Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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On Freedom, Responsibility, and Meaning

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In the coffee shop today I happened to cast my eye over a National Geographic, and noticed an interview with Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project. The interview was conducted by John Horgan, who no doubt has some claim to fame of which I am quite unaware. Collins is described as a “devout Christian”, who sees no disharmony between science and faith; Horgan is described as an agnostic who is “increasingly concerned” with the influence of religion upon the world.

The interview very quickly devolves into a discussion of the “problem” of evil. Horgan puts it to Collins that the presence of evil in the world is very difficult to reconcile with the presence of God—and Collins agrees that it is “the” fundamental problem with which “seekers” must grapple. However, it is easily explained…by free will.

Horgan reminisces with Collins about how important free will is to them, being “the basis for our morality and search for meaning,” and Collins then proceeds to prattle on about how heredity and whatnot have an influence, but not a defining influence, in the decisions we make. I did not read the whole article; I had neither the time nor the inclination. But I did want to comment on it.

I’m going to assume that my general position on this topic is quite clear, and that no one doubts I distrust Collin’s profession of faith, given his obvious failure to understand one of the most basic biblical doctrines despite 29 years of “being a Christian” (he was converted, the article relates, in 1978). I am going to assume that my position is clear on his theodicy: it is unbiblical and false. I am going to assume that my feelings about such irrational, humanistic foolishness being published in international magazines as “the Christian position” are clear. So let me then use that quote as a point of departure:

[Free will is] the basis for our morality and search for meaning.

Let’s imagine that this really were so. Let’s imagine that morality was impossible without free will; and that even our search for meaning was similarly predicated upon it. Without free will, morality and meaning would be impossible.


It’s easy to imagine what Horgan means when he says that free will is the precondition for morality. This argument is virtually always raised as the first objection to the biblical teaching on morality and responsibility. Stated lucidly, it looks something like this:

Without the ability to freely choose between good and evil, we could not be held responsible for the choices we make. If our choices are destined or caused by factors beyond our control, then we have no ability to choose otherwise; so how, then, can we be punished or rewarded for them?

A moment’s reflection should make it clear that this statement is splitting at the seams with implicit assumptions and suspect inferences. The idea that we can only be held responsible for our choices if we are free to make them seems (to some) intuitively correct. But what do the words responsible and free actually mean here? It has been assumed that their meaning is clear, and yet it seems to me that really they are not clear at all. Consider, then—

When we speak of responsibility, we are speaking of accountability—the situation of being held accountable, or obliged to answer for our actions. Now, responsibility is always to some authority—it is meaningless without a law, and an enforcer of that law. It does not stand alone, but implies an authority to whom we are accountable. In the context of an at least supposedly Christian discussion, this is easily addressed, since God is the authority against which we claim people responsible for their sin, or for their virtue. He has revealed the law, and it is by the law that we define good and evil and thus evaluate our actions. We are accountable to him. We are also, admittedly, accountable to each other—but only because God, who has given the law, has declared it so. It is by his authority that we have human laws, and these laws are only authoritative inasmuch as they are made so by him. Without the authoritative revelation of God, we would not have justification for human laws, and at best sin or virtue would be arbitrarily decided and thus make responsibility meaningless in any case. Thus, it is ultimately against God, and God only, that we sin (Ps 51:4).

But what does freedom have to do with this? Just as responsibility is invariably to some authority, freedom in turn is invariably from some kind of influence. So what influence are we here discussing? Presumably a freedom from the necessity to choose one course instead of another. But what is the relationship between a necessity to choose evil, and accountability for this choice? Why should we not be held accountable for a choice just because we have no ability to choose otherwise?

The proponent of free will may reply with some analogy about how we would not hold someone responsible if he was coerced to choose evil at gunpoint. Thus, freedom is clearly at issue. But coercion is not synonymous with necessity—it is only one kind of necessity! I agree that if we are forced to do something against our will, then we ought not be held responsible for it—or, at least, we should be held responsible only in proportion to our ability to resist. But then, notice that I have now introduced the concept of our will: our desire, purpose, determination, attitude or inclination to do something. If our will is set against something, but we are made to do it anyway, then we are not responsible—but then, presumably the converse is true: if our will is set for something, and we do it, then we are responsible.

