Free Will

views updated May 14 2018


Sometimes called free choice or free decision (Latin liberum arbitrium ), free will is an ability characterizing man in the voluntary activity of choosing or not choosing a limited good when this is presented to him. It is the basis for asserting man's unique dignity among creatures, as well as for maintaining that he is a person. On it is founded much of the tradition of Western law and morality. Again, it has important consequences in the social order; a person's outlook on man as a strictly determined being or as an autonomous moral person is bound to condition, to some extent, his attitude toward the rehabilitation of criminals and of the mentally ill.

In view of the long history of the concept of free will, and the divergence of views regarding it, this article first sketches the evolution of the concept and its status in modern thought, and then gives a detailed analysis based on the teaching of scholastic philosophers. Arguments against free will are mentioned here only in passing, since these are given fuller treatment elsewhere.

History of the Concept of Free Will

The main stages in the development of the notion of free will may be characterized as follows: the philosophical bases were first proposed by Greek thinkers; these were then developed systematically by patristic and medieval writers, under the influence of the Christian religion; then controversies arose in later scholasticism, traceable largely to the Protestant Reformation and its underlying causes; and these were followed, finally, by the diversity of views that typifies modern thought on the subject.

Greek Origins. The early Greeks generally believed that inanimate things, as well as human beings and the gods themselves, were subject to the fates. Consequently these thinkers did not attempt to change the order of things, but sought to be in harmony with the rest of the universe. Again, in the ancient world freedom was viewed more in a political than in a metaphysical setting. The free man was the one who could participate in the political order, who, unlike the slave, was not ruled by someone above him. Nevertheless, even then certain philosophies contained implicit suggestions of human free choice.

Pre-Socratics. The followers of Pythagoras seem to have simultaneously advocated both freedom and determinism. In their theory of metempsychosis, they argued that the state of a man in his new life depended on actions he performed in his previous life. At the same time they held that all things in the universe were interconnected with an unknown, but probably discoverable, series of number relationships, and that whoever found the key to these would be able to control human affairs. The sophists taught that man, by clever argument, could change the course of human events; they also argued over whether or not a man deliberated about acts he performed. From this it may be inferred that they acknowledged some degree of free choice in man, even if the outcome was subject to the will of the fates. The Eleatics necessarily denied human freedom, in consequence of their pantheistic monism. Similarly democritus, and the Greek atomists generally, adhering as they did to a strict mechanism, denied contingency of any kind in the universe.

Classical Thinkers. It was with socrates that the Greek notion of human freedom shifted emphatically from a political concept to the psychological notion of individual subjective freedom. Socrates was one of the first Greek philosophers to stress the need for internal self-control. External authority had broken down under the attacks of the Sophists. Consequently the new law Socrates taught was based not so much on external authority as on the mastery (Gr. γκράτεια) each man has of himself. Since, for Socrates, no man does evil knowingly, and since his future depends upon what he knows, man must possess some degree of freedom.

Plato's myth of reincarnation implied moral responsibility. In fact, the whole of the Republic may be described as an extension of Socrates's notion of γκράτεια. Aristotle himself did not explicitly discuss either liberty or free will, although both concepts can be found in his works. He disagreed with the teaching of plato and Socrates that a wicked man is necessarily ignorant of what is good. Experience, he said, shows otherwise; a man who is truly good can still choose what is evil.

Later Evolution. Like the Eleatics, the Stoics denied freedom of choice as a result of their materialistic pantheism, holding, as they did, that all changes in the universe were due to inexorable laws. For them, a man could be called free only if he willingly accepted these laws. philo judaeus held that man's freedom is rooted in his intelligence. plotinus taught that the human soul is free so long as it does not become involved in the world of matter. Moses maimonides, on the other hand, maintained the freedom of the will in an unqualified way.

Patristic and Medieval Development. With the introduction of Christianity into the mainstream of Western thought, free will came to be studied in more detail. Two teachings of the Christian religion influenced this development. One was that man was created by God and commanded to obey a divine moral law; at the same time, he was promised an eternal reward or punishment. But reward or punishment imply that a man has free choice, for otherwise such sanctions are meaningless. The second was that the first man had incurred original sin and that man, as a result, needed redemption by grace.

Patristic and medieval writers were not so much concerned to prove the existence of free will as they were to establish the roots of freedom, its relation to reason, and its theological implications. St. ephrem the syrian, for example, taught that man has freedom; that this freedom is rooted in his intellect and will; and, because of this, that man is the image of God. Other patristic writers defended free will against the pagan teaching that fate ruled the universe.

Augustine and Anselm. In the early Church St. augustine was beyond question the greatest exponent of the Christian teaching on human freedom. His major concern was to reconcile man's freedom in relation to contingent acts with the foreknowledge God necessarily possesses. Augustine insisted on the freedom of the human will; yet he insisted on the necessity of grace as a basis of merit. He also asserted that an omnipotent and omniscient God would necessarily know, from all eternity, the infinite number of motives to which the will of each man might consent.

By the time Augustine composed his treatises, the Latin term libertas had several meanings in the Christian world. It could mean freedom of the will, or freedom as opposed to slaverywhether this is slavery to sin or slavery to death. Consequently when St. anselm of canterbury took up a discussion of liberty he distinguished between the power to choose what is good or evil (arbitrium ) and the power to choose what is actually good for one's nature (libertas ). For St. Anselm, free choice is not so much an ability to choose between good and evil as it is an ability to maintain rectitude of the will.

Thomistic Doctrine. St. thomas aquinas argued that man is free with respect to finite goods but that he is determined to the infinite good. That is to say, the human person, encountering a finite object, can accept or refuse it; he can do so because the object can appear either as good, since it has actuality, or as lacking in good, since it lacks the actuality possessed by a different object. Aquinas held that a human person would not be free if he directly encountered an infinite good his intellect clearly recognized as such. But since man, in this life, is not confronted directly with an infinite good, he is not necessitated by the objects of this world. To reconcile the contingency of human choice with God's foreknowledge, Aquinas emphasized that man is in time whereas God is outside time, and that past, present, and future are simultaneously present to the Divine Mind. Thus fore knowledge, while meaningful to man, has no counterpart in God.

Yet God is not only omniscient, He is omnipotent; and in His omnipotent providence He brings into actuality all events that have happened, that are happening, and that will happen in the universe. This raises a problem: If an omniscient and all-provident God also effects whatever happens in the universe, how can God's activity be reconciled with man's freedom?

Later Scholasticism and Protestantism. Among Catholic philosophers and theologians two main positions have been formulated to solve this problem. Both positions claim their origin as further refinements of the teaching of St. Thomas, and both were developed in answer to the positions of Luther and Calvin.

Dominican and Molinist Theories. Dominican theologians for the most part teach that God premoves each man toward his freely chosen goal, because every act of a creature requires that God first move the creature. This premotion is in conformity with the nature of the creature premoved. Thus an infinitely powerful God infallibly premoves man, a free agent, to choose a particular goal freely, while premoving other creatures toward their goals with necessity. God's premotion is inevitable in view of his omniscience. Since it is inevitable, it may be called a decree, and in this sense is logically prior to divine knowledge of creatural activity. (see premotion, physical.)

