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Reform Magazine | May 19, 2024

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A good question: Do we have free will? - Reform Magazine

A good question: Do we have free will?

Each month we ask one question and get four answers. This month: Do we have free will?

‘God saves us; we do not save ourselves’

I suspect that the very individualistic times in which we live have made us all rather want to protect our sense of free will: “I’m autonomous. Nobody is going to tell me what to do. I can do whatever I want…” But of course, whatever free will we have is always bounded. I can’t flap my wings and fly; it is just not humanly possible.

And in theology, the big question has always been about free will and salvation. Can I save myself? If I believe the right things, do the right things, live the right way, can I ensure that I will get to heaven? It comes as a bit of a shock quite often, but the classical answer the Christian faith has given to these questions has always been “No”.

The debate came to a head in the early Church in the Fourth Century when the English theologian, Pelagius, began to teach that human beings were capable of being perfect, and therefore were required to be perfect in order to obtain salvation. Pelagius was also concerned to protect the justice of God: When God judges, God does so on the basis of what we have been like – anything else would be unjust. It is all very logical, and makes a lot of sense…

John Bradbury is vice principal and also director of studies in systematic theology and church history at Westminster College, Cambridge


meic_pearseMEIC PEARSE
‘All the early Christians believed in free will. All’

Most worldviews, religious and secular alike, deny the reality of free will. The pagan Greeks and Romans believed in the Fates and destiny. In Islam, everything happens according to the will of Allah. Many Hindus think that what happens to us is preordained reward or punishment for our actions in a previous life. Modern rationalism dispenses with such ideas, but comes to the same place: Apparently, our thoughts and beliefs are determined by our upbringing or by our psychological makeup. And philosophy mostly tends in the same direction: The present moment is the result of all the circumstances of the previous moment, and so could not be other than it is; and the next moment depends on this one, so… And indeed, if “things” are all that exist, that makes perfectly good sense.

But there is God. When early Christianity emphasised free will, it was self-consciously going against the grain of traditional religions and secular philosophy alike. It was part and parcel of Christians’ idea that we are made in the image of God. God is a free actor – and though it was certainly possible for him to determine all that happens in the world he has created, he has not done so. We, like God, are free. Not, of course, to the same degree; we have all the constraints and drag effects that the sociologists and biologists identify. But there is still an “I”, apart from and over against mere “things”, as God is – a person, who can choose. Like the incarnation, or the resurrection of the body, it is a non-rationalist doctrine, distinct to Christianity…

‘If we weren’t free it would be hard to hold anyone morally responsible’

Philosophers have debated the question of free will for over two millennia. On a common-sense view, it seems obvious that we are free to choose how to act. If we weren’t, it would be hard to hold anyone morally responsible, and nonsensical to think they deserved praise or respect for their accomplishments. It is important, therefore, to distinguish free will from free action: There are clearly constraints on the range of actions available to a given person, and the conditions in which she attempts to make them; so it is appealing to think of “the will” as the locus of responsibility – the single thread in the fluctuating tapestry of life over which we have true control.

The problem for the common-sense view is that we seem to be able to think of willings that are not free. There are various threats to freedom which undermine the will’s sovereignty: Physical determinism – the idea that every event in the universe has a physical cause, including events in the brain; biological determinism – that our behaviour is decided by our genes; theological – that our choices are predestined by God; or psychological.

According to the psychological determinism of the renowned behaviourist BF Skinner, free will is an illusion that disguises the real causes of human behaviour. Skinner criticised Freudian analysts for encouraging their patients’ belief in free will – as if they were “the architects of their own destinies”. For Skinner, the causes of human behaviour were to be found in the individual’s environment – in physical and psychological reinforcements (whether positive or negative). The criminal, therefore, has no real choice about committing her crime. She is determined to act criminally because of her environmental circumstances and history – breaking the law, for her, comes naturally and inevitably. The law-abiding citizen, by contrast, has had positive reinforcement for law-abiding in her environment, and consequently abides by the law. There is no moral evaluation involved in this, for Skinner: Behaviour is simply a response to environmental stimulus…


‘We need not logical conclusions but to live with contradictions’

What free will does God allow us? That’s one question. What free will do physics and biology allow us? That’s another. Here’s one more: What free will do we allow ourselves?

Casting my mind back, I am appalled at some of the things I have done and said and thought. Sometimes part of me was appalled at the time, but couldn’t stop the rest of me diving in. Sometimes I was wholly convinced, at the time, that what I did was right, but, looking back I feel that my upbringing or “the way I was at the time” led me to horribly false conclusions.

So there ought to be some comfort in being able to say: “That wasn’t my free choice. The unstoppable tide of events since the creation of the universe made me do it”. The philosophical argument may seem strong, but it just won’t do. If I have no freedom to act other than I do, then my life has no moral dimension. In order for life to make any kind of moral sense, we have to credit ourselves with some free will…


This is an extract from the February 2015 edition of Reform.

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