Free Will: Real or Illusion

Free Will: Real or Illusion


Does free will exist? “Of course,” you say, “after all, I chose to read this article.” Fair enough. Free will seems to be such an essential part of our daily experience that it’s almost unfathomable to think that anyone would even question it’s real existence in the life of a human. Isn’t our day loaded with decision making at every point from the moment we open our eyes in the morning?

• Should I peel myself out of bed and head to work now (I so should!), or should I hit the snooze button and desperately cling to that extra half-second of sweet sleep?
• Cereal or a bagel? (There’s no time!)
• Iron a shirt or risk going wrinkled? (I’ll just throw on a nice sweater over the shirt!)
• Obey the speed limit or break the law? (I’m late to work!)

From the very trivial, to the very serious, the human experience seems to bare evidence that we are all endued with a powerful thing called free will. So why do people question its reality? The reason is because free will isn’t a peaceful ocean that is easy to navigate; it is a difficult concept when one considers some complexities. But first things first…

Defining Our Terms

First, by “free will”, I mean the power of contrary choice, namely, the genuine ability to choose one thing over another genuine option. Those who believe that man is a free agent believe that man’s choices are free and not necessary. By “necessary” I mean that man cannot do otherwise. In other words, when I ask if a person possesses free will, what I am asking is if he or she is a free agent, does he or she have to ability to make real choices. This may sound like a no-brainer, to use an Americanism, but the fact of the matter is that even among those who respond in the affirmative (i.e., man is definitely a free agent and makes decisions according to that ability he or she has to choose one thing over another) there are limitations and boundaries, all sorts of qualifications, that are set in place. Man is not free to choose to breathe under water without the aid of an invented apparatus, and if he attempts to do so, man would not be free to bypass the miserable consequences of such an attempt. What this means is that from the very beginning of any conversation about this, one must understand that nobody is referring to an absolute and unlimited free will whereby a human may do whatsoever he or she pleases without restraints of any kind. It is silly to somehow attempt to defeat the concept of free will by proving that man cannot violate the laws of gravity even if he wanted to, or that there are consequences to the choices we can make. The existence of free will is not refuted by the mere indicating that dropping a heavy stone on a gentleman’s head will put me in jail. Free will has its limitations – biologically, governmentally, socially, etc. All proponents of free will understand this and that is why at the outset I want to assert that what we are here discussing is free will as it pertains to what is logically possible to human beings, primarily, our moral choices.

Different Views

Those who believe that free will does not truly exist for humans can be divided into a few categories. Perhaps the main one here is the perspective of those who believe in a sort of fatalism, in which a metaphysical power/force moves all things to the end that this same power/force has determined. These fatalists do not believe in free will per say. Everyone is simply making choices he or she cannot avoid – i.e., his or her actions are not free, but necessary. Because the way in which words are used evolves over time, it is not a surprise that even fatalism can have spin-off concepts that are completely devoid of any metaphysical concept. Take, for example, Dr. Richard Dawkins, who believes that every person is basically pre-programed to do what he or she does.

Among those who deny free will, are the Calvinists. To be fair, Calvinists would take issue with me by stating this. From their perspective man is free but he is only free to do evil; it is common grace that restrains man from unleashing the full torrent of wickedness in his heart. Understood. One must allow Calvinists to state their own case. However, a key tenant in Calvinism is the idea that God has predestined absolutely everything that comes to pass. In this worldview, popularly called Divine determinism, man’s free will is simply an illusion because man is acted upon (by God). The only free will that exists in this view is God’s free will; every other will is subordinated to what God has predestined before the foundation of the world.

For the sake of time space, let me narrow the complex conversation down to the key topic. I come from the perspective that free will does indeed exist. It is part of being human and God has given it to us. The remainder of this article is dedicated to what I call “The Three B’s” of free will – the Beauty, the Blessing, and the Burden of Free Will.

The Beauty

How can one not find the most exquisite beauty in free will? More than cascades of glimmering water that lunge into the immovable boulders below, more than the golden rays of the sun as it disperses the night, more than fragile fields of roses that softy wave their colorful petals as they dance with the breeze, more than anything in nature, a human’s free will depicts the glorious love of God. This is because, for all the breathtaking beauty one can find in the sea, in the sky, or in the fields, none of it emanates beauty by choice. In his well-written pamphlet, Thoughts Upon God’s Sovereignty (1777), John Wesley puts it this way:

“[God] cannot reward the sun for shining, because the sun is not a free agent. Neither could he reward us for letting our light shine before men, if we acted as necessarily as the sun. All reward, as well as all punishment, presupposes free agency; and whatever creature is incapable of choice is incapable of either one or the other”

This paves the way for why free will is indeed a beautiful thing. Free will is what makes LOVE worth anything in relationships.