The Molinist position differs from the Dominican chiefly in two respects: instead of referring to a divine premotion, Molinists think it more precise to speak of a divine concurrence with man's will; and, secondly, they hold that God's knowledge of what a free being would choose, if the necessary conditions were supplied, is logically prior to His decree of concurrence or premotion. (see concurrence, divine.)

St. Thomas himself notes that part of the difficulty in resolving the question of God's premotion and of man's free choice lies in the need to use a more apt terminology when speaking about God, since terms can be predicated of God only analogically. In the problem at hand terms such as premotion or foreknowledge are applied to God as if He existed in time, whereas He is an infinite being existing outside of time.

Protestant Reformers. Among the controversies of the Reformation, the doctrine of free will was a crucial point of difference between Protestant and Catholic theologians. Martin luther and John calvin strongly denied freedom of the will, basing their arguments on scriptural texts, especially those of St. Paul. Luther concluded that man is predestined to such an extent that he can never truly be said to have power over his own fate. Luther did not deny all human freedom; but he believed that the freedom man possessed after original sin was not enough freedom to allow him to work out his redemption.

Calvin's denial of free will went further than Luther's. He asserted that man cannot perform a good act unless necessitated to it by God's grace, and that man can in no way resist such grace. It is absurd, said Calvin, to speak of man cooperating with grace, because this implies the possibility of rejection on man's part. see predestination (in non-catholic theology).

Modern Thought. Consequent on the 16th-century discovery of large numbers of regular movements in the universe, some philosophers attempted to extend physical determinism to the sphere of human action. This inclination still persists, although it is counterbalanced by other tendencies in modern thought that defend the reality of freedom.

Determinists. Thomas hobbes held that the notion of free subject was as self-contradictory as that of round quadrangle. Deliberation, for Hobbes, was nothing more than a succession of desires and aversions, each counterbalancing the other, until a final state was reached. This final state Hobbes called "the will act." Since each desire and aversion had been caused, Hobbes concluded that the will act itself was caused; hence the will act is not free. Yet he maintained that man does have freedom to act, since he can act once he has willed it.

B. spinoza concluded that only God is a free cause and that all human actions are subject to strict determinism. J. O. de La Mettrie, on the basis of his materialism, also denied freedom of the will. Arthur schopenhauer taught that a man knows the successive acts of his will after they have occurred, but that he does not foresee his future acts. Man only thinks he is free; if he were actually so, he would be able to foresee his future acts. J. F. Herbart's denial of free will resulted from his initial assumption that the methods and presuppositions of psychology are identical with those of physics.

Descartes, Hume, and Schelling. The writers mentioned above may safely be characterized as determinists; others cannot be located in a neat category, because their works contain elements of both determinism and freedom. René descartes, for example, wavered between Jansenism and Molinism. David hume held that from one standpoint man's acts are free, whereas from another standpoint they are not. He asserted that man's choice is necessitated as much as that of any material agent. Acts of choice are strictly determined by preceding feelings or motives, as well as by character. Nevertheless, since man himself makes the choice, in this respect he may be called free. Friedrich schelling held that man's actions are simultaneously predictable and free. Man himself makes a choice, but his choices are determined by his character, which, in turn, is the result of previous choices. Freedom, for Schelling, is fundamentally the power of choosing between good and evil.

Proponents of Free Will. A variety of positions may be found also among advocates of free will. Some preserve deterministic elements in their teachings. N. malebranche, for example, saw that if his position on causality were carried far enough, it would deny human responsibility for any acts. Not wishing to go to this extreme, he asserted that religion and morality would be meaningless unless man is free. G. W. leibniz held for freedom of choice, although his theory should likewise have ended in a mitigated form of determinism. He held that, while free acts must be motivated by reason, reason must judge to be best what seems to be best.

Some writers accept freedom of the will as a given fact but deny any attempts at a strict demonstration. Blaise pascal, for example, said that freedom could be known only by means of a religious experience. Immanuel Kant held that it could not be demonstrated scientifically, but that it is implicit in the categorical imperative. Similarly, contemporary existentialists are prone to accept free choice as a foundation for their philosophical positions. Karl jaspers, for example, maintains that each man is a unique being who goes beyond what he already is, and locates his new state of being in the process of exercising his freedom. Martin heidegger states that, within certain limits, man can be responsible for his destiny by freely choosing his possibilities, especially his destiny to death. Jean Paul sartre affirms that freedom is a distinctive characteristic of man. Gabriel Marcel and Emmanuel Mounier teach that man realizes himself as a person only in his acts of commitment. (see existentialism; personalism.)

Philosophical Analysis of Free Will

The foregoing history of the concept of free will shows not only the diversity of thought on this subject, but also the necessity of distinction and definition when attempting to analyze man's free activity. Scholastic philosophers, pursuing such a program, have arrived at refined notions of free will, its distinction from voluntarity and related concepts, and various influences to which it is subjected. The following is a survey of common scholastic teaching in this area.

Preliminary Distinctions. The term free will is customarily regarded as an accurate translation of the Latin expression liberum arbitrium; yet the more exact translation is free choice or free decision. One reason for objecting to "free will" is that this expression is interpreted too often to mean that every voluntary act is by definition a free act preceded immediately by an act of deliberation. Such is not the case.

Voluntarity. The designation "voluntary" means that an act was, at one time or another, willed freely; but it does not always mean that an act here and now being performed is a free act. Acts that have become ingrained as habits were perhaps at one time willed; and insofar as they were once willed and arose from the will principle, they may be called voluntary; but once established as habits, they should no longer be called free. Other acts resulting from a previous act of choice may also be called voluntary, but not, strictly speaking, free. These are virtually voluntary acts, that is to say, acts that, once chosen, are executed without requiring a new act of choice. A man who has chosen to go for a walk does not have to continue making a choice for each step he takes while walking. Insofar as he chose to be doing what he is doing, his act is virtually voluntary, although not completely free. (see voluntarity.)

Deliberation. Again, not every act a man performs is voluntary. The actions a man performs are commonly divided into human acts (actus humanus ) and acts of man (actus hominis ); a human act is one following some kind of deliberation, whereas an act of man is not preceded by deliberation. A reflex movement of the body, for example, would be an act of man and not a human act.

Definition of Free Will. To avoid confusing freedom with voluntarity and nondeliberate acts, free will is usually defined as the freedom possessed by a human being who, encountering an object he evaluates as finite, may choose whether or not to yield to the attraction of that object.

Such a definition obviously requires further exposition and clarification. Any object, insofar as it is actual and attractive, may be called a good. Yet the will can be attracted to such an object only so far as it recognizes this as some kind of good. A good that can satisfy only to a limited extent is called a particular or finite good, whereas one that can satisfy in every conceivable respect is called the universal or supreme good (see good, the supreme).

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the human will is strictly determined in its nature toward an object recognized intellectually as the universal good. (According to duns scotus, the human will, absolutely speaking, would not be necessitated even in this case.) For St. Thomas, then, freedom of choice is exercised only with regard to objects recognized as particular goods. A man is not determined to these because particular goods may be viewed in two opposing ways: (1) they may be seen as good, i.e., according to the proportionate good they possess when compared to the universal good; or (2) they may be seen as lacking in good, i.e., to the extent that they lack goodness when measured against the universal good. Thus, any finite good can be considered under an aspect of desirability or undesirability when compared to the universal good. As desirable, it can attract the will; as undesirable, it cannot.

