What Does It Mean to Have Free Will?

An illustration of the medieval Franciscan John Duns Scotus, who argued that we are a “total cause” of what we freely will.An illustration of the medieval Franciscan John Duns Scotus, who argued that we are a “total cause” of what we freely will.Fr. Anthony Casamento (Cradio)

According to one venerable tradition, with roots in St. Augustine, the mark of freedom is to be able to bring about an effect as an “uncaused cause.” In other words, to act freely is to act without constraints. Neither God nor neurological processes, neither phobias nor any other event is causally responsible for our actions. We, as agents, are causally responsible.

We could call this view of freedom “originalism,” after the philosopher Ted Honderich, who speaks of “origination,” because free actions originate with the human person as their cause. As an originalist, the medieval Franciscan John Duns Scotus says we are “total cause” of what we freely will. Say you freely eat a meal. You are the cause of eating; the responsibility for eating the meal is yours, period.

Scotus developed this view in response to another tradition, also rooted in Augustine, which is associated with the Dominican order and whose classical articulation is in the writings of another medieval philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, you choose to eat the meal, but God causes you to make that choice. Even though God causes you to choose to eat, you still do so freely. (If this sounds like a stretch to you, you’re not alone.) To make sense of the idea, Aquinas says that there are different ways you can be free, different reasons for your freedom. Later Dominican interpreters celebrated one Thomistic understanding of freedom that has come to be known as “freedom-for-excellence” — freedom understood as acting virtuously for true human happiness.

Many see a tension between freedom-for-excellence and the originalist view of freedom. You could think of the contrast between the two in this way: it is the difference between having to follow laws in order to do something freely, and just doing whatever you want without being constrained by anything except yourself. For instance, to speak a language freely, I have to follow the laws of grammar, so that what appear as constraints (grammar rules) are in fact conditions for my free action of speaking. For the originalist, by contrast, a truly free act has no constraints because the cause is just me, not anything outside of my control that constrains me to act as I do rather than some other way.

The distinction between these two concepts of freedom has enjoyed renewed discussion in our day, owing largely to Isaiah Berlin’s influential 1958 lecture “Two Concepts of Liberty.” The distinction has found use in many contexts, from public policy to practical psychology, and its application is even more profound in philosophical theology — the discipline I will address here.

Forced but Free
Most philosophical theologians today, such as Scott Macdonald and Timothy O’Connor, join Christian thinkers across the ages in supporting a Franciscan, originalist conception of freedom. Other philosophical theologians today favor a Dominican account, such as Jesse Couenhoven and Jack Mulder. In other disciplines, the ratio of favor shifts. For many, scientific considerations threaten any claim humans might have to being uncaused causes of their own behavior. “The more you argue that the world is law-like, the more ready you are to include human beings in the system,” as Michael Ruse says. As scientists gradually continue to discover law-like connections between events, we may someday come to think about “decision-making in the same way we think about any physical process,” David Eagleman suggests.

But if all our human actions are just like any other physical process, then any freedom on our part would need to be compatible with physical events causing us to behave as we do. Aquinas’ account of freedom is compatibilist, because according to that account I act freely even though I’m caused to act as I do by events outside my control. For Aquinas, God causes me to choose whatever I choose to do, but I still do what I do freely. A Thomist attracted to scientific determinism today might say that God causes me to choose what I do through natural causes.

When we first consider compatibilism, most of us are puzzled. How could anyone think of my act as free if I’m caused to choose to do it by physical processes outside of my control? Here behavioral scientists could appeal to freedom-for-excellence as an example of one genuine kind of freedom that seems compatible with my being caused to act as I do. I might be fortunate enough to live well because of good choices. If so, it does not matter whether or not physical events like neurological processes triggered by genes or a nurturing environment cause me to behave well. Regardless of whether I’m an original cause or not, I still might live a fulfilling life as a result of wise choices, rather than an unfulfilled life crushed by addiction. Living my life free from addiction frees me for an excellent life.