But what, then, of freedom? The analogy of being forced to choose at gunpoint is no longer relevant, since we have agreed that coercion mitigates responsibility—so we have at least established that when we speak of freedom we mean freedom from coercion. But coercion, as I said, is only one kind of necessity. Other kinds of necessity, such as some necessity regarding our will, seem quite irrelevant. If we will evil, and do evil, we should be held responsible—but then where is freedom in this equation? Imagine I were to write it out like a formula:

    will + action = responsibility

The free will advocate would say that I am indeed missing something in that formula: the word free in front of will. But even ignoring what the Bible says for a moment, so as to analyze this in isolation, what justification is there for this assertion? Surely, if we will something, and we do it, then it doesn’t matter if our will is free from anything—we are still responsible!

This really highlights the total futility of attempting to decide the prerequisites for responsibility without some kind of objective standard to which to appeal. It is my own contention that it does not matter one iota whether or not our will is free from anything—regardless of what it is—when it comes to deciding accountability. If I willed to do something, and I did it, then I am accountable. Indeed, as I will show in a moment, by introducing the idea of freedom at all the situation is reduced to total incoherency.

But the free will advocate disagrees. He asserts that the will must be free in order for my equation to make sense. Notice, first, that this is totally arbitrary. It is merely his opinion—it is certainly not a proposition gleaned from Scripture, whether explicitly or by deduction. (If it is, let him show me where and how; but not a single free will proponent ever has or could.)

So freedom from necessity is said to be imperative in order to safeguard moral responsibility. We can agree that we are all influenced to choose in certain ways, but the freewiller (if I may call him that) simply cannot conceive that these influences necessitate our decision one way or the other. Nor can he conceive that it would be fair to hold anyone morally accountable for his actions if indeed he was necessitated to act one way or the other. Again, I feel compelled to point out how arbitrary this is. This is not some kind of logically necessary fact inferred from Scripture or from reality. It is opinion—and thus immediately falls into the category of humanistic pretension. But without becoming too carried away in our little polemic, let us consider this idea of freedom from necessity.

The Catholics, among others, hold to this view. It is their opinion that, in order for a decision between one course of action and another to be morally meaningful, both courses must actually be possible. It must not merely seem possible, but actually be possible. In other words, the decision must not proceed inevitably from some prior causes or conditions, but be truly possible one way or the other. The Open Theists, who are perhaps even greater heretics, also believe this, but they at least are not so daft as to affirm that elevating human ability to this supposed pedestal of sovereignty can be logically reconciled with God’s definite foreknowledge of all things. Thus, they admit that, if human actions are totally free from necessity, such that they may be influenced but ultimately are truly possible one way or the other until the very moment of action, then God simply cannot know which course we will choose. If he did, then by merit of this foreknowledge (because it is definite and cannot be otherwise), we could never have an actual ability to choose one way or the other, but only the appearance of that ability. We would always inevitably choose the course which God foreknew. Thus, they declare that God does not know which actions humans will freely choose until they freely choose them. Unlike the Catholics—at whose doctrinal dissonance one can only really wonder—we must, I suppose, at least admire the Open Theists’ audacity in carrying through their reasoning to its inevitable conclusion, even as we despise and condemn their stupidity at failing to recognize its incongruity with Scripture because of the baseless starting premise.

But if freedom from necessity is a requirement of moral responsibility, then although factors like our mood, prior experience, judgment, desires, and so on might influence our decisions, they cannot cause them to go inevitably one way or the other. In other words, prior factors do not play the determining role in deciding our actions. But these factors are what comprise our minds as human beings—if our actions are not decided necessarily by them, then what does cause them? Since our own will is apparently not influenced to the point of action by our own minds (which are the totality of our emotions, thoughts, knowledge, desires and so on), then what, may we ask, does influence the will to the point of action?

Such a situation would make our will to be evidently not part of our mind at all, which is a remarkable notion if ever there was one. Furthermore, since our will is not influenced to the point of inevitable action by our own thoughts and feelings—ie, our own minds—it is in fact then necessarily not under our complete control, and we can have no confidence that, given any particular choice, we will be able to act one way and not the other!

