5 Things Everyone Agrees on in the Free Will Dbate

Man is the intersection of two worlds….[I]n him there takes place the conflict between spirit and nature, freedom and necessity, independence and dependence. ~Nikolai Berdyaev

Everyone involved in understanding the human person wrestles with Berdyaev’s two worlds: freedom and necessity. What are these two worlds? What is their relationship to each other? What impact does this have on everyday life? And, the answers to these questions go in many, often contradictory, directions.

Like most debates, this one tends to focus on the areas of disagreement. That, of course, is the heart of the argument. So, it’s not surprising that the disagreements get most of the attention. But, we lose something when we only focus on disagreement. At the very least, we lose the opportunity to appreciate what really is (and isn’t) at stake in the discussion. If we’re going to approach the free will debate with clarity and charity, this can’t be our starting point.

So, instead of highlighting that which divides, I’d like to focus on 5 areas of general consensus in the debate. Before I start, though, it’s important to realize that I’m talking about the free will debate as it currently stands among evangelical Christians. So, these won’t necessarily be areas of consensus for philosophers, scientists, and theologians coming from other perspectives. But, among evangelicals Christians, these are 5 areas on which both libertarians and compatibilists agree.

1. Human persons have free will. Everyone agrees that human persons do in fact have free will. We must affirm this at the beginning of the discussion. I often hear people assert that some group denies the reality of free will. No, they don’t. Even if you think you have reasons for questioning the adequacy of their overall view, you shouldn’t incorrectly suggest that they deny the reality of free will. Among Christian theologians, there are few (if any) hard determinists. So, let’s stop pretending that there are.

2. Human persons are morally responsible beings. Since I included moral responsibility in my definition of free will, this area of agreement is technically a part of the first one. But, it’s so important that I thought it worth mentioning separately. Many of the arguments in the debate center on accusing some other perspective of denying or undermining moral responsibility. And, of course, it is possible that they actually are undermining this key principle. But, let’s begin the discussion by recognizing that they do not think they have done so and have no intention of doing so. All of those involved explicitly affirm the responsibility of human persons for their actions and decisions. Let’s start there.

3. Not all human actions and decisions are meaningfully free. Everyone agrees that not all of our actions/decisions are meaningfully free. Instinctive actions over which I usually have little or no control (e.g. breathing) do not qualify as “free” actions in the sense that most intend. Nor would actions that result from external coercion and/or manipulation. No one is talking about these kinds of actions, though they come into play as thinkers have to determine how to distinguish between free and non-free actions.

4. Free will is compatible with divine sovereignty. Again, everyone agrees that God is sovereign and that this is fully compatible with affirming that humans have free will. This one gets abused often enough that I need to say it again. Both sides affirm that God is sovereign (yes, including Arminians), both sides affirm that humans have free will (yes, including Calvinists), and both affirm that these two assertions are compatible with one another (even if they struggle to explain how).

5. Free will is importantly related to antecedent conditions. As I explained in yesterday’s post, determinism is best understood as the view that any event necessarily results from antecedent conditions plus the laws of nature. Because antecedent conditions are associated with determinism like this, many conclude that libertarian views have no room for antecedent conditions. That is not the case. Every major view of free will recognizes the importance of antecedent conditions for understanding free will. They differ significantly in the role that they ascribe to antecedent conditions, but no one simply ignores them. So, it’s just not true that libertarians see decisions as being made in a “vacuum,” isolated from things like character and environment. Everyone agrees that such factors influence free will in important ways.

As you can see, evangelicals involved in the free will debate actually agree on a broad range of issues. Most importantly they agree that human persons are meaningfully free and morally responsible, and that this is fully compatible with a strong affirmation of divine sovereignty. For everyone, these provide the framework within which they struggle toward a more detailed understanding of human volitionality.

Unfortunately, the agreements often get buried under the disagreements. And, we lose sight of how much we share in common. We’re not strangers from different countries waging war over disputed territory, but close neighbors linked by a long history of shared assumptions, disagreeing about what’s best for the neighborhood.