Freedom-for-excellence is a genuine kind of freedom; it is a kind of freedom worth having. No wonder freedom-for-excellence has broad appeal. It has enjoyed wide influence, reaching well outside the walls of academia. It has been especially influential in recent Catholic reflections, though a similar emphasis can be found implicit in other Christian traditions such as Calvinism and non-Christian traditions such as secular Platonism (graphically depicted by the novelist Iris Murdoch) and Buddhism. The great Dominican theologian Servais Pinckaers articulated freedom-for-excellence in a way that came to influence many, through intermediary teachers who reach a wide audience of intelligent laypersons. Pinckaers says we act freely when we act virtuously to achieve excellence, even though we are forced to conform to moral laws. These laws enhance freedom, rather than spoiling it, because by conforming our behavior to them we are able to achieve excellence, in the same way that by conforming our behavior to grammar rules we are able to achieve linguistic excellence. By contrast, when we behave lawlessly, we fall into the slavery of addiction and misery. Accordingly, the great popular evangelist Bishop Robert Barron criticizes the Franciscan account of freedom, because it sets us against “other people, societies, churches, laws, ultimately God — the supreme threat to my capacity to determine the meaning of my life.” Barron follows Pope Benedict, who warns that Scotus sowed a dangerous seed with his conception of freedom. Similarly, George Weigel argues that the Franciscan conception of freedom takes us into “the soulless dystopia of a brave new world,” where “freedom self-destructs,” because seeing freedom in opposition with human nature leads to the biotechnological revolution that promises to remanufacture human nature.

I submit for your examination a compromise. As I see it, there’s a place for both accounts of freedom, originalist freedom and freedom-for-excellence. Each is a genuine form of freedom. Each is important for certain kinds of explanation, theological, political, philosophical, or scientific. The two traditions have competed historically because it looks at first as if we must make a hard choice between the two. However, I will suggest the two conceptions are compatible, so the dilemma can be avoided. Furthermore, once we understand how the two notions can be seen as compatible, we can also understand how each conception can be defended against what would otherwise look like destructive criticisms.

In Defense of Originalist Freedom
Let’s look at Scotus’ view of freedom, originalism, which is said to be opposed to laws and to a pre-set human nature that determine the meaning and goal of our lives. If we look more closely, the opposition begins to disappear. Laws are compatible with the originalist view of freedom. So is human nature. To recognize this we should have a look at what constraints get imposed on our behavior by laws and human nature, according to even a Thomistic understanding. Aquinas followed Aristotle in thinking of human nature as something like a design plan, determining what you must do in order to flourish in life. According to this view, an evil person, such as Hitler, doesn’t flourish because he doesn’t live virtuously. It doesn’t even matter whether he ever recognizes his failure or not, because human nature is established by God, not by the person living the life. By contrast, virtuous people like Churchill or Dorothy Day may fulfill their nature, at least approximately.

Now, considering again the originalist standpoint, why might someone think that human nature, or God, stand in opposition to freedom, that these things prevent me from choosing freely? Maybe the answer is that, on the originalist account, it looks as though I can’t decide for myself what I must do to flourish; I cannot determine the meaning and goal of my life, at least in this respect. But so what? Why couldn’t God give me originalist freedom, with which I could freely will to work with God’s natural design for me or against it? I could say, “I don’t care whether I’m achieving natural human flourishing by manufacturing all this meth. I’m financially flourishing and that’s good enough for me!” In so doing, I’m acting both against God’s natural design and I’m acting as the uncaused cause of that choice, as Scotus would insist. I freely choose to do wrong. In other words, we can maintain an originalist view of freedom — I alone am responsible for my choice — and still grant that there is a divine or natural order: I can freely choose to act or not act in accordance with that order.

Similarly, some people seem convinced that any moral law set by God would quash our freedom. Not so. Sure, if God establishes the moral law, we are not at liberty to go about “inventing right and wrong,” as philosopher J.L. Mackie puts it. Even so, we can still choose to follow the moral law or not, as free uncaused causers of our own actions. To see this, compare moral laws to physical laws. I’m not free to set up whatever physical laws I choose. Still, I might be free in the originalist sense to do certain things, even though I live in a world with physical laws (established by God or nature). Given the laws of physics, for instance, I can run to your aid on the soccer field, but I can’t fly to your aid like Superman. Yet whether I run or stay put, I’m the cause of what I do, at least according to Scotus.

