Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

Annotating the Catholic Encyclopedia: free will

An extensive investigation of libertarian free will, using the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on the topic as a launchpad. I quote the Encyclopedia, interacting with it at each major point, and demonstrate how the teaching of libertarianism contradicts both the Bible and plain reason.

This is the first of what may be a couple, several, or perhaps many entries which quote, in toto, an article from the Catholic Encyclopedia and then offer my own discussion by way of annotation. Obviously this discussion will tend to be quite critical, since the biblical and the Catholic positions tend to differ quite markedly. Catholic doctrine is frequently demonstrably irrational and at odds with clear scriptural teaching, and so harsh criticism is warranted.

This entry is on free will. As with most humanistic thought, the assumption of man’s freedom is the cornerstone of most other doctrinal errors and inventions. For this reason, it is worth devoting some considerable time toward discussing it in detail; once refuted it becomes trivial to refute many other doctrines, since they stand or fall on the truth of this one.

The Catholic Encyclopedia begins—

The question of free will, moral liberty, or the liberum arbitrium of the Schoolmen, ranks amongst the three or four most important philosophical problems of all time. It ramifies into ethics, theology, metaphysics, and psychology. The view adopted in response to it will determine a man’s position in regard to the most momentous issues that present themselves to the human mind. On the one hand, does man possess genuine moral freedom, power of real choice, true ability to determine the course of his thoughts and volitions, to decide which motives shall prevail within his mind, to modify and mould his own character? Or, on the other, are man’s thoughts and volitions, his character and external actions, all merely the inevitable outcome of his circumstances? Are they all inexorably predetermined in every detail along rigid lines by events of the past, over which he himself has had no sort of control? This is the real import of the free-will problem.

This introduction appears more concerned with the implications of philosophical naturalism than with the claims of Calvinism. Naturalism asserts that man is a purely physical creature, whose thoughts and actions are produced by various physical interactions in his brain. Since all these interactions are entirely subject to and governed by the inexorable laws of physics, it is an accurate representation to say that naturalism teaches that our character and actions are the inevitable outcome of circumstances over which we have no control. That said, however, it seems likely that Catholics would bring similar charges against the proponent of total divine sovereignty, by merit of the fact that, in the most ultimate metaphysical sense, it is really quite accurate to represent our situation as being one wherein “man’s thoughts and volitions, his character and external actions, [are] all […] inexorably predetermined in every detail along rigid lines”—not by events in his past, but by God himself.

Having acknowledged this, however, we should also consider the representation of the Catholic position, as one in which man possesses “genuine moral freedom, power of real choice, true ability to determine the course of his thoughts and volitions,” and so on. I draw attention to this description not to critique it just yet, but rather to observe that it is creating something of a false dilemma. Although we should deny that man, without faith, has genuine moral freedom in the sense of being able to choose good or evil—for anything which does not proceed from faith is sin (Rom 14:23)—we nonetheless affirm that he has power of real choice, true ability to determine the course of his thoughts and volitions, to decide which motives shall prevail within his mind, and to modify and mold his own character. These things are self-evidently powers which we have; that is not in question.

The introduction above seeks to establish a direct contradiction between these things and predetermination. But the contradiction is invalid because predetermination is a totally separate metaphysical issue to human agency. The first deals with the ultimate, primary cause of the second. Thus, to set them against each other merely causes confusion and results in arguing against a strawman, because they are in two different categories. To treat them as being in the same category is pointless and wrong. One is a matter of primary causes; the other is a matter of secondary causes. To say that we have moral agency says nothing at all about whether our thoughts and actions are predetermined; and to say that our thoughts and actions are predetermined says nothing at all about our moral agency. This is a crucial point, and so it is disappointing to see equivocation between these two things even in the introduction to this article. Such equivocation suggests that further discussion in the body of the article will make the same category error, and thus be misdirected against an incoherent position which ought not to be held. I will discuss primary versus secondary causation, and the various implications thereof, in greater detail as I critique the rest of this article.


(1) Ethically, the issue vitally affects the meaning of most of our fundamental moral terms and ideas. Responsibility, merit, duty, remorse, justice, and the like, will have a totally different significance for one who believes that all man’s acts are in the last resort completely determined by agencies beyond his power, from that which these terms bear for the man who believes that each human being possessed of reason can by his own free will determine his deliberate volitions and so exercise a real command over his thoughts, his deeds, and the formation of his character.

If we assume, for now, that perhaps this is so, how can we test these claims when no justification or even elucidation is given for them? Why, and in what way, will responsibility, merit, duty, remorse, justice, and the like have totally different significance if man’s acts are predetermined by agencies beyond his power (I will assume we mean God here, rather than physical laws, since naturalism is accepted by neither Catholics nor other Christians)? More importantly, what does the term free will used here mean? Again, predetermination does not exclude man from exercising a real command over his thoughts and actions, because predetermination is in a different metaphysical category to man’s agency. For example, my decision and subsequent action to eat chocolate instead of cheese was clearly performed by myself. God did not perform it for me. It was my decision and my action, because I performed each. However, this says nothing about the ultimate cause of these things. If the whole universe is upheld by God (Heb 1:3), and I live and move and have my being in him (Acts 17:28), then most certainly I can do nothing of my own power, for I have none at all apart from him. And if I have no power of my own, then that which I do must occur by his power. Thus, any action on my own part, though it is performed by me, must be caused by an active will of God in the most ultimate sense. It cannot be that I merely procure God’s power without his actually doing anything, because that would first require a power (of procurement) on my own part—but I have no power apart from God! God, being non-contingent and self-existent, is primary. I, being contingent and dependent upon him for my continual existence in every moment, am secondary. My secondary actions are mine in a secondary sense; but they are still caused, in the primary sense, by God himself. Confusion only starts to arise when the primary and the secondary senses are mixed together as if they were the same thing.

The implication in the passage above is that free will is the ability of man to determine his deliberate volitions—but, as I have just explained, man is quite able to determine these despite God’s causative, determinative, and inexorable action. In other words, if predetermination is merely God’s foreknowledge of what he will do, and if what he will do is to cause certain human actions, then predetermined actions can nonetheless be volitional and deliberate; and so what relevance has free will, which has not yet even been defined? Free will has been implied to hinge upon the ability of man to determine his deliberate volitions, and this seemed to constitute a definition of sorts—but I have shown that this is invalid, and so it remains undefined by the article. It seems very strange to talk about something so complicated without defining it first.

(2) Theology studies the questions of the existence, nature and attributes of God, and His relations with man. The reconciliation of God’s fore-knowledge and universal providential government of the world with the contingency of human action, as well as the harmonizing of the efficacy of supernatural grace with the free natural power of the creature, has been amongst the most arduous labours of the theological student from the days of St. Augustine down to the present time.

It seems I can only reiterate what I have said above—no reconciliation is needed between God’s foreknowledge and providential government, and the contingency of human action. Human actions are providentially governed, certainly, but so what? They are still volitional and deliberate on the part of the people making them. Once again, the “free natural power of the creature” has been presupposed, though not explained or defined, and is said to be in some way difficult to reconcile with God’s sovereignty (no doubt it is, in fact, impossible to reconcile). But no explanation of the problem is forthcoming, and so what critique can be offered of it?

(3) Causality, change, movement, the beginning of existence, are notions which lie at the very heart of metaphysics. The conception of the human will as a free cause involves them all.

Where did the concept of human will as a free cause originate? What is a “free cause”, in the context of theological discussion? Presumably, what is meant is a cause which is not itself an effect—a cause which is entirely non-contingent upon other causes; and thus, presumably, we are speaking of freedom from God. I would agree that the conception of the human will as a free cause involves causality, change, movement, origin, and other eminently metaphysical topics—but until further elaboration is given as to the actual nature and meaning of free will, it is difficult to say anything about it except that it appears to be quite in conflict with everything revealed and understood about these areas of knowledge.

(4) Again, the analysis of voluntary action and the investigation of its peculiar features are the special functions of Psychology. Indeed, the nature of the process of volition and of all forms of appetitive or conative activity is a topic that has absorbed a constantly increasing space in psychological literature during the past fifty years.

Appetitive volitions are those governed by instinct, as opposed to conative ones which are more purposeful inclinations. I am skeptical of the relevance of psychology, here, however—at least inasmuch as it implies secular psychology, which is a field governed by naturalistic assumptions and humanistic theories entirely opposed to biblical views. To which psychological literature is this referring?

(5) Finally, the rapid growth of sundry branches of modern science, such as physics, biology, sociology, and the systematization of moral statistics, has made the doctrine of free will a topic of the most keen interest in many departments of more positive knowledge.

Modern science, as I have covered in The Wisdom Of God, is encumbered by numerous metaphysical and epistemological errors and problems. (Until it becomes available online, please refer to the series of articles on which The Wisdom Of God is based, linked in the sidebar—particularly On Science.) A view of science as a process of knowledge-acquisition, rather than as an operational tool, is simply false and irrational. To refer to the various fields of scientific endeavor as departments of positive knowledge is thus highly inaccurate at best, and suggests an unfortunate and flawed approach to this area of study.