Further Distinctions. Assuming that the object in question is a particular good, further notions are helpful for clarifying what is meant by freedom of the will. These include the concepts of freedom of exercise, freedom of specification, elicited and commanded acts of the will, license, indifference, and spontaneity.

Exercise and Specification. Freedom of exercise is freedom to adopt or reject a particular good. This is the basic freedom of the will. Freedom of specification, on the other hand, is freedom to choose between one particular good and another, when several such goods are available. This is not found in every case involving freedom of the will. A person who elects to achieve a goal may find that only one particular good is available to achieve it. In such an eventuality he has no freedom of specification.

Commanded and Elicited Acts. Freedom of exercise and freedom of specification both apply to elicited acts of the will, as distinguished from commanded acts. Elicited acts are those taking place within the will itself; e.g., acts of desire or of choice. Commanded acts are those desired or chosen by the will, yet executed by another power. Suppose, for example, that an athlete desires to run faster than any man has ever run before. His desire is an elicited act; but his act of desire alone will not accomplish the result he seeks. He can accomplish this only by his ability to run. In such a case he is free to seek the goal; whereas he is not necessarily free to attain it.

License. Freedom of the will should not be confused with license. License is the ability to choose an object that, although satisfying, does not perfect the nature of the chooser. The ability to consume poisoned food or to read a salacious book is license, not freedom, because poisoned food or such reading do not make a person more humanthey work against his humanity. Freedom, as opposed to license, is the capacity of a person to pursue, without extrinsic or intrinsic necessity, goods that can fulfill his nature.

Indifference. Freedom of will may be defined also as a condition of indifference with regard to finite goods. Such indifference can be understood either as indifference within the will itself or as indifference within the object. Indifference within the will is further subdivided into active and subjective. Active indifference is the neutrality of the will to act or not to act for a finite object. Subjective indifference (sometimes called formal indifference) is the neutrality of the will precisely as the subject in which active indifference is rooted. Indifference within the object (sometimes called objective indifference) is the dual aspect presented by a finite object whereby it can be considered from one standpoint as possessing desirable attributes, and from another standpoint as lacking the attributes possessed by another desirable object.

With these distinctions understood, freedom of the will may be more accurately described as the active indifference in virtue of which the will has dominion over its own act, through its power over the last practical judgment of the intellect, which presents the finite object to the will as a good to be adopted.

Spontaneity. Such freedom is not to be confused with spontaneity. Spontaneity signifies something arising within a thing from its internal principles and independently of external agents. The life activities of a plant are spontaneous; yet they are not free, since they arise from internal necessity.

Faculties Acting on the Will. The most important of the powers of the soul that influence choices of will is obviously the intellect (see faculties of the soul). The will is necessitated toward anything that is understood to be in some way satisfying; such understanding is a function of the intellect. Therefore a person's choice of an object is partly guided by his intellect. On the other hand, since even understanding of an object is a finite good for the person considering it, he may refuse to acquire a complete understanding, and his truncated intellectual act may thus result in a distorted concept of the object. Because of this, he may be attracted toward an object that here and now he considers good, whereas a more complete understanding of the same object would have presented it as undesirable.

The will can also be affected indirectly by objects of the sense powers, insofar as such objects are presented with a vividness rarely found in intellectual activity. Sense impressions and physical states, as a consequence, can influence a person's intellectual deliberation and choice. Examples of physical states are: (1) an inherited physical makeup whereby one person tends to react more readily and with greater emotion than another; (2) organic dispositions at certain ages of lifee.g., the youth, with his whole future open to him, is more optimistic, less cautious, and more subject to physical drives than the middle-aged man; and (3) organic modifications acquired by an individual himself. Some of the latter may be purely transitory, such as the effect of stimulants or depressing agents. Others may be more or less fixed, such as the pathological condition set up in the nervous system as the result of an addiction to dope.

Free Will and Unconscious Influences. The powers and contents of mind referred to above are considered as existing in the field of consciousness at the time they exert their influence. Other contents of mind, outside the field of consciousness, can be shown also to influence a person's act of choice. Because of such unconscious influences, some writers have argued that a man cannot be called free in his choice, because he is not aware of everything affecting him at the time. This objection, however, does not hold, because the act of free choice is itself made on the basis of conscious judgments. Free will should be considered more as an ability to select between influences, than as an absence of influences. One's own awareness is witness to the fact that he chooses consciously. If his belief is illusory in this case, then no datum of consciousness would seem to have any truth value.

Free Will and Mental Illness. It has also been objected that freedom of the will has been outmoded by what is called "the irresistible impulse." The term is defined in various ways, but the common note is that of a deprivation (sometimes called a destruction) of the free agency of the individual so that he has an uncontrollable impulse to act. Yet it is inaccurate to speak of an irresistible impulse; it would be more correct to say that the impulse was unresisted. It is generally held by psychiatrists that even in severe cases of an obsessive-compulsive reaction a patient could continue resisting the "compulsive" urge, even though this would require an enormous expenditure of anxiety. Uncommon effort may be required for a neurotic to reject the object of a compulsive urge; but this is far different from saying that his will has been destroyed. Again, weakened resistance to an unresisted impulse may be more or less severe at different times for the same neurotic; these are mitigating circumstances in determining the morality of his actions, but it is] incorrect to say, on this account, that his will has been destroyed. If his will were destroyed, it would be impossible both practically and theoretically for a physician to cure him. After the unconscious content influencing a patient has been uncovered, the major effect of therapy is to have the patient choose a more constructive mode of action.

Freedom of will has also been denied in the case of psychotic patients. Psychosis may be generally described as a condition where the sufferer is markedly out of contact with some area of reality and is not aware that he is out of contact. (The psychotic who is hallucinating, for example, sincerely believes that the voice commanding him to kill his children is real.) Therefore, the objector argues, since the psychotic does not possess the true knowledge required for making a free choice, he is not free. To answer this objection, the notion of responsibility must be clarified and a distinction made between subjective responsibility and objective responsibility. By responsibility is meant the capacity to determine one's own acts, or the capacity to be deterred by sanctions or consequences. A person has subjective responsibility if he has freedom to act or not in accordance with his evaluation of the object and, while acting, is aware that he might have done otherwise. A person has objective responsibility if his choice is made on the basis of a true understanding of the situation in which he makes his decision. In the case of the man hallucinating, he would be subjectively responsible if he were free to act or refuse to act on the commands he heard from the voice; but he would not be objectively responsible if he were not in possession of objectively true knowledge, and thus was not free to make an objectively true choice. He would not be guilty of his act, even though subjectively responsible. It must be kept in mind, of course, that here it is a question of a psychotic's action as directly rooted in his psychosis. It is not necessarily true that every action this same individual would perform is totally lacking in responsibility, because he may have some degree of mental clarity in other areas of his life.

See Also: freedom; choice.

