Free will

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Free Will is a being's ability to have control over its environment, future, and "destiny". A human being (presumably) has free will, and can therefore decide what to do; a rock does not have free will, and is a slave to the blind forces of physics. Although there is no agreed definition of free will, it has been defined variously as:

"the unique ability of persons to exercise control over their conduct in the manner necessary for moral responsibility [1]"
"The power of the will to determine itself and to act of itself, without compulsion from within or coercion from without. It is the faculty of an intelligent being to act or not act, to act this way or another way, and is therefore essentially different from the operations of irrational beings that merely respond to a stimulus and are conditioned be sensory object. [2]"
"Free will seems to be essential also for moral responsibility. I am really responsible for the moral intentions and effects of my choices only if I make my choices. Otherwise something else gets the credit or the blame. [3]"
"Do we have free will? It depends what you mean by the word ‘free’. [4]"

Many philosophers have found the concept problematic:

"'free will': we see it only too clearly for what it really is — the foulest of all theological fictions, intended to make mankind 'responsible' in a religious sense — that is, dependent upon priests."

Friedrich Nietzsche

Among the apologetics that use free will are: the free will defence to the problem of evil and the argument that proof of God would undermine free will.

Christianity and free will[edit]

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According to many Christian doctrines, God gave humans free will, and it was this that allowed Adam and Eve to disobey God in the garden of Eden. This position is also called the classical Arminian position.

"The process if being turned from a creature into a son would not have been difficult or painful if the human race had not turned away from God centuries ago. They were able to do this because He gave them free will: He gave them free will because a world of mere automata could never love and therefore never know infinite happiness."

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Passages in the Bible that seem to support free will include John 3:16-18 Bible-icon.png, which says that God sent His Son into the world to save humanity, and whoever believes in Him will be saved. This passage is about belief, it certainly doesn't say God has already determined who He wants to save and who He wants to damn. Also, 2 Peter 3:9 Bible-icon.png says that God does not want anyone to die in sin, but rather, He wants everyone to accept salvation and forgiveness.

Many Christians hold that is better for humans to have free will rather than to not have it. This becomes important in the free will defence against the problem of evil.


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Compatibilism is a philosophical position that holds that determinism and free will are compatible. Compatibilism rules out the possibility of choosing differently in an identical situation. A more narrow definition of free will is sometimes used.

"compatibilist freedom is just a matter of being able to choose and act in the way one prefers or thinks best given how one is. [4]"
"one has free will if one wants to be moved to action by the motives that do in fact move one to action [4]"

Consider the way a human mind works: it takes input from the senses, processes it, and sends nerve impulses to muscles to direct the actions of the body. We do not know exactly how this happens but the process of choosing may be deterministic, flowing ineluctably from the initial state of the universe and the laws of physics.

According to some compatibilists, the main way free will can be violated is to be coerced by another intelligent agent. However, people can still choose to comply or refuse an attempt at coercion. Natural circumstances limit our actions but this is not considered a violation of free will by compatibilists, because limits always exist as to what a person can do (i.e. they cannot simply fly by thought alone).


No evidence[edit]

There is no evidence that free will exists. It doesn't explain any observable phenomena. It doesn't make any observable predictions. It's just metaphysical sophistry. Modern psychology has better conceptual tools for understanding thought and action.

There is also evidence that "choice" is a mental illusion. [5][6][7][8]

"The "inner world" is full of phantoms and illusions: the will being one of them. The will no longer moves anything, hence it does not explain anything — it merely accompanies events; it can also be completely absent."

Friedrich Nietzsche

God changes peoples hearts[edit]

In the book of Exodus, God uses his power to repeatedly "harden the heart" of the Pharaoh Exodus 7:3 Bible-icon.png Exodus 9:12 Bible-icon.png which directly influences his course of action.[9] Apparently free will is not very important to God.

God also supposedly "acts though people" Philippians 2:13 Bible-icon.png to get what he wants, which seems to make our acts not free at these times. Apologists have called this an "incomprehensible and mysterious interaction" - incomprehensible because of its contradiction, most likely. [10]

"If there were no help from Christ, there would be no help from other human beings. [11]"


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Determinism is an objection to some forms of free will. Since the universe operates according to natural principles, the will is redundant as an explanation for human action.

A key aspect of free will is moral responsibility. However, if a person acts in a particular way, their actions were determined by their circumstances and the laws of nature. Since peoples behaviour is entirely determined by their environment and circumstances, we are equally justified in blaming that for their actions. This argument particularly applies to compatibalist free will. And taken a step further, since a person's environment and circumstances are also subject to determinism, we could blame the entire universe or its creator, which raises the problem of evil.

"A man is necessary, a man is a piece of fatefulness, a man belongs to the whole, a man is in the whole; there is nothing that could judge, measure, compare, or sentence his being, for that would mean judging, measuring, comparing, or sentencing the whole. But there is nothing besides the whole."

Friedrich Nietzsche

Similarly, the principle of sufficient reason implies there are no contingent facts and everything is necessary. [12] This would rule out the contingency of free will. Several apologetics depend on this principle.