So far, I’ve vindicated originalism against objections that it must conflict with laws or human nature. I’ve argued that it need not conflict with them, so the existence of laws (whether moral or physical) or of human nature is no argument against originalism. But I have not shown why anyone would be motivated to believe in the originalist account of freedom. And I’ve only begun to show why anyone would be motivated to believe in freedom-for-excellence (Barron and Spitzer do a great job at that). I will now take up these tasks.

God or We — Who’s Responsible?
I want to highlight an important role that freedom-for-excellence can play in theology, by reconciling our need for grace to do good, on the one hand, and our freedom in the originalist sense, on the other hand. In the course of explaining the reconciliation, it will become clear that we need both.

As we learn from Augustine’s Confessions, he felt the crushing burden of his vices and of his own helplessness to lift himself without God’s grace. That fits with many people’s experience. Besides, it’s Christian orthodoxy: without grace, there is no action toward spiritual flourishing. Here it’s helpful to invoke freedom-for-excellence. Without God’s help, we lack freedom-for-excellence, freedom to be virtuous. In my insecurity, I go shopping for clothes; later I look in my closet with buyer’s remorse. Or, I’m late again and ask myself what went wrong with my time management. Or, my memory of adolescence is no longer fresh, so I overreact to my son’s adolescent mistakes instead of understanding them. In situations like these, we sense the need for God’s uplifting grace to clear our heads and to put us on the path of virtue.

In fact, this account fits well with scientific determinism’s insistence that we cannot help ourselves when we behave poorly. Scientific determinism says that all of our behavior is determined by psychological, biological, and ultimately physical conditions. That includes even our living out the theological virtues of faith and love, necessary for salvation. Perhaps someday science will explain the physical conditions giving rise to “who we believe in and pray to,” for example, or “who we love,” as Robert Sapolsky suggests. Though not generally known for his theological orthodoxy, Sapolsky comes up with the right theological moral anyway. He says that we’ll someday see in all deviant behavior “a reality of ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”

The necessity of grace to act well gives us reason to suppose that if we fail to achieve excellence, we can’t help it. We simply cannot muster the vision needed to move us to lift ourselves. (See my paper “Epistemological Matters Matter for Theological Understanding.”) Grace restores our freedom to be excellent, which is obviously important. So why recognize freedom of any other sort besides this freedom-for-excellence? What motivates Scotus to insist on originalist freedom? Well, suppose I’m caused to do whatever I do entirely by forces, such as physical laws and or divine grace, which I cannot control. Then I have no causal role in any of my actions as an original uncaused cause. The theological problem with such full-blown determinism is that God then “becomes responsible for the evil of the human will,” as Eleanor Stump puts it. Because if God is the cause of my actions, and if I choose to do evil, then it appears that God is the cause of my evil actions. How, then, could anyone be allowed to suffer punishment, much less eternal punishment? We’re just victims of circumstances and events outside our control. Augustine puzzles over this unwelcome problem, which appears to afflict his account of freedom and the need for grace to act well.

If Augustine can’t be helpful in providing a resolution, help won’t come easily. But let’s try to shed some light on the matter with the help of C.S. Lewis. I borrow his example, to illustrate my own moral. Lewis imagines two men who act cowardly in the face of war. As it happens, both men are about to undergo psychoanalytic treatment. Both have, “as a result of things in their sub-conscious, exaggerated, irrational fears, which no amount of moral effort can do anything about. Now suppose that a psychoanalyst comes along and cures these two.” The factors formerly forcing them to act cowardly are now gone. They are free to act according to their underlying values of courage. Though Lewis doesn’t elaborate in this way, let us add that these deeper-seated values are chosen with originalist freedom. Lewis continues: “Now that they are cured, these two men might take quite different lines. The first might say, ‘Thank goodness I’ve got rid of all those doo-dahs. Now at last I can do what I always wanted to do—my duty to my country.’” He will feel liberated because he now sees how to honor his deep-seated values by right action. Paranoid illusions that led him to believe he was acting sensibly by sneaking away to save his own skin had prevented him from standing by his fellows in their time of need. The love and loyalty that were there all along as underlying values can only now manifest themselves in loyal action, I would argue, because we humans are unable to produce good actions until we are given the grace of a clear head to see how to live out good underlying values in practice. In this example, that “grace” is given through a channel used by God, the psychoanalyst.

