You have a free will, but are you free?

"The Sacrifice of Isaac," Juan de Valdes Leal (Wikimedia)
“The Sacrifice of Isaac,”
Juan de Valdes Leal (Wikimedia)

There is a difference between having a will and the ability to use it. Mostly we collapse this distinction and assume that having freedom means we can use it. To put it more colloquially: all I need to do is decide to do something, and then I can do it. But Christianity has never understood freedom this way, and there are all kinds of ordinary experiences that affirm the Christian view rather than this other one.

Freedom is a tricky thing to figure out. One of my favorite philosophers, Maurice Blondel, wrote hundreds of pages on what he called “the science of action.” He insists that he needs to talk about action rather than just freedom because, for one thing, being serious philosophers means we’re not sure that freedom exists until we’re done thinking it through; second, action definitely happens, even if we’re not free at all. To make everything even more complicated, Blondel points out that we can’t even know where an action begins or ends. You think your action started when you decided to do something? Well, what produced that decision? Was it instead when you started to do the actual thing? But what led to that, and while we’re at it, where did your thought stop and your doing begin? Did they? So human action, you see, is a tricky thing. Let alone freedom. (There are two versions of his original book, no less, since he spent decades reworking the first one.)

Blondel takes pains to show how free actions emerge from “determined” (or non-free) systems. There all kinds of dynamic but rigid systems operating, say, within my body. My heart pumps blood, and I don’t really control that at all except in some kind of secondary way; I certainly don’t control the duplication of cells in my skin. These are determined systems. They’re not free, have no founding “decision” and no decision internal to their operations. I don’t even get much a say in those things – often I get no say at all. And yet I rely on them fundamentally before I take any action, and I continue to rely on them as I act.

For Blondel, all these non-free systems do not imply that freedom is impossible. For many people of his time and today, it does. Determinism is that pernicious idea that every dynamic that we see at any time is already determined by some law or another. It was already determined. Because one thing is set in stone and cannot be changed, all things are that way. Blondel points out that this is an assumption. There is nothing within the law of photosynthesis, say, that tells us that everything has to follow rules just like photosynthesis does. So for Blondel human action, particularly free action, is this remarkable phenomenon that emerges from what is determined, and yet that is not (entirely) determined by what it emerges from.

We can see already how any action that we take is bound up in a dynamic mesh of freedom and non-freedom. People point this out in very simple ways when they say something like, “I don’t know how to do that.” It’s not that I don’t have the freedom to assemble a car engine; it’s that I have no idea how, and so I can’t. Or the toddler who doesn’t have a word for how they feel: the emotion is real, very real, but they are not free to say what it is. In more complicated ways, conversations about privilege and discrimination are built on the idea that not everyone has the same set of opportunities, which means they don’t get the decisions other people do.

Phenomena like addiction and mental illness push us even harder on these ideas. Here, things like want to and can’t get tragically ripped apart, and it is frequently quite difficult to understand. The addict might want to stop using; the addict is also really terrible at stopping, and just can’t seem to. We like to blame the addict, but we also need to ask: how free is this person right now? Or the person suffering from severe anxiety who can’t walk into a room: they probably want to go into that room, but they are also probably so afraid that going into that room seems like facing death. Sure, it doesn’t look like death to you, which makes it easy to hop in and out of the room. But if did look like death, your freedom would tremble before it. You wouldn’t be so free anymore. Your options have changed, because now you’ve got to deal with all this fear.

Catholic moral tradition has for centuries distinguished between someone’s freedom and their responsibility. It recognizes, in various ways, that someone who does something might be under duress, or might be ignorant, or might be any number of things that affects the kinds of options they’re able to take. This doesn’t mean everything we do gets an excuse or wiped away like nothing, but it does mean that we’re not these invincible little islands of freedom that remain unaffected by the world around us.

It is something argued that Mary, because she was perfect and full of grace – at least according to Catholics – was less free than the rest of us, because there was so little chance she’d sin. She wasn’t going to say No to God. Come on! So she wasn’t really free. Thinking like this sees freedom as a set of options, and my freedom is determined by whether I feel like I can equally choose between these options. That is, it is true, one kind of freedom. (Sometimes called “negative freedom”: freedom means not being forced.) Another kind is the quickness and immediacy with which I make a decision: if I see someone hurt, how long does it take me to stop and ask if they’re okay? How closely do I pay attention when I ask? The more I practice doing this, the better I will get at it, and – on this account of freedom – the more free I will be to make that decision. It comes more naturally to me, and its ease is a sign of my freedom. (This is called “positive freedom”: freedom to do something.) Mary was free in this way.

I think we dislike things like addiction, mental illness, and sin because they challenge the basic idea that I can just go and decide to do something, and that doing it is just as simple as deciding, when really neither deciding nor doing are simple at all. It’s terrifying to see the truth in others, but perhaps even more so to see it in ourselves: to understand the ways that we are not free, even while we still have freedom. But if this is what it means to be human, does it always have to be bad that we are not-free as well as free? Does it always have to come down to blame or to weakness, as if it’s my freedom’s fault that I’m also not free?

To open my eyes at all brings it to dramatic light. When I wake up in the morning, what options lie before me, and how many pass me by because I don’t see them in the first place? How many things will never be placed into my hands because they can’t be, because they won’t be, because I was someplace else? Is that my fault, or is it some impossible blend of decision, limitation, and guilt?

And yet I have freedom that is not entirely determined by the things that determine it.

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