What About Free Will? (Part 7)

I am writing a book on the ever thorny, controversial, misunderstood topic of free will.  Over the course of several few weeks, I am blogging about the issue.  I invite your feedback, as this will help me fine tune the contents of my book.

 on Maiden Voyage 

In the following posts I am shifting gears. After surveying the broader forest of divine sovereignty and compatibilism as a whole, I focus now on the narrow set of trees that concern the strictly human side of the compatibilistic equation. I will begin in this post with the immediate act of choosing which lies on the surface of human actions and then uncover successive layers of reasons why people make the choices they do. As we eventually uncover the core source of choosing, a picture will emerge that explains in what ways humans are both free and not so free. To achieve all this, I will set forth a series of propositional statements about the nature of human choosing.

Our Will is Free in that we do what we want to do.

Jonathan Edwards writes, “A man never, in any instance, wills anything contrary to his desires, or desires anything contrary to his will.” In light of this, it is better to speak of people being free rather than the will being free; to speak of free agents, not free wills. The will is not some autonomous dictator that wields power to direct us, rather we direct the will. The source of choosing lies elsewhere; namely via the heart’s affections and the mind’s deliberations by which motives emerge to generate the willing of a choice.

Another way of understanding this notion of voluntary action is that people always act in a way that corresponds with what they believe to be in their best interest. Jesus simplifies this axiom by saying, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Blaise Pascal put the matter this way:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end… The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Self-interest is the base motive of all action even as it is conjoined with other motives that either taint it with vice or transform it into something virtuous. 

Biblically it is appropriate to speak of a natural self-love (i.e. self-interest) people have. This is assumed in the commands Scripture gives about loving your neighbor “as yourself.” In Ephesians 5:29 Paul says no one ever hates their “own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.” In Philippians 2:4 he says, “Do not look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” This assumes people naturally think first of their own best interests. The command essentially reframes the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (cf. Matt. 7:12). 

Self-love is a two-edged sword. In our depravity it is used to gratify evil desires and corresponds to greed, covetousness, envy, jealousy, etc. As regenerated believers it is restored to something truly virtuous. Genuine self-interest is finding satisfaction in what brings glory to God and in that which interests Him (Psa. 16:11). If acting in one’s best interest seeks glory for one’s self, then it is clearly sinful. The foundation for one’s pursuit of happiness becomes the self not God; and this is what is normally meant by selfishness or self-centeredness. But when one adheres to what God has established as good and right and true, then one truly acts in his best interest.

Hindrances to Freedom

Both libertarianism and compatibilism are concerned about anything that interferes with human freedom. However, there is disagreement on what constitutes such hindrances. From a libertarian perspective, anything regarded as an antecedent cause for the choices we make impedes the freedom we have to make those choices. But in compatibilism it is not causes per se that prevent freedom, rather the kinds of causes one is talking about. Physical restraints, natural inabilities, moral inabilities, coercion from others, etc. would represent causes that restrict freedom. Other causes promote freedom as we shall see later.

One of the most powerful forces of obstruction to human freedom is constraining actions. Extreme forms of constraint remove freedom altogether. If a Mac truck comes flying around the corner and throws you fifty feet across the street you become a total victim of circumstances outside of your control. You didn’t make the choice to be a projectile and thus you have no freedom in the matter whatsoever. Most absolute forms of constraint are physical in nature. 

Lesser forms of constraint such as coercion are mental in nature. Coercion restricts the voluntary exercise of the will usually through mental manipulation. It seeks to plant an intimidating obstacle within the mind so as to force a person to act against what they otherwise wish. The use of threat by powerful dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un constrains the choices of the citizens of that oppressed nation. Coercion does not eliminate the ability to choose, but it certainly seeks to thwart our choices and the freedom we expect in making them.

Natural and Moral Ability

Compatibilism makes a distinction between natural ability and moral ability. There are some things we have no natural ability to do although we may want to do them. One may have a desire to fly by flapping their arms, but they have no natural ability to do so, therefore their will is constrained.

In some cases a person may have a natural ability to do something he wants to do but is restrained by external physical factors. A prisoner may want to see his wife and children, but his prison cell contains steel bars he cannot break. Also, a person may have lost a natural ability. Consider someone like Joni Eareckson Tada who became a quadriplegic through a diving accident. As much as she may desire to escape her wheelchair to walk, she is physically unable. Natural and physical inabilities hinder one’s general freedom of choice in ordinary matters. 