Bibliography: a. m. farrer, The Freedom of the Will (London 1958). j. de finance, Existence et liberté (Lyon 1955). a. m. munn, Free-will and Determinism (London 1960). k. w. rankin, Choice and Chance (Oxford 1961). p. nolan, Saint Thomas and the Unconscious Mind (Washington 1953). r. zavalloni, Self-determination, tr. v. biasiol and c. tageson (Chicago 1963). j. r. cavanagh and j. b. mcgoldrick, Fundamental Psychiatry (3d ed. Milwaukee 1964). r. p. mckeon, Freedom and History (New York 1952). a. antweiler, Das Problem der Willensfreiheit (Freiburg 1955). o. lottin, Psychologie et morale aux XIIe et XIIIe siácles, 6 v. (Louvain-Gembloux 194260). y. simon, Traité du libre arbitre (Liége 1951). p. ricoeur, Philosophie de la volonté, 2 v. in 3 (Paris 195060). m. j. adler, ed. The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, 2 v. (Chicago 1952) 1:9911012; 2:25169, 10711101. d. mackenzie, j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 6:12427. f. battaglia, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:1841. j. baucher, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 9.1:660703. a. michel, ibid. 15.2:332287. e. schott, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 6:171925.

[p. nolan]

Free Will

views updated May 14 2018


FREE WILL. Belief in human free will was challenged by two intellectual developments at the beginning of the early modern period in Europe, the Protestant Reformation and the development of the mechanical theory of matter. The challenges were not entirely new. Medieval theologians had long wrestled with the question of whether human free will was compatible with God's omnipotence and providence and with the theory of nature they had inherited primarily from Aristotle. But challenges to the belief in free will became particularly sharp in early modern Europe.


The notion of free will was central to the thought of René Descartes (15961650), who included among acts of will not only the choice to pursue or shun an attractive object, but also judgment, the act of mind by which we affirm or deny that something is the case. Descartes relied on the principle that God, being wholly good, cannot deceive us. Yet we are deceived. Descartes explained this fact by saying that our mistakes arise when we misuse our free will, affirming what we do not know to be true or denying what we do not know to be false.

Descartes reconciled free will with the new mechanical physics by distinguishing between mind and body. Since the will pertains to the mind, freedom of will is not directly challenged by mechanical physics. Descartes's position raised the problem of mind-body interaction, in particular how the mind, by its free choices, could cause motions in the human body. Descartes's own position is subject to scholarly dispute. But it is clear that the philosophers influenced by Descartes tended strongly toward theories of mind-body parallelism, according to which the histories of a mind and its associated body are causally independent but coordinated, perhaps by God. Indeed, the Cartesians Nicolas Malebranche (16381715), Louis de la Forge (16321666), Géraud de Cordemoy (16141684), and Arnold Geulincx (16241669) held a general theory of causation, known as "occasionalism," according to which God is the only true cause, and other "causes" provide no more than the occasions for God's causation.

Descartes's epistemological use of the notion of free will also raised the question of how human free will is consistent with God's omnipotence, which implies that God preordains all things. In his Principia Philosophiae (1644; Principles of philosophy) Descartes answered this question by saying that we can "get out of" the difficulty by noting that the finite human mind cannot comprehend what an omnipotent God is capable of. Here Descartes was drawing on concepts prominent in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debates among Protestants and Catholics. To the general problem of the relation of human free will to God's omnipotence, Martin Luther (14831546) and John Calvin (15091564) had added a further difficulty by claiming that human free will was destroyed or at least greatly diminished by original sin, and that all good and meritorious human actions are the results solely of divine grace. Luther's position was attacked by Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536) in De Libero Arbitrio Diatribe (1524), to which Luther replied with De Servo Arbitrio (1525). The Council of Trent (15451563) reaffirmed that freedom of will was not destroyed by original sin, and at the same time that postlapsarian human beings are incapable of meritorious acts without the aid of supernatural grace. Disputes about the relation of free will to original sin and grace abounded in the sixteenth century, initiated especially by Luis de Molina's Concordia Liberi Arbitrii cum Gratiae Donis (15881589; The harmony of free will with gifts of grace) and by the posthumous publication of Cornelius Jansen's Augustinus (1640). This work served as the background for the famous written controversy between the Cartesians Antoine Arnauld (16121694) and Malebranche, which began with the publication of Malebranche's Traitédela nature et de la grâce (1680; Treatise of nature and grace).


Thomas Hobbes (15881679) set the tone for subsequent discussion of human freedom among English-speaking philosophers with his declaration that "a free man is he that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to do." Hobbes urged that only human beings and their actions, and not a supposed faculty called "the will," should be termed "free." He was a thoroughgoing materialist and mechanist. Hence he held that volitions, like all other human actions, are in the end movements in the human body. He pointed out that even inanimate things are said to act freely when they move without external impediment, as when water is said to descend freely in a river bed. But he allowed a special sense of freedom for human beings: They act freely when they do what they will to do without hindrance. Hobbes's position is a classic example of "compatibilism," the position that an action's being determined by antecedent causes is consistent with its being free. Hobbes denied that willing is among the things one can will to do or do voluntarily. Hence, only human actions other than volitions are free, and an action is free whenever it is what the agent wants to do.

Like Hobbes, John Locke (16321704) believed that only human beings and their voluntary acts (which are other than acts of will) can correctly be said to be free. Again like Hobbes, he maintained that a human action is free only if it is what the agent wants to do. But he added a second condition: a human action is free only if the agent could have refrained from performing the action simply by willing not to perform it. Suppose a man is locked in a room where he wants to stay. For Hobbes, the man's remaining in the room is free; for Locke it is not.

The most important eighteenth-century compatibilist was David Hume (17111776). In Section VIII of An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748), he defines liberty as "a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may." He argues that the "operations of the will" are just as much subject to external causal determination as the operations of matter, and indeed that this fact is recognized by "all mankind . . . in their general practice and reasoning," but that people hesitate to acknowledge it openly because they are in the grips of the false belief that causal determination amounts to constraint.

The most important critic of compatibilism was Thomas Reid (17101796), the founder of the Scottish school of common sense philosophy. Reid argued that the sort of freedom that is central to moral responsibility is located precisely in the will: "By the liberty of a moral agent, I understand, a power over the determinations of his own will. If, in any action, he had the power to will what he did, or not to will it, in that action he is free." Reid developed the notion of agency, or agent causation. In his view, free acts of will are caused not by some antecedent event inside or outside the agent, but rather by the agent himself or herself.


Baruch Spinoza (16321677) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716) were proponents of the principle that there was an explanation for everything that happened and existed. For Spinoza this principle implied that all human actions occur with logical necessity. He was a pantheist and held that, strictly speaking, only "God or Nature" is free. Nevertheless, he said, the actions of a human being are free to the degree that they are independent of finite causes or reasons outside the human being.

Leibniz shrank from this position and emphasized the distinction between necessary and contingent truths. In Section 288 of the Theodicy (1710) he writes, "Freedom . . . consists in intelligence . . . in spontaneity, in virtue of which we determine ourselves; and in contingency, that is, in the exclusion of logical or metaphysical necessity." He held that human choices and actions are intelligent, spontaneous, and logically contingent. At the same time, they are determined by God's choice to create the most perfect of all possible worlds. Leibniz's position thus amounts to a complex version of compatibilism.

