If you’re reading this, that means you clicked something to get here, presumably by your own free will. Or did some outside force or presence, perhaps even God, make you click? And if He did, does that mean you had no free will in the matter?
And do we have to, ahem, choose to believe one way of thinking over the other?
According to What Does It Mean to Have Free Will?, a new article at Big Questions Online, no, you don’t have to choose one or the other. Author Joseph LaPorte, a professor of philosophy at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, says there is compatible middle ground between the two.
First, a brief explanation of those two views: “Originalism,” with roots in St. Augustine, means that we—and we alone, with no outside cause—are responsible for our choices. You eat the meal because you choose to eat the meal. But St. Thomas Aquinas would say you chose to eat the meal because God caused you to make that choice . . . but you still did so freely. Theologians and philosophers have come to interpret that view as “freedom-for-excellence”—where freedom is understood as acting virtuously for true human happiness.
LaPorte argues that “there’s a place for both accounts 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. [But] I suggest the two conceptions are compatible, so the dilemma can be avoided.”
From the originalist standpoint, LaPorte notes, it may seem that an outside agent—like human nature or God—would stand in opposition to our ability to make the choices that help us flourish. “But so what?” asks LaPorte. “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?” He refutes the argument that any God-given moral law would quash our freedom, because we can choose whether or not to follow such laws.
From the freedom-for-excellence point of view, LaPorte writes that Augustine “felt the crushing burden of his vices and of his own helplessness to lift himself without God’s grace. . . . [W]ithout grace, there is no action toward spiritual flourishing. . . . Without God’s help, we lack freedom-for-excellence, freedom to be virtuous.”
To reconcile the two views, LaPorte turns to C.S. Lewis and the case of two men who act cowardly in the face of war. Read his conclusion here.
Other articles on free will
BQO also examines the work of University College London neuroscientist Patrick Haggard, who is working on efforts to improve upon the experiments of Benjamin Libet. In 1983, Libet discovered distinct EEG patterns in subjects just before they felt a conscious urge to act on something, and called it the “readiness potential.” But Haggard, who has collaborated with Libet, believes he and others now have neurological tests of free will that are more philosophically robust—tests that, one could argue, can even measure free will.
Meanwhile, Big Think explores not just the issue of free will, but why it’s important to believe in it, because “free will allows us to easily bestow ‘moral responsibility’ on people. It’s easier to understand how concepts like ‘praise’ or ‘blame’ attach to actions people take if we assume they choose to take them. But if we don’t have free will, or don’t suppose we do, then can we really give praise or blame?”
In another Big Think piece, neuroendocrinologist Robert M. Sapolsky argues that what we think might be free will isn’t free will at all, that all of our choices are driven by our experiences and surroundings—by everything from gas pains due to what we ate earlier today to our development as a first-trimester fetus. But he does acknowledge, “Yeah, there’s areas of behavior we still can’t explain biologically.”
In this Aeon article, neuropsychologist Chris Frith claims that “free will is not something we have, so much as something we feel.”
Finally, check out the Big Questions in Free Will project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The 97-minute video, presented by Closer to Truth, takes you deep into the topic, answering many of your questions about free will, and raising a few more.
Dig deeper into any of these resources, if you like. It’s your choice. Or is it?
Other recent stories of interest:
- On the Origin of Cooperation (The New Atlantis)
- Why People Won’t Budge on Their Beliefs (video) (Big Think)
- Sociologist Rodney Stark gets cranky about religion (RNS)
- Disasters and the Christian Faith (podcast) (Theology for Life)
- Religious Americans Not Worried About Secular Internet (EurekAlert!)