Tuesday 31 July 2012

The nature of free will


Free will is absolutely central to Christianity - but what kind of a thing is free will as conceptualized by Christians?


It is tricky, because it does not seem to be like anything else - or at any rate I find it hard to find an analogy for free will.

Its properties must include on the one hand an ability to choose, whatever past experience a person has had - yet on the other hand free will must be (and clearly is) influenced by past experiences.

So, free will is, in one sense, an unchanged changer, persisting throughout life; yet in another sense its current choices are affected by previous choices - such that in some sense the probabilities of choices change throughout life (good habits/ virtues practiced over long periods make it more likely the next choice will also be good/ virtuous - and vice versa).


The will must be free, and yet it is clear that the human will is corrupt (this is explained by original sin; but the fact that the human will is corrupt is a matter of observation and experience).

Human have free will, yet will almost always choose wrong; and we are - indeed - helpless to do otherwise; which is why we cannot save ourselves but must have a Saviour.

On the one hand we are saved by Christ - because we cannot save ourselves - yet we are also required to choose, despite that we will inevitably, helplessly choose wrong most of the time.


How to make sense of this?

I think only by assuming that or free will works about other people but not ourselves; our choices can save others but not ourselves.

And the primary choice is to love not hate others; to be loving and humble not prideful towards God.


I think this is pretty much all that most people (nearly everybody) can do with free will.

And I think this is what is implied by the two main commandments from Matthew 22 as interpreted in the Book of Common Prayer:

37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.


This would mean that the main function of life on earth is to love first God, then neighbour - but that it is the loving of neighbour which requires mortal life on earth, and therefore is the primary function of free will.

Most people cannot live by the Law, cannot reform themselves or even their external lives - but what they must will is described in these two commandments.


And love of neighbour is a matter of will, not action - action is constrained, will is not.

And it is never too late, and we are always free to do this, and nothing whatsoever (either internal or external) stops us doing this, and no amount of experience or habit matters, it can be overturned in the blink of an eye - love of neighbour is the proper domain of free will.

Thus we can, by our love for them, save others (but not ourselves).



J. D. Harrison said...

Mr. Charlton;

I continue to enjoy your blog. Indeed, I have gained a lot from your writing. You state that 'Free will is absolutely central to Christianity...' I would be interested in your reading of De Servo Arbitrio (The Bondage of the Will) by Martin Luther. Translations being what they are, I personally like the Packer and Johnson edition. I find Mr. Packer's analysis full of insight and well worth the 5.00 USD. However, I would enjoy your thoughts on the subject.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JDH - Thank you.

I'll give that book a try.

Anonymous said...

Recently at VFR there was a discussion about this. I quote from parts:

"Loving Ones Neighbour as Oneself...
The liberal interpretation of that commandment, which is that we are to love others unconditionally, is false, since obviously we are not to love ourselves unconditionally, but rather in the light of, and under the discipline of, our love of God…...A liberal literalist might say that since the first commandment is to love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind; and since the second commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves; and since the second command is “like the first,” therefore we’re supposed to love our neighbor just as we’re supposed to love God—with our whole heart, soul, and mind.

In reality, Jesus tells his followers to love the neighbor as one loves oneself, not as one loves God. It would be an absurdity to say that God wants us to love ourselves unconditionally, with our whole heart, soul, and mind. Therefore we are not to love our neighbor that way either. We are commanded to love and follow God, and once we do that, we will know how to feel and behave rightly toward ourselves and our neighbor as well…

X then wries:
This thought process has led us to the increase of narcissism throughout our society. People have become so self- absorbed and infatuated that they do love themselves in an unintended way. Since they worship themselves, they are then required to worship others….

LA answers: Exactly. Once we make unlimited love of self our ideal and our highest value, we must have unlimited love of other selves.

What do you think about these statements?

Bruce Charlton said...

[Anonymous - please comment using a pseudonym.]

I think they are talking about something else.

It is not easy to love, since love entails self sacrifice - and there are very few (perhaps none in England) who can love mankind or their country or large numbers of remote people - only the greatest Saints achieve anything like this; but they can achieve this.

