What About Free Will? (Part 2)

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.

Contrary Choice

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.

Self-determining Choice

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.

Further Clarifications

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.


14 thoughts on “What About Free Will? (Part 2)

  1. 1) Would I be correct in assuming that the Arminians, and the others you mentioned, do not call themselves “libertarians”, but rather that this is a label applied by others? And that they simply refer to the free will they are describing as “free will”?

    2) A person chooses what to have for lunch. It could be a hamburger, a pizza, or a salad. The only thing he’s sure of is that he wants the hamburger, but he also loves pizza, and he really, really does not want the salad. And yet he also knows his calorie goals have already been exceeded by the pancakes he had for breakfast. So he chooses the salad that he does not want.

    That is an example of what you’ve described as “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).”

    We sometimes choose what is good for us, even when it is against our own wishes. This is free will. And tomorrow, having pancakes again for breakfast, we may instead go for the hamburger, because now we really, really want the hamburger. This also is free will.

    So we can in fact choose something different when given the same options another day.

    The only thing we cannot do, is go back in time and do something different than what we already did. The past is fixed.

    An omniscient being (God or your wife) may know why you made one choice on day 1 and another choice on day 2. They might have predicted your decision, wrote it down, and handed it to you in a sealed envelope. But the decision is not fixed in time until after you make it.

    If they give you the envelope in advance, and you open it before making the decision, you will never know for certain what your decision would have been, because you never made it. If you act upon their choice rather than your own, then free will is not involved.

    Your choice might be predictable by others, but that plays no role in your decision. Every decision begins with our own uncertainty. Then we consider the alternatives. Then we choose. That is the mental process we follow. And it is this mental process of making a decision for ourselves that we call “free will”.

    There are no other “kinds” of free will.

    Those who suggest there is a “libertarian” free will are, I presume, assigning a name to an absurd implication of some people’s words. And this does not become better by being done by people with PhD’s.

    It is impossible to be the exact same person in the exact same circumstances at two different points in time. Therefore, the question as to whether he would make the same decision again is moot.

    It is impossible to make a decision which goes against one’s will. Because at the moment of choice it is only the will that makes it. And the choice is, a priori, the will at that moment.

    It is, however, quite possible to choose between two different desires or wants. And it is also possible to choose to cultivate desires and wants that are more beneficial than others.

    • Marvin,
      Let me respond to as much as i can.

      1) Most Arminians who have thought carefully about the subject refer to themselves as libertarians (and not the political philosophy which is a whole other realm that has no bearing on these questions – they need to be completely separated.) Furthermore, I believe i have accurately reflected the beliefs of libertarians.

      2) A person chooses what he wants for lunch, but his choice is never arbitrary. He weighs different reasons and motives for alternative choices and then makes the choice that he believes best suits him at the moment of choosing. Whatever the strongest motive he has for a particular choice at the moment of choosing will direct him ONLY to that choice. If he had chosen otherwise then he would have a compelling reason for that choice as well. In other words, a person NEVER chooses against the strongest motive they have.

      We have both competing motives (i.e. 2 or more motives that are nearly equal in value) or conflicting motives (i.e. 2 or more motives that conflict with one another). If you like pizza and hamburgers nearly equally (competing motives) you still have a reason for choosing one over the other at the moment of choosing. Maybe you choose one because it came without the salad because you don’t like salad. But then again, maybe as you deliberated, you said salad is healthy for me (a motive that conflicts with your distaste for salad) so i will choose the pizza with the salad. In that case, the motive of concern for your health overruled your taste buds at that moment.

      You may regret a choice afterwards, but at the moment of choosing you ALWAYS choose what you “believe” is in your best interest. In reality it may or may not be in your best interest, but you “believe” it is nonetheless. A person chooses to get drunk because at the moment they think the fun associated with drunkenness outweighs any motive that goes against that desire. The may regret afterwards when they are hungover in the more sitting in a jail cell because they were mixed up in a drunken brawl. But at the moment of choosing they thought it was the best choice. We always choose what we think is best for us at the moment.

      This differs from libertarianism, in that they deny that person is compelled to make choices based on the most powerful motive at the moment of choosing. You may have every reason to make a particular choice, but you are free to act against those most powerful motives and choose contrary to them. Compatibilism doesn’t deny that alternative chooses exist, only that if we make an alternative choice then there will always be a more compelling set of reasons for making that choice.

