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.




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