Free Will in Ancient Philosophy

The question of free will does not seem to have presented itself very clearly to the early Greek philosophers. Some historians have held that the Pythagoreans must have allotted a certain degree of moral freedom to man, from their recognition of man’s responsibility for sin with consequent retribution experienced in the course of the transmigration of souls. The Eleatics adhered to a pantheistic monism, in which they emphasized the immutability of one eternal unchangeable principle so as to leave no room for freedom. Democritus also taught that all events occur by necessity, and the Greek atomists generally, like their modern representatives, advocated a mechanical theory of the universe, which excluded all contingency. With Socrates, the moral aspect of all philosophical problems became prominent, yet his identification of all virtue with knowledge and his intense personal conviction that it is impossible deliberately to do what one clearly perceives to be wrong, led him to hold that the good, being identical with the true, imposes itself irresistibly on the will as on the intellect, when distinctly apprehended. Every man necessarily wills his greatest good, and his actions are merely means to this end. He who commits evil does so out of ignorance as to the right means to the true good. Plato held in the main the same view. Virtue is the determination of the will by the knowledge of the good; it is true freedom. The wicked man is ignorant and a slave. Sometimes, however, Plato seems to suppose that the soul possessed genuine free choice in a previous life, which there decided its future destiny. Aristotle disagrees with both Plato and Socrates, at least in part. He appeals to experience. Men can act against the knowledge of the true good; vice is voluntary. Man is responsible for his actions as the parent of them. Moreover his particular actions, as means to his end, are contingent, a matter of deliberation and subject to choice. The future is not all predictable. Some events depend on chance. Aristotle was not troubled by the difficulty of prevision on the part of his God. Still his physical theory of the universe, the action he allots to the noûs poietkós, and the irresistible influence exerted by the Prime Mover make the conception of genuine moral freedom in his system very obscure and difficult. The Stoics adopted a form of materialistic Pantheism. God and the world are one. All the world’s movements are governed by rigid law. Unvaried causality unity of design, fatalistic government, prophecy and foreknowledge—all these factors exclude chance and the possibility of free will. Epicurus, oddly in contrast here with his modern hedonistic followers, advocates free will and modifies the strict determinism of the atomists, whose physics he accepts, by ascribing to the atoms a clinamen, a faculty of random deviation in their movements. His openly professed object, however, in this point as in the rest of his philosophy, is to release men from the fears caused by belief in irresistible fate.

There is not much need to comment here—an historical overview of the concept of free will is interesting, but carries no particular theological importance. However, it ought to be noted that Epicurus’ clinamen, or randomness in the action of atoms, does not equate to free will as it is generally understood. Free will must be a faculty under our own control—if the atomists’ physics precluded it because of the inexorable and inviolable nature of the physical laws which govern our behavior, then adding an element of randomness to those laws would merely cause our behavior to become random also. Rather than being determined purely by prior events beyond our control, they would instead be determined in part by these prior events, and in part by unpredictable random deviations equally beyond any ability of ours to control. Thus, instead of being perfectly predicable, our actions might be somewhat unpredictable. But having our choices caused by random events rather than non-random ones does not solve the problem in the slightest; it merely replaces one situation in which we have no control with another one.

Free Will and the Christian Religion

The problem of free will assumed quite a new character with the advent of the Christian religion. The doctrine that God has created man, has commanded him to obey the moral law, and has promised to reward or punish him for observance or violation of this law, made the reality of moral liberty an issue of transcendent importance. Unless man is really free, he cannot be justly held responsible for his actions, any more than for the date of his birth or the colour of his eyes. All alike are inexorably predetermined for him. Again, the difficulty of the question was augmented still further by the Christian dogma of the fall of man and his redemption by grace. St. Paul, especially in his Epistle to the Romans, is the great source of the Catholic theology of grace.

Here we get to the real crux of the issue. The argument is that, unless man is free, he cannot justly be held responsible for his actions. This is because, as the analogy goes, if his actions are predetermined then he has no more control over them than over his eye color or date of birth. But again, an error of equivocation is being made here. Eye color and date of birth are something done to man, in which he is entirely passive. Observance or violation of moral laws are something done by man, regardless of their ultimate metaphysical cause. This analogy would only be valid if man had no part at all in his own actions—but this is not the case, for they are performed volitionally. In other words, man’s actions are a result of the exercise of his will, and thus by definition are active from his own point of view, and not passive. Whether or not they are predetermined by some higher metaphysical cause is not at issue—what is at issue is that they are actively and volitionally performed by him, regardless of other metaphysical considerations.

The analogy is not the most critical aspect of this argument, however. What is more important is the statement which it attempts to illustrate: that, unless man is really free, he cannot be justly held responsible for his actions. In other words, unless man has free will, it is unjust for God to hold him accountable for what he does—either to punish him, or to reward him.

This assumption is critical to the whole issue of free will. It is the hinge upon which its very existence is supposed, as made evident here. Yet, what a very weak hinge it is! It is set out there to be agreed with and accepted, in order to get into the “meat” of the philosophical issues surrounding free will. But what is really happening is that it is being assumed without warrant, and then the rest of the text below is merely a long discussion (one might fairly use the word struggle) with the various inconsistencies, incoherencies, and other problems which the idea of free will creates. If this seems like an unfair representation, my comments below adequately defend themselves—but let me ask you, then, how would you go about proving that responsibility necessitates freedom? I cannot even think of the weakest argument to support this claim, and I have debated people who make it, so I ought to know at least one. But every “argument” I have ever faced has been not a series of logical propositions leading by necessary inference to the conclusion, but rather an analogy which supposedly shows that I would accept a similar conclusion in a similar scenario, and therefore must accept this conclusion here. I have asked for a biblical verse—just one, single biblical verse—to support the statement that man cannot be held responsible for his actions if they are not free; but I have never been given one. I have asked for a verse which describes free will, or even mentions it in passing; yet I have not ever been given one. The reason for this is simple: the Bible makes sense; free will does not. Let me elaborate—

The statement above is that “unless man is really free, he cannot be justly held responsible for his actions”. Consider this. First of all we must ask for explication; and if my own explication I am about to give is poor, it is no fault of my own, but of the article for not adequately explaining itself. However, I have had occasion to delve into the meaning of this statement (that is, the general proposition it asserts) more than once in the past, and am quite confident that I can clearly represent what it is trying to say. So let’s start with the word free. Unless man is really free, he cannot be justly held responsible for his actions.

Freedom is a term which is always used in a context of relationship—that is, it is meaningless to say that something is free without presupposing freedom from another thing. (One might argue that freedom can also be to something, but this generally just describes the other side of from; freedom from one thing is freedom to another, and vice versa.) So, in this statement about man’s responsibility, we must ask: free from what? This freedom has not been explained above any more than it is explained here, so I cannot let the article speak for itself, but the implication is most certainly free from predetermination—and not merely predetermination, but definite predetermination. This being the case, and since it is God who would be doing the predetermining, we might fairly expand the statement as follows: unless man is free from God’s definite predetermination, he cannot be justly held responsible for his actions.

It is reasonable to simplify this a little by observing that God’s predetermination is really a description of his prior decision that something (as opposed to something else) will happen. So, for God to predetermine something is for God to decide beforehand that it will happen. Since we are speaking of actions which do happen, we can’t then separate God’s decision that something will happen from his bringing that something about—and so when we speak of predetermination, what we really mean is God’s decision that something will happen, and his causing it to happen as he has decided, in such a manner that it happens definitely and inexorably, inevitably and necessarily, with no ability on our part to change it. Having established this, we can rephrase the statement again to say: unless man is free from God inexorably causing his actions, he cannot be justly held responsible for those actions.

The next term we must examine is justly. For man to be justly held responsible for his actions is for man to be held responsible in such a way as is considered fair, reasonable, and merited. In other words, unless man is free from God inexorably causing his actions, it is unfair, unreasonable, and not merited, to hold him responsible for those actions. So far, I am sure, the Catholic will be quite in agreement with me. So let me ask: who decides what is fair, reasonable, and merited? It is not merely the idea of the total freedom of the will which is philosophically problematic here: the matter of justice must equally be addressed. If we are engaging the topic as Christians, then there is only one source we can accept as authoritative on the matter of justice: God himself. This being the case, where has God revealed that it would be unjust for him to judge someone for their actions if those actions were not freely performed? It is insufficient to simply appeal to our own sense of justice, because this differs from person to person and society to society. It is by no means a reliable method for determining what genuinely is just, but rather is at best useful as a general guide which we have to constantly check against God’s revealed word to be sure that it is functioning correctly. It is subjective; but we are looking for an objective statement that holding someone accountable for actions that are not free is unjust.

Do not think that I am merely trying to sidestep the issue, as if it is obvious that it is unjust. I am not. I am perfectly cognizant of the available analogies which free will advocates are quick to tote out. But even if these analogies were valid, in that they themselves are objectively justified through appeal to God’s law, they do not accurately reflect the metaphysical situation at hand. The person coerced unwillingly into evil at gunpoint is not comparable to the person metaphysically caused to willingly sin. The mentally handicapped person who compulsively and uncontrollably does what he knows he must not may expect leniency from a human court, but the Bible makes no comment on his state of accountability except to suggest that a slave to sin is guilty regardless of the form of his servitude; and God is not a human judge. And a robot does not sin willingly, and neither is the relationship between it and its programmer qualitatively or quantitatively similar to the relationship between ourselves and God.

I am not sidestepping anything. It is simply the case that an analogy of the truth is not the truth itself, and that the Bible nowhere declares that it is unjust for God to judge us for actions which were not free from his causal control. In fact, the reason I so strongly labor this point is that it seems to me entirely fair, reasonable, and merited that God should cause us to sin, and then hold us accountable for those sins. Although I am in the minority, it is my genuine subjective gut instinct that it is perfectly okay for God to do this. Unless the Catholic is suggesting that we ought to determine justice by majority, we simply cannot appeal to our own senses of right and wrong in deciding this matter. Biblical warrant is essential—and biblical warrant simply does not exist.