For most people, they can love but few people, or even one person; which seems to be enough.

My point (taken from Charles Williams) is that our love for others enables us to do for them what we cannot do for ourselves.

I think that is the essence of why we are commanded to love others - certainly it is not in order to imporve material conditions or reduce suffering *in this world*, but it has something to do with salvation and the next world.

tgj said...

Your analyses have been immensely helpful to me, Bruce, but the most helpful thing about them was the pointer to Orthodoxy, and I am afraid that Orthodoxy shows the Inkings to be wrong about many things!

This argument is a non-sequitur. Why is loving others less corrupted than any other choice we make? If we usually make the wrong decision, why is it any easier to save someone else that way than it is to save ourselves? Because Charles Williams thinks salvation works that way?

From an Orthodox standpoint, salvation does not work that way. The easiest soul to save is our own, and the best way to love others and to save others (insofar as we can do it at all) is to work on ourselves, and vice versa (i.e. we work on ourselves by loving others, learning to do what we are supposed to do, learning to do by practice and by grace what God does by nature - whether and how others respond to us or to God and be saved is up to them; we cannot save them; we can at best only show them a little bit of God's light). "Acquire a peaceful spirit and around you thousands will be saved," to quote St. Seraphim of Sarov. Not even "you will save them," but "[they] will be saved." "Save yourselves," to quote another saint who came back from the dead, and who's name I can't remember at the moment. What does it profit a man to gain, or even save, the whole world, or at least charn the ladies a la Charles Williams, and lose his own soul? The saints save others, insofar as they save others, by becoming perfect, as Christ was perfect. We save others, insofar as we save others, by following the example of the saints who followed the example of Christ.

It is a complete misunderstanding to believe, as Charles Williams seemed to, that the taunt leveled at Christ, that he could not save himself, reflects anything but the ignorance of the taunters. They did not know who Christ was or what he was doing. He died rather than come down off the cross because death was the way he chose to redeem us, not because he could not save himself. Death is only a defeat for fallen and sinful human beings. The God-man was perfect. Death for him was not a threat that he needed to be saved from. When he died, the only thing that changed was his human nature, which was in fact redeemed. Now death is merely the gateway to heaven for those who choose to follow the example of the saints, who follow Christ's example of obedience to God even unto death.

Needless to say, the whole question of how such a thing works is an even bigger mystery than the mystery of free will. We either have faith and believe or not. We attempt to make sense of it rationally at great peril.

As I understand it, Orthodoxy teaches that our choices are self-reinforcing in both the positive and negative directions: we can cross a threshold beyond which we will no longer repent and obey and will not be forgiven, and we can also go from glory to glory, overcoming the passions, crucifying our self-will, and making it easier (but never easy) to obey God and avoid sin. This is what Christians are supposed to do, not make excuses about why they aren't saints, that most people are not (can't be? in what sense?) saints, therefore.... It's a short step from there to Protestantism, then wondering why God condemns people He knows will make the wrong choices, etc. That's the fruit of the Western, rationalistic approach that inevitably leads to all sorts of heresies. Free will and salvation can't be understood that way, to the extent they can be understood at all.

If free will means anything, it must mean that the will we have by far the most influence over and the most responsibility for is our own. If Christianity means anything, it must mean that if we want to be saved, we must choose to follow Christ and his Church and its revelation and its example, not our own understanding, or Charles Williams' understanding, or example.

Bruce Charlton said...


Thank you for that comment.

But you go much deeper than my post, and yet at that depth I don't think there is a conflict.

I do think it is non-obvious why love of neighbour is so vital a part of Christianity - and I also think it is non-obvious why humans need to live mortal lives on earth (rather than dying ASAP, or as soon as salvation is attained).

I mean that we have-been saved - what then are we doing here? Usually, on the face of it, we are risking getting ourselves damned the longer we hang about here. There must surely be some positive goal? I think that goal can be simplistically summarized in terms of loving our neighbour (and that goal must surely be salvific, not worldly?)