This is the second in our series on approaching the free will debate with clarity and charity.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Th.M. program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on May 31, 2011, in Anthropology, Metaphysics. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Wow, Mark, you’ve taken on quite a task here and I appreciate your effort to lay some ground work. But you need a better acronym. HHNFF just doesn’t cut it. Seriously, though, some questions, as I am not sure that there really is as much agreement on these issues as you say. At least, as a free willer, I don’t think I really do agree as much as you say with my counterparts. All in a spirit of collaboration…

    On 1. Are you just talking about free will or are you also talking about soteriology? Because there is a complex continuity and discontinuity between the two that needs to play into the discussion. The theological rationale for saying that that we do not have a choice in our salvation is total depravity, not determinism (naturalistic or theistic). You could be a libertarian as concerns determinism and still agree that humans are so bent against God that they need his intervention in order to see that. It would not be inconsistent. However, note that when it comes to salvation, TULIP does indeed deny free will in the matter of salvation. And since this is one of the key points, well, I think there ought to be a qualification.

    Further, I don’t personally think that the compatibilist account of freewill is real free will. That’s why I disagree with it! While we might all say we believe persons have free will (I’m not even sure that is the case), the point of the debate is that the meaning we attach to that statement is up for grabs.

    on 4. Further, the theological rationale that leads to discussions about free will and determinism outside of soteriology is tied to the nature of God’s sovereignty. Is God directly responsible for “all that shall come to pass” or is he sovereign more on the analogy of a human ruler: in charge, but not directly involved in or responsible for everything? That is THE BIG QUESTION, and that is why so many of us care about this issue. So I’m not sure it’s really helpful to remind ourselves that we all agree God is sovereign. That is not a solution, that is the very problem! We agree he is sovereign, but we understand that sovereignty in vastly different ways. OK,it’s still a good point. Maybe I’m just used to the idea that I’m not debating these issues with heretics. Maybe some people really do need that reminder.

    On 5. I think it might be a mistake to throw materialist determinism into the mix here. The theological rationale for determinism is not material! Theological determinism is sourced in the conviction that God is directly responsible for all that shall come to pass. Another path is through foreknowledge: if God knows the future, we are guaranteed to produce it. But the actual mechanism for this is not really relevant to theological determinism. So theologically speaking, I think it’s a non issue that we all agree (if we do) about antecedent causes. But let’s turn back to soteriology again. Here the claim is most definitely that there are no human antecedents to salvation. So again, while you might be correct to a point, I’m not sure that it really makes such a great difference. A key question here is whether I contributed anything to the salvation choice. Some say a resounding no! others say yes!

    Thank for the chance to think through some of these issues. Really a fascinating set of issues. Blessings,

  2. Rob, great comments. Let me see if I can respond (relatively) briefly.

    1. I do know some people who are compatibilists in their soteriology and libertarians in other spheres of life. That, of course, just means that your position is exposed to the weaknesses of both positions. But, if they don’t mind having some extra work, great. The real issue, though, is not whether you can mix positions like this. Rather, it’s whether any action can be compatibilistically or libertarianly free (i.e. fully determined and fully free). If we accept that either of these is true in even the most inconsequential action, then we have to grant that it is coherent and tenable, giving it a pretty strong place in the discussion. So, most (not all) of those involved in the conversation argue that it’s an all or nothing deal.

    Regardless, the main point of #1 stands. And, your comment highlights precisely what I’m talking about. Compatibilists absolutely affirm free will and would heatedly deny that TULIP is a denial of free will (choice + responsibility). The fact that you don’t like how they understand the relationship between free will and other factors (e.g. divine decrees) does not mean that they deny free will. Our starting point must be recognizing what the other side explicitly affirms and identifying the common ground that we share. After that we can, and must, move on to the secondary task of addressing the adequacy of each position. But that is a second task, and one that is hindered if we don’t perform the first task charitably.