Lastly, I must briefly comment on the term responsible. Like freedom, responsibility is a relationship; it is the state of being accountable to some kind of judge. The state of being accountable, by definition, entails a certain curtailment of freedom. If the human will were completely free from God, then it would seem that God would not be in a position to hold us accountable for our actions. It is difficult to see how freedom from God’s predetermination, but subjection to his law, are easily reconciled. His determination and ability to judge us, and his giving of the law by which he judges, are both exercises of the same sovereign power. One is not separate from the other, as if he were divisible. On the contrary, he is indivisible—what the theologians call simple—and so if both are actions of his sovereignty, then both must presuppose our subjection to that sovereignty. We cannot claim that we are free from his sovereignty as regards our agency toward the law, but subject to it as regards accountability. No—we are accountable for the same reason that we are not free: that is, God is sovereign.

But this is by no means the strongest argument which can be made. Most Catholics would assert that God can willingly suspend his sovereignty, and that freedom of will is indeed a sensible concept; and so it is better to grapple with these issues directly than to beat about the bush. Therefore, let us return to the original statement, having now considered it more carefully. I will reword it according to the commentary I have given, so that its meaning is clearer:

Unless man is free from God inexorably and necessarily causing his actions, he cannot be fairly and reasonably held accountable by God for those actions in a way which is merited. That’s a little convoluted, though, so why not rephrase it as follows: If God inexorably causes man’s actions, then those actions cannot be reasonably merited to man himself, and thus cannot be fairly rewarded or punished. That, really, is what this comes down to, does it not? And I mentioned before that freedom from something is freedom to another thing. In this case, freedom from God’s causative control is freedom to act entirely independently of him. In other words, If man is not free to exercise his will apart from God’s causative control, then the exercise of his will cannot be reasonably merited to man himself, and thus cannot be rewarded or punished. So far, I think, any Catholic would continue to remain in agreement with me. He might even say I was merely stating the obvious, and have spent a great deal of time now saying what is already clear in the original statement. But I don’t think it necessarily is clear, and I think that once we rephrase that statement more precisely, the problems with it start to become evident. Thus, permit me to continue to use these two definitions—of freedom from, and freedom to—in the rest of this commentary.

In other words, if man is caused to act by God, then he has no control over his actions, and he could not have acted differently, so he cannot reasonably be punished or rewarded. Indeed, since God is the cause of these actions, it is he who should be held responsible, and not man at all. But until the Catholic can explain why God cannot reasonably punish or reward man for actions which nonetheless have their ultimate cause in God himself, this line of argumentation simply cannot stand. An objective and perspicuous standard of justice must be given; otherwise, this is merely one opinion about what is just, and what is not. Besides, how can God be held responsible for these actions when responsibility entails accountability to some authority? Is there an authority higher than God? No, of course not; therefore, God cannot be responsible for anything in any meaningful sense of the word. Most importantly, however, God’s judgment of man happens in that secondary metaphysical sense I’ve already discussed. A man wills and then acts in a certain way, and God either punishes or rewards him for this, depending on whether it was in conformance to or violation of the revealed moral law. It is entirely for man’s intent and action that he is judged. What else can be judged, after all?

But if man is judged for his intent and action, then what does the ultimate metaphysical cause of this intent and action have to do with anything? In fact, do we not see God deliberately and repeatedly hardening Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus, in order that he may judge Pharaoh’s sin and display righteous, wrathful judgment? In other words, God repeatedly causes Pharaoh to sin for the express purpose of judging him. I will not quote the entirety of all the relevant passages here, but I invite you to read over Exodus chapters nine to fourteen, and note how the Bible progressively emphasizes God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, and the reason which God himself gives for this.

Now, every Catholic to whom I have spoken about this has said that it was a judgment on Pharaoh because of his initial hardening of his own heart. In other words, God only started to harden Pharaoh’s heart after Pharaoh had already done this himself. God merely confirmed Pharaoh in his sin—he did not initially cause it. Let’s imagine for a moment that this is the case. Then we must ask: so what? The crux of the argument for free will is that it is unjust to judge someone for actions they were caused to perform in some metaphysical sense. But here we have in the example of Pharaoh a clear and explicit case of God metaphysically causing him to sin, specifically in order to hold him accountable. What does it matter whether this was merely a response to Pharaoh’s initial rebellion, or was entirely God’s doing from the beginning? The relevant issue here is not whether God merely responded to Pharaoh’s own rebellion on strength of the fact that for him to start it would be unfair. The issue is that it is supposed to be unjust for God to hold man accountable for actions he himself has caused in man. Yet, here we have a clear, biblical example of him doing this.

It is no good to argue that God’s doing this is actually a punishment for prior sin on Pharaoh’s part. This merely constitutes a red herring. Perhaps it is punishment—but we are not interested in the reasons for God doing it, but in the mechanism employed. Even if it is a punishment, it is still a case of God causing Pharaoh to multiply his sin, and then holding Pharaoh accountable for that sin which God himself caused. It is extremely clear from this instance that God does not consider it unjust to judge man for sins which did not have their ultimate metaphysical cause in man himself. Since this is the entire basis for the supposition that free will exists, little more need be said at this point.

Biblical accountability is predicated upon man willingly violating God’s law. The ultimate metaphysical cause of man doing this is not relevant to the issue of responsibility. The fact that God causes man to will evil, and then causes man to perform evil, does not have any bearing on the fact that man does will evil, and does perform evil—actions for which he is held responsible by God, who punishes them accordingly.

That said, I have only so far shown that free will is not necessary in order for man to be held accountable for his actions. This, in itself, ought to give us significant pause for thought, because the supposition of its very existence is almost exclusively based on the issue of responsibility. If man can be responsible without free will (and indeed, if in the Bible man is clearly held responsible in cases where he is not free, where his sin is inexorably and inevitably and necessarily caused by God, as I have shown), then there is no immediate reason to suppose that free will even exists. In the absence of any supporting evidence from Scripture, and given this evidence to the contrary, we certainly ought not to presuppose it dogmatically. However, we can most certainly go further, by showing that not only is free will unnecessary to Christianity, but as a concept is in fact completely irrational and incoherent, such that if it were true, Christianity would be false, because that which is irrational is most certainly not of God. Free will reduces the human volition to a lack of volition; it makes choices uncaused and thus not ours to begin with. It must be corrected by the biblical view that God causes all things, including human thoughts and actions. We will see this in a moment.

Catholic Doctrine

Among the early Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine stands pre-eminent in his handling of this subject. He clearly teaches the freedom of the will against the Manichæeans, but insists against the Semipelageians on the necessity of grace, as a foundation of merit. He also emphasizes very strongly the absolute rule of God over men’s wills by His omnipotence and omniscience—through the infinite store, as it were, of motives which He has had at His disposal from all eternity, and by the foreknowledge of those to which the will of each human being would freely consent. St. Augustine’s teaching formed the basis of much of the later theology of the Church on these questions, though other writers have sought to soften the more rigorous portions of his doctrine. This they did especially in opposition to heretical authors, who exaggerated these features in the works of the great African Doctor and attempted to deduce from his principles a form of rigid predeterminism little differing from fatalism. The teaching of St. Augustine is developed by St. Thomas Aquinas both in theology and philosophy. Will is rational appetite. Man necessarily desires beatitude, but he can freely choose between different forms of it. Free will is simply this elective power. Infinite Good is not visible to the intellect in this life. There are always some drawbacks and deficiencies in every good presented to us. None of them exhausts our intellectual capacity of conceiving the good. Consequently, in deliberate volition, not one of them completely satiates or irresistibly entices the will. In this capability of the intellect for conceiving the universal lies the root of our freedom. But God possesses an infallible knowledge of man’s future actions. How is this prevision possible, if man’s future acts are not necessary? God does not exist in time. The future and the past are alike ever present to the eternal mind. As a man gazing down from a lofty mountain takes in at one momentary glance all the objects which can be apprehended only through a lengthy series of successive experiences by travellers along the winding road beneath, in somewhat similar fashion the intuitive vision of God apprehends simultaneously what is future to us with all it contains. Further, God’s omnipotent providence exercises a complete and perfect control over all events that happen, or will happen, in the universe. How is this secured without infringement of man’s freedom? Here is the problem which two distinguished schools in the Church—both claiming to represent the teaching, or at any rate the logical development of the teaching of St. Thomas—attempt to solve in different ways. The heresies of Luther and Calvin brought the issue to a finer point than it had reached in the time of Aquinas, consequently he had not formally dealt with it in its ultimate shape, and each of the two schools can cite texts from the works of the Angelic Doctor in which he appears to incline towards their particular view.

Notice that this section presupposes the fact of human freedom. It assumes that man’s will must be free, again without any real explanation, before admitting that this creates numerous problems, and going on to list how theologians have attempted to resolve these. So far, it deals only with the contradictions immediately evidenced by comparing the supposition of freedom to the teachings of Scripture. Though “God’s omnipotent providence exercises a complete and perfect control over all events that happen, or will happen, in the universe”, the question is asked as to “how is this secured without infringement of man’s freedom”. Note the respectably biblical description of God’s sovereignty. The Bible is quite perspicuous on this matter. And then note how this biblical doctrine is made to bow before the supposition of man’s freedom. This freedom is not evidenced in the Bible at all, for it is obvious that human decisions are events, and that if God has complete control over events then he necessarily has complete control over human decisions. Thus, by definition of the word complete, we must ourselves have no control over our decisions—at least not from the metaphysical reference point of God. Yet it is considered of such utmost importance that we do have such freedom, even though it is obviously in direct contradiction to God’s nature (otherwise no one would be trying to “resolve” the problem), that it is upheld at the expense of all else. Even the sovereignty of God, as clearly taught in Scripture, is made to kneel before human freedom.

