Why We Do Not Have Free Will

Patheos is hosting a symposium on the question “Do we have free will?” — one the classic questions of philosophy, psychology, and the humanities in general, a question rich in religious significance and theological implications, a ridiculous question.

I’ll take a shot at it.

My reply is very simple, albeit perhaps deceiving in its point of emphasis.

We do not have free will.

The positive way to put it would be to correct the original question and posit the following as an alternative:

Insofar as we are able to exercise free will, it is not our possession; we have no rights or deserts to will freely; our free will is a gift — it is given.

If freedom of the will, even as a mere possibility, is given, then, it cannot, strictly speaking, be had. Even after the gift is received, the gift does not cease to be a gift, it remains a gift and demands, from its donation, to be treated as such. When gifts are treated as possessions, ingratitude is the result.

This is an important qualifier upon the original question that also tempers and chastens the possible replies: one cannot be free in the most radical (and nihilistic) sense when one is not in full possession of one’s freedom. Insofar as our free will is a gift, then, its most obvious manifestations are limited by their origin as gifts.

This answer is more than a few shades removed from determinism. But it also forces us to recognize and remember that freedom of the will truly is free, as all gifts must be given freely. As such, it is not only a gift — it is also a responsibility. Gratitude is required. Plus, if freedom isn’t free, then it’s not freedom.

As such, we cannot even take the possibility of our free will lightly and must realize that it is tethered to a mystical act of donation.




  • nodoubt1

    One God = One Mind = One Cause. The sense that we have a will of our own is pure delusion. We can in truth only express God, the will of God. We do not really will, or cause, anything. We are only expression, image, idea. “Let there be light – and there was light”! We don’t come in until the second half of that equation – as result.

    • badcatholic

      This is why we can’t have nice things, Hegel.

  • m8lsem

    Right up there with ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”, or else maybe hair-splitting.
    If we are given something, after the gift, we have it. Indeed, free will is why God cannot be accused of orchestrating the Holocaust.

    • SamRocha

      I am not denying free will in the way that would hold God liable for the holocaust, that much should be obvious. The question is whether we *have* gifts, whether it matters that what is given is a gift and not a possession. Do you think that *having* a gift is the same as *having* something that is not a gift? All of the Christian tradition seems to strongly echo the fact that our lives (and along with that, I presume, our will) is not our own. If THAT is trivial or hair-slpitting, then, you have effectively dismissed a great deal of Gospel message.

      • Darren

        I am afraid that I must disagree further.

        If something, anything, is a gift, then once it is accepted it is precisely that, a possession, no longer owned by the giver.

        The recipient may be grateful or ungrateful, they may make good use of the gift or squander it, but it is theirs to do so.

        A gift that remains perpetually a gift is not a gift at all.

        • SamRocha

          A gift remains a gift in at least one aspect: its givenness.

    • SamRocha

      I should also mention that the saying, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” is a well-known insult to scholastic philosophy. So if dissing the scholastics is what you’re into, then I’ll be very happy to not meet your standards.

  • Lynn Loring

    I appreciate this piece and find it very clarifying….I completely “get it” and agree…thank you

  • Darren

    An interesting take on the question.

    Can something be considered a gift, though, if it cannot be refused?

    • SamRocha

      Thanks, Darren. You raise a very important point, that actually reaches the limits of the language of the gift. I am doing some work on this right now and hope to share more soon…

      • Darren

        And thank you, Sam.

        You are absolutely correct that this conception of Free Will being a gift reaches the limits of the language; I am afraid I must contend it actually exceeds the limits of the language . One can only call God-given Free Will a gift if one changes the definition of Gift.

        If a gift must be freely given, it must also be freely accepted; change either end and you have something… else.

        While a lovely literary meander, Free Will in the normal Theist sense is no more gift than is Gravity or Entropy.

        I do look forward to hearing your further thoughts on the matter.

  • http://kevinspencerfn.tumblr.com Kevin SPencer

    Free Will. If we do not have Free Will given by God The Father, the world will not be how it is now. Free Will is the basis of Sincerity. Forcing someone to love you and not seeing his or her true colors will not constitute to true happiness between parties. Which means because of Free Will, man does everything he wants to do, good and bad. Through Free Will ones real self is exposed.