The idea of free will tends to run into problems (or at least perceived problems) in both atheistic worldviews (like Objectivism) and in theistic worldviews (like Christianity). The Christian Egoist advocates certain “brands”, or aspects, of both, and therefore I get a lot of questions about free will, or things pertaining to it. Whether you’re dealing with “strict” laws of logic and nature, or with “strict” ideas of God’s sovereignty and providence, many seem to think that such “suffocating” ideas must necessarily “crowd out” any possible notion of human free will. But could this be because such people haven’t thought very carefully about what free will is? I think so.
The most basic question which needs to be asked (and which often goes un-asked) regarding free will is, “free––from what?” That’s what the meat of this series (the next few posts) will ask, and answer. But first, in this post, I want to simply affirm the general idea of free will and give the reader ample reason to do the same. That way, as we examine that which free will is (and isn’t) free from, we won’t lose the already settled conviction that the will is (and must be) free in some way.
Free Will vs. Determinism
Free will, or volition, is most generally the idea that we, as humans, have the ability to choose one thing over another based on our own evaluation of the alternatives. That last part is important. Almost anyone, including the determinist, would affirm that we have the ability to choose. The controversial part is whether or not those choices can be based on our own evaluations of the alternatives involved. In other words, do we choose what we choose as an automatic and direct result of chemical processes (or divine edict) such that our own evaluations play no part in the choice, or do our own evaluations directly determine our choices?
The key to answering that question––and to banishing all flirtations with determinism––is in realizing that evaluation, itself, requires volition (or “free will”). If determinism is true, it is not just our choices which are automatically determined, but also our thoughts––our conceptual activity; because man’s conceptual activity is, itself, volitional. The act of focusing on an object and reasoning about it (whatever it may be) is an act done by choice. Following a line of thought (no matter how large or how small) with logical precision, rather than allowing one’s thoughts to drift by random whim, requires a very concerted effort. Such effort is exerted by choice.
But if there is no choice, if determinism (of any form) is true, then that which you think is a choice is really just the automatic chemical reactions of your body (or mechanical control of God), and thus the thought that you are consciously following any sort of “objective” reason is really just an illusion. You think 2+2=4? “That’s cute”, says the determinist, “but it’s just an illusion.” It’s essentially no different than thinking that 2+frog=Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Sure, one might correspond to reality, but you’d have no way of knowing it. No one would. If your thoughts are directly caused by anything other than your desire and determination to discover the truth, then you have no way of knowing whether anything is true. Therefore, if determinism is true, you’d have no way of knowing it. No one would. The ideas, “determinism is true,” or “we’re just a bunch of chemicals,” or “God is totally sovereign, therefore you have no free will” are all essentially no different than the gurgling of your stomach or a bout of acid reflux. In other words, the idea that determinism is true is an utter contradiction. If determinism is “true,” then there would be no such thing as truth.
Reason & Freedom
But contradictions don’t belong in the minds of people who want to understand reality, and that is supposedly the goal in this whole debate: to understand what is true about the reality of our wills. Therefore, for those committed to reason, the simple conclusion is this: free will is, and must be, true in some sense––because reason requires free will.
And now, the next task is to use our reason to discover more detail about the nature of this free will. What is it, and what is it free from? Likewise, and just as importantly, what isn’t it free from? That will be the goal of the next few posts in this series.