It is not an exaggeration, nor an emotional accusation, but merely an observation of the passage above, to say that the Catholic Church is willing to sacrifice the clear biblical teaching about God’s power before the altar of their assumption about man’s freedom. At the risk of diverting the topic, I feel it must be noted that the supposition of freedom has an obvious and sinister origin, and one which ought to be clearly discernible to any Christian: the desire to be our own masters, and the belief that we have a personal sovereignty apart from God. This is the essence of sin, a central tenet of all Christian doctrine, and always has been—and this is why I consider the question of free will so vitally important to all theology. If it is true that a belief in free will has its origin in our own nature as rebellious and foolish beings, rather than in God’s word, then a belief in it will severely taint our entire understanding of all doctrine, and make proper communion with God impossible. This is because it has such dramatic consequences for our understanding of both ourselves and God, and our relationship to him. As Luther put it, if we know not how much we can do ourselves, and how far our ability extends, we shall be equally uncertain how much God is to do, and how much his ability extends. But if we know not the distinction between our working and the power of God, we know not God himself—and if we know not God, we cannot worship him, praise him, or serve him.

The Encyclopedia passage above does, however, also contain some useful information. Firstly, it implies enough that we may conclude support for our thesis that the freedom involved in free will is a freedom from prior metaphysical causation. It might seem obvious that this is the freedom intended, but so far this has not been adequately explained in the article itself. Perhaps it seemed unnecessary to the author, but given how freedom is always a relationship, it appears to me quite sloppy to not explicitly spell out what this relationship is here. Since this whole article is about free will, the first thing that it ought to have explained is what this freedom is from and to. Without such information the term itself remains undefined, and is left up to the reader to decipher. This is not merely a stylistic problem, but a philosophical one—firstly, it may result in a faulty understanding of what free will is, and thus the article would completely fail to even address its named topic. Secondly, it is indicative of the sort of thinking involved in philosophical discussions of free will in general: imprecision and equivocation tend to be the norm.

Further, though, the passage gives us an expanded explanation of free will which establishes another kind of freedom, apart from God’s prior metaphysical causation. It describes free will as the elective power of man to choose one beatitude over another, in recognition of the imperfection of each. Since none exhausts our intellectual capacity for conceiving the good, none irresistibly entices us to choose it. In other words, free will is the ability to choose between various options, without any of those options having a determining influence in the choice itself. So it seems that, as well as being free from prior metaphysical causation, a free will is also free from being entirely determined by factors outside of the person. Thus, just as God does not cause a free will decision, neither is the decision caused inevitably and necessarily by the situation about which the choice is being made. Of course, the explanation above is couched in terms of the good, which makes one wonder about how free will factors in when choosing evil. But we may assume that, as C S Lewis put it, even evil is only done in pursuit of that which seems good. Evil is never done for the sake of evil itself, since in evil there is literally no reward. The pursuit of evil is merely a perverted pursuit of good.

But if free will is the ability to choose one option out of many, without any of those options having a totally determinative influence on the choice, then certain questions arise. The explanation above explicitly says that free will is the ability to choose between options when “none of them exhausts our intellectual capacity of conceiving the good,” and, subsequently, “not one of them completely satiates or irresistibly entices the will.” This seems to demand the question: would a situation which did exhaust our intellectual capacity for conceiving the good therefore irresistibly entice the will? In such a situation, it would seem that the goodness perceived would influence the function of the will to the point where it would actually determine the choice made—the choice, we might say, could not be resisted. Because of the overwhelming goodness perceived by the mind, it would be inclined inexorably and inevitably toward that option, such that no other option could or would ever be chosen. But if this were true, if the situation determined the choice, then what of free will? Obviously, the will itself was still involved, in that it did choose—but it was not free, since it could not have chosen otherwise. Is it the Catholic contention that in a situation where no greater goodness can be conceived, the will ceases to be free, and inclines irresistibly toward the superlative goodness perceived?

This doesn’t seem an unreasonable contention at all to someone like myself, who does not believe that the will is free from either metaphysical or situational determinative influence. But surely it does raise a significant problem to someone who does believe that nothing influences the will to the point of determining its choices—to the point, that is, where the decision made proceeds inexorably and inevitably from factors outside of the mind. If the will is truly free from this sort of influence, then surely it ought not matter what is the object of choice. If it is possible for even one object of choice can have a determinative influence upon the will, then the will is in some sense not free. In other words, if a man’s choices are indeed uncaused by anything other than himself, then he could always choose the lesser good, because he would never be causally influenced by the greater good. If he were, then his will would not be free by definition (see the latter part of this article for more on this idea of the uncaused will). So the situation described above is in contradiction with the idea of free will, because the superlative good exerts a causative influence on man’s decision. It does not make sense to speak of man’s will being uncaused by external factors, by definition, but then creating exceptions for choices involving superlative good.

Furthermore, this raises the related question: if the maximum good conceivable, when perceived, would always irresistibly incline the will toward it, is it not also the case that the maximum good possible, when perceived, would always irresistibly incline the will toward it also? Does not our will function by always choosing that which seems most good? When does a man ever choose that which is not the best option in his own view? But if man does always choose the best option in his own view, then what remains of freedom? The will must always be inclined to that which seems best, irresistibly, so that a man’s choice is quite determined by factors entirely beyond his control: namely, the situation, and his own psychological makeup.

But if this conclusion is correct, and free will then does not truly exist in the sense intended, it must be observed that the situation which remains is still one in which the mind has a capacity, a power, to choose between one option and another. The fact that it will always choose according to certain parameters, as it were, does not obviate the fact that it does still choose. So what is the significance of free will, except as an invention which ascribes some kind of power to man that nonetheless doesn’t seem to exist (or even make sense) when examined? The faculty of volition, the power of the mind to consider and act toward one direction or another, really does not seem to require freedom from a higher metaphysical cause, or from the determinative influence of the direction chosen. It merely requires an ability to consider, and to act. Why is freedom relevant to the question at all?

Thomist and Molinist Theories

The Dominican or Thomist solution, as it is called, teaches in brief that God premoves each man in all his acts to the line of conduct which he subsequently adopts. It holds that this premotive decree inclines man’s will with absolute certainty to the side decreed, but that God adapts this premotion to the nature of the being thus premoved. It argues that as God possesses infinite power He can infallibly premove man—who is by nature a free cause—to choose a particular course freely, whilst He premoves the lower animals in harmony with their natures to adopt particular courses by necessity. Further, this premotive decree being inevitable though adapted to suit the free nature of man, provides a medium in which God foresees with certainty the future free choice of the human being. The premotive decree is thus prior in order of thought to the Divine cognition of man’s future actions. Theologians and philosophers of the Jesuit School, frequently styled Molinists, though they do not accept the whole of Molina’s teaching and generally prefer Suarez’s exposition of the theory, deem the above solution unsatisfactory. It would, they readily admit, provide sufficiently for the infallibility of the Divine foreknowledge and also for God’s providential control of the world’s history; but, in their view, it fails to give at the same time an adequately intelligible account of the freedom of the human will. According to them, the relation of the Divine action to man’s will should be conceived rather as of a concurrent than of a premotive character; and they maintain that God’s knowledge of what a free being would choose, if the necessary conditions were supplied, must be deemed logically prior to any decree of concurrence or premotion in respect to that act of choice. Briefly, they make a threefold distinction in God’s knowledge of the universe based on the nature of the objects known—the Divine knowledge being in itself of course absolutely simple. Objects or events viewed merely as possible, God is said to apprehend by simple intelligence (simplex intelligentia). Events which will happen He knows by vision (scientia visionis). Intermediate between these are conditionally future events—things which would occur were certain conditions fulfilled. God’s knowledge of this class of contingencies they term scientia media. For instance Christ affirmed that, if certain miracles had been wrought in Tyre and Sidon, the inhabitants would have been converted. The condition was not realized, yet the statement of Christ must have been true. About all such conditional contingencies propositions may be framed which are either true or false—and Infinite Intelligence must know all truth. The conditions in many cases will not be realized, so God must know them apart from any decrees determining their realization. He knows them therefore, this school holds, in seipsis, in themselves as conditionally future events. This knowledge is the scientia media, “middle knowledge”, intermediate between vision of the actual future and simple understanding of the merely possible. Acting now in the light of this scientia media with respect to human volitions, God freely decides according to His own wisdom whether He shall supply the requisite conditions, including His co-operation in the action, or abstain from so doing, and thus render possible or prevent the realization of the event. In other words, the infinite intelligence of God sees clearly what would happen in any conceivable circumstances. He thus knows what the free will of any creature would choose, if supplied with the power of volition or choice and placed in any given circumstances. He now decrees to supply the needed conditions, including His corcursus, or to abstain from so doing. He thus holds complete dominion and control over our future free actions, as well as over those of a necessary character. The Molinist then claims to safeguard better man’s freedom by substituting for the decree of an inflexible premotion one of concurrence dependent on God’s prior knowledge of what the free being would choose. If given the power to exert the choice. He argues that he exempts God more clearly from all responsibility for man’s sins. The claim seems to the present writer well founded; at the same time it is only fair to record on the other side that the Thomist urges with considerable force that God’s prescience is not so understandable in this, as in his theory. He maintains, too, that God’s exercise of His absolute dominion over all man’s acts and man’s entire dependence on God’s goodwill are more impressively and more worthily exhibited in the premotion hypothesis. The reader will find an exhaustive treatment of the question in any of the Scholastic textbooks on the subject.

Here we have what is probably a quite clear and simple exposition of the two basic schools of thought regarding free will and God’s exhaustive, definite foreknowledge. I say this with some irony, since the situation is obviously so convoluted as to be almost unintelligible. Whatever mental gymnastics Catholics wish to perform, they cannot escape the basic fact that, if God definitely foreknows an action, then that action is definitely determined in the situation God foreknows. Whether the situation will occur or not is irrelevant—if it were to occur, it would proceed definitely, inexorably, inevitably, and necessarily as God has foreknown. Since God has definite and perfect knowledge of which situations will occur, and which will not, every situation, every human thought and action, unfolds exactly as he has foreknown. The Open Theists are correct in maintaining that if human actions are truly free, then they cannot logically be foreknown. However, let us read on a little before commenting further.

