Free Will


Free Will, power or ability of the human mind to choose a course of action or make a decision without being subject to restraints imposed by antecedent causes, by necessity, or by divine predetermination. A completely free act is itself a cause and not an effect; it is beyond causal sequence or the law of causality. The question of human beings’ ability to determine their actions is important in philosophy, particularly in metaphysics and ethics, and in theology. Generally, the extreme doctrine in which freedom of the will is affirmed is termed libertarianism; its opposite, determinism, is the doctrine that human action is not willed freely, but is rather the result of such influences as passions, desires, physical conditions, and external circumstances beyond the control of the individual.


Freedom of the will has necessarily been a concern of metaphysicians, who attempt to formulate theories explaining the nature of ultimate, universal reality and the relationship of human beings to the universe. Some metaphysicians hold that if the universe is rational it must be based on a sequence of cause and effect: every action, or effect, must be preceded by a cause and must form a part of the unbroken chain of causation extending back to the First Cause, that is, God, or the Divine. An act of absolute free will on the part of a person or an animal is, however, an uncaused act outside the causal chain; to accept the possibility of an uncaused act negates such divine, rational order and makes the universe seem irrational. Viewed in this manner, this question has never been satisfactorily resolved. During the Middle Ages, the inexplicability of free will led to intense argument among religious philosophers and to the famous dilemma known as “Buridan’s Ass”, often attributed, perhaps incorrectly to Jean Buridan.

The validity of free will has also been a subject of considerable debate among ethical philosophers. It would appear that a system of ethics must imply free will, for the denial of the ability to choose a course of action would seem to negate the possibility of moral judgement. A person without moral judgement is not responsible for his or her actions. In an attempt to resolve this problem, ethical philosophers have taken a great variety of positions, ranging from absolute determinism to absolute libertarianism. Socrates and Plato maintained that people could will their own actions, but that only those actions that accorded with the good or harmony of the whole were truly free. Thus, only a wise action is free. Baruch Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher, reinterpreted free will as self-determination, that is, insofar as a person fits into God’s nature and the world’s own nature. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, believed that a person must be free because freedom is a necessary postulate of the moral consciousness; the Kantian categorical imperative is beyond any theoretical analysis. The prevailing philosophical opinion has been that partial self-determination exists, and that, although many considerations other than will are involved in the formation of moral judgements, in certain circumstances a core remains, however small, of creative decision.


Free will is important in theology. One of the basic tenets of traditional Christian theology is that God is omniscient and omnipotent, and that every human action is foreordained by God. The doctrine of predestination, the theological counterpart of determinism, seemingly precludes the existence of free will. Because morality, duty, and the avoidance of sin are also basic elements in Christian teaching, how, it is asked, can people be morally responsible once predestination is accepted? Many attempts have been made by theologians to explain this paradox. St Augustine, the great Father and Doctor of the Church, firmly believed in predestination, holding that only those elected by God would attain salvation; no one, however, knows who is among the elect, and therefore all should lead God-fearing, religious lives. Freedom, for him, was the gift of divine grace. This was opposed by the British monk Pelagius and particularly by the followers of his doctrine, pelagianism, who maintained that Adam’s sin concerned only Adam and not the whole human race, and that everyone, although helped by divine grace to attain salvation, has complete freedom of will to choose or reject the way to God. Eventually, Roman Catholic theologians stated the doctrine of prevenient grace to explain free will; according to this doctrine, God bestows on individuals the grace to will themselves into a state of grace.

During the Reformation, the question of free will became a religious battleground. Many Protestant sects, notably the Calvinists, emphasized the Augustinian doctrine of predestination and the complete exclusion of free will. Calvinistic predestination was considered a paramount heresy by the Roman Catholic Church, and the Council of Trent in the 16th century condemned all who denied free will. Still, the problem was not resolved. The French Roman Catholic prelate Jacques Bénigne Bossuet offered yet another approach, which became widely held; he stated that free will and divine foreknowledge are certain truths that must be accepted even though they are not logically connected.


Psychologists have found it difficult to explain free will; their method of scientific causality predicates determinism. The rational philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, who were, in a sense, psychologists, attempted to state mechanistic laws that would include mental phenomena as they did physical phenomena, such as gravity; free will, being anarchistic by definition, could not be patterned into law. In the 20th century, certain psychologists especially the advocates of existentialism—recognized the element of spontaneity in the human mind that is admitted to lying outside any possible scientific law. This spontaneity can be interpreted to be free will or at least a measure of self-determination that people feel themselves to possess and by which they make moral judgements.