For example, if I am given the choice between chocolate and cheese, I will be influenced to choose chocolate right now, because I don’t really feel like cheese (although cheese is delicious and I will probably have some later). But since what I feel and think doesn’t causally determine what I will do, maybe I will choose cheese anyway despite my really not wanting any.

You say this is a trivial and frivolous example, and so it is. Who cares if I choose cheese or chocolate, apart from Mainland and Cadbury? When the decision is unimportant, it seems unimportant about whether the mechanism of my choosing is entirely under my own control. But as the stakes become higher, this touted free will that is so highly regarded becomes more and more of a disastrous wildcard. When I am in a position to knowingly cause the deaths of several strangers by choosing an option which costs me less, suddenly it becomes rather important that my decision was really my own, and not the random result of “free will”. And when the people are known to me personally and indeed are close friends, it becomes even more important, we would say, that I really did do it on purpose, as a direct result of my own inclinations and thoughts and feelings—and not that I merely stood by helpless to influence it as my unpredictable and totally free will acted randomly to ensure destruction.

But of course, we can’t really help our thoughts and desires and emotions either, can we? We don’t have full control over them; indeed, we had no say in where we were born, how we were brought up, and in many of the thoughts that pop into our heads. Neither can we control the reactions we feel to certain things—we can’t help feeling angry or sad, and in fact it seems inappropriate sometimes to try to avoid such emotions. So either our actions are determined by who we are, over which we have at best imperfect control—or they are determined separate from who we are, in which case we have no control at all!

Such is the abject and irrational state of humanistic thinking. By inventing this idea of freedom, and then militantly insisting that it is the necessary precondition for responsibility and thus morality, the humanist turns a perfectly coherent and sensible state of affairs into an incoherent and insensible pot of boiling fish. A lucid, intelligible, and eminently biblical equation is turned into a quite absurd and meaningless jumble of characters by the addition of the word free.

    will + action = responsibility

This is the very simple equation with which the Bible presents us. If we will evil, and we do evil, we are responsible and God will punish us—unless we are covered by the blood of Christ. Of what relevance is it that both our wills and our actions are causally determined by God himself, as with all the universe (Heb 1:3)? And, to preempt the laborious and painfully stupid objection that God cannot cause our actions because then he would be responsible for evil—

Have you not been paying attention this whole time? Responsibility is to an authority, just as freedom is from something. To what authority is God held accountable? By definition, it is we who are responsible, and God who is the arbiter of judgment. And yet the humanist presumes to reverse this when he learns that God causes all things, saying that this would make God responsible for evil—and this cannot be, for God is good!

It must be admitted that there is a certain sly cunning in his reasoning here. In reality, he is not at all upset about the idea of God being responsible for evil, although he couches his objection in this most pious language, as many professing Christians in service of Satan do. What he is really very upset about is that, if God causes all things, then his own supposed sovereignty (the freewiller’s, that is) is null and void. Regardless of how irrational believing in human sovereignty is, how opposed to biblical teaching or the obvious logical necessity of metaphysics, the unconverted man absolutely will not countenance or acknowledge the possibility of his sovereignty being a self-imposed delusion. To do so would necessitate him to submit to God, who truly is sovereign, and thus abandon sin.

So he appropriates the most valuable and virtuous things, like morality and meaning, as the ends by which to argue that his sovereignty must be so. In a sense, I suppose, this is just another example of Satan convincing the world that he does not exist. But we ought not to put up with such nonsense—we must take back the biblical principles of morality and meaning and make them captive to Christ; not to anyone else. It is only through a convoluted patchwork of confused inference that the unbeliever can twist his beliefs to match up with scriptural truths—it is not hard to crush such underhanded reasoning beneath the obvious and clear truth of the Bible.


There isn’t a great deal more I actually need to say at this point. Since I have shown not only that responsibility is not predicated upon freedom, but also that freedom is impossible in the sense Horgan means, his claim that it underlies “the search for meaning” is obviously false, even if I don’t show how. But let’s consider his statement briefly.