Free Will and the Protestant Reformers

A leading feature in the teaching of the Reformers of the sixteenth century, especially in the case of Luther and Calvin, was the denial of free will. Picking out from the Scriptures, and particularly from St. Paul, the texts which emphasized the importance and efficacy of grace, the all-ruling providence of God, His decrees of election or predestination, and the feebleness of man, they drew the conclusion that the human will, instead of being master of its own acts, is rigidly predetermined in all its choices throughout life. As a consequence, man is predestined before his birth to eternal punishment or reward in such fashion that he never can have had any real free-power over his own fate. In his controversy with Erasmus, who defended free will, Luther frankly stated that free will is a fiction, a name which covers no reality, for it is not in man’s power to think well or ill, since all events occur by necessity. In reply to Erasmus’s “De Libero Arbitrio”, he published his own work, “De Servo Arbitrio”, glorying in emphasizing man’s helplessness and slavery. The predestination of all future human acts by God is so interpreted as to shut out any possibility of freedom. An inflexible internal necessity turns man’s will whithersoever God preordains. With Calvin, God’s preordination is, if possible, even more fatal to free will. Man can perform no sort of good act unless necessitated to it by God’s grace which it is impossible for him to resist. It is absurd to speak of the human will “co-operating” with God’s grace, for this would imply that man could resist the grace of God. The will of God is the very necessity of things. It is objected that in this case God sometimes imposes impossible commands. Both Calvin and Luther reply that the commands of God show us not what we can do but what we ought to do. In condemnation of these views, the Council of Trent declared that the free will of man, moved and excited by God, can by its consent co-operate with God, Who excites and invites its action; and that it can thereby dispose and prepare itself to obtain the grace of justification. The will can resist grace if it chooses. It is not like a lifeless thing, which remains purely passive. Weakened and diminished by Adam’s fall, free will is yet not destroyed in the race (Sess. VI, cap. i and v).

Although we have now quite adequately gleaned for ourselves that the freedom of free will is a freedom from causative (or determinative) influences external to the mind, another reader might less immediately apprehend this, and here again would find no real help. The term “free-power” is used to refer to some kind of volitional ability which man has in determining his own fate, but once again it has no obvious meaning which cannot equally be used of the word will without free appended. However, hints are given by the description of free will as being not purely passive—in other words, it is active in some way in relation to the action of God. And, because it is active, it is not “rigidly predetermined in all its choices throughout life”, so that man is not “predestined before his birth to eternal punishment or reward in such fashion that he can never have had any real free-power over his own fate.” On the face of it, this may seem reasonable, but the argument seems to run contrary to the doctrine of God’s definite and exhaustive foreknowledge. If God has a definite foreknowledge, as Catholics and Scripture maintain; if he does indeed know with such absolute and incontrovertible certainty which choices we will make in any situation that we will always inexorably and necessarily do as he foreknows; then from his point of view it must be the case that our choices are rigidly predetermined, and that our salvation or damnation is predestined before we are born. Since our choices could never happen in any other way than he foreknows, and since our actions must rigidly occur exactly as he has foreseen, it is simply not sensible to speak of them not being predetermined.

This bears a little consideration. Catholics maintain that man’s choices are not predetermined, and that they do not occur of an inevitable necessity. But clearly, if they are definitely foreknowable, then they cannot happen any other way, since this would violate what definite means. If they cannot happen another way, this would appear to demonstrate that they are predetermined and inevitable—from God’s point of view. What it doesn’t demonstrate is whether this predetermination and inevitable necessity is caused by God, or if it is a result of the active will of man. Either situation could be true. So perhaps we ought not to get too hung up about the Catholics saying that man’s choices are not predetermined, when the context of the denial is with regard to God’s action itself. We should recognize that, while there is a definite denial here that God predetermines our choices, the possibility is left quite open that we predetermine them, from God’s perspective.

What I mean is, given the Catholic position on the will of man being active in relationship to God and having no higher cause than itself, it follows that God’s foreknowledge of it must be passive in relationship to it. Thus, God’s foreknowledge is based on man’s choices—although God knows these choices in advance, it is only because he is timeless and “sees” all of time at once. His knowledge of them, though chronologically prior to their occurring, is logically consequent. Thus, God’s definite and exhaustive foreknowledge of man’s choices, being logically dependent upon those choices, would do no violence to the freedom of the will whatsoever. In such a situation, the apparent predetermination and inevitable necessity of man’s choices is merely an illusory result of God’s unique point of view, and not a question of metaphysical causality. It is the result of God being “simple”—that is, indivisible and irreducible—so that all the knowledge he has is always part of his being. Since he is present at all points in time, the simplicity of his knowledge means that he knows what will happen at all points in time, even though he only learned about it after it happened. This is a little convoluted and might require reading over once or twice, but it seems to me to be an acceptable situation. Basically, man’s choices cause their own predetermination and inevitability, when viewed by God. So, although from his point of view they are predetermined and inevitable, from our point of view, and in a true metaphysical sense, they are not. Thus, the Catholic may maintain that man’s will is indeed free, and our choices not predetermined by God—which is really the crux of the disagreement between Rome and the Reformers.

The only other option, as I have said, is that God’s foreknowledge of our choices is not dependent upon the human will, but rather the human will is dependent upon his foreknowledge. In this situation, God knows our choices in advance because he has purposed and planned them, and causes them to occur inevitably and inexorably as he has predetermined. In this case, the predetermination is God’s, and not ours. It is this position which Catholics reject, since they teach that human actions are not predetermined by God. Therefore, they must say that God’s foreknowledge is logically consequent to man’s choices—and indeed, those Catholics with whom I have discussed this do say this.

This position, however, has certain problems. If God’s foreknowledge of man’s choices and actions is predicated upon the actual occurrence of them, then two things must, by logical necessity, be true. Firstly, God learns. If some of his knowledge is based upon human choices, then, upon the occasion of these choices, he must acquire new knowledge. This presents an obvious problem: since God has infinite knowledge, and is omniscient, how can he gain more? Even if we ignore the mathematical problems associated with adding to infinity (the result does not increase), to say that God is omniscient is to say that he knows everything. But if he can learn, then he cannot know everything. Open Theists get around this problem by saying that God knows everything which can logically be known—but I don’t know that even Catholics will wish to start teaming up with such openly heretical people. In either case, the notion of a God who learns is definitely not an entirely comfortable one.

Secondly, though, is a rather more problematic epistemological issue. If God’s foreknowledge of human choices is logically dependent upon them, then it would be impossible for him to know counterfactuals about people. A counterfactual is something which is not the case, but could be—the middle knowledge or scientia media mentioned in the article, above. When speaking of counterfactuals we generally discuss them in terms of “possible worlds”. For example, we can imagine a possible world in which rabbits can fly. Or, more pertinently, we can imagine a possible world in which Herod, instead of Pilate, was the person responsible for deciding Jesus’ fate. It seems very important that God would know, in this possible world, whether Herod would have acted as Pilate did, or whether he would not have. Otherwise, Pilate’s position would appear to be very lucky indeed for God’s plan of redemption—rather than being providential. If God does indeed work all things according to the counsel of his will, and if his omnipotent providence exercises a complete and perfect control over all events that happen, or will happen, in the universe, it appears to be of the utmost importance that he know the outcome of every possible human choice imaginable. He needs to know every possible world exhaustively, for, in order to have any control over history at all, he must act based on what he knows would happen, so as to direct events according to his purpose. He cannot simply be acting based on what does happen. God is not merely along for the ride in history, but actively forms it according to his own will. He would not be active at all, let alone in perfect control, if he could not know definitely and exhaustively every possible contingency in every possible world conceivable.

But if his foreknowledge of human actions is logically dependent upon those actions occurring, then he could not know the outcome of an imaginary situation which was contingent upon a human choice. He could not know whether, if I were given the choice between chocolate and cheese tomorrow at seven pm, I would choose chocolate. Since his knowledge of my decision is dependent upon the actual active and free exercise of my will, and since no actual event occurred, there can be no actual knowledge. In other words, God only knows exhaustively and definitely which human choices are made, and not which choices would be made given a different situation. This would have the disastrous effect of completely eliminating God’s scientia media of human choices, and proportionately limiting his knowledge gained by simplex intelligentia, thus effectively reducing God’s omniscience to a state of scientia visionis where all he knows what does and will happen, along with trivial knowledge about what could happen in situation involving no human choices. Unless Jesus was guessing about Tyre and Sidon (Matt 11:21), this is obviously not the case. But, even if he was, this is not the Catholic position, as amply evidenced from the discussion in the Encyclopedia article above. Catholic doctrine holds that God does have a scientia media of all human choices.

But then this returns us to the situation of God’s foreknowledge not being logically dependent upon our actions—or, put another way, God’s foreknowledge is not passive in relationship with man’s will. Either his foreknowledge is logically dependent on our choices, in which case he has no scientia media as demonstrated above; or our choices are logically dependent upon his foreknowledge. There is no middle ground. No other solution exists, and no amount of Thomistic and Molinistic cognitive acrobatics will alter this simple, logical fact.

But the latter situation has already been described: it is one in which God always knows with certainty which choices we will make in any given scenario, and which choices we will make in the actual world, because he has himself purposed and caused them to come about. It is a situation in which our acts of will proceed inevitably and inexorably and necessarily as God has foreknown: a foreknowledge which is not passive, but active. In other words, our choices are logically dependent upon God’s foreknowledge. In such a situation, God’s foreknowledge is directly related to his sovereignty. He foreknows our choices because, in his perfect control of the universe, he has predetermined them, and caused them.