Immanuel Kant (17241804) brought to a climax the efforts of early modern philosophers and theologians to make belief in human free will consistent with their other intellectual commitments. His position on free will depends on his distinction between the human self considered as an object of empirical knowledge and the human self considered as a thing-in-itself. In the Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781/1787; Critique of pure reason), he writes that freedom is "the power of beginning a state spontaneously." Kant held that all operations of the human self considered as an object of empirical knowledge are determined by external causes, and hence are not free. Yet for him the self-in-itself is self-determining and autonomous, and hence free.

See also Cartesianism ; Descartes, René ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Hume, David ; Kant, Immanuel ; Liberty ; Locke, John ; Moral Philosophy and Ethics ; Philosophy ; Spinoza, Baruch .


Kane, Robert, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Oxford and New York, 2002.

Nadler, Steven, ed. A Companion to Early Modern Philosophy. Malden, Mass., and Oxford, 2002.

Rowe, William L. Thomas Reid on Freedom and Morality. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

Schneewind, J. B. The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998.

Sleigh, Robert, Jr. Leibniz and Arnauld: A Commentary on Their Correspondence. New Haven, 1990.

Sleigh, Robert, Jr., Vere Chappell, and Michael Della Rocca. "Determinism and Free Will." In The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy. Edited by Michael Ayers and Daniel Garber. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998.

Elmar J. Kremer

Free Will

views updated Jun 11 2018


FREE WILL , a philosophic and theological notion referring initially to the observation that man is able to choose between a number of possible courses of action, becoming, through his choice, the cause of the action which he selects. Among philosophers some accepted this observation as the true account of how men act, while others held that though man appears to be free to choose, his actions are, in fact, compelled, either by God or by laws of nature. While there were some Jewish philosophers who inclined toward a deterministic position, the majority affirmed that man, through choice, is the author of his own actions. Jewish philosophers generally considered a doctrine of free will as indispensable for accounting for man's moral responsibility for his own actions, and they considered it necessary for explaining God's justice in punishing evil-doers. Closely related to the notion of free will are those of divine *providence and divine omniscience.

In Jewish Philosophy


The question of the freedom of man's will is discussed in a number of places in the writings of *Philo, but his position on this matter is not sufficiently defined. On the one hand, he clearly posits the freedom of man's will, i.e., the ability to choose between good and evil out of a knowledge of the difference between the two. On the other hand, he expresses the notion that man's choosing between good and evil is predetermined by the struggle between his inclinations and by the influence of external forces. Thus it cannot be said that Philo rejected determinism, since he did assume that all the occurrences in the world are a result of a necessary chain of causes and effects. Again, Philo in a number of places points to the similarity between man's free choice, which was granted to him by God, and the free will of God himself. It is evident that this refers to voluntary action, which is independent of the previously mentioned causal chain. Moreover, Philo's notion of man's free will contains a certain innovation in contrast to traditional Greek philosophy, since Aristotelians, for example, tended to view man's free choice as a defect and deficiency, contingent on his material being. On this point too, however, Philo is not consistent, for he also expresses the opinion that all the activities of created beings, including man, are actually caused by God. Philo's attempts to bridge this contradiction are artificial.

In some places in his writings Philo expresses the opinion that it is impossible to attribute to God's will those sins which are committed intentionally, while sins against fellow-men which are committed unintentionally sometimes result from natural order, and sometimes are instruments of divine punishment for the sins of the victim. In performing his good deeds, man needs God's help and divine grace, and he cannot ascribe his virtues to himself.

saadiah gaon

It appears that according to Philo, there is almost no connection between the notion of man's free will and the problem of divine justice. In contrast, *Saadiah, who was heavily influenced by Mu'tazilite philosophy (see *Kalām), maintains that the idea of God's justice necessarily implies the freedom of man's will. According to Saadiah, it is impossible to think that God could compel a man to do something for which he would later punish him. Furthermore, if man has no freedom of choice, both the righteous and the wicked should be rewarded equally since they would be equally fulfilling God's will. Saadiah brings another proof for free will: man feels that he can speak or be silent, that he can take something or leave it. Similarly, he feels that there is no one to deter him from doing as he wishes (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, ch. 4). Therefore, Saadiah states, in accordance with Mu'tazilite teachings, that every activity is preceded in time by the ability to carry it out or to refrain from doing so. This ability can be viewed as having a real existence, and its being prior to every action is what underlies free choice. Refraining from performing a certain action is also to be counted as an action in this respect.

Since the notion of man's free will as held by Saadiah results, wholly or in part, from his need to justify God's actions, it necessarily rests on the assumption that man's primary conceptions of good and evil are fundamentally identical with those of God. God, too, acts and is bound to act in accordance with these conceptions and, contrary to the Aristotelians, Saadiah maintains that it is one of the major functions of the human intellect to apprehend these conceptions directly (without any intermediary aid).

Thus it follows that the human intellect is permitted to question God's actions, especially with regard to sins which serve as punishment, such as Absalom's rebellion against David. On the one hand, Absalom sinned in rebelling against his father, and this sin originated in his free will. On the other hand, Absalom's attempted seizure of his father's throne served as punishment for David's sins.

In contrast to the more extreme Mu'tazilites, Saadiah does not see any contradiction between man's freedom of activity and God's prior knowledge of what man will choose to do. This foreknowledge, according to Saadiah, does not limit man's freedom, since it does not cause his actions.

bahya ibn paquda

Baḥya ibn Paquda (Ḥovot ha-Levavot, ch. 3) briefly presents the ideas of those who believe that all of man's actions are predetermined by God, as well as opposing views, which maintain that man's will is free. He reaches the conclusion that whoever delves into this question must necessarily fall into error. Therefore, man must both conduct himself like one who believes that his actions are in his own hands (i.e., that he has freedom of choice), and at the same time trust in God like one who is certain that all his actions are predetermined. This view, which rejects a theoretical solution to the problem, stems from a desire to reconcile Saadiah's theodicy with total devotion to God (including the renunciation of one's freedom of action), which is characteristic of the Muslim *Sufis by whom Baḥya was influenced.

judah halevi

Like Saadiah, *Judah Halevi accepts the notion of the freedom of man's will, which he supports by means of various proofs, some of which are similar to Saadiah's. One such proof is that a man feels that he can speak or be silent, act or refrain from acting. A proof of the existence of free will is found by Judah Halevi in the fact that only those actions which proceed from free choice are considered to be praiseworthy or culpable. Unlike Saadiah, however, he develops, in his discussion of free will, a classification of causes, in which he is strongly influenced by the Aristotelian school of thought.

The first cause of everything, according to Judah Halevi, is God, who produces the intermediary causes, according to which all actions and occurrences are either natural (i.e., resulting from natural order), accidental, or voluntary (resulting from human choice). Even the first two classes are not entirely brought about by necessity, but only free choice belongs completely to the realm of the possible; before the actual deed there is no necessity that it should be done.

Like Saadiah, Judah Halevi also maintains that there is no contradiction between the notion of free choice and the view that God knows in advance what will happen. Like Saadiah, he also maintains that God's foreknowledge cannot be regarded as a cause which brings about the event. Nevertheless, Judah Halevi states that his definition of free will as an intermediary cause, which is produced by the first cause, makes it necessary to see the voluntary acts as being under the influence of divine decree.