Turn now to Lewis’s second patient, who after his cure says: “One of the good things about being less frightened is that I can now look after myself much more efficiently.” After his paranoia is cured, he continues to act selfishly — because his freely willed underlying values were selfish all along. With or without the paranoid illusions that he was acting sensibly in saving himself, he is still free to choose to act cowardly, thanks to his original freedom. You could think of God’s grace as preventing obstacles like paranoia that would otherwise force either man to act selfishly. Neither could help himself to act well as long as his paranoia blocked his vision. Without paranoia, both could later help themselves, though only one of them did in fact help himself. Of course, most of us don’t suffer from dramatic psychological conditions that could be relieved by psychoanalysis. But there are manifold influences on all of us, from our unique circumstances to our biological and psychological makeup, which Lewis’s simple imaginative story serves to illustrate.

Freely Chosen Values
Let us revisit what John Henry Newman called the “trap in which all determinists are caught”: that if we are free to do evil, then God becomes blameworthy for what we do. We don’t blame anyone for having bad vision, which is physically determined. If our moral behavior is similarly physically determined, then how can we blame people for bad behavior? “It is not fair, for example, that a person should be punished for adultery, if they were always going to be an adulterer, simply because that’s how the physics worked out in their case,” insists Julian Baggini. Right? Well, hold on. That makes sense only if physical events entirely determine what I do and if I have no originalist freedom to contribute to my behavior. If I have originalist freedom to select my own deep-seated values, then I might still find myself stuck in my evil ways, determined to act poorly instead of well, barring the grace of God. I’ll still be miserable, incapable of acting in fulfilling ways. So, in that sense, my actions are determined and beyond my control. But I’ll still be blameworthy for my originally chosen deep-seated values, which contribute to my vicious choices in action — that choice is entirely my own.

Going back to Lewis, the two men may be afflicted by paranoid illusions, but they both freely possess their differing underlying values revealed through psychoanalysis. They are the origin of those values. The particular actions that follow from those values and external circumstances are another matter. So Lewis’s good man cannot be blamed for having been a coward before getting cured; he’d have stood by his fellow soldiers had he had a clearer head and seen his way to right action. As it was — without the “grace” of the psychoanalyst — the good man was incapable of lifting himself out of his miserable ways on account of the crushing weight of his paranoia. But Lewis’s bad man is blameworthy. Why? Because his own chosen values contributed to his misbehavior — they “overdetermined” his actions, to use a technical term. No psychoanalyst could have saved him from acting badly.

If we can trace all evil, ultimately, to freely chosen values — original causes — which manifest themselves in all the mischief in the world, then God is off the hook. If we freely choose the right values, in the originalist sense, then divine grace helps us to act virtuously and thereby to enjoy the blessed life made possible by living the way of faith, hope, love, or the other virtues — enabling freedom-for-excellence. But if we freely choose the wrong values, then we, not God, are blameworthy.

Why does evil manifest itself in the first place, as we experience the joys and sorrows of living in this world? Now, that’s a topic for another occasion.

Discussion Questions:

  1. According to C.S. Lewis, his story illustrates how we must not judge someone as blameworthy for doing an action that is wrong: “Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices.” How should that affect the punishment of criminals in our justice system? How should that affect whether we can know that Judas or Hitler are in Hell (supposing there is a Hell)?
  2. Many people are under the impression that science is making inroads against the view that we have free will. As Sapolsky writes, “If there really is free will, it’s getting consigned to domains too mundane to be worth the effort to want — do I want briefs or boxer shorts today?” How might a defender of each kind of freedom, freedom-for-excellence and originalism, respond to this charge against free will?
  3. Sometimes scientists, such as Francis Collins, who are inclined to defend free will, say something like this: genetic determinism is untenable because it is too simplistic. They emphasize that genes also interact with each other and the environment. How does this fare as a defense of originalist freedom? Of freedom-for-excellence?
  4. Bishop Barron, in masterful lectures celebrating freedom-for-excellence, argues that Scotus’ view of freedom is opposed to law. He suggests that from the perspective of originalism, the Psalm, “Lord, how I love your Law, how I meditate upon it day and night” doesn’t “make a lick of sense.” How might a defender of originalism respond?
  5. Many philosophers dismiss scientific evidence for determinism as “meager and anemic.” How strong do you think the scientific evidence for determinism is?