I am also struck by the fact that on the one hand there may be repentance among advanced sinner (such as Saul of Tarsus) and last minute repentance; and on the other hand that people of advanced holiness may seem suddenly to lapse (as apparently happened to Fr Seraphim Rose's great friend, spiritual adviser, brother monk Fr Herman - to give a modern example).

This serves to emphasize that we cannot save ourselves, and the forces of darkness (immortal, unsleeping, legion) are much much stronger than us.

Re Charles Williams, if you search his name on my Notion Club Papers blog you will perceive we share ambivalence about him - yet the witness to his profound insight in *some* respects is very compelling, and I feel it myself; I feel sure he has vital things to teach us (or some of us - perhaps you do not need it?).

tgj said...

I see little gain (and less humility) in attempting to learn from Charles Williams and other heterodox when I have barely even begun to learn from Christ, or the Church, or the Fathers, or even the saints. I say this as someone who has discovered Orthodoxy. Before discovering Orthodoxy, one learns from whatever one can. Afterwards... why not learn from Theosophists, Rosicrucians, and Freemasons, as Williams apparently did? Clearly because one will manifestly be led astray in all sorts of ways, unless one is first firmly grounded in correct teaching (and then there is no reason to study the heterodox at all except to point out their errors in hopes of guiding others to the truth). That is the obvious thing to learn from Charles Williams, and it would be a terrible thing to overlook the obvious while searching for something that seems to align with truth in an attempt to justify the salvaging of other ideas from him and the people he influenced. It is good to be cautious about following the example of ambiguous figures, but attempting to learn about core dogmas like soteriology from the clearly heterodox, never mind the morally and spiritually dubious heterodox, is much worse! The difference between Charles Williams and the Antichrist is that the Antichrist will be more spiritually impressive, have even more compelling teachings on love and so forth, and will be much more careful about concealing anything about himself that might appear at all dubious.

This is where I part from "mere" Christianity in favor of Orthodoxy, even when Orthodoxy requires me to abandon many teachings of the pillars of (heterodox) Christian (or for that matter non-Christian) cultures that I may be deeply attached to. Orthodoxy is not something that can or should co-exist with such things as some kind of museum of unobtainable purity, disdained by false respect, in reality seen as just another denomination, set aside for other cultures or for spiritual "elites," with Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism (why not Lutheranism? a nice conservative Protestant church? reactionary, patriotic, and spiritually advanced "Christian" Freemasons?) being "humbly" accepted as "good enough for the rest of us."

I moved rather quickly from atheism to seeing this kind of ecumenism as the great heresy of this era, as I believe the true Orthodox Church (which I believe Fr. Seraphim Rose belonged to and points the way to) clearly teaches. The world is not so far gone that the true Church no longer exists. Finding it only requires that we give up our desire to find truth elsewhere. Our desire to keep the company of others by saving them (at the cost of the truth), or restore our culture by saving it (at the cost of the truth), are just a few of of the ways in which the unsleeping powers, far stronger and cleverer than we, attempt to divert us from the working out of our own salvation. As I see it, a Christian must be willing to abandon everything for truth, including one's own culture and people, as Ruth did. I'm not sure Ruth was even a great saint (nor Boaz, for that matter). But that is what the via positiva, insofar as there is such a thing, looks like. The world must be seen as fundamentally lost, and even when we are not monks or saints we must realize that our real place is not anywhere in it. This is not such a high price to pay given what is obtained in return, in the eternal next life.

Bruce Charlton said...

@tgj - If you have found Orthodoxy, then you are right - but I couldn't find it - not so I was sure. It is likely that what remains after 1917 is no longer the whole thing.

I am very troubled by the criticisms of resurgent Orthodoxy in Russia etc - and the lack of repentance of the official Church.

What we have in the West is grossly incomplete - Orthodoxy is about a whole harmonious society led by a monarch, it is immersive.

Perhaps, as you say, there is still Orthodox monasticism - but that is not for all, and is spiritually hazardous.

In sum, I feel that Orthodoxy, as it exists and is available in the West, lacking so many elements which would have been regarded as essential 100 years ago in Russia - is best regarded as a denomination rather than the whole truth; and must be approached with discernment rather than submission.

