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.
Scripture affirms that the heart of our wanting, desiring and choosing in a particular direction stems from acting in what we perceive to be in our best interest. This is the fountainhead of all other desires, motives and preferences (see Part 7). I will consider these corollary causes in this post. They form the next layer down in the cause-effect paradigm of human choosing as indicated by our next proposition.
What we want to do is always in accordance with our Desires
Specific desires, motives, inclinations, passions, preferences, etc. are the immediate causes affecting the choices a person wants to make. The endless combinations of these various internal dispositions stem from that most basic of motives – self-interest. We do what we think at the moment of choosing is the thing that will benefit us the most.
The Apostle James connects specific actions we choose to engage in to the internal desires that drive our choices, in this case, sinful ones:
What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)
Evil desires produce envious expectations and lusts that are not met, thus provoking choices resulting in quarrels and conflicts and even murder. Others pray for resources to fulfill immoral pleasures. Those prayers go unanswered because the motives are wrong. Earlier James says: “Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (vss. 14-15). The Apostle presumes these immoral motives undergird personal responsibility. Again culpability for our actions stems from the intentions behind our actual choices not from the libertarian idea that we could’ve chosen otherwise.
Internal motives and desires are the engines that drive human action. However, these internal factors can be influenced by external factors as well. Every situation has a unique set of circumstances that influence one’s choices. People, media, culture, our upbringing and education all influence us. At every turn multiple external factors weigh heavily upon the way we think, what our hearts crave and the direction our choosing leans.
The extent to which these external influences have compelling value or constraining power determines the degree of causal force they bear. A captivating preacher has more power to persuade than a boring one whose sermons you forget the moment you walk out the church doors. But unless outside influences exert absolute constraints upon the person choosing, their influence is limited. The preacher may compel a man to love his wife, but he cannot force him to. On the other hand, a preacher may not compel a heckler to leave the sanctuary during the sermon, but a 250 pound usher trained in martial arts could; by physically removing the man against his will.
In either case, under most circumstances, the immediate causal power of choosing rests within the person choosing and not outside forces. In the end you cannot wholly praise or blame these external factors for the choices you make. It is your own internal inclinations that are responsible for generating your actions. No option is selected that is disconnected from the most compelling desires that emanate from the heart’s affections and the mind’s intellectual deliberations. This doesn’t mean that every possible contributing cause or influence can be ascertained, only that they reside somewhere among the stewing mixture of ingredients within.
We always do what we most want to do
We come now to a related proposition that reflects one of the most crucial points in the compatibilist understanding of the human will. People often have what I term conflicting desires or conversely competing desires, but in the end the most persuasive or prevailing desire inevitably determines the choices one makes. People do what they most want to do – that which appears at the moment to be in their best interest or to their greatest advantage. Or as Jonathan Edwards argued, “The will is always determined by the strongest motive.” Now people often regret their choices later, but at the moment of choosing they always do what seems best and most compelling to them at the time.
Conflicting desires usually correspond to situations in which external coercion influences a person to make a choice that under normal circumstances he wouldn’t. We often wrestle with opposing desires that battle within. Tom walks down the street and encounters a thug who demands all his money. He is not favorably inclined to obey such a directive and dismisses the miscreant. But suppose Tom meets the same villainous fellow again and this time he presents a loaded .45 to his head saying, “Give me all your money or I’ll blow your brains out!” This is a bit of a game changer. It produces a new motive Tom didn’t entertain previously. Under these new circumstances he is faced with the dilemma of acting upon one or the other of two conflicting motives. Like most people Tom would rather part with his money (reluctantly of course) than part with his life. Tom’s second choice is far less desirable – it holds little appeal to what he really wants. Nonetheless, it is the more compelling choice and represents what he in fact wants to do most under the circumstances even if it is extremely disagreeable to him.
Many conflicting desires involve no threat from outside forces; rather they reflect intense battles within between opposing thoughts that seek mastery for our souls. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24). These conflicts at their core are moral in nature. The conscience, like an unbending steel beam, remains steadfast and firm in its declaration of what is right. But the heart often overrules the conscience with a path that is contrary to sound judgment; and the heart always prevails (Matt. 6:21).
On the other hand, sometimes choices are difficult because of competing desires. These are not desires in conflict with (opposing) one another; rather they are nearly equal in their positive or negative appeal. Suppose you have received two college scholarships – one to Michigan and the other to Michigan State. You love both universities so which one shall you choose? The choice might be difficult and attended with uncertainty and trepidation. But you weigh the pros and cons and deliberate upon them until reasons emerge for one or the other option. When the final verdict is in, the most persuasive reasons producing the strongest desire will determine whether you will be a Wolverine or a Spartan. The prevailing motives for the winning decision might slightly edge out the loser so that the difference is barely discernible or not even discernible at all.
Notice our desires variously fluctuate between those attended with intensity and those that are marked by complacency. But in either case, the strongest desire wins the day. For example, when a decision is critical and the options have nearly identical value (whether negative or positive), it drives up the stress factor considerably. We don’t want to make the wrong choice. Whereas, when the options are insignificant, you could just as easily flip a coin. Which of my favorite cereals shall I eat this morning – Captain Crunch or Lucky Charms? It might come down to which box is closest to your hand. But that in itself becomes the prevailing motive. Our choices at times may appear to be random but they never are. In most cases, we rarely think about our motives. We don’t have a running tab in the back of our minds registering pros and cons before making our choices. We just choose and then maybe sort out the motives later if we have to.