Man must conduct himself to the best of his ability. Exaggerated dependence on God may bring him into danger, thus, the warning; "Do not try the Lord." Sometimes, however, God acts without recourse to the intermediary causes, thereby bringing about miracles, such as Moses' being saved from starvation during the 40 days he was on Mount Sinai, or the defeat of Sennacherib.

abraham ibn daud

Abraham *Ibn Daud stated that he wrote his book Ha-Emunah ha-Ramah for the sole purpose of discussing the question of free will. Nonetheless, only a small section of the book (second treatise, 6:2, ed. by S. Weil, 93ff.) is devoted to this problem. Ibn Daud's position with regard to free will is similar to that of Judah Halevi. He classifies causes into divine, natural, accidental, and voluntary. There are some people, he says, in whom good or evil habits are so deeply ingrained that they are actually never required to exercise their free choice; but the majority of people are between these two extremes, and must therefore choose between good and evil. When they choose the good they become worthy of divine providence, while he who chooses evil is abandoned to his own resources. Ibn Daud is convinced that the existence of the possible in the world – and thus the non-existence of absolute determinism – is a defect. However, it should be pointed out, in this respect Ibn Daud departs from the teachings of his master, *Avicenna, whom he usually follows, since Avicenna believed that everything, including voluntary acts, is predetermined.


In his Guide of the Perplexed*Maimonides deals with the question of free will in connection with providence (3:17). He distinguishes between five doctrines of providence, the last of which, that of the Torah, states that man can do everything according to his free choice. The question is whether Maimonides was convinced that man's choice and will are determined by prior causes, as was held by Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna, or whether he viewed the choice and voluntary activity of man as being uninfluenced by absolute determinism. There are various passages in the Guide which attest to his having followed the second opinion.

God's knowledge, which is only homonymous with human knowledge, controls each and every event, for God knows, "according to the view of our Torah," which of the possible outcomes will ultimately be actualized. This knowledge does not remove the things which are known, including human actions, from the realm of the possible. In his Mishneh Torah, which unlike the Guide, was intended for a popular audience, Maimonides takes a clearer position with regard to free will: every person may choose to be good or evil. God does not determine in advance whether a particular man will be righteous or wicked. A man can carry out any action, be it good or bad. If this were not so, the entire Torah would be purposeless; the wicked person could not be punished for his sins, nor the righteous be rewarded for his good deeds. In the same way that God instituted order in the universe, so it is His will that man be responsible for his own actions, by which he will be judged. Against the argument that God knows in advance whether a person will be righteous or wicked, Maimonides states that God's knowledge, being so unlike man's, cannot be apprehended by the human intellect. What is known beyond a shadow of a doubt is that man is responsible for his own deeds, and that God neither influences nor decrees that he should act in a certain manner. This is proven not only by religious tradition, but by clear arguments of reason (Yad, Teshuvah ch. 5).

Here, as in Saadiah, there is a clear connection between free will and the notion of God's justice. Unlike Saadiah and Judah Halevi, however, Maimonides does not avoid the difficulty involved in reconciling the idea of free will with the notion of God's omniscience. Contrary to some of his successors, he does not attempt to solve this difficulty, since he believes that its solution lies outside the scope of human understanding.

levi ben gershom

The post-Maimonidean Aristotelians placed great emphasis on the contradiction between God's all-inclusive foreknowledge and the idea of free will. *Levi b. Gershom accepts the notion of free will (Milḥamot Adonai 3:6), but offers his own solution to the difficulty by his interpretation of God's knowledge. According to him, God knows not only his own essence, but also (as does the active intellect) the general categories, i.e., the order of the universe, which is determined by the position of the stars. It is not necessary, however, that all events actually occurring in the world should correspond to his general order. By virtue of his free will man may act in contradiction to what has been predestined for him by the position of the stars. Thus, the knowledge of God and of the active intellect does not encompass those events which actually come into being, but they know only what should occur. Thus in his notion of free will Gersonides is following both the tradition of Jewish philosophy and Aristotelian Greek philosophy, which did not see absolute determinism as operating in the sublunar world.

hasdai crescas

A similar determinism underlies the idea of free will of Hasdai *Crescas (Or Adonai 2:5), which in someways reverts to the Muslim philosophical tradition which held, following Avicenna, that man's choice is absolutely predetermined by a chain of prior causes: internal causes, based in man's character, and external causes, which are the factors influencing him. As Y. Baer has shown (in Tarbiz, 11 (1940), 188–206), Crescas was strongly influenced in this notion by *Abner of Burgos.

Crescas' notion, which is similar to that of Avicenna, is that voluntary actions are possible in themselves, but are necessary in terms of their causes. Crescas regards these actions as being necessary since they are known to God before their execution. He thinks, however, that this idea should not be made known to the masses who might use it as a justification for doing evil, since they will think that the punishment follows the sin in a causal chain of events. Despite this view, however, Crescas distinguishes between voluntary actions and acts carried out under compulsion. It is only proper, according to him, that only the former type should be subject to reward and punishment, and only in relation to this type of action can the commandments and prohibitions of the Torah act as a deterrent. Nevertheless, in this capacity, the commandments and prohibitions do not limit the activity of absolute determinism. On the other hand, man's beliefs and opinions do not depend on his own will and he should therefore not be rewarded or punished for them.

[Shlomo Pines]

In Talmud and Midrash

The doctrine of free will, expressed in the idea that man is free to choose between good and evil, was at the core of the Pharisaic outlook. Josephus indeed characterizes the differences between the Pharisees and their Sadducean and Essene opponents as between those who accepted both the freedom of man and divine providence (the Pharisees), those who ascribed everything to chance, denying providential guidance (the Sadducees), and those who denied human freedom, maintaining a doctrine of predestination (the Essenes; Wars 2:162ff; Ant. 13:171; 18:12f.). Though some doubt has been cast on Josephus' account because of his tendency to explain matters in terms of Greek philosophical schools (see G.F. Moore, Judaism vol. 3 p. 139), there seems no grounds for rejecting the main outlines of his characterization (Urbach, Ḥazal: Pirkei Emunot ve-De'ot (1969), 227).

Though both the doctrine of man's freedom and that of divine providence were adhered to by the rabbis as central to their faith, they do not seem to have been integrated in any systematic way in the talmudic texts which deal with the subject. On the one hand, one finds constant reference to the notion that nothing happens in this world which is not in some way determined from on high: "No man can touch that which has been prepared in advance for his friend" (Yoma 38b); "No man injures his finger here below unless it has been decreed for him on high" (Ḥul. 7b); "Never does a snake bite … or a lion tear [its prey] … or a government interfere in men's lives unless incited to do so from on high" (Eccles. R. 10:11); "Everything is in the hands [i.e., control] of heaven except cold and heat" (Ket. 30a); "Forty days before a child is formed a heavenly voice decrees so-and-so's daughter shall marry so-and-so" (Sot. 2a). On the other hand the whole rabbinic theological structure of reward and punishment turns on the idea that man is free to do evil or good (see Deut. 30:15–19; and Sif. Deut. 53–54). As Josephus mentions, the rabbis wished to maintain both doctrines despite the tension between them, though they were aware of this tension. Before conception the angel appointed over conception takes a seminal drop and asks God: "What is to become of this drop? Is it to develop into a person strong or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor?" (Nid. 16b). But no mention is made of its becoming wicked or righteous, because "Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven" (ibid.).