3 Responses

  1. jawposte says:

    This article effectively considers how the concept of free will can be truly free yet also interact with Grace in productive ways. It’s worth considering that both positions (often seen as diametrically opposed) stem from the insights and thinking of St. Augustine, suggesting that theological divisions post-Augustine (i.e. the majority of Christian theological history) must always be assessed in the context of Augustine. This article does an excellent job of just that and illustrates how human free will (an essential part of God’s design) finds its highest purpose in freedom-for-excellence.

  2. Emily says:

    Is the assumption behind your new understanding of freedom that the grace of God does not touch our originally chosen values? That God’s grace works only through the “natural realm,” and in this way, we retain our chosen values, and therefore our free will?

  3. Cory Lakatos says:

    Great article, Joe! Your synthesis of the Franciscan and Dominican theories on freedom is helpful and insightful. Both theories do a good job of explaining some of our “data” (experiences and observations) on freedom, but I don’t think either of them explains all the data completely and satisfactorily on its own (that’s part of what your synthesis gets at). Free will and predestination are one of the paradoxes at the heart of the Christian faith. They are both true, but the “how” is tricky. Plus, both views are dangerous when taken to extremes that neither Scotus nor St. Thomas would have sanctioned (i.e. individualism, where complete self-determination is attempted, and fatalism, where the individual determines precisely nothing).

    I personally tend to find originalism the more problematic of the two because we all experience constraints on our freedom, sin being the main one. If the only true freedom is a freedom without constraints, then who among us could be truly free? Yet, the freedom-for-excellence approach also has its limitations, as attractive as I find it.

    Could we say that our choices originate in our human wills, but that the will is simultaneously influenced by outside factors that are beyond its control? In this case, we’d be dealing with a freedom spectrum rather than a binary (free or unfree). We might also be saying that complete, unconstrained freedom isn’t necessary for us to be responsible for our actions, but that we will be judged based on what we did with the level of freedom available to us at the time. Lewis seems to suggest something like this.

    I wonder if it would be fruitful to compare freedom to being, i.e. existence. It is I who exist, but God causes me to exist. I could not exist without God willing me into being, but Christian thought doesn’t see the individual as a mere emanation of God. Similarly, it is I who make a choice, but God who causes me to choose. Does that view hold water, or at least help us to understand how we could make a free choice even if the impetus was from God?

    Your discussion of Lewis’s example of the two soldiers raises as many questions for me as it answers. Why should a person’s most deeply-held values be any less determined by outside factors than their psychology or other accidents? Why is the second man’s deep-seated selfishness any less conditioned than his paranoia? God looks at the heart when he judges, not appearances and accidents. But doesn’t God’s grace touch not only the outer layers of our psyches, but also (or even especially) our hearts, the seat of our deepest values? If that is so, our dilemma simply descends another layer deeper into the human soul rather than being resolved.

    In addition, I’m still struggling with your views on grace. Rather than a simply restoring our natural ability to live excellently, doesn’t grace infuse God’s own supernatural life into us? Are not the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity impossible for natural man to live out without God’s divinizing grace turning him into a “new creation”? Does your explication of Lewis’s example mean that God’s grace simply tears the mask off of good people and bad people who are good or bad of their own volition? That seems deeply problematic to me. Is not God the only source of goodness, whether by common grace (e.g. even the most sinful person isn’t totally depraved, in the Catholic view) or by saving grace? Grace perfects nature rather than abolishing it, but surely it’s more than just a helping hand? If grace kills the old man and raises up a new one, and if it makes us sharers of the divine nature, as St. Peter says, it must transform us rather than merely reform us. The new humanity is still human, but if it’s divinized, then it must be greater than a squeaky-clean version of the old humanity. I’m still working through this, though, because it does seem that part of the operation of grace is to restore our natural human moral abilities that are impaired by sin. Perhaps this is yet another instance in which a “both/and” is necessary?

    That might all sound rather critical, but I only mean to engage with your important and clearly expressed ideas, not to criticize. Thanks for writing this, Joe!

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