    4. Again, you’re right that there are important differences in how we define sovereignty, but the starting point is to recognize that both affirm it. This is particularly important for the compatibilist, who is often tempted to think that the libertarian (at least secretly) denies sovereignty.

    5. The focus of the debate, though, is not just soteriology. That’s where a lot of the theological heat lies, but it’s actual a question of human volition in general (i.e. can any human act be both determined and free at the same time). I’ll be commenting on this in my next post, but I think we make a mistake when we restrict the discussion just to soteriological issues.

    Antecedent causes are important to identify because many compatibilists think libertarians don’t really believe that they’re important. You’ll often hear compatibilists describe libertarian free will as making decisions in a “vacuum” or in a “neutral” state. This is partly because older libertarians often spoke of free will in the same way. But, nearly everyone involved in the conversation recognizes that who you are (character, habit, etc.), where you are (cultural context, environment, etc.), and what’s happened before you (antecedent events) are all important shapers of human volition. Whether these antecedent factors shape us determinatively is the question.

    Thanks for some great comments!

    • Thanks Marc. I don’t follow your defense of all or nothing (determinism/free will), nor why “combining them” (which already presupposes certain categories) only combines their weaknesses and not also their strengths! Well, it’s no even my position, so I won’t push it…

      OK, I’ll gladly agree that compatibilists SAY they believe in free will and THINK they believe in free will. :0) Side note: I understand compatibilism as the notion that we freely chose to do what has nevertheless already been determined. The rub is that we can only chose for, not against. But I’m not so sure that you can treat compatibilism as though it is what all TULIPS believe. I’ve discussed these issues with people who have no qualms about flatly denying free will.Not sure I’ve seen that in print, though.

      But surely even the compatibilism comes up against soteriological “determinism”: the TULIP position is unambiguous here. It is only God’s action that saves and nothing else. I mean, this is Calvinist orthodoxy. This is the club that is used against free-willers: that we think we can “boast” in our salvation because we participated in the decision. Calvinist soteriology does not fit compatibilism, and it can’t be connected to free will in any way shape or form. I realize it’s popular to use a quasi-compatibilist explanation of how “God chose me, but I chose God” but a consistent Calvinist can’t go there. So I’m still doubting this first point or thinking it needs qualification (“except in the case of salvation”)

      Maybe I’m going against the tide of current discussion, but I still don’t think antecedents are theologically relevant. The only relevant theological question is THAT, not HOW. That whole antecedents discussion is importing the categories of material determinism into a theological discussion, which is surely questionable (theology is not premised on materialism!). Further, the antecedent cause discussion is stuck on a materialist model that does not take into account the contribution of quantum indeterminancy for causality. A whole other can of worms. Well, I’m not saying we should ignore the materialist discussion. Just that we need to start first with the biblical theological categories and be clear about what those are. Then we can surely take into consideration these other questions.

      Thanks for listening, Marc.

  3. The all-or-nothing comes from the fact that most of the debate revolves around whether either of the two perspectives is incoherent. For example, you clearly don’t think the compatibilist understanding of free will is coherent (i.e. you think their definition of “free will” is necessarily faulty). If it’s incoherent, then it’s not possible for any action to be compatibilistically free. Therefore, compatibilism is impossible, even for the smallest actions. Others would argue the same for libertarianism. So, most don’t even consider a “middle” option because most view one of the two approaches as fundamentally flawed.

    Many make the mistake of thinking that TULIP (and other forms of theological determinism) entail a denial of free will. That’s not true. What it does entail is that salvation does not begin with my free will decision. The story always begins with God’s unconditioned decision to elect me for salvation. So, the initiating event in salvation has nothing to do with my will at all (free or otherwise). According to Calvinist theologians, it is on the basis of this unconditional election and the corresponding regeneration that I come to want salvation and freely choose to respond to the offer of the Gospel. So, my free will is absolutely a part of the story, but it is always subsequent to God’s prior decree of election.

