Do Humans Have Libertarian Free Will?

By David P. Diaz, Ed.D.

Background

Materialistic naturalism1 is a worldview that asserts that material causes determine all human actions. Effects arise from a string of material causes that recede from the present into the distant past. If physical matter is all that exists, then free will is an illusion.

Others believe in the existence of immaterial, metaphysical aspects of the universe (e.g., numbers, thoughts, first-person experiences, supernatural beings), which are distinguishable from matter. Of this group, many believe that God2 has endowed his human creatures with the ability to freely choose one action over another.

For most people, free will seems to be a given. Nearly all of us act in our ordinary life as if we can choose between a lunch of salami & pickles on rye, on the one hand, and ham & cheese on wheat, on the other. And you probably wouldn’t try to convince your wife that she is deluded in thinking she isn’t free to select one book to read rather than another. However, since the term “free” has different uses, it seems like a good idea to define what we mean by “free will.”

The libertarian3 view of free will affirms that an action is genuinely free only if one can choose between one act or another. That is, one must have the freedom to choose otherwise. Libertarian freedom requires that an action “not be causally determined by factors beyond one’s control.”4 In other words, a free act is not compulsory in any sense; a person must be able to change her mind and do something different if she so chooses. Importantly, libertarians believe that the freedom to do otherwise is a necessary characteristic for determining moral responsibility.

The question addressed in this brief article is: “Do humans possess libertarian free will?”

Reasons for Affirming Libertarian Free Will

The short answer to the question posed above is yes; humans do possess libertarian free will.5 There are at least two primary reasons:

  1. Libertarian free will agrees with our everyday experience.
  2. Free will makes the best sense of human moral accountability.

On the first count, Dew and Gould suggest that free will is a self-evident feature of our experience: “It is a datum of human experience that our actions seem to be free.”6 For example, in our day-to-day experience, we typically do not question whether we can spontaneously scratch an itch, raise a hand or, instead, wiggle a toe. Most of us just intuitively know that we can do these things freely and under our personal powers.

Further, science bases its methodology on the notion of free will. Researchers typically believe they have the freedom to choose one hypothesis or research method over another. They are confident that they are free to select the respective sources for their literature review and the type of statistical method they should use. Scientists don’t think twice about whether they have free will when writing up the results of their research. One will likely never see the following assumption written into any research article: “I do not have free will, and therefore all my conclusions are determined.” Thus, libertarian free will is a common-sense notion that seems just as self-evidently true in our daily lives as it does in scientific research.

Second, humans have moral obligations or duties7 for which they are held accountable. A person becomes a valid recipient of moral praise or blame, reward, or punishment based on meeting such obligations. If people are to be held morally responsible for their decisions, they must cause their own moral actions. Libertarian free will is self-caused freedom, which means there is a free agent involved in choosing. When witnesses take the stand in a courtroom, they need to tell the truth under threat of perjury. So, according to the justice system, a witness is considered perfectly capable of telling the truth or lying.

Furthermore, how could we punish or imprison anyone for violating penal codes or other laws if their actions are determined? If one has no choice but to think or act a certain way, then one cannot say that someone ought to do one thing or another (“ought” implies “can”). If determinism is true, one cannot do anything authentically right (or wrong) because one cannot act otherwise. Any punishment or reward would be completely arbitrary.

Christians believe that God has called all humanity to turn toward God and believe in Christ as Savior for the forgiveness of sins (1 Jn. 3:23; Acts 10:43). If this offer is valid, everyone must have the freedom to obey or disregard such a proposal. Any offer of salvation and forgiveness would be neither genuine nor fair unless one can freely accept or reject it.

For the two reasons discussed above, it seems rational to affirm a belief in libertarian free will. The remainder of this article will answer two objections to the notion that God has created humans with libertarian freedom. Each objection has a working assumption that the God of Christian theism exists but still argues that his attributes are incompatible with free will.

God’s Foreknowledge and Free Will

One common objection to free will, which I will call the Incompatibility Argument, asserts that human free will is incompatible with God’s foreknowledge.8 The argument goes something like this:

  1. If God knows in advance that Joe will clap his hands tomorrow at 4:00 pm (t1), then it must be the case that Joe will clap his hands at t1.
  2. If it must be the case that Joe will clap his hands at t1, then Joe is not free to refrain from clapping his hands at t1.
  3. Conclusion: Joe isn’t free with respect to clapping his hands at t1.

If this argument is sound, then no one ever performs free actions. The argument leads us to believe that if God knows that Joe will perform an action (A) then it logically follows that Joe will necessarily perform A. Indeed, the argument attempts to show that God’s foreknowledge of A somehow causes Joe to do A. The problem with the argument is premise 1. The first premise is ambiguous because it could mean one of two things:

One possible meaning is:

(1a) Necessarily, if God knows in advance that Joe will clap his hands at t1, then indeed Joe will clap his hands at t1.