So, one way or another, the Catholic position is self-refuting. If we have free will, then the Catholic view of God’s omnipotence is wrong. If the Catholic view of God’s omnipotence is correct, then we don’t have free will. This alone is sufficient to decisively refute the Catholic position, but since we are examining the entire article on free will, let us continue. There is still much more which can be said—

Free Will in Modern Philosophy

Although from Descartes onward, philosophy became more and more separated from theology, still the theological significance of this particular question has always been felt to be of the highest moment. Descartes himself at times clearly maintains the freedom of the will (Meditations, III and IV). At times, however, he attenuates this view and leans towards a species of providential determinism, which is, indeed, the logical consequence of the doctrines of occasionalism and the inefficacy of secondary causes latent in his system.

Malebranche developed this feature of Descartes’s teaching. Soul and body cannot really act on each other. The changes in the one are directly caused by God on the occasion of the corresponding change in the other. So-called secondary causes are not really efficacious. Only the First Cause truly acts. If this view be consistently thought out, the soul, since it possesses no genuine causality, cannot be justly said to be free in its volitions. Still, as a Catholic theologian, Malebranche could not accept this fatalistic determinism. Accordingly he defended freedom as essential to religion and morality. Human liberty being denied, God should be deemed cruel and unjust, whilst duty and responsibility for man cease to exist. We must therefore be free. Spinoza was more logical. Starting from certain principles of Descartes, he deduced in mathematical fashion an iron-bound pantheistic fatalism which left no room for contingency in the universe and still less for free will. In Leibniz, the prominence given to the principle of sufficient reason, the doctrine that man must choose that which the intellect judges as the better, and the optimistic theory that God Himself has inevitably chosen the present as being the best of all possible worlds, these views, when logically reasoned out, leave very little reality to free will, though Leibniz set himself in marked opposition to the monistic geometrical necessarianism of Spinoza.

It is true that only God is active in an efficacious sense. Unless we are willing to entertain the notion of some other non-contingent thing, apart from God, only he can be active. Of course, the Catholic would say that the human will is truly active, and not passive in relation to God; but we have already critiqued this view and shown that it is logically contradictory to other Catholic doctrine. We need only now observe that, were free will true, man would have the same metaphysical standing as God, in that his mind would have a quality of self-existence and self-movement. This view is, at best, very blasphemous. We are made in God’s image—we are not made God himself.

It is worthwhile to take a moment here to repudiate a couple of the representations of the biblical position which are made above. Or, better said, since some of the positions above resemble the biblical position, we should be careful to ensure that they are not misunderstood. For example, it is true that “only the First Cause truly acts”, if we are speaking in the ultimate metaphysical sense. Since all things hold together in God, existing only by his continual power (Heb 1:3, Col 1:16-17), and since we ourselves live and move and have our being in him (Acts 17:28), we and the universe have no power of our own to do anything. Although, in the secondary metaphysical sense (that is, in the sense we normally perceive, rather than in the sense God perceives) we most certainly do act, we could not do so were we not continually caused to do so by God. Our action is dependent upon God’s action. So it is certainly true that the soul, like all things, possesses no genuine causality; and thus cannot be justly said to be free in its volitions. We are not free in relationship to God; we are entirely subject to his continual providence.

This, however, is called a “fatalistic determinism” in the passage above. I agree that it is a form of determinism; but how is it fatalistic? It is true that some definitions of fatalism describe a doctrine which states that whatever will be will be, and that man is powerless to change things. But even this does not agree with the biblical worldview, which states that man has a secondary power granted by God, who causes changes by them—changes which are meaningful by merit of his rational and purposeful plan. Fatalism implies meaninglessness, which is thoroughly anti-biblical. However, I think fatalism is really is more correctly defined, as by the American Heritage dictionary, as a doctrine which holds that all events are predetermined by fate. Hence the name. And fate is an impersonal force; not a personal God. So to represent the biblical position as fatalism is disingenuous at best. It is not fatalism at all. (That said, even if it were fatalism, what does this prove except that Catholics don’t like it? Labeling a doctrine with a negative name does not constitute an argument against it, but rather is an emotional appeal in lieu of one.)

As regards the allegation that God should be deemed cruel or unjust were free will not true, while duty and responsibility for man cease to exist—I have already answered this objection at the beginning. Even if every refutation I made afterward be answered, it remains that responsibility, duty, and God’s justice in no way presuppose, require, or necessitate human freedom. They remain perfectly cogent, sensible doctrines without it. The belief that responsibility entails freedom is a common one—but not a rational one.

In England the mechanical materialism of Hobbes was incompatible with moral liberty, and he accepted with cynical frankness all the logical consequences of his theory. Our actions either follow the first appetite that arises in the mind, or there is a series of alternate appetites and fears, which we call deliberation. The last appetite or fear, that which triumphs, we call will. The only intelligible freedom is the power to do what one desires. Here Hobbes is practically at one with Locke. God is the author of all causes and effects, but is not the author of sin, because an action ceases to be sin if God wills it to happen. Still God is the cause of sin. Praise and blame, rewards and punishments cannot be called useless, because they strengthen motives, which are the causes of action. This, however, does not meet the objection to the justice of such blame or praise, if the person has not the power to abstain from or perform the actions thus punished or rewarded. Hume reinforced the determinist attack on free will by his suggested psychological analysis of the notion or feeling of “necessity”. The controversy, according to him, has been due to misconception of the meaning of words and the error that the alternative to free will is necessity. This necessity, he says, is erroneously ascribed to some kind of internal nexus supposed to bind all causes to their effects, whereas there is really nothing more in causality than constant succession. The imagined necessity is merely a product of custom or association of ideas. Not feeling in our acts of choice this necessity, which we attribute to the causation of material agents, we mistakenly imagine that our volitions have no causes and so are free, whereas they are as strictly determined by the feelings or motives which have gone before, as any material effects are determined by their material antecedents. In all our reasonings respecting other persons, we infer their future conduct from their wonted action under particular motives with the same sort of certainty as in the case of physical causation.

Here again we find the “objection to the justice of such blame or praise, if the person has not the power to abstain from or perform the actions thus punished or rewarded.” And again, I need only point out that this objection is not an argument, but an appeal to an intuitive “feeling” of what is just, in conjunction with a conflation of primary and secondary metaphysical causes. Careful consideration of the question shows that blame or praise be perfectly just when predicated only upon the willing action of the person to whom they are assigned. The ultimate metaphysical freedom of this action bears no relevance to the case at all.

The same line of argument was adopted by the Associationist School down to Bain and J. S. Mill. For the necessity of Hobbes or Spinoza is substituted by their descendants what Professor James calls a “soft determinism”, affirming solely the invariable succession of volition upon motive. J. S. Mill merely developed with greater clearness and fuller detail the principles of Hume. In particular, he attacked the notion of “constraint” suggested in the words necessity and necessarianism, whereas only sequence is affirmed. Given a perfect knowledge of character and motives, we could infallibly predict action. The alleged consciousness of freedom is disputed. We merely feel that we choose, not that we could choose the opposite. Moreover the notion of free will is unintelligible. The truth is that for the Sensationalist School, who believe the mind to be merely a series of mental states, free will is an absurdity. On the other side, Reid, and Stewart, and Hamilton, of the Scotch School, with Mansel, Martineau, W. J. Ward, and other Spiritualist thinkers of Great Britain, energetically defended free will against the disciples of Hume. They maintained that a more careful analysis of volition justified the argument from consciousness, that the universal conviction of mankind on such a fact may not be set aside as an illusion, that morality cannot be founded on an act of self-deception; that all languages contain terms involving the notion of free will and all laws assume its existence, and that the attempt to render necessarianism less objectionable by calling it determinism does not diminish the fatalism involved in it.

It is true that “the notion of free will is unintelligible.” One reason is simply that when we think of free will, we tend to think that volition is integral to its meaning: that is, that a free will has a definite power to choose as it wishes. But this makes certain assumptions about the mind itself which are unwarranted. Firstly, we are our minds, and it should be quite evident that a great deal happens within our minds over which we have little or no control. Quite random thoughts will enter unbidden; emotions will surge up in a way over which we have no control; and once they arrive we have difficulty conforming them to our will, or dismissing them. Very often, we are not at all certain what we want, about our reasoning or motivations, or objectives and desires. But if much of what happens within our own minds is not under our control, or is at best under our imperfect control, then how can we have any confidence that our faculty of choice is entirely under our control either? If we imagine this faculty, this volitional power, as an ability of our mind to move in one direction over another, we should then ask: what causes the mind to move? Obvious problems arise if we say the mind causes itself to move, because this would appear to put us on an equal metaphysical standing with God—that is to say, it would mean that we (our minds) have a power of self-cause or self-existence, as if we did not rely on God at all for anything. As I have mentioned before, this is very problematic since the Bible indicates that quite the opposite is true; and, even if it didn’t, and even if this didn’t raise other metaphysical problems outside the scope of this discussion, we ought to be extremely wary of placing ourselves on such a pedestal without very clear warrant.