    On the last point, maybe it will help if you see “antecedents” as including divine decrees. So, it doesn’t just involve materialistic causes, but divine causes as well. (By the way, almost all contemporary thinkers include materialistic causes as well. It’s just too hard to ignore the evidence that material causes are involved in volition.)

    • Very nice clarification on the first point. I get it!

      My goodness, the beauty and fun of this discussion is that it can so easily spin out of control, where one makes these highly complex points only to come back to square one and have someone else say, “yeah, but that’s not what I’m saying!” And then the answer goes, “no, but you really are saying that!” Few issues are so intellectually engaging complex (“twisted”?).

      I think you are performing a bit of a magic trick, though, when you talk about will in salvation. This is the view that Edwards famously developed, of course: that we must conceive of God as changing our core, making us able and bound to respond to him. But this is just word games. OK, I’ll accept that it’s an elegant way to conceive of irresistible grace, and that if I already believed in irresistible grace it would account very nicely for my experience of choice. But in the debate about free will it changes absolutely nothing. “participation” here is not “determinative participation”. It’s just placing God’s monergistic choice at a deeper level. Surely, that is obvious! Imagine having this conversation with a robot: “Robot, you are not free. You only act out a program.” Robot answers: “No, it’s not true, I have been programmed to freely act out my program.” It’s just semantics.

      But maybe this is about why we care about the debate (now I’m getting back to something more relevant to your five points). Maybe some people are engaged because their primary interest is to account for the experience of choice. In that case, compatibilism would probably work. But my concern is to answer the question of whether there really can be synergism in salvation and libertarian choice in other matters. I wonder if a useful approach to these issues might be to map out the reasons why people care? Blessing brother.

  4. The problem with free will, as I see it, is that people have the wrong impression of what it means. Free will is not all it’s cracked up to be but there’s no doubt we have a modest form of it. I prefer to call it “self-determinism”. This self-determinism is empirically proven every time we conceive and execute a plan. I’ve found this is hard to explain because so many people assume that any free will must contradict causality and, thus, determinism. I claim that the only free will we have is actually self-determinism and that it isn’t in conflict with causality: in fact, it’s a product of human intelligence interacting with causality. I’ll try to explain . . .

    I maintain that “free will” is an awful term to express the independent agency humans possess to define purpose for themselves and pursue it. Our choices aren’t free in a libertarian sense: they’re free within the constraints of our heredity and experience (which are both products of causality). Perhaps Arthur Schopenhauer summed it up best: “Man can do what he wills but he can not will what he wills.” We can do, in the present, whatever our experience has prepared us for.

    Experience represents the past. Experience — what we’ve learned — is all we know. With the exception of instinct and reflex, I believe it’s virtually impossible to think or act beyond our experience. Even inspiration comes from experience. Where the rubber meets the road is in the present. This is where our human brains interact with the world around us to form the conceptual continuity of consciousness: our identity. Experience influences us so much because it’s been layered into our identity just as the present will be. THAT is the self in self-determinism.

    Don’t get me wrong . . . causality rules. We might think we’re in control until that fire or disease or earthquake or tsunami or accident or economic crash changes our lives. Causality is the ultimate big dog. We can make choices to maximize security but we can never be sure we’re secure. We can’t anticipate everything.

    So how do you explain the fact that, despite the pervasiveness of causality, we can still map out our own futures and achieve our plans (if they’re any good)? How do you explain how we, for the most part, hack our own paths into the future?


    Mental feedback is the key. Without it, we could not have memories or analyze problems or learn or make plans. Without it, we could not understand causality or anticipate it. Intelligence and consciousness itself hinge on mental feedback. Mental feedback gives us a temporal advantage over causality by allowing us to anticipate it and plan for the future accordingly. THAT is the determinism in self-determinism.

    It lacks the flourish and romanticism of unbridled, libertarian, free will but self-determinism has its own beauty revealed in the paradox of independent agency in a clockwork universe. Causality determines the scope of our abilities and actions and we use those abilities and actions to hack our own paths into the future. We’re so good at it, we’re getting cocky. But we’re not masters of causality . . . merely expressions of it.

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