The Great Conversation:

By Matt McKeown

Is the human will free? And if so, free of what?

Free will is one of the most enduring problems in philosophy. It seems obvious that we can choose what we do, and also obvious that our power to choose is limited—by the laws of nature, by other people, and even by inner forces of our own like fear, habit, confusion, or resolve. What exactly do we mean by “free will”?

Free will contrasts with determinism, or the idea that we do not really choose anything, but only experience an illusion of choice. This is often advanced on the grounds that we all exist in a chain of causality, from which we cannot escape: the movements of atoms in our brains (which are themselves caused by the laws of motion, expressions of the broader law of cause and effect) make us do this or that. Throw a rock at a window and it will break; throw an atom at another atom and it will inspire a specific decision. Some experiments in electrically stimulating different parts of a person’s brain seem to be consistent with this.

But this scientific form of determinism also has some problems. For one thing, why and how atoms move is a question modern science is a lot less confident in answering—but even leaving that aside as a problem that might be resolved in the future, if atoms move and we at the same time feel that we are making a choice, who says that feeling must be an illusion? Does a choice have to be causeless to be real? In fact, we can nearly always explain at least one kind of cause for every choice we make: the kind of cause we call a reason for doing something. Admittedly, reasons don’t operate in quite the same cause-effect paradigm as the rock and the window; having a reason to do something, or even wanting to do something, clearly aren’t the same thing as doing it. In the analogy, our window can apparently be hit by the rock and just decide not to break.

Here we come to another important dimension of the will. Free will appears to be the basis for the idea of personal responsibility. If something can’t be avoided, we don’t (usually) blame anybody for it happening; it’s only when a person should and could have behaved otherwise that we get mad. This is why, even at a legal level, pleas of insanity can, if rarely, result in a lessened or altered sentence: if a person truly isn’t able to distinguish right from wrong, it’s not just to treat them as if they could. In daily life, a person who got just as angry over an accidental misstep as they did over someone deliberately stomping on their feet would be considered irrational and unfair, even if we gave them some leeway for overreacting in the moment because of their aching toes. If we accepted determinism—based on physics, or a divine plan, or psychological conditioning, or even astrology—it seems it would be impossible to treat any actions as wrong or right, in the sense of people being responsible for doing them and thus deserving to be punished or rewarded for their behavior.

The idea of responsibility and the above distinction between “having a cause” and “having a reason” both fit into yet another dimension of the concept of will, a dimension called voluntarism. This is the notion that will is, in some way, the primary or central thing; there are many different versions of voluntarism, depending on what field we are talking about. When applied to God, voluntarism is usually associated with certain forms of Islam and Christianity that treat God’s goodness as consisting simply in “whatever God does”—the problem of evil does not really arise because whatever happens is good by definition, because God willed it, and the task of humanity is only to learn to accept it. This is distinct from the more conventional orthodoxy that God permits what we call evil for some reason, but without willing evil.

If you will here stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but because you never thoroughly intended it.

Free will has long been a contentious issue in Christian theology, due to the theory of sin that most forms of Christianity subscribe to: namely, that all people are born with an innate tendency to prefer self-centeredness to objective goodness, and that we are constitutionally unable to overcome this tendency on our own. This is the doctrine of original sin, and it is held by a vast majority of Christians to inhibit our freedom; some Christians (mostly those associated with the Calvinist school) even say that it isn’t really true to say we have free will, because this tendency to selfishness overrides it. However, there is a spectrum of Christian thought on the subject, ranging from spiritual determinism at one end to a kind of voluntarism at the other. This is normally called Pelagianism, after a fifth-century British monk who taught that, while Christ was helpful and set a good example, he was not strictly necessary for men to do good and achieve salvation. Pelagianism was condemned at the Synod of Orange in 529; to this day, almost all Christian theologies (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant alike) fall somewhere in between the extremes, asserting that original sin is real but that divine grace gives believers the supernatural power to transcend the natural selfishness of humanity and turn wholly to God.

On a different level, the psychological and societal dimensions of free will have become a favorite subject since the nineteenth century. Take a fairly simple question: if you don’t know you can do something, are you free to do it? And how free? This is closely related to the question of responsibility: if you didn’t want to do something, but were forced to, how responsible are you? The latter has been a major topic in moral theology for many centuries, while the former hints at developments in political philosophy since the Enlightenment. If, as the Declaration of Independence states, we all have the right to pursue happiness, but we live in a place where most people so poor they have to spend all of their time making enough money just to feed themselves—are those people’s rights being violated? Is it meaningful to say we have a right to do something if we have no chance to exercise that right? 

This ties into the notion of will as something opposed to convention, something that breaks down boundaries and transgresses rules. The interpretation of Paradise Lost that makes Satan its hero is an extreme example of this; it found its voice first in the Romantic period. Many poets at the time were fervent supporters of both the American and French Revolutions, as well as enemies of slavery. Monarchy, aristocracy, the churches, conventional morality in general—all were assaults upon the human will, at least in the view of some Romantics. William Blake is particularly noteworthy here: his vast, complicated, and often hard to follow personal mythology animated much of his poetry and painting; all of it full of a sense of striving against false reasons and artificial limits, even when many of us now and most people at the time would call those reasons and limits “morality.” Equally celebrated (and far easier to follow!) is the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who adopted the figure of Prometheus as a symbol of liberty for his mythical defiance of Zeus in favor of mankind.

Suggested reading:
Sappho, “Fragment 16”
Epictetus, The Handbook
St. Augustine, Nature and Grace
Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World


Matt McKeown is a proud uncle of seven nephews, and a staff writer and editor for CLT. he lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our other posts on the great ideas, like chance and poetry. And be sure not to miss our podcast, Anchored.

Published on 26th May, 2022. Page image of Prometheus Bound by Thomas Cole, 1847.

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