But let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that we do have this power of self-cause. If the mind causes itself to move toward one direction or another, then although it is influenced by external factors, what ultimately determines the direction of its movement is internal. That is, using our faculty of thought or consideration, the feelings, memories, and knowledge that comprise the mind are all brought to bear on the situation at hand, and, in light of these, a direction is chosen. It seems reasonable to view the mind as a single whole, indivisible in any meaningful sense, and so it seems similarly reasonable to say that the determinative influence in the direction taken is the state of the mind at the moment of choice. Its overall makeup, including its knowledge and feelings and memories, would determine the direction chosen. But proponents of free will seem disinclined to accept this. They would have it that, as with external influences, the internal influences of the mind are not determinative either. This is with good reason—for most of the internal influences are not self-caused themselves, but are out of our control one way or another. For example, I may have been bitten on my hand by a dog when I was young, and thus be phobic about dogs. This event was not within my control—and neither was the phobia. But the free will advocate would maintain that, in any given situation where I must choose something about dogs, this phobia plays an influential, but not determinative role in my choice. Neither do any of the other dispositions within my mind over which I have no real control.

This seems like a good reason to reject internal influences as being determinative, just as it is to reject external ones. But then the question really must be asked: what does cause the mind to move in one direction over another? If both internal and external factors (ie, if both the state of the mind itself, and the situation under consideration) have only an influential role in the matter, then what determines the final direction taken? It would seem that, if our own state of mind does not have a determinative role in what we choose (and if it does, then we admit our choices to be by no means under our complete control since much of our state of mind is most certainly not), then the faculty of the mind which does the choosing is simply acting arbitrarily. We can have no confidence in it, since even a state of mind most severely inclined in one direction may not influence the mind to move in that direction—against all influence it may, of its own determination, move the other way. But if it does this, then we have already drawn a distinction between state of mind, and the faculty of choosing. If the mind is really a cohesive whole, such a distinction does not seem very sensible—what would this rogue element in charge of moving the mind actually be? We end up with a situation where we cannot trust that our state of mind, which is quite opposed to murder, will be determinative in our actions. And so how can we be confident that we will not murder? More importantly, if the murder is a spontaneous, undetermined and thus uncaused act, in what way is it really ours? How can we be held accountable for such a thing?

Notice how this is also at odds with the comments of the Encyclopedia near the beginning regarding the will being irresistibly inclined toward a superlative good. If neither internal nor external influences have a determinative role in decision-making, then even the greatest good possibly conceived could never irresistibly incline us toward it. There is a definite inconsistency in Catholic doctrine here.

A will entirely free from determinative influence is a will entirely unconnected to our own state of mind, and thus a will entirely arbitrary and outside of our own control. We could also question the difference between states of mind having influence without a determining influence, since influence of any kind must be in some sense determinative—but I think I have said enough to adequately show that the very notion of free will is incoherent, and defeats the thing it tries to defend in the first place: volition and accountability.

The truth that phenomenalism logically involves determinism is strikingly illustrated in Kant’s treatment of the question. His well-known division of all reality into phenomena and noumena is his key to this problem also. The world as it appears to us, the world of phenomena, including our own actions and mental states, can only be conceived under the form of time and subject to the category of causality, and therefore everything in the world of experience happens altogether according to the laws of nature; that is, all our actions are rigidly determined. But, on the other hand, freedom is a necessary postulate of morality: “Thou canst, because thou oughtest.” The solution of the antinomy is that the determinism concerns only the empirical or phenomenal world. There is no ground for denying liberty to the Ding an sich. We may believe in transcendental freedom, that we are noumenally free. Since, moreover, the belief that I am free and that I am a free cause, is the foundation stone of religion and morality, I must believe in this postulate. Kant thus gets over the antinomy by confining freedom to the world of noumena, which lie outside the form of time and the category of causality, whilst he affirms necessity of the sensible world, bound by the chain of causality. Apart from the general objection to Kant’s system, a grave difficulty here lies in the fact that all man’s conduct—his whole moral life as it is revealed in actual experience either to others or himself—pertains in this view to the phenomenal world and so is rigidly determined.

Again we have this erroneous assumption that “freedom is a necessary postulate of morality”. Of course it is not—and if less attention were paid to the godless foolishness of philosophers like Kant, it would be more obvious that God is the necessary postulate of morality, and freedom is merely a replacement.

Though much acute philosophical and psychological analysis has been brought to bear on the problem during the last century, it cannot be said that any great additional light has been shed over it. In Germany, Schopenhauer made will the noumenal basis of the world and adopted a pessimistic theory of the universe, denying free will to be justified by either ethics or psychology. On the other hand, Lotze, in many respects perhaps the acutest thinker in Germany since Kant, was an energetic defender of moral liberty. Among recent psychologists in America Professors James and Ladd are both advocates of freedom, though laying more stress for positive proof on the ethical than on the psychological evidence.


As the main features of the doctrine of free will have been sketched in the history of the problem, a very brief account of the argument for moral freedom will now suffice. Will viewed as a free power is defined by defenders of free will as the capacity of self-determination. By self is here understood not a single present mental state (James), nor a series of mental states (Hume and Mill), but an abiding rational being which is the subject and cause of these states. We should distinguish between:

  1. spontaneous acts, those proceeding from an internal principle (e.g. the growth of plants and impulsive movements of animals);
  2. voluntary acts in a wide sense, those proceeding from an internal principle with apprehension of an end (e.g. all conscious desires); and, finally
  3. those voluntary in the strict sense, that is, deliberate or free acts.

This explanation would, of course, have been helpful before, rather than being left to the end. But we have already mentioned mental states, and I have implied that while the mind contains such states, it is not the states itself (although, depending on what one means by state the implication might seem to go the other way). Nonetheless, I have simultaneously pointed out that the states of mind we experience are not entirely caused by the mind itself—at least, most certainly not by its perfect volitional control). And, again, even if we are abiding, rational beings which are somehow both the subject and cause of our mental states, this says nothing about the cause of us. I do not deny man’s ability, to some extent at least, of self-determination. I simply deny that this determination is metaphysically ultimate—ie, that it has, or needs, no higher cause than itself.

In such, there is a self-conscious advertence to our own causality or an awareness that we are choosing the act, or acquiescing in the desire of it. Spontaneous acts and desires are opposed to coaction or external compulsion, but they are not thereby morally free acts. They may still be the necessary outcome of the nature of the agent as, e.g. the actions of lower animals, of the insane, of young children, and many impulsive acts of mature life. The essential feature in free volition is the element of choice—the vis electiva, as St. Thomas calls it. There is a concomitant interrogative awareness in the form of the query “shall I acquiesce or shall I resist? Shall I do it or something else?”, and the consequent acceptance or refusal, ratification or rejection, though either may be of varying degrees of completeness. It is this act of consent or approval, which converts a mere involuntary impulse or desire into a free volition and makes me accountable for it. A train of thought or volition deliberately initiated or acquiesced in, but afterward continued merely spontaneously without reflective advertence to our elective adoption of it, remains free in causa, and I am therefore responsible for it, though actually the process has passed into the department of merely spontaneous or automatic activity. A large part of the operation of carrying out a resolution, once the decision is made, is commonly of this kind. The question of free will may now be stated thus. “Given all the conditions requisite for eliciting an act of will except the act itself, does the act necessarily follow?” Or, “Are all my volitions the inevitable outcome of my character and the motives acting on me at the time?” Fatalists, necessarians, determinists say “Yes”. Libertarians, indeterminists or anti-determinists say “No”. The mind or soul in deliberate actions is a free cause. Given all the conditions requisite for action, it can either act or abstain from action. It can, and sometimes does, exercise its own causality against the weight of character and present motives.

This has now already been discussed, and the problems with the libertarian, indeterminist, or anti-determinist positions made clear. Furthermore, note the statement that, “a train of thought deliberately initiated or acquiesced in, but afterward continued merely spontaneously without reflective advertence to our elective adoption of it, remains free in causa, and I am therefore responsible for it, though actually the process has passed into the department of merely spontaneous or automatic activity.” In other words, a spontaneous act can be one for which we are held accountable, despite my discussion above regarding the difficulties of even assigning to a person ownership, let alone accountability, of an act which is spontaneous (undetermined) in any true sense. Thus, the Catholic position would seem to be opposed quite positively to the Calvinist one, in that not only are actions with a metaphysically higher cause considered ones for which we cannot be responsible, but actions with no metaphysically higher cause—to the point of being entirely outside of what we can reasonably call our own control—are ones for which we are responsible.


The evidence usually adduced at the present day is of two kinds, ethical and psychological—though even the ethical argument is itself psychological.

(1) Ethical Argument.

It is argued that necessarianism or determinism in any form is in conflict with the chief moral notions and convictions of mankind at large. The actual universality of such moral ideas is indisputable. Duty, moral obligation, responsibility, merit, justice signify notions universally present in the consciousness of normally developed men. Further, these notions, as universally understood, imply that man is really master of some of his acts, that he is, at least at times, capable of self-determination, that all his volitions are not the inevitable outcome of his circumstances. When I say that I ought not to have performed some forbidden act, that it was my duty to obey the law, I imply that I could have done so. The judgment of all men is the same on this point. When we say that a person is justly held responsible for a crime, or that he deserves praise or reward for an heroic act of self-sacrifice, we mean that he was author and cause of that act in such fashion that he had it in his power not to perform the act. We exempt the insane or the child, because we believe them devoid of moral freedom and determined inevitably by the motives which happened to act on them. So true is this, that determinists have had to admit that the meaning of these terms will, according to their view, have to be changed. But this is to admit that their theory is in direct conflict with universal psychological facts. It thereby stands disproved. Again, it may be urged that, if logically followed out, the determinist doctrine would annihilate human morality, consequently that such a theory cannot be true.

I have already quite adequately refuted the idea that determinism adversely affects moral accountability, and indeed given reasons that determinism is required for such accountability; and also mentioned that self-determination and higher metaphysical causation are not at odds unless one is committing a category error—but let me make some observations about this passage.

Firstly, the sort of appeal it makes—to “the chief moral notions and convictions of mankind at large” is incapable of proving anything at all. Such a foundation constitutes, at best, speculation. What guarantee is there that the general moral notions of mankind are in any way accurate?