The combination of these two doctrines within rabbinic theology may be understood, not so much from the philosophical point of view, but rather from the practical point of view which underlies all rabbinic thinking. On the one hand it is necessary to think of the world as under the complete surveillance and control of heaven, a thought which adds to the confidence and trust of the Jew in God, and on the other the individual needs to make his choices and decisions on the assumption that evil and good are both within his grasp. The conceptual integration of these two ideas did not enter rabbinic thought forms. The philosophical problems surrounding God's foreknowledge and man's free will are dealt with in an equally cursory way in the texts. The most striking is the saying of Akiva, "Everything is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given" (Avot 3:15). This has been taken by some commentators – Maimonides, for example – to be a statement of the position that though God has foreknowledge of all our acts, still this does not limit our freedom (Maimonides, commentary to the Mishnah, Avot 3:15). Though such a doctrine – that God's foreknowledge is such as not to be philosophically irreconcilable with human freedom – may have been held in some inchoate form by the rabbis, the saying of Akiva has been interpreted as an assertion that God sees all man's acts, even those performed in the privacy of his room (see Rashi on Avot 3:15; Urbach, op. cit., 229–30).

In Modern Jewish Thought

For Hermann *Cohen, freedom of the will – in the sense of being unaffected by mechanical causes – does not exist. However, while he relates causation to the individual man, Cohen holds that freedom of the will does exist in the ethical realm when applied to the goal of mankind. We must assume an independent ethical realm of being in which man can make his own decisions in accord with the rules of that realm. The freedom of the individual depends on how far the individual acts in accord with the goal of mankind. Real freedom will exist only in the future – in the ideal society which is mankind's goal; as of now, freedom is not given but a task to be worked at (Juedische Schriften, 1 (1924), 28).

For Martin *Buber free will is given even though in the realm I–It, causality rules. But in the realm of relation, I–Thou – real decision can, indeed must, take place: "if there were a devil it would not be one who decided against God, but one who, in eternity, came to no decision" (I and Thou (1958), 52, cf. 51f.). For Buber the main problem is not whether there is choice (in the realm of I–Thou), but the quality of the choices made – for good or evil. Since man is free to choose evil he is also free to overcome evil. Modern man because of prevalent ideologies based on scientific materialism or its counterparts (e. g., dialectical materialism) is even more of a believer in blind fate than pagan man. However, according to Buber, man is really free in his depths, and his destiny is not decreed by fate but is his true fulfillment when met in free will: "… the free man has no purpose here and means there, which he fetches for his purpose: he has only the one thing, his repeated decision to approach his destiny" (I and Thou, 60). Free man is not without influences from outside himself, but only he can really respond to outside events and perceive the unique in each event. External events are preconditioned for his action, not determining factors in his character. The free man responds where others react. Man's freedom lies not in the absence of external limitations but in the ability, despite them, to enter into dialogue, i.e., I–Thou relation.

A.J. *Heschel makes a distinction in external happenings, dividing them into what he calls "process," a regular pattern, and "event," an extraordinary, or unique thing. The essence of man's freedom is his ability to surpass himself. To a certain extent man is enslaved by his environment, society, and character, but man can think, will, and take decisions beyond these limitations. If men are treated as "processes" freedom is destroyed. Man is free at rare moments; freedom is an "event." Everyone has the potentiality for freedom, but only rarely achieves it. Free will, the ability to choose between two alternatives, is not the same as freedom, for though the latter includes choice, its achievement lies in the fact that one goes beyond oneself, and disregards the self as its own end. Thus man must choose, although he can choose even to ignore freedom – which would be to choose evil (see God in Search of Man (1955), 409–13; Man is not Alone (1951), 142, 146).

Mordecai *Kaplan believes that the idea of free will as it was formulated in the past is out of step with the spirit of the present which looks for causality in everything. He therefore interprets the doctrine of free will as the expression of the idea that there can be no responsibility without freedom. The problem of freedom therefore becomes a spiritual one having to do with the significance of individuality and selfhood on the one hand, and liberation of personality from self-worship and desire for power, on the other (see Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (1937), 270–296).


H.A. Wolfson, Philo, 2 vols. (1947), index; idem, in: paajr, 11 (1941), 105–63; Husik, Philosophy, index, s.v.Freedom of the Will; Guttmann, Philosophies, index, s.v.Will, freedom of the; idem, in: Jewish Studies in Memory of G.A. Kohut (1935), 325–49; J. Guttmann, Die Religionsphilosophie des Abraham Ibn Daud (1879); idem, Die Religionsphilosophie des Saadia (1882); S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, 285; J.B. Agus, Modern Philosophers of Judaism (1941), 73–74, 81–82; M. Friedman, Martin Buber (1960), 65–68, 198–9; F. Rothschild, Between God and Man (1959), 18–20, 26–30, 148–51.

Free Will

views updated Jun 11 2018


To have free will means that in some nontrivial sense persons are able to make choices that are not determined by causes other than themselves, so that each person may be regarded as the unique author of his or her own thoughts and actions. The term nontrivial indicates more than the absence of external and future determinants. A snowflake is free to fall until it hits the ground, but this freedom seems trivial. Free will implies the absence of internal or prior determinations.

Notions of free will involve two closely related ideas. Moral freedom is the idea that human being are morally responsible for their actions, and so may legitimately be praised or blamed, rewarded or punished. Metaphysical freedom amounts to the more radical claim that human choosing involves a break in the chain of physical causation. The human being is thus an indeterministic system, producing outcomes that are not wholly caused by previous physical states. Modern controversies over the meaning and possibility of free will tend to pit science against morality. Free will in some sense is thought to be necessary for human dignity, but both versions of free will appear to be at odds with the causality investigated by modern science.

Historical Background

Human free will was not a problem in classical philosophy, for at least two reasons. According to Plato (c. 428–c. 348 b.c.e.), for instance, human freedom is not a given but something to be achieved through education. Most human beings are described as slaves, of their passions if not of other humans. Moreover, for Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) nature itself was not seen as a rigid set of causal relations; those things that are by phusis, or nature, have their own source of motion and rest, that is, are self-moving. Thus the achievement of human freedom is not opposed to nature but its perfection.

Augustine's De libero arbitrio (On free will) is the first extended analysis of the concept. For Augustine (354–430), the early Christian church father, the problem arises not from an opposition between human will and physical causation but between human will and God as the cause of everything. If God is all powerful and all knowing, including predestining humans for salvation and knowing the future, how can humans have free will? The Christian theological solution to this problem is simply to argue that God created humans with free will.

In the modern period, however, it is argued that all human beings are equally free (the democratic proposition) and that nature is a deterministic system of causal relations (the scientific proposition). The ethical implication of these two propositions is that humans should use science to control nature for human benefit (the technological proposition). There nevertheless remains a problem of how to reconcile free will and scientific determinism, in theory if not in practice.

