Saturday 23 March 2013

The remarkable thing that is free will


Christianity is based on, or perhaps more exactly based around, the reality of free will - the autonomous agency of each person.

This is a remarkable thing, one of the most remarkable of all things: its consequences are far deeper and further reaching than at first apparent.


Because free will is ultimately independent not just of circumstances, but of God.

God created and sustains and influences so much - but human agency is absolutely and always free.

God either cannot or does not constrain Man's agency.


So much is determined, so much unfolds according to laws, rules, predictable sequences - so much else is (so far as we can tell) chaotic, meaningless... yet free will stands apart from all this.

The universe waits on Man's choices - from each man's every choice the world is repatterned.


And each Man has this entailed power; intrinsic, ineradicable - free will is necessarily being exercised, and the direction of the world is necessarily affected by each act of free will.

And all this is multiplied by the number of Men: all exercise this power willy nilly, knowing it, not knowing or denying it.


What a remarkable thing! 



Anonymous said...

You know something- I don't see a whole lot of free will out there. Maybe many people have it to a small degree, and some to a large degree, but a lot of people have no meaningful amount.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - You misunderstand.

Free will is not an observation but an assumption - it is metaphysics not science.

But agency is necessary to Christianity, non-optional - without free will there can be no Christianity.

ajb said...

I think free will is in a sense an observation - we can 'see' it in our own mental life. It is also metaphysics - the observation can always be interpreted as an 'illusion', and is so by many contemporary thinkers.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I would say rather that it is a form of built-in knowledge - natural, spontaneous; but like all such things it can be denied and we can be trained-out-of-its spontaneity, or made confused (as with political correctness).

My point is that Christianity just is built around free will; and insofar as Christianity has drifted from this, thus far it has ceased to be Christianity.

(Christianity is not 'fatalistic' in the sense of some other world religions; it cannot regard free will as an illusion. ALL forms of determinism are anti-Christian.)

Alan Roebuck said...

Since the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, frequently refers to divine sovereignty, prophecy of future events, and predestination, I don’t understand what you mean when you say that Christianity is based on the autonomous agency of each person and without free will there can be no Christianity. It would seem that Christianity is based on God, not free will.

What exactly would it mean for there not to be free will?

Bruce Charlton said...

@AR - Have you looked at my previous posts on the topic (link in the comment above)?

I mean that humans must really be able to choose (choose from within themselves, essentially; that choice not being an entailed consequence of anything external) Christ as Lord and Saviour.

The Crow said...

Created in God's image:
Able to make it so.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

deconstructingleftism said:
I don't see a whole lot of free will out there.

BGC said:
…choose from within themselves, essentially; that choice not being an entailed consequence of anything external…

To have free will is to be a conscious person, so every human possessing the least functioning intellect has it. It might be impaired, or dormant, but it does not follow from external acts seemingly or obviously devoid of free will that it is not there.

Besides, the most important acts of the human person being immanent, internal ones, they do not necessarily show. Moreover, any free willed act is not made in view of external consequences (reward or punishment) but is ultimately a choice for or against the transcendental Good (including in non-Christian or non-religious people).

Matthew C. said...

This is the most important topic possible.

Yes, our free will is the most remarkable and important thing, and so ignored and neglected, especially by us moderns.

When we face this fact squarely, and take responsibility for it, that is the beginning of the possibility of theosis.

Original Sin means that our default state without God and without religion is to fall into the ditch. This is obvious in the case of sexual morality, where ONLY the religious give any value whatsoever to chastity, preserving sex for and within marriage. Everyone else laughs at such a restriction and considers it a completely unacceptable limitation which destroys happiness.

In the end, we either give God our hearts and our passion becomes Him. Or else we don't and our passions become our God. But every moment, every choice, we WILL do one or the other. That is the terror of THIS life, and its beauty, and its reason for being.

We have no idea how many moments we have left. However it appears to us, it's a very, very short time, and before we even know it, will be over. Then, there is no longer any possibility to choose to serve Him.

Right now, what am I going to do with THIS moment? Am I going to serve God, or serve my limited, corrupt, and ignorant nature? Moment by moment. Choice by choice. To NOT consciously put Him first is to begin to fall away from Him. The longer we fail to repent that error, the further away we will fall.

We WILL choose. Choose wisely. Choose HIM. "But seek you first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."

Alan Roebuck said...


Thanks for the clarification. So free will, on your definition, means humans must be able to make choices from within themselves, those choices not being entailed consequences of anything external.

If you made a choice that seemed to you to be free in the sense that you define, but actually, unknown to you, it was a consequence of something external to you, you would have no way of knowing that your choice was not free.

[And Scripture, at least as interpreted by Calvinists and Lutherans, teaches that man is not free to choose Christ until his heart is softened by the working of the Holy Spirit, so that he can receive the gospel message. In this case, at least, his choice is the entailed consequence of something external.]

So your definition of free will appears to me to be essentially unverifiable. It must either be assumed, or else received from a trustworthy authority.

So can you cite any Christian authority which identifies free will in the sense you mean it as a necessary part of Christianity?

Bruce Charlton said...


"So your definition of free will appears to me to be essentially unverifiable. It must either be assumed, or else received from a trustworthy authority."

Yes. That's what metaphysical means!

"So can you cite any Christian authority which identifies free will in the sense you mean it as a necessary part of Christianity?"

It is one of those many things which is a basic assumption of Christianity - so basic that it did not require to be stated since it would not have occurred to premodern people to deny it.

For humans, the assumption of free will is built-in, pre-installed.

While the teaching that "man is not free to choose Christ until his heart is softened by the working of the Holy Spirit" is not-necessarily-harmful, and may be beneficially humbling, if taken in a soft and non-specific (and non-philosophical) sense; it is deadly if taken in a strong sense, because it leads to Good is God and Christianity as nothing more than submission to his will.

(And even that fails to make logical sense, since submission requires choice - always there seems an irreducible place that requires choice, no matter how tiny that place may be, in all theological schemes. But there is a price to pay: the tinier the place of free will, the smaller the concept of Man. Until, when free autonomy has been reduced and reduced, Man seems utterly insignificant in the scheme of things - which is an anti-Christian conclusion.)

Christianity is about a relationship with God (a relationship of Love) - and this is not compatible with any strong or rigorous sense of God being on both sides of the relationship (both the cause and the effect) since down that slippery slope is God loving God and humans simply disappear from the equation.

This kind of error has unfortunately poisoned and discredited Protestant theology from time to time, due to its monstrously anti-Christian implications.

Luckily, few people have followed this line of reasoning to the point of trying to fully implement it in their lives - and most of those who profess this kind of thing don't actually live by it; but take God's role in determining human choice in a 'soft' and non-entailing sense.

Nonetheless, I believe that a clearer understanding of the implications of the reality and extreme importance of free will and individual autonomy, and a greater focus on this, potentially has tremendous benefits as the basis of a Christian life.

In practice, this is the focus of many effective conservative Protestant evangelicals (the only thriving branch of mainstream Christianity): with its focus on the moment of choice, here and now, 'just as I am'.

This would be crazed nonsense as a strategy and appeal unless the individual really could make that choice to accept Christ and thus be born again.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

"man is not free to choose Christ until his heart is softened by the working of the Holy Spirit"… it is deadly if taken in a strong sense, because it leads to Good is God and Christianity as nothing more than submission to his will.

Ah, the deadly double-edged sword… Why would ‘softening into submission’ by Love and Good in person be deadly? Submission to anything, whether fate, or masters (humans or spirits), or our own passions and bad habits, or our natural appetite for truth and good – making us prone to pretend bad things are good in order to give ourselves (falsely) good conscience when doing them, – submission, I say, is a free act, otherwise it would not be submission but only an appearance of it. This is why tyrants must fear to be overthrown by people they have coerced into submission. Submission is not automatically a dirty word, it all depends to what we submit ourselves.

Matthew C. is absolutely right to say that free will is the beginning of the possibility of theosis: sanctification is indeed all about corresponding to the will of God, giving him our entire being to respond to his Love.

Alan Roebuck said...

“Yes. That's [being an assumption] what metaphysical means!”

But a metaphysical assumption cannot just be assumed if there is evidence to the contrary. One must engage the evidence. Again, the biblical testimony is that man has free will in the intuitive sense (that is, he feels free in the exercise of his will and he bears responsibility for his choices), but that God is sovereign. And God exercises his sovereignty in a way that does not make itself felt at the intuitive level, and so we feel as if we have absolute free choice.