Therefore, in practice (as contrasted with the literature, or theology) I do not acknowledge a hierarchy of churches. To do one's best as a broken and contrite member of an heretical (but really Christian) denomination is, while mourning the loss of what was - may be, perhaps, the best path available.

This is very far from a good thing - but these are dark times. It seems that a high and complete Christian spirituality is simply not available to us.

tgj said...

I think it is particularly dangerous to look for Christianity in high culture or empire in these later days, when civilization is decaying and the desire for something better grows, consciously or unconsciously. Antichrist will seek to restore society in this world, and he will succeed (for a short time) under the banner of spiritual power and de facto monarchy. True Christianity is not and has never been about this world or its society, the beauty and virtues of the Orthodox Roman and Russian empires notwithstanding. Whatever strength Christian society has in this world is a side effect of renouncing all hope in it, understanding everything good in it to be nothing more than a passing shadow, a pointer to greater things, and being willing to die and vanish from it in obscurity in exchange for something greater and entirely beyond it and above it. That is the difference between the messiah that the Jews were looking for and the God-man that Christ turned out to be.

Every form of attachment to this dying world is the work of fallen angels. This world, so long as it remains, is their home. They will never repent, and to be seduced by the sickly beauty of their enchantments is a fatal mistake. We are a fallen angel with the ability to repent. We are born into this world, but our true home is up and out. We are not saved in or through this world of corrupted and corrupting human love; we are saved out of this world by looking up to the God who condescended to the fallen condition we were tricked into, unlocked the gate, and showed us how to find the Kingdom of God and ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven.

The healthy One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, is the Church that will be preserved to the end, the rock of faith that the gates of hell will not prevail against, and the narrow way that few find. It was in the catacombs before it gained an empire, and it will return to the catacombs in the end. The Bolshevik Revolution was a great disaster, but it was not the end of the Church, or even the end of the Russian Church. I believe Fr. Seraphim Rose found that Church in the '70s and '80s, not just in monasticism, and through it became a great beacon to the English speaking world. There seems to be a remnant of that ROCOR remaining under Metropolitan Agafangel (after much of it sadly went under Moscow in 2007), with, I believe, parishes and at least one monastery in the U.K. It remains in communion with the Greek Synod in Resistance which also seems healthy (and some others that don't do much in English). But even world Orthodoxy is much more than just another denomination, if only because its memory of truth is so much fresher. One must always go deeper, seeking the true confessing Body of Christ and its mysteries, purification, theoria, and theosis, and never moving beyond the Fathers who together represent far more revelation than any one person, especially in these days, will ever obtain. If the process does not start in Orthodoxy, it surely ends there. The necessary truths of Church tradition will never be lost to those who diligently seek them out (and then preserve them as the pearl of great price that they are).

Salvation is never assured, but is worked out with fear and trembling. I do not believe it is prudent to hope for it outside of the true Church, any more than it is prudent to hope for it after death (despite the fact that both ways are possible). Perhaps there will be another Orthodox monarchy before the end (there are prophecies that suggest a short lived one in Russia), but waiting for that does not seem prudent either. Christ never said that the way would be easy to find, or that the cost would be low.

A great society is a wonderful thing, but it is not the Kingdom of God. A mirage, a false hope, and a counterfeit enchantment even less so. On the day of judgement, many will realize, too late, what a great inheritance they exchanged for a bowl of lentil soup and some bread. Lord save us from the spiritual laziness of intellectual gluttony.

Gabe Ruth said...

A paragraph or two into your post, a thought came to me on this subject. tgj's first comment suggested it tangentially, it's probably not new, but it explains the contradiction you describe, that as contingent beings, we cannot actually be free, yet idea that our choices must have meaning is central to Christianity. It also ties into an idea we've talked of in the past, the idea that sin is any choice which limits future freedom.

Free will is the ability for each individual to choose his own master.

Once one chooses, the power of that master over the individual grows and reinforces itself. We can rebel, but the longer we have been in the service of that master (or the more dedicated we have been), the more difficult it will be to choose another. The reason it is so easy to fall from grace is that so few really do enter God's service with all there heart, all their soul, and all their mind.