      • 1) (a) Being ignorant in this area, I went to Wikipedia to look up Arminianism. Doing a “Find” with Chrome (what the heck happened to “Find on This Page” in IE??) the word “libertarian” never appears in their article. (b) When you say “Most Arminians who have thought carefully about the subject refer to themselves as libertarians”, I feel that this is after someone else has suggested it to them. (c) I still believe that “libertarian” free will is an imaginary distinction invented to refer to an impossible belief that one can be totally free from cause and effect, and that no person actually makes that claim when it is spelled out for them that way.

        2a) I think we both agree that a decision is made based on a number of factors and we choose according to how we perceive those factors at that moment. Therefore every choice can be said to have definite causes and deterministic cause and effect is present. However, it is also true that the process of choosing is our will making the choice. And if we are free of the coercion by another’s will, then it is our own free will in play. This demonstrates that both determinism and free will are in play at the same time. This is as free as free will gets to be. And it seems plenty free enough to both choose between pizza and salad or choose to place a man on the Moon. So we are never fatalistically predetermined by…well by Fate, or any other imaginary will coercing us to do it’s will rather than our own.

        2b) “Libertarians” or “straw men” cannot argue that they can make a decision without their will, either their genetic will or their conscious will. Will is the self interacting with the environment, internal and external, to meet either bodily needs or conscious goals. Free will is choosing which to act upon in this moment.

      • Marivn,
        The Society of Evangelical Arminians is probably the most well known site on the internet for these discussions from the Arminian perspective. See this article: http://evangelicalarminians.org/libertarian-free-will/. I have read extensively in the Arminian literature in preparation for my book. While not every Arminian uses the word libertarianism (many just use the word “free will”) they embrace what it teaches. Some use what is call the “free will defense” or “free will theism.” But it is all the same thing. Libertarianism it not a word foisted upon Arminians. They embrace it themselves.

      • Thank you for the link, it helps a lot. It seems the author (Kevin Jackson) is defining the difference in the last paragraph, that God has sovereignty but also the power of choosing when to intervene and when to allow a man to choose.

        And I’ve personally confronted the issue in my own mind that he raises at the top, that “if God has decreed everything that happens, that would logically make Him responsible for evil”. In other words, God would be the “responsible cause” of every bad action of every person. People would be created solely for the purpose of ultimate torture in Hell. And if that is the nature of God, then we can only worship Him as slaves to the fear of torture. Therefore that God cannot, must not, exit.

        Which is how I became a Humanist rather than a theist. I still believe Jesus is worthy of a charismatic following, but as a prophet and teacher, not as a God. Christianity is a great moral upbringing, but the theology is false, in my opinion.

        However, returning to the theological question, God can create a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it. The rock is called “free will”. And the reason he cannot lift it is because it makes Him responsible for all sin.

        But, regarding what you said, that “None of this would be true if the future is indeterminate. We could never be certain that God plans might be thwarted by some collusion of choices that resist His efforts to achieve His plans.” One may logically conclude that God already knows how things will turn out, even when left to our own choices. So, in theory, He knows in advance that His promises will be kept! But our deliberate choices will be part of fulfilling those promises.

        I think you’ve said something along those lines in a later post in this series.

  2. You say “the past is fixed.” But the future is fixed as well. Since God foreknows all future choices of human beings they are fixed. Strict libertarianism denies this (i.e. especially those of the Open Theist variety). Libertarianism says if we are free to choose contrary to what we actually choose then no one could know what our choices will be including God. If God knew you were going to church this Sunday, could you trick God at the last minutes and not go? Only if you had libertarian freedom. But in that case, God could not know beforehand any choice you make anyway. But this denies clearly what the Bible says. God knows and plans all future events. They are fixed on that basis. The question then is this: is it possible for humans to have freedom of choice if everything in the future is fixed? Yes. But only if we define freedom strictly as always choosing what you want most to choose and not able to act contrary to it. Our choices are not arbitrary. That is not freedom. Choices are always determined by a matrix of causes including both internal and external causes and ultimately God himself. But the fact that they are necessarily determined by these matrix of causes does not mitigate freedom. Freedom of choice is tied to our desires. He are free when we do what we most want to do and no hindrances constrain us from making those choices. Thus, choices can be determined and voluntary (free) at the same time. Thus, freedom of choice is “voluntary” choice NOT “contrary” choice.