Dilemma of determinism[edit]

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The dilemma of determinism, also know as the consequence argument, attempts to disprove free will if determinism is either false or true. [13] When applied to human will:

  1. If determinism is true, free will is impossible because all events are inevitable. We cannot be responsible for inevitable events.
  2. If determinism is false (or indeterminism is true), our will is partly determined by randomness. This makes some decision making outside of our control and therefore our responsibility.

Therefore, free will is undermined in either case. Therefore, free will is false.

False dilemma[edit]

The argument assumes that it's an all-or-nothing proposition - complete free will, or none. On the human level, we violate each other's free will all the time. We formulate laws and enforce them. A person choosing to murder another results in the murderer's free will being violated, when he/she is sent to jail, and wills to leave. This doesn't negate the person's free will in other matters in his/her life, such as what to do when he/she is released from prison, or what to read while in prison.

Making Decisions with Limited Choices[edit]

You accidentally swallowed poison and the doctor lays out seven syringes, one of which contains the antidote and six which would kill you outright; does he take away your free will if he reveals the antidote? This is more like being set up to fail, which is not consistent with a benevolent God.

Free will in Heaven[edit]

One question to ask theists is whether free will exists in Heaven. If the answer is "no", then clearly it's not important that humans have free will, and the requirement in the mortal world is arbitrary. Risking souls burning in eternal torment for an unjustified requirement would be immoral. If the answer is "yes", then clearly God could figure out a way to have free will, and reveal his existence to the people, so why can't he do this in the mortal world?

God is omniscience[edit]

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God is said to be omniscient, and this poses a special problem for free will: if God knows the future, that means that the future is predictable and immutable. This, in turn, means that our actions are predetermined.

"And in thy book they were all written, Even the days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was none of them."

Psalm 139:16 Bible-icon.png

We may have pondered long and hard over which action to take, but the very act of pondering is as predictable as the execution of a complex computer program. Since there is no other choice what we could have possibly made, to what extent is it "free"?

"Does God know or does He not know that a certain individual will be good or bad? If thou sayest 'He knows', then it necessarily follows that [that] man is compelled to act as God knew beforehand he would act, otherwise God's knowledge would be imperfect.… "

Moses Maimonides[14]

Note that this reasoning also applies to God: if God is omniscient, then he knows what he will do, and must inevitably do what he already knows he will do.

One apologetic argument is to claim that God exists outside of time and perceives time differently:

"He does not 'foresee' you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there fore you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing."

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Considering it from God's point of view is just a red herring. The problem with predestination is that the future is already fixed and therefore not contingent (or free will or anything else) apart from on God.

Some apologists argue that since God exists outside of time, he can have knowledge of everything that has and will be done without predetermination. An apologist might explain the situation in this way: Suppose Tom knows Susy quite well — so well that he knows if she sees a homeless man by the bus station, she will give him any change she has in her purse. However, even though Tom knows Susy will do this, she doesn't do it because Tom knows she will do it, but because she was going to do it anyway. Tom simply had the knowledge that she would do it. The difference between Tom and God, they say, is that God knows people better than they know themselves (being their creator), and so he knows, on a deeper level than Tom, just what Susy will decide to do in a given situation--again, not that Susy does it because God knows she will do it, but she does it regardless because that's what she decided to do.

Nevertheless, God's omnipotence causes the analogy to break down. If God has perfect knowledge of what will happen without his intervention, and his intervention is guaranteed to bring about a different result, then God has absolute control over what will happen. By refusing to intervene, God has effectively chosen the course of action. Also, Christian doctrine implies that God created both Tom and Susy while knowing everything that they would do in advance.

Christian acceptance of predestination[edit]

Main Article: Predestination

Many Christian sects, such as Calvinism, hold that it has already been decided at or before your birth whether you will wind up in heaven and hell. Your actions do not change your final destination; through your actions, you can only demonstrate which fate has been chosen for you. Many Calvinists do not believe in free will.

If God has a special plan for us, in which he knows our future and coordinates it, then free will is impossible. Either God has a plan for us, or we have free will.

Total depravity[edit]

Total depravity is the doctrine that humans are corrupt by nature and will inevitably sin and fail to obey God. It is considered to be true by many Protestant denominations, particularly those having Calvinist beliefs. However, this belief seems to deny that humans have free will since they cannot choose to be good.

'What sort of choice does God offer,' argue the Arminians, 'if human beings lack the free capacity to respond appropriately?' [15]

Does God have free will?[edit]

"Does God have free will? If so, is there a possibility that he can misuse it to do evil? If not, why not? [16]"


  1. [1]
  2. Fr. John Hardon, Modern Catholic Dictionary, 1999
  3. [2]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 [3]
  5. [4]
  6. A Simple Task Uncovers a Postdictive Illusion of Choice
  7. [5]
  8. [6]
  9. [7]
  10. [8]
  11. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
  12. Peter Van Inwagen, Metaphysics, Westview Press, 1993
  13. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, 2011
  14. The Eight Chapters of Maimonides on Ethics (Semonah Perakhim), edited, annotated, and translated with an Introduction by Joseph I. Gorfinkle, pp. 99–100. (New York: AMS Press), 1966.
  15. Sparks, Kenton. God's Word in Human Words
  16. [9]

External Sources[edit]

  • Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room: the Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, MIT Press, 1984 (