I don’t know exactly what he means by “the search for meaning”. Honestly, the phrase is so vague as to be useless; but I will hazard a guess. If Mr Horgan doesn’t wish to be misunderstood, he should be more precise in his phrasing. Since he was speaking to someone who at least professes faith in Christ, who would presumably affirm that human existence, being instituted by God, finds its meaning in him, I suppose he is referring to the ultimate meaning of human existence—and is supposing that this meaning requires freedom.

But meaning is something propositional. It is an interpreted goal or purpose or intent. So the search for meaning ends with the Bible, since it is the objective revelation of God as to our own goal or purpose or intent, and that of the universe also. What further meaning could we possibly search for? And, since this is the case, what does this have to do with free will? One need not have free will to read and understand the Bible. One need not even have free will to search for meaning in general. One need only have mental faculties that work!

But perhaps Horgan had a rather more wishy-washy definition of “meaning” in mind. Perhaps he was referring to a sort of sense of meaning, like a feeling of fulfillment. Or perhaps he was implying that our search for meaning, having its end in discovering meaning, is only, well, meaningful if we are able to freely accept or reject it. In other words, perhaps he was talking about our ability to love God, and to have faith in him. I have often seen it argued that our love for God is only meaningful if it is free. Perhaps that is what he meant.

But what does freedom have to do with love? Firstly, according to what standard is love determined to be meaningful or not? What does that even mean? From where did this notion of “meaningful” and “not meaningful” love originate? Secondly, like the issue of responsibility, freedom just doesn’t feature at all—it is only the irrational supposition of the humanist, who wishes to insert his sovereignty everywhere it does not belong, that freedom is even a factor. If we simply stuck to what the Bible and good reasoning reveal, we wouldn’t even have this incoherent concept of “freedom”!

Now the freewiller will argue that love, you see, is not meaningful if it is coerced. But love, even if we are adopting the colloquial emotional meaning of the term rather than the biblical meaning of an attitude of benevolence, is not love at all if it is coerced! You cannot force someone to love. Love is something which must, by definition, be willing; otherwise it is merely the grudging inability to do otherwise. And, as we saw with responsibility, willingness and freedom have nothing to do with each other, and indeed willingness becomes incoherent once freedom is assumed because there is no longer any necessary connection between one’s affections and one’s actions.

It must also be asked, who in their right mind would say that we are free to not love? I certainly don’t anticipate being in a position to choose whether I will love my first child. I don’t imagine I shall ponder the question, and come to some kind of determination each day. I will love my child because it is my child and because that is an aspect of my nature which God has decreed. I will not love it perfectly, but that will not obviate the involuntary love I have. I will not be able to simply decide not to love it any more; and then the next day decide to love it again. The same is true of God himself—do we dare say that he could simply choose to not love us, his people? Could the Son decide freely to stop loving the Father? God is love! It is like asking whether God could stop being logical, or holy, or omnipotent. Indeed, the more important the love, the more compelling we find it, the less choice seems to even be relevant—and, the less choice we have, the more meaningful it seems to be.

But are we not commanded to love? Certainly we are—but again this merely shows the stupidity of supposing freedom here. If free love was meaningful, then commanding someone to love would make no sense! The whole idea of free love is that it is not enforced or demanded, but rather is willingly given. But the Bible tells us that love is not something desired but required, and we are under judgment for failing to give it. I said above that the more meaningful the love, the less choice we have—not that we never have any choice. Since biblical love is an attitude of benevolence and the fulfillment of God’s law, it is quite possible to choose to love in this sense; and the Christian willingly grows in love, because he wants to love despite his sinful nature. Indeed, he does this because wants to be less and less able to not love; because there is no benefit in not loving. None of this suggests that all love is voluntary, or that love being voluntary entails freedom of the will; or that freedom is required for love to be “meaningful”. On the contrary, the command to love completely contradicts the notion of free love being meaningful.

I think I have written enough. I imagine I have by now made it clear that freedom has nothing to do with responsibility and meaning—indeed, that not only do they not require it, but that they become incoherent when it is introduced. Freedom in this sense is not a biblical concept. It is not even a concept which would ever occur to someone not so wholly corrupted and depraved in mind by the effects of sin that he has entertained the irrational notion of his own sovereignty. It is a man-made idea; a human invention. To believe it is to disbelieve God; and to disbelieve God is to make yourself God. We have been suffering for that mistake since Adam—and yet we continue.



hey there. a few questions, if you don’t mind: could you clarify primary secondary causes? thanks


Certainly. I presume you want a general clarification—

Primary cause is really synonymous with “ultimate cause”, or simply “God” if we are speaking as Christians. When we speak of primary cause, we are speaking of the ultimate metaphysical reason that things exist as they do, and act as they do.

Secondary cause, on the other hand, is one level of causation removed. In other words, when a billiard ball hits another one and “causes” it to move, that is secondary cause. What causes that cause in the first place is the primary cause—God.

It is valuable to think of primary and secondary causes as separate contexts, because people have a tendency to conflate the two. For example, in discussing human actions, many people get hung up on the fact that, in the primary sense, God causes everything we do—they object that this means we have no control over our own actions, because they are implicitly thinking of the primary context as if it is secondary, and are thus forgetting that although God causes our actions, what this really means is that he causes us to cause our actions. There is a secondary causation going on which we must remember—it is over this which we have control. To say that we have control over the ultimate metaphysical causation of our actions is simply nonsense, since it would give us the power of God himself.

It is better to speak in the secondary context so as to emphasize this (which is how the Bible generally speaks), so that we simply talk about making choices, causing things to happen, and so on—but remembering as we do so that these events of ours do not happen of our own power, but because of God’s power.

For more discussion of primary and secondary cause, particularly as regards human actions and the will, see my recent article Annotating The Catholic Encyclopedia: Free Will.


correct me if I’m wrong, then, but if I were to hit someone, I would’ve caused the hitting, and God would’ve, well, caused me. am I right to say this?


“There is a secondary causation going on which we must remember—it is over this which we have control.” From the hitting example, and from the quoute, is it implicit that we have chosen to perform our actions, viz., secondary actions?


Yes it is. We have chosen to perform our actions, in the secondary context. Of course, God causes us to do this, in the primary context.


So if we chose to perform our actions, it was only because God has ordained it, such that, while we have chosen to perform a particular action, we had no other option but to choose it? Does that not make speak of choices meaningless?


It is true that we had no other option (from God’s point of view). But could you explain why you think this makes speaking of choices meaningless?


because we had no alternative but to perform an action and choice requires this alternative (at least in the dictionary definition). perhaps that isn’t an adequate answer though; tell me if isn’t.


To choose is simply to select between a number of possible alternatives; or, even more basically, to select an option out of many. When we say “possible” alternatives, we are speaking in a secondary context—after all, definitions are couched in that context. We don’t mean “possible as God sees it”; we mean “possible as we see it”. We ought to fully affirm that human beings do indeed choose: they do indeed select out of possible options (in the secondary sense). In the primary context, we have no alternative to choose otherwise; yet even in that context we do still choose. We do still select an option. As God sees it, although we could not select any other option than the one we do, because he himself causes our selecting, we nonetheless do still select.

Hope this helps. Again, my critique of the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on free will should explain this in more detail than I can here.


It does indeed. My apologies if you have already covered this to a fuller extent in your critique, but I haven’t had time to read it properly. Another question: If, as you say, we are able to select one possibility of many, could this be extended to the proposition that we are free to choose a possibility of many, such that perhaps you have defined free will to broadly, and really it only warrants a very narrow definition? Thankyou once again for taking the time to answer my questions.


If, by “free” will, we mean a will free, in the secondary context, to choose a possibility out of many, then certainly I affirm free will. But this is not free will as the term is commonly used and understood by theologians and philosophers. Specifically, this is not libertarian free will, which is the position implied in the article I discuss above, and the position which I critique in my annotation of the Catholic Encyclopedia article as well. Catholics, Arminians, and the like would be quite unwilling to accept the definition above as a truly free will, because they would insist upon taking the matter beyond secondary causation and into ultimate metaphysical causation. They would say that this definition is trivial, and that unless we are free from God we have no free will at all.

It is this, libertarian understanding of free will which I am critiquing. The view you are asking after is compatibilist freedom, which is a quite different thing, and quite biblical. However, I regard it as quite confusing to use the term free will as regards compatibilism, because of the connotations and ideas associated with it (ie, libertarian ones).