Or it could mean:

(1b) If God knows in advance that Joe will clap his hands at t1, then it is necessary that Joe clap his hands at t1.

The difference is subtle but critical. The Incompatibility Argument requires the truth of (1b), but the argument supports only (1a), not (1b). Necessarily, if God foreknows A (i.e., Joe will clap his hands at t1), it follows that A will happen. But it does not follow that A will happen necessarily. If humans possess libertarian free will, then A could fail to happen. And if it were to fail to transpire, then God’s foreknowledge would have been different. The argument as it stands commits a fallacy in modal reasoning.9

The crucial difference, and the very point at issue, is whether God’s knowing that something will come to pass also causes it to come to pass. God’s infallible knowledge simply guarantees that if God knows what will come to pass, and if a person chooses action B instead of A, then God would have held a different belief about this future action. So, it is true that God knows what future actions will take place, and it is also true that humans are free to act one way or another.

God’s Omnipotence and Free Will

Many people suggest that if God is all-powerful and all-good, he would prevent all evil and suffering in the world. Indeed, they say, if an omnipotent God can prevent suffering, then he would be morally deficient if he doesn’t. However, there is an unstated assumption in the claim of omnipotence: An omnipotent God can do anything whatsoever. But this makes no sense. Indeed, even an omnipotent God must be limited by what is logically possible. After all, what benefit would it be to an infinite being to create a square circle, a married bachelor, or a false truth?

The answer lies in a correct understanding of God’s attribute of omnipotence. Theologian Thomas Oden defines omnipotence as “the perfect ability of God to do all things that are consistent with the divine character.”10 In other words, being all-powerful means that God can do anything as long as it is consistent with his nature. So, for example, God is always truthful (Jn. 3:33, 34), and his word is truth (Jn. 17:17). Therefore, God’s nature is such that it is impossible for him to lie (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Also, God cannot not exist because he, by nature, exists eternally (Ps. 90:2). God is who he is and nothing other. Therefore, he cannot do anything that violates his nature including that which is logically impossible.

So, what does God’s omnipotence have to do with free will? Plantinga suggests that free will is a significant-good that is necessary in its own right: “A world containing creatures who are significantly free… is more valuable, all else being equal than a world containing no free creatures at all.”11 So, God may allow humans to freely choose between good and evil acts because he considers it more valuable than not to have truly free creatures. It may be that free will is such an essential property for humans that God would not consider rescinding it just to prevent some evil and suffering. Therefore, even if an all-powerful God could eliminate all suffering, perhaps an all-good God would not. Although human free will provides the possibility of some evils, maybe free will is a necessary characteristic of a life worth living.

Conclusion

Libertarian free will is a common-sense attribute of our lives and is a necessary feature of the world if we intend to hold humans morally responsible for their actions. God’s foreknowledge does not preempt human free will; it simply means that God knows what future choices a person will make. If a person chooses different actions in the future, then God will hold different beliefs about these future events.

God’s omnipotence does not mean that he can do anything whatsoever. It is impossible for God to do things that are inconsistent with his nature and/or are logically impossible. Such a characteristic in an infinite being should be considered a perfection, not a defect. Thus, the preservation of free will, even in the face of moral evils, means that God considers free will a valuable and necessary characteristic for genuine happiness and fulfillment in human creatures.

About the Author:

David P. Diaz, Ed.D. is an author, retired college professor, and the publisher and owner of Things I Believe Project. His writings have spanned the gamut between peer-reviewed technical articles to his memoir, which won the 2006 American Book Award. Dr. Diaz holds Bachelor’s and Master of Science degrees from California Polytechnic State University and a doctoral degree in education from Nova Southeastern University.

Footnotes

  1. Due to space limitations, the author will not assess the merits and weaknesses of materialism in this article.
  2. The author will not argue for the existence of God in this paper. He has addressed this topic elsewhere: See “A Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God.”
  3. In the context of this article, libertarianism refers to a type of freedom of the will; it does not refer to the political philosophy that upholds liberty as a core principle.
  4. Timothy O’Connor and Christopher Franklin, “Free Will,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Spring 2021). Online: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/freewill/.
  5. Although an alternative view to determinism and libertarianism—“compatibilism”— will not be discussed in this paper, the topic has been discussed in “Socratic Dialogue: Does Man Have Free Will.”
  6. James K. Dew and Paul M. Gould, Philosophy: A Christian Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019), 131.
  7. When we say there are “moral obligations,” we mean to say that a moral action is not simply a fact about what is but is a fact about what ought to be. Moral obligations direct us to act a certain way because some deeds are genuinely right while other actions are wrong. See David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 151–52.
  8. Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil, Kindle ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), Kindle location 760ff.
  9. William Lane Craig, “Doctrine of God (part 14),” [cited 12 November 2021]. Online: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-2/s2-doctrine-of-god-attributes-of-god/doctrine-of-god-part-14.
  10. Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2009), 51.
  11. Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), Kindle Locations 340-341.

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