Common Sense and Moral Freedom

Moral freedom is grounded in a commonsense interpretation of choosing (sometimes called folk wisdom). I am persistently conscious of alternatives—rare or medium rare? More importantly, I am subject to temptation—I should not break my promise, but just now I really want to. The impression that I could do either allows for a sense of moral responsibility. If you respect my rights, I ought to respect yours; if I do not, I deserve to be punished. This sense of responsibility in turn becomes the ground of all moral authority. Because I am as capable of it as anyone else, I can be ruled only with my consent. In this way, moral freedom supports the idea of individual dignity that underlies both liberty and democracy.

This folk wisdom view of free will has been vigorously challenged within the modern social sciences. Human beings are subject to any number of influences beyond any individual's control: culturally sanctioned values and taboos, character as formed over a lifetime of interactions, genetic inheritance, and more. When one thinks one is choosing, perhaps one is only expressing these social and biological forces. From this perspective, free will is an illusion. The real authors of one's choices are the various forces of social and natural history.

But it is unclear whether these challenges amount to much. Everyone recognizes powerful outside influences on their will. But our very consciousness of alternatives suggests that these influences never quite add up to a choice. A person is required to complete the action. It may be enough to recognize social forces do not act, people do. Each person stands as a unique pivot point in history, interpreting rather than merely communicating biological and social inputs. This may be an adequate ground for human dignity.

Metaphysical Freedom and Determinism

Unlike moral freedom, which largely abstracts from physical causes, the concept of metaphysical freedom focuses on causation all the way down. A person is metaphysically free only if the sum total of physical forces acting on her, including for example the momentum of every molecule in her brain, is insufficient to determine her choice. This would be to say that human choosing is not in all respects a physically caused event. At first glance modern science would seem to preclude such an account of free will. Much of science presupposes a physically deterministic universe in which the state of a system at one time rigidly determines its state at any future time. The view that the universe as a whole constitutes such a system is known generally as determinism.

Yet modern science is no longer uniformly deterministic. Quantum physics, in some interpretations, allows that very small events may be physically uncaused. But it is not clear that this does anything to save metaphysical freedom. Quantum events may have no appreciable consequences on the scale of human perception and action, or if they do this would still represent the influence of material constituents on the brain and could not explain how the person as a coherent self makes choices.

Given that metaphysical freedom involves more radical claims than moral freedom, the obvious question is whether the latter depends on the former. Call metaphysical freedom F1 and moral freedom F2. There are then three general positions. Determinists hold that F1 is required for F2, but that F1 does not exist. Thus there can be no free will in either sense. Libertarians accept the dependence of F2 on F1, but argue that F1 is possible. They then try to show how physical indeterminacy can support human choosing.

Finally, compatibilists argue that there can be F2 without F1. In fact, some have argued that F2 requires determinism. It is only because actions are rigidly determined by what a person is that we can praise that person for the actions; otherwise they would be regarded as mere luck. But this is unconvincing. We recognize that a horse's performance on the track results from its breeding and training, but we do not praise the horse for this. We praise an owner because the owner was free to make poorer choices. Compatibilism may save this sort of freedom only as a necessary illusion. We assume we are free precisely because we have no choice in the matter.


All three positions rest on the assumption that determinism is the primary obstacle to moral freedom because freedom is conceived as whatever wiggle room does or does not exist between the boundaries set by causation. This is probably a mistake for two reasons. First, determinism relies on a concept of rigid causation that is neither required by theory nor possible in practice. While it simplifies our models of many phenomena to assume a perfect determination of events by antecedent states, there is no reason to believe that this perfection is real. And real or not, we can measure anything only to within some degree of precision. Past that point, things can be as messy as they please.

Secondly, the fundamental requirement of moral freedom is that my individual self is the cause of my own thoughts and deeds. To be more precise, I am genuinely free if my conscious choosing is among the causes that determine my choice. Otherwise I am indeed a puppet of forces beyond my control. But determinism is not, in itself, inconsistent with this, because it involves no theory of consciousness. It cannot rule out a role for awareness in the chain of causation. Conversely, libertarians have a hard time explaining how noncaused events can contribute to conscious choosing. If my puppet strings are being pulled by very small particles, it matters little whether those particles themselves are determined or indeterministic. Either way something besides me is in charge.

The real challenge to free will comes not from determinism but from two closely related views of consciousness. Both are examples of reductionism in so far as they attempt to explain an apparently complex thing, in this case the brain, by reference to its simpler material constituents. The epiphenomenalist claims that the conscious mind is an effect of physical events but is in no sense a cause of those events. No conscious state can be responsible for another, so there is no sense trying to think anything through. More radical still, eliminative materialists argue that consciousness does not exist at all. Like a ghost or a mirage, it is a delusion, though who is being deluded is something of a mystery. Moral freedom can scarcely survive any of these claims.

But perhaps it does not have to, because both seem to rest on an untenable dualism. They treat consciousness as something separate from the brain as a whole. A more mature view is possible. Just as sight is not produced by the eyes but is rather the activity of the eyes, nerves, and neurons, so consciousness is precisely an activity of the body and brain working in concert. The mind is a complex whole that functions to gather and store information and translate it into thoughts and actions. Its material constituents, determined or not, participate in this work only by virtue of their integration into the larger whole. It is this larger whole, perhaps, this congress of neurons, that is the seat of government. Consciousness is what happens when congress is in session.

Free will, like vision or flight, may be regarded as a product of mammalian evolution. Evolution can be understood only in the context of real time. The present is the finished product of a now vanished past. The future is, both in theory and practice, open and unpredictable. Trial and error is the engine of evolution, and free will may be understood as a small-scale model of that engine. Human beings adapt with astounding speed to unforeseen circumstances. Moreover they have constructed moral cultures and political regimes to preserve their successes. Liberal democracy using science for technological benefit is among the most effective of these precisely because it recognizes human beings for what they are. Both determinism and reductionism may have outlived their usefulness as models of the human mind.

Paradoxically, the democratic use of scientific technology may also propose more of a practical than a theoretical threat to free will. Advanced biomedical technologies for the control of human behavior and genetic nature can be interpreted as willful actions that can destroy the will. Recognition of such a possibility might then appeal to the phenomenon of free will as a good to be protected and thus as a moral limit or boundary on technoscientific action.


SEE ALSO Complexity and Chaos;Determinism;Freedom.


Dennett, Daniel C. (2003). Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking. Dennett is among the most famous of contemporary compatibilists. He relies on a thoroughly Darwinian account of the human mind in order to build a philosophical account of consciousness and choice. Many critics argue that his version of free will is not genuine and that he is in fact a strict determinist.

Double, Richard. (1991). The Non-reality of Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press. Presents a rigorous argument against free will from the standpoint of contemporary analytical philosophy.

Hume, David. 1999 (1748). An Inquiry concerning Human Understanding, ed. Charles W. Hendel. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hume is a famous early modern critic of the notion of free will. Like Dennett, he claims, in effect, to be a compatibilist, but most see his argument as determinist.

Kane, Robert. (1996). The Significance of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kane, a libertarian, is a frequent foil for Daniel Dennett. Kane argues that metaphysical freedom is both necessary for moral freedom and that it is possible.

free will

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free will • n. the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one's own discretion.• adj. (esp. of a donation) given readily; voluntary: free-will offerings.


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-free • comb. form free of or from: smoke-free tax-free.

free will

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free will See VOLUNTARISM.

Free Will

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Free Will

See Determinism; Freedom; Free Will Defense

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