no understanding at all, mere error and confusion, and if the skepticism is not recognized as a snare then this state of error and confusion may be permanent.


A culture like ours, which encourages, and indeed enforces, the systematic denial of all forms of natural law, will therefore permanently be unable to perceive or engage with reality.

To challenge, debate and 'investigate' the reality of free will as if it were a mere hypothesis is therefore a one-way door to nihilism: to implicit denial of the reality of the real.



HenryOrientJnr said...

I always say I believe in free will. If I am right, fine; if not, I didn't have any choice in the matter anyway.

The Derb seems to be of the opinion that recent developments in neuroscience make the idea of free will less and less likely. It seems to me that it depends on how you define "free". The purist wants free will to exist almost apart from the chemistry and electrical potentials building up in the neurons of the brain. I am satisfied to think of it as being a mathematical product of huge numbers of competing memories and motivations operating at a subconscious level until the winner breaks through into the conscious mind as a freely expressed notion.

How does your understanding of the workings of the brain agree with your belief that free will is essential to Christianity?

The Crow said...

Without free will, humans become like termites. Which is fine, I suppose, if a termite-society is the goal. It seems to be the goal, lately.
Great civilizations are not built by termites, although termites can put together some pretty impressive mounds.
The thing termites are best known for, is their destructive ability. At this, they excel.
Humans, on the other hand, while being plenty good at destruction, are also able to build amazing things from dust and vegetation, above and far beyond mere mounds.
Free will is what enables them to do this.
It would seem rather important.

Bruce Charlton said...

@HOJ- science is orthogonal to free will - it has precisely nothing to do with it: no scientific discovery ever has, or ever, could have made any difference to free will. This is just a sub-set of the fact that science has nothing to say about metaphysics.

Gabe Ruth said...

As a fan of Derb, it saddens me that he's been taken in by those fMRI wielding clowns, but he is a pretty convinced materialist so there aren't alot of choices for him.

Dr. Charlton, did you read that back and forth on von Balthasar Baduin linked to a few days ago on the Charles Williams post? It took my mind right to where this post went.

hilokey said...

This entry is refreshing to read from the perspective of where the rubber meets the road.

Now if I could only get my sister to understand some of the things expounded here. She has blindsided our traditional Christian family by announcing that she is leaving her husband, by whom she has four children, for another man, stating that what the religion of her childhood has taught her against this behavior were the mere trappings of a controlling cult. Any stated objections by family members with the goal of convincing her not to do this are perceived by her as attempts to force her or manipulations. Apparently she is viewing herself as a slave to her synapses and hormones.

The Continental Op said...

I'd be interested in your description of the trajectory of Calvinism, which is Christianity Without Free Will. Martin Luther was a Calvinist-in-advance, he wrote a book called, "The Bondage of the Will" in which he described man's will as a horse over which saddle God and Satan struggled to mount; man has no will in and of himself.

Calvinism in America (originated by the Puritans in Mass. Bay Colony) hasn't gone well.

Myself, I believe in a constrained free will. We are heavily influenced by genetics and culture and upbringing and reality so that none of us is altogether free.

Wm Jas said...

If "we have free will" were a clear, coherent proposition, and the only question were whether it were true or false, I would have no problem with accepting its truth as an axiom and moving on.

But in fact, the very meaning of the proposition is unclear, and no coherent, non-self-contradictory definition seems possible. I can decide to "believe" it, but then what? If the meaning of the proposition is not understood, nothing can follow from it (or, if it's self-contradictory, everything follows from it!), nothing can be judged consistent or inconsistent with it, and it's not at all clear what place it could have in my thinking.

Do you think you could elaborate on what exactly free will means to you? I don't mean a formal definition or anything like that; I mean something like, "We have free will. Therefore, it follows that...."

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - One answer would be that it is what free will does that is vital - not trying to understand what it is.

So, when I read one of the theologians whom I trust, I find places where human free will is the concept used to describe key choices in life.

Or in literature: like Bilbo in the tunnel of the lonely mountain (struggling with fear - go-on or go-back) or Gollum in the tunnels of Cirith Ungol (take Frodo to Shelob or repent).

Free will is what makes such moments crucial (a cross-roads) - there is a decision which is neither constrained nor random but expressive of individual choice - indeed definitive of individual choice.

In reality this is going on all the time, under layers of confusion, distraction and denial. Perhaps this is best shown in Charles Williams novel Descent into Hell - the multiple minute choices which push us one way or the other. Or Lewis's Screwtape letters.

Indeed, maybe the difficulty with discussing free will is that it is *for* such choices, free will is *about* the choices between the Good and the other.

If we try to discuss free will in a non-transcendental, secular context maybe confusion and error is inevitable?

Apparently Aquinas said that free will was given to Man by God; it is not something found in most of the universe but specifically given by God to Man - implicitly in order that Man *may* become the kind of creature God intends.

By this account, however free will 'works' it is not going to be the same way that other things work.

In such an account free will is non-problematic and essential - but if (as modern man has done) we try to understand free will after subtracting God, creation, transcendental Goods, purposive evil etc - then it is not surprising that free will seems incoherent.

Imagine the world of Descent into Hell as being real, then add in that the characters spend their time being skeptical about the reality of the choices they make, trying to understand the causal basis of their choices... Inevitably this would mean that the characters would all be on the hell-ward path, wouldn't it?

Thus a society in which we obfuscate the central human activity of choice (moral choice, but also choices wrt truth and beauty) is a society intrinsically damned.