Do Humans Have Libertarian Free Will?

image_pdf

By David P. Diaz, Ed.D.

Background

Philosophical naturalism1 is a worldview that asserts that physical matter is all that exists. All 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; all acts are determined.

On the other hand, mind-body dualism asserts there are immaterial aspects of the universe that are distinguishable from matter (e.g., numbers, thoughts, first-person experiences, etc.). Some people in this group (i.e., theists) 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 and ham & cheese on wheat. 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 act is genuinely free only if one can choose to do otherwise. Libertarian freedom requires that a free act 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. More importantly, libertarians believe that the freedom to do otherwise is necessary for determining moral responsibility.

Reasons for Affirming Libertarian Free Will

The question addressed in this brief article is: “Do humans possess libertarian free will?” The short answer to this question is YES, we do.5 There are at least two primary reasons for thinking that humans possess libertarian free will (hereafter LFW):

  1. LFW is consistent with our everyday common-sense experience of free choice.
  2. LFW makes the best sense of human moral accountability.

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

Furthermore, science operates on the assumption of free will. Researchers typically believe they have the freedom to choose one hypothesis or research method over another. They are confident in their freedom to select the individual sources for their literature review and the type of statistical method they will use. Scientists don’t think twice about whether they have free will when writing up the results of their research. A scientific investigator will likely never ponder whether he or she must write the following limitation into their research article: “I do not have free will, and therefore all my conclusions are determined.” LFW is a common-sense notion that seems as self-evidently true in one’s daily life as it does in scientific research.

Second, humans have moral obligations or duties7 for which they are held accountable and by which they become valid recipients of moral praise, blame, reward, or punishment. If people are to be held morally responsible for their decisions, they must cause their own moral actions. LFW is self-caused freedom, which means a free agent is involved in choosing. When witnesses take the stand in a courtroom, they are required to tell the truth under threat of perjury. Thus, within the justice system, as with science, a witness is considered perfectly free to tell the truth or to lie.

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.

Christian theists believe that God has called all humanity to believe in Christ as Savior for the forgiveness of sins (1 John 3:23; Acts 10:43). For this offer to be valid, one must be free to obey or disregard such a calling. Any offer of salvation and forgiveness would be neither genuine nor fair unless one can freely accept or reject it. Therefore, based on the two reasons discussed above, it seems justifiable to affirm a belief in LFW.

God’s Foreknowledge and Free Will

The remainder of this article will answer two objections to the notion that humans possess LFW. From a Christian perspective, a 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. Therefore, 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 all things in advance, then no action can be truly free. That is, if God knows ahead of time that Joe will perform an action (A), then it logically follows that Joe will necessarily perform A. The argument attempts to show that God’s foreknowledge of A somehow constrains Joe from doing anything other than A.

The problem with the argument is premise 1. This premise is ambiguous because it could mean one of two things. The first possible meaning is: If God knows in advance that Joe will clap his hands at t1, then, necessarily at t1, Joe will clap his hands. We will call this premise 1a. The second possible meaning is: If God knows in advance that Joe will clap his hands at t1, then it is necessary that Joe clap his hands at t1. We can call premise 1b.

The difference is subtle but critical. The Incompatibility Argument requires the truth of 1b, but the argument only supports 1a. In other words, 1a tells us if God foreknows that Joe will clap his hands at t1, it follows that at t1, Joe will clap his hands. However, it does not follow that Joe will clap his hands by necessity (i.e., deterministically). If humans possess LFW, then Joe clapping his hands could fail to happen. More importantly, if it fails to occur, then it only means that God’s foreknowledge would have been different.

The argument, as it stands, commits a fallacy in modal reasoning.9 The crucial difference is whether God’s knowing something will happen also determines it to happen. The answer is no. If God knew that a person’s choice would not happen, then God would not have foreknown it; instead, he would have foreknown something else. God’s infallible knowledge simply guarantees that if God knows in advance that a person will choose action B instead of A, then God would have held belief B 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, such a view includes an unstated assumption, which is: An omnipotent God can do anything whatsoever. But this makes no sense. The God of Christian theism acts according to his own perfect nature. A God of goodness and justice will balance his goodness with the requirements of his justice. And a God who is perfectly logical will act according to what is logically possible. After all, what benefit would it be for an infinite being to create a square circle, a married bachelor, or a false truth?

The explanation lies in a correct understanding of God’s attributes. 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. But there is never an instance where God violates his nature because his nature is perfect.

So, what do God’s attributes 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 God may allow humans to freely choose between good and evil acts because he considers it a greater good 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, perhaps free will is a necessary characteristic of a life worth living.

Conclusion

Libertarian free will is a common-sense attribute of our lives and must be acknowledged 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. And if a person were to choose a different action in the future, then God would hold different beliefs about these future events.

The preservation of free choices, even though some may be moral evils, may mean that God considers free will a valuable and necessary characteristic for the genuine happiness and fulfillment of human creatures.

About the Author:

David P. Diaz is an independent researcher and retired college professor. His writings have ranged from peer-reviewed technical articles to his memoir, which won the 2006 American Book Award. Dr. Diaz holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from California Polytechnic State University, a Master’s in Philosophical Apologetics from Houston Christian University, and a Doctor of Education specializing in Computing and Information Technology from Nova Southeastern University.

Footnotes

  1. Philosophical naturalism is a materialistic/naturalistic philosophy that asserts that nothing that is supernatural or transcendent to the space-time universe exists. In other words, the natural world is the whole of reality. 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. See the following TIBP articles for arguments for the existence of God: (1) “A Brief Look at the Ontological Argument,”http://thingsibelieveproject.net/a-brief-look-at-the-ontological-argument/ (2) “The Kalam Cosmological Argument,”http://thingsibelieveproject.net/the-kalam-cosmological-argument/ (3) “God v. Matter As the Cause of the Universe – Part 1” http://thingsibelieveproject.net/god-v-matter-as-the-cause-of-the-universe-part-1/ and (4) “God v. Matter as the Cause of the Universe – Part 2” http://thingsibelieveproject.net/god-v-matter-as-the-cause-of-the-universe-part-2/ (5) “A Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God” http://thingsibelieveproject.net/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. See 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 there is an alternative view to determinism and libertarian freedom (i.e., “compatibilism”), it will not be discussed in this paper. Compatibilism has been briefly discussed in my article: “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. “Model logic is the logic of necessity and possibility.” See 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *