I am writing a book on the ever thorny, controversial, misunderstood topic of free will. Over the course of the next few weeks, I plan to blog about the issue. I invite your feedback, as this will help me fine tune the contents of my book.
In this second post, I present the position on free will known as libertarianism. Libertarians are generally associated with Arminians and Open Theists. However, most people, Christian or not, generally have some notion of free will that is akin to libertarianism although few could articulate what they mean by free will. The libertarian concept of free will teaches two fundamental ideas.
First of all, libertarianism teaches that humans are fully capable of making choices contrary to the choices they actually make. This is called the power of contrary choice. Arminian theologian Roger Olson states, “Free agency is the ability to do other than what one in fact does.” A person can choose to do what they want to do, but they can equally choose to do what they don’t want to do.
This doesn’t mean a person can do whatever they want. The laws of nature and other conditions constrain us. Nobody can lift a two ton truck above their head. Standing in the open prairie won’t stop a tornado from putting you into the next county. If your bank goes belly up, you may not get your money back. Your limited understanding may prevent you from grasping a difficult Bible passage. And so on.
Secondly, libertarianism teaches that the ability to make alternative choices is not determined by anything outside the person making the choice. Walls and Dongell say, “The essence of this view is that a free action is one that does not have a sufficient condition or cause prior to its occurrence.” Olson states that free will is the power of self-determining choice and that “it is incompatible with determination of any kind.” In other words, a self-determining choice is not caused by anything prior to the human will itself making its choice.
These so-called causes include all external forces such as circumstances, culture, upbringing, rules and laws governing behavior, what other people do to influence our choices and of course God Himself. But it also includes internal desires, beliefs, preferences, motivations and expectations. The will exercises an unequaled power over all one’s inner dispositions. If any compelling thought or affection for something should control us then we are not free. Libertarians believe God endows His creatures with this freedom and He steadfastly refuses to interfere with it.
Several related ideas that derive from these two basic points. In the libertarian conception of free will, if choices are caused by anything other than the will itself then those choices are coerced which hinders freedom and responsibility. Hindrances would be the various the internal and external influences that might otherwise direct the will towards a particular choice. To be sure, influences can exert swaying power but cannot be regarded as actual causes for one’s choices otherwise they would be acts of coercion undermining freedom. Libertarians don’t deny the importance of these influences, especially those coming from God. Rather, they deny these have any causal bearing on the choices one makes.
Libertarians believe our liberated wills have the ability to control or ward off all such influences or neutralize them. The human will is invested with the power of arbitration. It has the ability to transcend all possible alternative choices like an unbiased judge. Thus in order to be free, the will must have the ability to exercise a palpable indifference to possible alternative choices. In order to maintain responsibility for one’s decisions a person cannot say that mom, dad, the devil or God made me do it. But neither in the end can one say that his own desires or motives made him do it. Subsequently, the will is considered the sole cause of its own actions (i.e. it is self-determining).
None of this is to say that libertarians despise reasons for choices that are made. In most cases, compelling reasons might appeal to a person and they may choose to follow its leading. What cannot happen is a set of reasons that become strong enough to compel a person to make one choice over another. Even if a person agrees with reasons for a particular choice, you must have the power to resist those reasons and choose contrary to it. Free will means we always have alternative choices at our disposal.
Christians who espouse libertarianism especially want to make it clear that God doesn’t determine our choices although He can influence them. In turn, we respond with the freedom either to act in accordance with God’s influence or to resist it. No matter how strong the influence of the Holy Spirit may be, a person can always resist His efforts to persuade us. To be free is to have the power to go in alternative directions with equal ease. Subsequently, choices must be completely disconnected to any prior reasons or causes. The will is both the cause and the effect of its own actions.
In other words, given the same exact set of circumstances no particular outcome is guaranteed. The same choice might be made, but not by necessity. One day a person could hear a gospel message and believe, but the next day that same person under the same exact circumstances may not believe. Subsequently, choices are unpredictable and thus unknowable before they occur. This may help explain why classic Arminianism believes in the loss of salvation. A person can act in faith and perseverance one day and completely abandon them the next. To be fair, Arminians would deny that people act capriciously in their decisions, yet this is the logical conclusion of choices that are free from prior causes.
In my next post I will demonstrate the problems with the libertarian conception of free will.