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Free Will: Some Basic Concepts

Some of the conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism depends on the concept of free will. Calvinists believe that Arminians have inadequate explanations of how God is still sovereign, if humans have free will. Arminians believe that Calvinists have inadequate explanations of how God is still good, if humans do not have free will. Stating the problem in that fashion reveals my bias toward Arminianism, because a Calvinist would not use the term “free will”, unless they enclosed it in scare quotes. Calvinists deny that indeterminism, which is what is usually referred to as “free will”, is the common sense understanding of what free will is and that it should be taken as the starting point for discussions on human freedom. I have a hard time sympathizing with Calvinists on that point.

Sometimes Calvinists talk as though free will has something to do with freedom from external constraint. At a very rudimentary level, they raise their right arm and say, “See, I have freedom to raise my right arm.” My response is, “So what? What does that have to do with free will?” In fact, a person could have their arms tied to their sides, and still have the ability to freely choose to raise their arm. They just would not have the freedom to act upon that choice. Similarly, someone’s arms could be untied, and they would have the freedom to raise their arm if they so choose, but they could still lack the freedom to choose to raise their arm. For example, if God foreordained from eternity past that they shall choose not to raise their arm, then they would not be free to choose to raise their arm, even if they were free to move their arm if they so choose. The basic fact is that freedom of the will is different from freedom of the arms. The ability to freely choose is different from the ability to freely act on that choice. Thus, presence or absence of external coercion is completely irrelevant to free will.

Determinism is defined as the proposition that at any time, under any circumstances, only one future path is open to a person. This can occur either because the material universe is all there is and the motion of matter and energy is governed by deterministic laws, or because God foreordained everything that shall come to pass, including every single detail of literally everything. The former is physical determinism; the latter is theological determinism. Indeterminism is simply the denial of determinism. In other words, according to indeterminism, under at least some circumstances, at some times, more than one future path is open to a person. Free will is the ability to choose between multiple future paths that are open to a person.

The Thomistic understanding of free will is that a person is an agent who chooses for a reason. The will is governed by the reason. When we have a choice to make, we deliberate, weighing the options in our heads, perhaps weighing the consequences of our choices, comparing those consequences against our values and goals, and so on. This is the activity of the reason. This deliberative process then informs the choice, and we then make a choice based on our reason.

The model of the will in which a person is an agent who makes a choice for a reason is compatible with either determinism or indeterminism. If the activity of the reason is determined either by physically deterministic forces or the eternal, unconditional divine decree, then the reason will come up with the one conclusion that is in accord with those determiners. Then, the will will choose accordingly. However, if more than one future path is open to the person, then the reason is competent to decide between those multiple paths. Perhaps it should be called “free reason” rather than “free will”.

This provides a clue to the question of how God can know future free choices. As a side note, this has always seemed to me an unnecessary question. God knows future free choices because he is omniscient. That means he knows everything, including future free choices. Q.E.D. There is no need to ask further questions. However, a lot of people seem to be stumped by this seemingly straightforward proposition. The concept of a person as an agent who makes a choice for a reason can provide a clue here. It is a person’s reason that guides the choice. The choice involves deliberation. God knows people’s free choices because God knows the people he created. He knows them personally. He has propositional knowledge of what they will choose because he has personal knowledge of them as persons, as agents who make choices for reasons. Because their choices flow out of who they are as persons, God’s knowledge of their choices follows from his knowledge of them as persons. Whether God’s knowledge of people as persons is “present” or “future” or “before the foundations of the world” is irrelevant, because God is eternal. There is no relevant difference between God’s knowledge of who I am today and God’s knowledge of who I will be 20 years from now. There is no relevant difference between the knowledge God had “before” he created the world (whatever “before” means in that context) and the knowledge God has now. That is a consequence of the divine attribute of eternity. So in the end, God’s knowledge of future free choices is just a very sensible result of the combination of the divine attribute of omniscience, the divine attribute of eternity, the nature of a person as an agent who makes a choice for a reason, and God’s knowledge of us as a personal knowledge and not just a propositional knowledge.

This certainly does not answer all the questions and challenges that are brought by Calvinists regarding free will, but I hope to at least have introduced some basic concepts in a lucid way.

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