If your girlfriend gives you a kiss, what do you feel? Do you not feel loved? Suppose you had the power to control your girlfriend. Suppose you decided when she would give you a kiss, how she would give you the kiss, how long the kiss would last, what she would feel as she gave you a kiss, etc. Would the kiss still matter? I suppose it can. However, I would hate to be kissed by anyone and know in the back of my mind that that person ultimately had no real say in the matter. I use the word “ultimately” because one can get into weird semantics that could possibly demonstrate that at some point she did have a say in the matter. However, if I controlled every minute detail of the whole process, passion, result, etc. of the kiss, I one could hardly believe she had a say in the matter. You get the point.

What makes romance special is free will – the power of contrary choice. Your boyfriend did not HAVE to buy you that candy; your girlfriend did not HAVE to make you that cup of tea when you were sick; your friend did not HAVE to spend time with you watching that movie… On and on we can think of countless examples of what makes love (romantic or otherwise) meaningful.

I think this is what the Bible is trying to communicate when it says “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) The point is that God did not HAVE to save us. There was nothing in us that He should love us or choose us. That is meaningful because God has free will; He could have chosen to not save us. As creatures made in the Imago Dei, we have this beautiful thing called free will as well.

The Blessing

Free will is a blessed privilege we enjoy, one that inanimate objects to not experience. Rocks and stones do not love. The waves of an ocean do not delight in the wind. But we humans can savor the sweet honey of someone’s love. Is this not a blessing? Free will may seem to be an abstract concept to some individuals. However, liberty is closely related to free will and, while some may not be able to appreciate the notion of free well, the notion of liberty most certainly resonates with them.

James Otis gave a speech against the Writs of Assistance in February of 1761. Writs of Assistance were written orders (i.e., a writs) issued by a court instructing a law enforcement official to investigate someone’s property. Basically, it was a general search warrant. However, Great Britain began to enforce these Writs of Assistance against the colonies by 1760. The way they were practiced was very unfair because any law enforcement official that had these Writs of Assistance could arbitrarily search anyone’s house. This law was abused in many ways; the individual doing the search was not even responsible for any damage he caused while searching. Moreover, any official with a Writ of Assistance could demand to go through your property without having to offer a valid and detailed explanation as to why. I can’t imagine some government official surprising me at my house and breaking things open, making a mess, and damaging things in the process. This is what continually happened in colonial America. Among other things, these Writs of Assistance were one of the factors that pushed the colonists toward a revolutionary war. One of my favorite lines in James Otis’ speech is as follows:

“Now one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle.”

I think the quote says a lot about as to the notion of liberty in colonial times.

Imagine such a thing. A man’s house is indeed his castle. James Otis and the founding fathers of the United States of America understood the sacredness of something so simple as a person’s house. What could we say about the sacredness of a person’s will? Is it not an incalculable blessing to be able to love out of your free will as opposed to loving out of obligation or coercion?

The Burden

A wise character from a Marvel superhero film once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” He was right and free will is no different. Free will is beautiful. Free will is a blessing. But free will is a burden; it is a dangerous sword to wield, one that got our primitive first parents (and their posterity) in a load of trouble. Someone once said that everybody has more or less freedom – more before marriage and less afterward. However, Adam and Eve enjoyed freedom and a wonderful marriage. It was the lamentable misuse of that God-given freedom that brought a curse upon the earth and the whole human race.

George Whitefield, the legendary preacher of the 18th century, preached a great sermon entitled, The Seed of the Woman and the Seed of the Serpent. Look at his comments about what transpired in Eden:

“Never was nature more lively delineated. See what pride Adam contracted by the fall! How unwilling he is to lay the blame upon, or take shame to himself. This answer is full of insolence towards God, enmity against his wife and disingenuity in respect to himself. For herein he tacitly reflects upon God. ‘The woman that thou gavest to be with me.’ As much as to say, ‘If thou hadst not given me that woman, I would not have eaten the forbidden fruit.’ Thus, when men sin, they lay the fault upon their passions, then blame and reflect upon God for giving them those passions”

That is truly a fantastic insight. Suppose Adam, when called to give an account to God (Genesis 3:9, 11), had responded that he had no free will. Would such a response be valid? What would God have responded to such a claim? I doubt God would have bought it.

The possession of free will – that is, being a free agent – is a marvelous burden. I once was lovingly challenging a dear sister to repent of her bad attitude. She was easily angry, easily offended, and would tell people off. Frustrated with the things I was saying, she finally lifted her hands and shouted, “Well, if God wants me to be different He is going to have to take away my bad attitude Himself!” Fair enough. God actually wants to change us. But here’s the thing: God has decided to make creatures in His image, creatures that act, not creatures that are merely acted upon. We have a free will and we are responsible to use it for the love of God.

All in all, the topic of free will is one that branches out into endless subjects. At the very core of the way the Bible approaches this topic is the conclusion that every one of us will give an account for how we used our free will. Certainly, every one of us is born with a damaged will, one that is inclined to sin. We love darkness rather than light. Some Christians are experts at highlighting man’s inability to respond to God’s call. They believe God must regenerate man in order to exercise any good will toward God. However, if this is the case, then God can never rightly judge man since man is only responsible if he is response able.

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