Yes, some people distort the message of God’s sovereignty and draw bad conclusions (e.g., fatalism.) But the opposite error can also be committed. For example, an emphasis on people making personal decisions for Christ has led many to think that one becomes a Christian by engaging in an evangelical ritual such as “inviting Christ into your heart,” or some such. But the Bible is clear that it is repentance and faith in Christ that makes one a Christian.

Here’s one way to look at it. At one time you were not a Christian. You did not choose to come to Christ because you did not want to. But then something changed. Exactly what was it that changed? You could say that you encountered better arguments, but other people encounter these same better arguments and remain unbelievers. You could say that your life experience caused you to see Christianity in a better light. But, again, other people have had similar experiences without seeing Christ in a better light. You could say that Christianity began, for some inexplicable reason, to look good, so you changed your mind. One time, you did not want Christ, and later you did.

So what caused the change? There are only two possible valid Christian responses: “I don’t know,” and “God did it.” Scripture says that God did it, and as Christians we have a duty to believe what God has said in Scripture.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AR - Your points are correct, but what they actually prove is precisely free agency, in the strong sense - because you are saying that the choice to 'come to Christ' cannot be accounted-for by external reasons - it comes from within.

But it does not come from God in the sense that it is not controlled by God or made to happen by God; because that would mean it was not my choice and that I was an automaton, externally compelled.

It really must come from *me*, not from anything else, not even from God; and that is what free will means. There is no wriggle room on this!

We just are the kind of creatures capable of agency - that is definitive of us.

Alan Roebuck said...

“Your points are correct, but…”

I said that we cannot know the cause of a change of mind that leads one to come to Christ. If that is correct, then you cannot know that the cause is entirely from within.

You cannot know it. You can only assume it. And there is evidence to the contrary that you are dismissing or ignoring.

But possibly you mean something different from what common sense interprets as the meaning of “the cause of our choice is entirely within us.”

Matthew C. said...

BC and AR,

I think you are BOTH right.

Obviously, there is some form of irreducible, axiomatic free will that we have, but cannot and do not understand.

But I think it is clear that we rely on God's grace for the fact that we willed to believe and not disbelieve.

SonofMoses said...

Dear Bruce,
On the debate between yourself and AR regarding free will and the Divine, I would suggest, in the time-honoured rabbinical manner, that you may both be right.
The question is, ‘Whose free will?’
If I might take recourse to personal experience, usually vital in sifting truth, I recall that in my own case, as a Jewish youth, having previously had the NT kept from me, when I first heard the words of Jesus I knew powerfully and immediately they were true.
The truth and depth in the words was recognised by something equally deep and valid within me.
The words and what they contained lit, as it were, or perhaps pointed to, an inner light, and connected with an inner hunger I did not even know I had.
Of course, there might have been a thousand previous experiences and insights which set the scene and enabled this responsiveness and sensitivity to the word’s inner reverberations.
Maybe when I heard them it was a tipping point.
I heard. I recognised. I knew I had to learn more. I just wanted to be where that voice was. It made all other considerations seem unimportant.
In the clarity of this experience, however, I was presented with a choice.
I could either move on as though nothing had happened, or I could respond with an ‘Amen’ and face the consequences.
It was known that those consequences would necessarily be catastrophic as far as the status quo was concerned. That is why the first instinct in such meetings with higher truth, coming from the ‘I’m quite comfortable without this’ side of our nature, is to move on quickly and not get involved.
Habit is strong.
To stay and submit to such a call requires a definite impulse of choice, and this, I believe, is where there is an opening for the function of free will to be exercised, or not.
The way I see it, and here I speculate, is that in this interchange between the Divine Word and my own deeper nature, it was the Divine reaching out to us connecting with the Divine residing at our core.
We are told we are made in the image of God. St.John speaks of the ‘true light which is the light of man’ and I seem to recollect St Paul mentioning the ‘Christ within’; but it takes an inner assent and submission of the ego to allow a union of the two to take place.
Presumably what separates the two is the existential darkness we call evil, the consequences of the fall, sin, self-will etc.
It is in such a decision, I suggest, where the Divine is on both sides, that free will has a chance to operate.