Is there free will?

The argument is put to J P Moreland that both the scientist and the religious person must deny free will.

The scientist on the basis that everything is determined by natural law, or pre-existent conditions. X leads to Y leads to Z kind of thing. Like the balls on a snooker table. Once you hit the white ball the outcome is predetermined. If the mind is merely physical (science knows no other thing) then our thoughts and actions are pre-determined and we are not free. For the religious person who believes God is all knowing, since God knows the future (which is a subset of everything) our choices are not really free since they are already rendered, in God’s mind.

J P argues back that for the scientist his stance is self-defeating. If there is no free will then his very thoughts that lead him to suppose that everything is determined are also pre-determined on previous states and not necessarily representative of reality. My thoughts are not ultimately determined by rational thought but some physical sequence of causation. Hence it is self-refuting  “like the sentence that says ‘there are no sentences longer than three words’”.

For the theistic argument, just because God knows what we would do in advance does not mean we are not free to do it. He says it could just as well be the other way round, ie God knows what we will freely chose. Our actions determine God’s foreknowledge. (I think that is middle knowledge. God knows that in situation A we will freely choose B. It’s not that situation A determines our choice of B, it’s that in situation A we will freely choose to do B although nothing in situation A determines our choice of B or prevents us from choosing C). That sounds ok but I’m not sure how it squares with “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” .Acts 4:28. Actually that does not say that God determined what they should do, just what would happen, ie Jesus would be crucified.

I still struggle to understand the terms compatibilist freedom and Libertarian freedom but here is a go at what they mean:

“compatibilist freedom” (soft determinism) says that freedom is compatible with the presence of determining factors such as our desires or God’s sovereignty. For example once the desire is in place you will act on that desire but you never the less do so freely. Or, God may determine that you would do a certain thing yet when it comes to it, you do that thing freely. This is apparently influenced by Calvinism which argues that we are so sinful that we have lost our ability to choose good. We are however still held responsible by God for our evil actions.

“Libertarian freedom” says you have to have the power either to do the action or not to do it in order to be responsible for it. You are an uncaused causer of an action. You even have the power to act against your desires (whatever that means) and so say God doesn’t even know what you will do. Things can influence you but they cannot compel you.

Only if I am not a physical object am I able to be free. If I am a physical object then the prior states of the world fix my decisions. Even quantum theory that introduces probabilities, constrains my freedom in the sense that the behaviour of the mater governing my choices should exhibit certain probabilistic behaviour. Therefore my thinking is constrained to fit some probabilistic properties in some way. I guess you would say that they just influence them though.

Me personally, I go for compatibilist freedom. God is sovereign over all events, determining that certain things should happen. I am not sure how that works without free will but I still maintain we are responsible for our actions. Our desires come from who we are. Our desires cannot be considered separately from us or as issuing from us. I do not have the power to go against my desires as that would be illogical. Responsibly comes with being a person, rather than being contingent on having the ability to do or not do what I want. I am free to make choices that are unconstrained by anything outside of me, but my nature itself does compel me to make certain choices. But that’s part of being a person. My choices are determined by me! My will is free in that sense.

Quite how God’s sovereignty fits into that picture I am not sure, except that it is not simply some other cause acting on me and determining what I should do despite my desires to do otherwise. God can and does however operate on my nature in such a way that my desires change for the better. Through the gospel a person can be born again or recreated with a desire  for God.


Is it plausible (compatible with the statements of scripture) that God determines that certain things will happen but not what someone will choose? That someone will do something but not who will do it?


This was a rather rambling post I know but I just read this and it got me thinking again.

Criminal courts in theUnited States are facing a surge in the number of defendants arguing that their brains were to blame for their crimes…a professor of law who sits on Barack Obama’s bioethics advisory panel, told a Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego that those on trial were mounting ever more sophisticated defences that drew on neurological evidence in an effort to show they were not fully responsible for murderous or other criminal actions….”What is novel is the use by criminal defendants to say, essentially, that my brain made me do it,”.

I should retitle the post “my brain made me do it!”



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