While in the fourth grade, I received a strapping at the front of the classroom for not doing my arithmetic homework. I had simply decided that once a person knew how to do one example of long division, one knew how to do them all, so there was no point in wasting time working out a bunch of extra problems when reading library books provided so much more enjoyment. It was my decision, freely made, albeit somewhat costly to my pride as I stood at the front of the class and received my punishment.
What is free will?
Philosopher Alvin Plantinga defines an agent who has free will as one who is free to perform a morally right action and free to refrain; “no causal laws and antecedent conditions determine either that he will perform the action, or that he will not.”1 In the literature, it is generally defined as follows:
The ability to make a decision that satisfies two criteria:
- the decision was not determined by any antecedent conditions
- the person could have decided otherwise.
What does this mean?
The first condition means that if you look behind a free-will decision to see what caused it, there is nothing there other than the person’s own mind. The entire natural world is controlled by the laws of physics. So if the first condition for free will is to be satisfied, the mind must be able to function independent of the natural world or the laws of physics. Distinct from the brain, which operates according to chemistry and physics, the mind has the power to make decisions not determined by physics and chemistry, and to interface with the brain to carry out those decisions in the physical world. You dwell within a physical body2 subject to the laws of physics, but the ‘you’ that makes free decisions is supernatural.3
If you look behind a free-will decision to see what caused it, there is nothing there other than the person’s own mind.
Some have suggested that quantum uncertainty explains free will, but our decisions are not random, like the outcome of the spin of an electron. We seem to be able to use moral laws and principles of logical inference to arrive at a decision that others can deliberate upon and agree to. Of course, we can decide to override the logical or moral answer and decide to do otherwise.
What about influence?
A child raised in a very dysfunctional environment can begin life with powerful, negative influences that make good choices very difficult. A person suffering from an addiction can experience enormous physicochemical influences on their decision as to whether or not to indulge their addiction yet again. Since a free-will decision is not determined by any antecedent conditions, it provides a human being with the power to override powerful, negative influences should they choose, although it may be a battle.
The beauty of this is that no human being is helplessly enslaved to their own wants, bodily drives, and addictions, though the struggle may be intense and last for years. C.S. Lewis writes,
“God knows our situation; He will not judge us as if we had no difficulties to overcome. What matters is the sincerity and perseverance of our will to overcome them.
“Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again … this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God.”4
What about choosing otherwise?
The ability to arrive at decisions where we could have chosen otherwise makes our decisions meaningful. When it comes to choosing to truly love someone, this is of enormous importance.
What if we are not able to carry out our decision?
Let’s say I decide to rob the local bank tomorrow but, on the way there, have car problems and cannot carry out my decision. Was the decision still a free-will decision even if I could not carry it out? The answer is yes. Take a second look at the two conditions for free will — there is no third condition that says, “and you must be able to carry out the decision.”
This has implications. Your decisions are more important than whether you are actually able to carry them out. “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”5 This is in stark contrast to our society, where everything is fine as long as one has a good “filter” on what one says and does. God is not interested in what comes through the filter, but what is on the inside of the filter. That is the true ‘you’, revealed by your thoughts, your intentions, and your free decisions.
God is not interested in what comes through the filter, but what is on the inside of the filter. That is the true ‘you’, revealed by your thoughts, your intentions, and your free decisions.
So why has God created us with free will?
The new Japanese Gatebox virtual companion is amazing. To combat the massive increase in loneliness around the developed world due to the decimation of family relationships, Gatebox creates a virtual young woman programmed to be the perfect, loving companion that even sends happy texts throughout the day and eagerly awaits your arrival back home.6
Yet everything about the Gatebox companion operates completely and totally determined by the laws of physics. The ‘love’ it shows its owner is simulated; it cannot freely choose to love its owner. There is something terribly sad about a lonely man whose closest ‘friend’ is only a lovely programmed illusion. Artificial intelligence, regardless of how sophisticated we are able to make it, will make ‘decisions’ dictated by the laws of physics. It will never have free will and, therefore, will only be able to simulate, according to its programming, what its creators imagine love to be.
For love to be ‘real’ and meaningful, there must be the ability to accept or reject it.
Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment in the law was. His response was deeply revealing about the purpose of human existence. He said that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and that we should love our neighbor as ourselves.7 Notice that the greatest thing a human being can possibly do, and the highest priority a person ought ever to have, is to love God with a love that is not a product of physics, but is supernatural (heart, soul, and mind). He has already demonstrated his love for us in the greatest way possible.8 But for love to be ‘real’ and meaningful, we must have the ability to accept or reject it. Thus, free will was given to us, despite our proclivity to badly misuse our freedom of choice.
Free will was given to us despite our proclivity to badly misuse our freedom of choice.
Shortly before Christ gave his life for us so we could be forgiven for the evil we have freely committed, he stood looking over Jerusalem and wept, saying, “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.”9 We are loved with a supernatural love, and every one of us has a choice that needs to be made in this life. It is whether to remain in a state of death brought about by the misuse of our free will, or to accept the free gift of God, which is forgiveness of our sin and eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.10 The choice is to resist, harden your heart, and remain unwilling — what Jesus wept over … or to accept what he offers as a gift which cannot possibly be earned or deserved, but is extended out of love.
- Alvin Plantinga, “God, evil, and the metaphysics of freedom”, The Problem of Evil, Marilyn Adams and Robert Adams, eds. (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 84.
- 2 Corinthians 5:1–4.
- I am using the word supernatural in the sense of being outside the control of the laws of nature.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, chapter 5, “Sexual morality”.
- 1 Samuel 16:7.
- Matthew 22:36–39.
- John 15:13.
- Matthew 23:37.
- Romans 6:23.