Free Will

In the next few days I plan to write about free will, particularly as the subject is treated in Saint Maximos the Confessor but more generally as a feature of Christian belief. Before I can really get going, however, it will be essential to get clear about the meaning of the key terms involved.

The will is that faculty of the human soul responsible for choice. There was a time, not all that long ago, when this faculty was thought of as the sort of thing that played a role that had once been described by Aristotle as “not without reason”, though in itself it is not a department of the rational part of the soul. In the more old-fashioned writers it is referred to as “the rational appetite”, but I doubt that such descriptions are of much use these days. What is worth noting is that it mediates, in a sense, between the rational faculty and the appetites: when guided by reason, it is the will that enables us to strive towards something that our appetites, all on their own, might not strive for. For example, if I am thirsty while lost at sea, I may desire water to drink. Given that I am surrounded by water, I might be tempted by my appetite for water to drink what is all around me. But that would be foolish, and my reason knows that it would be foolish. If my reason informs my will, I will choose not to drink the salt-water of the sea but to wait and hope against hope for a source of fresh water. If a become desperate, it may be that reason will not prevail, in which case I may surrender to my appetites and drink the sea water, with rather disastrous results.

To say that this faculty is “free” means simply that my choices are not determined by anything that is beyond my own control. For example, consider the following two cases. Imagine that I am standing on a platform in a train station as a train approaches. Just as the engine pulls up, I push my neighbor into its path, killing him. Now imagine the same situation, but instead of me pushing my neighbor, someone behind me pushes me into my neighbor, and my momentum causes him to fall in front of the engine, killing him. In the first scenario, I was free to choose not to push my neighbor, and the fact that I could have acted otherwise than I did suggests that what happened was what I wanted to happen; in the second scenario, although I pushed him, I did not choose to do so and, presumably, I did not want to push him or kill him. In the first scenario I acted freely, in the second I did not. Now so far we are not talking about the will itself, but about a person whom we suppose to have a free will. What about the faculty itself? What does it mean to say that the faculty itself is free? Consider the first scenario, where I chose to push my neighbor into the oncoming train. To say that my choice was free is to say that I could have chosen otherwise. But how do we know that I could have chosen otherwise? We cannot test such a claim, since the event is not repeatable (events of the same type could be set up, of course, but the very same particular event was, of course, is confined to just that event itself). Perhaps, if we were to change the content of my desires such that I did not want to push him into the train, we might find that I did push him anyway, since my willing to do so is beyond my control and I am not free. Or perhaps I am not free in a different sense: free to act other than in accordance with my desires and appetites. If the will really is something distinct from my desires, then presumably I ought to be able to choose not to drink that sea-water even if I really want to. But if I am not free from the rule of my desires, I will drink whatever I desire to drink. So I am not free, and if I push the man off of the platform it is because I desired to do so, even though I may not have willed to do so (or we may say that desiring and willing are somehow the same in such a scenario). What is at stake here, clearly, is moral responsibility: if I do things that I do not will (in the sense that I am not free to choose to do otherwise), then I cannot justly be held morally responsible for my “choices”, since they are not really choices at all. If we are all just robots, with no free will of our own, it would have to be our programmers who are morally responsible for our actions, not us.

Hence the so-called “problem of evil.” If we are not morally responsible for our acts, but are merely proximate causes of them, then the ultimate cause, God, is morally responsible for them, even when they are evil. The Christian cannot accept this conclusion. But contemporary neuroscience appears to show that all mental activity is governed strictly by physical laws and processes, and this very much leaves one wondering where in the world free will could come from.

My particular interest, in my next few posts, will be to work out some of the details of this problem while, at the same time, sorting through some of the things that Saint Maximos the Confessor has to say about the problem. I will use, as a starting point, a relatively recent book by Joseph Farrell, but I will also explore other avenues of analysis.

After all, I don’t really have any choice in the matter. Or do I? I guess we’ll find out.

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