    Furthermore, only God knows our future choices. Humans do not have exhaustive foreknowledge so they cannot know for certain any future choices of other humans. They may be able to predict with some reasonableness what others might choose, but not with anything like perfection. Why? because we can never know in advance all the particulars that influence the choices we make. We cannot even predict our own choices with certainty, because there are always uncertain conditions we can never anticipate. But God is not fooled by uncertainties, contingencies, and so forth. Namely, because he is ultimately the one who has mapped out the future to fit with His sovereign purposes. Now if libertarianism were true then it would be absolutely impossible to predict any choice a person makes because a person can always choose against their most compelling reasons/ motives/ desires, etc. In other words, libertarianism says a person can choose something for no reason at all. I say that is an absurdity. Therefore, libertarianism is a false model of human choosing, freedom and responsibility.

    • The future may be planned or even predetermined, but it cannot be “fixed” if it has not yet happened. Given deterministic inevitability, it can theoretically be predicted by an omniscient being with the omnipotent ability to calculate what you will choose in advance (i.e., God, or perhaps your wife).

      But the fact that your choice is theoretically inevitable is useless to your deliberation over whether to have hamburger or pizza for supper. Because you are uncertain at the outset, you still have to go through the process before you can be certain of what you will choose.

      Deterministic inevitability is only useful to the outside observer who wishes to predict the outcome in advance. To the decider himself, the idea of inevitability is totally useless and irrelevant, because he cannot know what he will decide until he makes the decision for himself. If he already knew the decision in advance, there would be no decision to make, and the process would never take place.

      About the “straw man”, when you say, “In other words, libertarianism says a person can choose something for no reason at all. I say that is an absurdity” you make my point.

      If it is indeed too absurd to be believed, then no one would actually make the claim in the first place. Or, if they made an obviously absurd claim, then they would retract it as soon as you pointed it out to them. So the strength of the “absurdness” weakens the suggestion that people holding the “libertarian” position actually exist (except as “straw men”).

      • If the future is determined that means it cannot deviate from that determination, therefore it is fixed. Only libertarians say the future is not fixed (i.e. Open Theists anyway – classical Arminians have a real conundrum here). “Deterministic inevitability” is extremely useful to the Christian. Why? Because it indicates that God controls the future, that it will not spiral out of control and that His promises to His children will certainly happen. I know that the good work he began in me will be completed at the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6). I also know that any evil that overtakes me today will not derail God’s good plans for me in the future. I have hope that God’s prophetic plans including Christ’s return, the final defeat of death and sin (1 Cor. 15) is inevitable because God is absolutely sovereign. Satan will be cast into the lake of fire never to deceive the nations again (Rev. 20) and heaven is real and forever and absolutely assured to every believer in Christ (1 Pet. 3:1-9). This is hope filling for me! None of this would be true if the future is indeterminate. We could never be certain that God plans might be thwarted by some collusion of choices that resist His efforts to achieve His plans.

        People defend absurd claims all the time. It is up to a bona fide libertarian to defend the claims against absurdity.

  3. BTW Marvin, these are excellent questions and interactions. This is precisely why i wanted to post on these issues. It helps me to know whether or not I am being clear in what I am trying to say.

  4. Another concern, if I may:

    How do you deal with “fatalism”? It often comes up in other free-will and determinism discussions. Fatalism is a common error that leads one to conclude that “if what I do is inevitable, then why try to do anything?”

    There’s an article by Dr. Eddy Nahmias citing several studies showing that people who are read statements like “science has proven that free-will is an illusion” are more likely to cheat on a test or behave more aggressively.

    Here’s the link to his report if you want to read the original:

    I also have some notes on it in my blog post “Free Will is No Illusion”.

    • Fatalism is a brand of determinism that is incompatibilistic. IOW, it is not compatible with any notion of free will or free agency. The Biblical compatibilism I espouse indicates that God uses means to accomplish his purposes. For example, no one who is elected to salvation will be saved without hearing the gospel and believing the gospel (Rom. 10:9-17)..

      • The word “inevitable” is usually used when explaining that something was “beyond our control”. And that is the key linguistic error behind “fatalism”.

        Deterministic inevitability must necessarily include ALL relevant causes, including effects resulting from the mental processes of intelligent beings. We are not merely effects of prior causes. We are the causes of future effects.

        It would be ridiculous to sit back and wait for the inevitable to happen without us — especially in a literal “sink or swim” situation, because inevitability would be sitting back watching us drown. 🙂

        I’m not sure how that works into your theological problem, but that’s the practical problem with fatalism and why it is an error.

        I guess the equivalent would be sitting on the sofa drinking beer and waiting for God to do “His thing” to elect you. Or something like that.

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