Secondly, in what way does saying that one ought to do something imply that one can do something? This is not at all obvious to me, and a trivial example will suffice to explain why: suppose that a thief has stolen a great deal of money. When he is caught, we find that he has already spent it. At his trial, the judge states that he ought to repay it—but of course, the moral obligation to repay the money in no way implies an ability to do so, since it has already been spent. Yet I know of no one who would say that the judge is unjust in stating the thief’s moral obligation here. Evidently my experience of universal moral notions (if we are appealing to such a ridiculous thing) is at odds with the Catholics’! Again, in what way does obligation imply ability? (For a similar, biblical example, see Luke 7:41f.)

In short, this ethical “proof” relies upon intuition to establish its argument. It openly admits that, rather than being based on Scripture, it is based upon some supposed commonality of experience. But how do we even know how to interpret out experiences correctly without Scripture (see again my book The Wisdom Of God)? In fact, it astounds me to find any professed Christian appealing to commonality of experience in establishing an argument—but particularly here, where we are discussing moral experience, given that even Catholics affirm that man is by nature inclined to sin, and that indeed mankind is thoroughly fallen and trapped in sin, and thus frequently misses the mark on the matter of moral questions. Another example might be helpful here. Consider that, as well as finding it intuitively obvious that a man must have free will in order to be held morally accountable, most people also find it intuitively obvious that God is in the wrong for punishing man for just doing what seems right to him. And despite that Catholics dilute the doctrines of grace to the incredible point of affirming that even non-Christians can be saved, they nonetheless do affirm the doctrine of hell, which to virtually every non-Christian, and many professing ones, is morally unpalatable. It is their intuitive sense that no one deserves hell, and that a God who would create hell is in fact morally depraved!

This illustrates easily that mankind is so completely morally destitute, and misses the mark so badly as regards issues of ethics, that he has completely reversed the correct order of things by setting himself up as the arbiter of moral judgment, holding God to his standards. It is his intuitive belief that all manner of things God does and has done are wrong in some way—in fact, the “Old Testament God” (as opposed to the “different” New Testament one!) is frequently referred to even by professing believers as vindictive, judgment, spiteful, petty, and generally unworthy of worship. And yet it is to this pool of universal moral notions and convictions that the Ethical Argument above appeals in establishing that free will exists?

(2) Psychological Argument.

Consciousness testifies to our moral freedom. We feel ourselves to be free when exercising certain acts. We judge afterwards that we acted freely in those acts. We distinguish them quite clearly from experiences, in which we believe we were not free or responsible. The conviction is not confined to the ignorant; even the determinist psychologist is governed in practical life by this belief. Henry Sidgwick states the fact in the most moderate terms, when he says:

Certainly in the case of actions in which I have a distinct consciousness of choosing between alternatives of conduct, one of which I conceive as right or reasonable, I find it impossible not to think that I can now choose to do what I so conceive, however strong may be my inclination to act unreasonably, and however uniformly I may have yielded to such inclinations in the past (Methods of Ethics).

The force of the evidence is best realized by carefully studying the various mental activities in which freedom is exercised. Amongst the chief of these are: voluntary attention, deliberation, choice, sustained resistance to temptation. The reader will find them analyzed at length by the authors referred to at the end of this article; or, better still, he can think them out with concrete examples in his own inner experience.


The main objection to this argument is stated in the assertion that we can be conscious only of what we actually do, not of our ability to do something else. The reply is that we can be conscious not only of what we do, but of how we do it; not only of the act but of the mode of the act. Observation reveals to us that we are subjects of different kinds of processes of thought and volition. Sometimes the line of conscious activity follows the direction of spontaneous impulse, the preponderating force of present motive and desire; at other times we intervene and exert personal causality. Consciousness testifies that we freely and actively strengthen one set of motives, resist the stronger inclination, and not only drift to one side but actively choose it. In fact, we are sure that we sometimes exert free volition, because at other times we are the subject of conscious activities that are not free, and we know the difference. Again, it is urged that experience shows that men are determined by motives, and that we always act on this assumption. The reply is that experience proves that men are influenced by motives, but not that they are always inexorably determined by the strongest motive. It is alleged that we always decide in favour of the strongest motive. This is either untrue, or the barren statement that we always choose what we choose. A free volition is “a causeless volition”. The mind itself is the cause.

This argument is really saying nothing that the one above it has not already said—ie, that since we perceive something to be the case, therefore it must be the case precisely as we have interpreted. But I quite agree that we have the perception of weighing a situation and choosing one way or the other. And biblical determinists do not deny that, in fact, we do weigh a situation, and that we do choose one way or the other. They simply deny that this choice is “uncaused”, as if that could mean anything useful anyway (see my comments previously). Why should it be? In fact, to suggest that the movement of our minds is caused by the minds themselves reduces metaphysical anthropology to garbage—it is only sensible if our minds move because God moves them, in ways which correlate to our own conscious thoughts and decisions.


Free will does not mean capability of willing in the absence of all motive, or of arbitrarily choosing anything whatever. The rational being is always attracted by what is apprehended as good. Pure evil, misery as such, man could not desire. However, the good presents itself in many forms and under many aspects—the pleasant, the prudent, the right, the noble, the beautiful—and in reflective or deliberate action we can choose among these. The clear vision of God would necessarily preclude all volition at variance with this object, but in this world we never apprehend Infinite Good. Nor does the doctrine of free will imply that man is constantly exerting this power at every waking moment, any more than the statement that he is a “rational” animal implies that he is always reasoning. Much the larger part of man’s ordinary life is administered by the machinery of reflex action, the automatic working of the organism, and acquired habits. In the series of customary acts which fill up our day, such as rising, meals, study, work, etc., probably the large majority are merely “spontaneous” and are proximately determined by their antecedents, according to the combined force of character and motive. There is nothing to arouse special volition, or call for interference with the natural current, so the stream of consciousness flows smoothly along the channel of least resistance. For such series of acts we are responsible, as was before indicated, not because we exert deliberate volition at each step, but because they are free in causa, because we have either freely initiated them, or approved them from time to time when we adverted to their ethical quality, or because we freely acquired the habits which now accomplish these acts. It is especially when some act of a specially moral complexion is recognized as good or evil that the exertion of our freedom is brought into play. With reflective advertence to the moral quality comes the apprehension that we are called on to decide between right and wrong; then the consciousness that we are choosing freely, which carries with it the subsequent conviction that the act was in the strictest sense our own, and that we are responsible for it.

But of course, although the article says that “free will does not mean the capability of willing in the absence of all motive, or of arbitrarily choosing anything whatever”, I have shown a few paragraphs above that, if we work out all the metaphysical implications, this is indeed what an assertion of free will necessarily means. This is why the very idea of it is incoherent. While it seems intuitively sound on the face of things, once we analyze it more closely we find that what we thought of as “freedom” is actually simply arbitrariness and the action of willing in the absence of all motive. Which is not how we are at all, and is not how we even think free will ought to work. Thus, it is a meaningless and useless idea which makes no sense in even a non-biblical worldview (as if any non-biblical worldview could make sense anyway). But when thrust upon the Bible, whose teachings are then forced into this new metaphysical framework in which man has some ill-defined metaphysical causal ability of his own apart from God, it reduces intelligible and consistent doctrines to unintelligible, inconsistent foolishness. It destroys the doctrines of grace in favor of a doctrine of works, and turns truth into falsehood. God can no longer elect to salvation, or reprobation—after all, that conflicts with our intuitive sense of morality, never mind how sinful it is—and man is no longer incapable of saving himself. It makes God less than what he is, and man more—and so we are left with what is no longer a Christian worldview, but a humanistic one forced from biblical teaching. When the whole doctrine of salvation—the whole message of the gospel—relies upon a coherent, accurate anthropology and theology, how much power can a gospel based on free will have to save? This is a very serious, sobering question.


Our moral freedom, like other mental powers, is strengthened by exercise. The practice of yielding to impulse results in enfeebling self-control. The faculty of inhibiting pressing desires, of concentrating attention on more remote goods, of reinforcing the higher but less urgent motives, undergoes a kind of atrophy by disuse. In proportion as a man habitually yields to intemperance or some other vice, his freedom diminishes and he does in a true sense sink into slavery. He continues responsible in causa for his subsequent conduct, though his ability to resist temptation at the time is lessened. On the other hand, the more frequently a man restrains mere impulse, checks inclination towards the pleasant, puts forth self-denial in the face of temptation, and steadily aims at a virtuous life, the more does he increase in self-command and therefore in freedom. The whole doctrine of Christian asceticism thus makes for developing and fostering moral liberty, the noblest attribute of man. William James’s sound maxim: “Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day”, so that your will may be strong to stand the pressure of violent temptation when it comes, is the verdict of the most modern psychology in favour of the discipline of the Catholic Church.

Let me conclude by simply reiterating that the description above can equally apply to moral faculty, to the power of choice within us, which is part of our mind—yet not free. Since our mind is metaphysically caused by God, this moral faculty itself, and the decisions it produces, are caused by God. It is only by presupposing that free will exists that one is able to discover it in the passages of Scripture, or in the requirements of moral law, justice, duty, and so on, which speak of self-control, turning from evil, and making eternally significant choices. Free will is not necessary to these things. The power of choice, given and sustained by God, is.

1 comment

  1. Ripken Holt

    Wow, thank you for writing this article. It was a monster.
    I’ve been reading little chunks of it each day for the past two weeks because that’s all my mind can handle before tiring and I’ve finally finished it.
    I think that I now have a good understanding of free will, but I’m still miles away from being able to explain it to someone during the course of a conversation.

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