However, when it comes to spiritual and moral matters we encounter a different sort of hindrance. There are actions man has a natural ability to do but because he suffers from a moral inability he cannot do them. For example, people have a natural ability to exercise faith. We trust our cars will function safely at 65 miles an hour. We trust that the local bank will secure our money once it leaves our hands. Faith is a natural part of human behavior. Yet faith in Christ is impossible so long as people remain in a state of spiritual inertness (i.e. “dead in trespasses and sins” – Eph. 2:1). They have no moral ability to exercise such faith. Furthermore, the Scripture indicates that spiritually dead people lack a desire to do so; they don’t want to believe (Rom. 3:9-18). Their wills are bound by sin so that they cannot and will not believe upon Christ for salvation.

Our Will is not Free in that we can only do what we want to do

Our second principal proposition indicates man is never free to act against his will. People don’t make decisions arbitrarily or for no reason. They always choose only what they want to do. If a person wanted to choose something other than what he did then he would have reasons for doing so.

Edward Smith was the captain of the RMS Titanic. On the night of April 14, 1912, he and his crew ignored six separate warnings that icebergs capable of sinking the passenger liner were within its path. The ship never reduced its speed nor altered its course. By the time it steamed full ahead into the fateful mass of ice it was too late to avoid catastrophe. The ship submersed violently down to the bottom of the sea taking some 1500 of its 2200 plus passengers to their watery deaths. We don’t know why Captain Smith made the decision he did. We can only surmise he thought he had good reasons. But we can be certain of this – if he thought the ship would sink under those conditions he would have had reason to make a different choice (unless of course he harbored sinister desires).

Whatever reasons (i.e. causes) stand behind the choices one makes, those reasons always lead necessarily to that specific choice. First, uncaused choices don’t exist. Secondly, only one choice can arise from the matrix of causes that underlie that choice. The collusion of all specific antecedent causes can never result in multiple outcomes. That would result in an arbitrary, unpredictable, chaotic and purposeless world. God is not the author of disorder. If the same precise circumstances in any given situation were repeated, the outcome would be the same. This necessary cause-effect principle whereby reasons always determine choices also indicates that people don’t face alternative choices without any preference for one or the other.

Nonetheless, Compatibilism doesn’t say that alternative choices are impossible.  If we have a preference for an alternative choice we would have also have alternative reasons for that choice.  Alternative outcomes can occur if alternative preconditions exist (1 Sam. 23:7-14; Matt. 11:20-24). We are free to make different choices, but we are not free to act against the reasons that led to the actual choices we make. The necessity of prior causes affirms determinism. The voluntary nature of our choices indicates freedom is compatible with determinism.

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3 thoughts on “What About Free Will? (Part 7)

  1. Reminded me of an old quote from my college professor Bob Martin, “Freedom is a particular way of being bound.” Over the years I began to realize the church I grew up in was a product of the Enlightenment. Man is born neither good or bad, he chooses the path he wants. This is why the doctrine of Sovereignty made no sense to me. However, if man is born with a nature in opposition to God he is freely making choices according to that nature. In paraphrasing Calvin he sins because he wants to. Man can only choose God if God alters his nature. A fish functions in absolute freedom in the water because it is his nature to do so. However, he is limited by his nature and cannot choose to walk on land.

    I didn’t get around to it, but on your earlier post I was mulling over Pharaoh. If I remember correctly, the first time God hardens his heart is after the boils on his skin. In other words, physical harm to himself personally would have made him cave (reminiscent of Satan’s accusation against Job – harm his flesh and he will curse you). God had a purpose and made Pharaoh stubborn beyond what a person could normally endure. I do think God does at times use His “objects of destruction” for purposes that would go against their natural will. I don’t think this is always the case for every decision a person makes, but in the end God will orchestrate human history for His purposes. Maybe the issue that divides people on this topic is that if God has done it once, then it must be applied at all times to every situation.

  2. Hey Eddie,
    You stole my fish illustration! Actually, in the book I am more specific and use a marlin. The idea that we are born neither good nor bad is one of the key planks in Pelagius’ theology. Augustine battled him something fierce.

  3. Pingback: What About Free Will? (Part 8) | A Love of Alethia

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