Do We Have Free-will or Don’t We?

“An unexamined faith is not worth having, for fundamentalism and uncritical certitude entail the rejection of one of the great human gifts: that of free-will, of the liberty to make up our own minds based on evidence and tradition and reason.”

 ~  Jon Meacham


It’s not like this question hasn’t been hotly debated for hundreds of years, nor is it for a lack of material on the Internet about this. But, you see, I’m a Methodist, so I believe, consistent with the Wesleyan tradition of Arminianism, that we do have free-will – at least, I’m supposed to believe that we do.

We had an interesting discussion at prayer breakfast about this recently. It was interesting mostly because the discussion didn’t last very long. My prayer breakfast friends were obviously uncomfortable with the subject. Nevertheless, the debate about this is interesting to me, so I have endeavored to study it.

It was one of my Christian friends who brought up the subject – he shared that the Bible study group he attends weekly has been discussing the question of whether angelic beings have free-will. So, naturally, the great challenger of orthodoxy here asked whether any of us truly do have free-will. I pointed out how different, fresh out of the womb, each of us is, how science is discovering more and more every day about how our brains work, how none of our differing intellectual capacities, biases and predilections are purely the product of nurture. Twin studies have confirmed this. Oh some of our differences are the result of nurture, sure: those of us born and raised in Mormon families and not inclined to thinking critically are most likely to grow up believing Mormon doctrine, or professing to believe it; those of us born and raised in Protestant or Roman Catholic families are most likely to remain faithful to our origins and upbringings too. Either this or we shun religion altogether. And the greatest determinant of political preference is said to be that of one’s parents, especially the preference of the dominant parent. One of my prayer group friends substantiated this by saying that, had he been born in a Muslim country, to a Muslim household, he would be a good Muslim today. Few, like myself, have made the leap from one faith to another and it is my belief that most who leave their faith tradition of heritage abandon religious affiliations altogether.

My wife, who was there at the prayer breakfast, quipped, “You’re not becoming a Presbyterian are you?”

How often do we hear the faithful say things like, “Let go and let God,” “Nothing happens outside of God’s will,” and “God’s will be done.” Yet we believe that He has given us free-will, that we have the freedom to usurp His will, at least temporarily. In Leslie Weatherhead’s book “The Will of God,” he writes of three different kinds of God’s will:  God’s intentional will, God’s circumstantial will, and God inevitable will.  So, according to Weatherhead, both our free agency and God’s will have limits. Not even God can have things more than one way at a time. Interesting…

Aside from Bible passages that argue for free-will (there are as many or more that argue for predestination), what is there from the secular world that can help us understand? Well, there are the physical sciences of evolution, genetics and physiology. These all support the argument that our choices are influenced, if not wholly determined, by factors beyond our control — determinism. Then, there are the psychological sciences.

Humanistic psychologists say that we have free-will. They base this on the assumption that not all behavior is determined. Personal agency is the term that they use for the exercise of free-will. This refers to the choices that we make in life and the paths that we choose to go down. For humanistic psychologists such as Maslow (1943) and Rogers (1951), freedom is not only possible, it is necessary if we are to become fully functional human beings. Both see self-actualization as a unique human need and form of motivation setting us apart from all other species.

Cognitive psychologists also believe in the importance of free-will. They have adopted a soft determinism view, however. Whereas humanists are most interested in our choices (how each of us sees the road to self actualization), cognitive psychologists focus on the choice of means. In other words, for them it is the rational processing of information which goes into the making of a decision that is most important.

Then there are the neo-Freudian psychologists, one of the most influential of which has been Erich Fromm (1941). In his “Fear of Freedom” he argued that all of us have the potential to control our own lives, but that many of us are too afraid to do so. As a result, we give up our freedom and allow our lives to be governed by circumstances, other people, religious beliefs, political ideology or “irrational” feelings. However, this determinism, he wrote, is not inevitable.  In the very choices that we have to do good or evil, he saw the essence of human freedom.

So, what are we to make of all this? Is it possible that we can have it both ways – that there is room in one’s personal philosophy for both free-will and determinism? I think so, yes.

Each of us is like a fish in a pond, I think. We are free to swim about and to make the best of our circumstances; we can choose to take the baited hook or not, to eat just worms and bugs or to expand our diets to include yummy tadpoles when they are in season. But we are bound by our own relevant realities. There are other fish in their own ponds and these ponds may overlap ours. Some do, but they are not the same. Our ponds are self-limiting until we exercise the option to explore, experiment and grow. This is called education. We can interact with other fish, form schools for mutual support. Or not. We can find a mate of our own kind and procreate. Or not. But our options are always bound/limited by our relevant realities. Some of these realities are physical, some physiological, some emotional, some imaginary.

For me, conscious and rational assessment of the environment (external conditions), our own abilities and possible negative consequences, is the best way to achieve goals. If we fail in our attempts, we can at least learn from our mistakes. But feelings have an important role to play too. Feelings are innate messages from the brain, spontaneous internal reactions to external stimuli that warn us of danger, sometimes inspire us, and sometimes encourage us to risk. But mental illnesses, disabilities as well as special abilities, and propensities toward certain behaviors all undermine free-will. For example, individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) lose control of their thoughts and actions. People who suffer from depression and borderline personality disorder lose control over their emotions. Then too, it is commonly believed that children born to parents who struggle with addictions are more likely themselves to become addicts when they grow up. And addicts are notorious for making poor choices. There is a genetic component to this.

Yes, we have free-will — but only within the bounds of our relevant realities, some of which are in God’s domain. And that is why we pray. Some realities, the faithful believe, only He has the power to change.

Please feel free to post a comment, whether you agree with my conclusions or not.


Published in: on April 9, 2016 at 10:48 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Feel free to contemplate on that, or not.

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