Some concluding reflections on how to approach the free will debate

Thousands of years, countless philosophers, theologians, and scientists, and still no resolution to the free will debate. Maybe we should just stop talking about it.

But that won’t do either. Our view of free will has too many important implications for life, ministry, theology, and ethics. Far from being a speculative, philosophical discussion, the free will debate touches on nearly every aspect of what it means to be human.

So, we have a seemingly unsolvable problem that is, at the same time, vitally important for many of life’s most significant issues.

Oh, is that all?

We’ve been working through a series on Striving for Greater Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate (you can see all the posts in that series here). And, that’s a great place to start. But, it’s just a starting place. The hard task of actually understanding “free” will remains.

As I said at the beginning of this series, I have no intention of trying to resolve the issue here. But, to wrap up this series, I thought I should at least say something about how I approach the discussion. I haven’t come to a satisfying conclusion yet. But, I have landed on a way of framing the discussion that I find helpful.

The closest that I come to arguing for a particular view of free will is in my book Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed. (Yes, that was a shameless plug for my book.) The basic thrust of my argument in that chapter is that any adequate theological anthropology must affirm certain basic things about the human person, which I develop in my chapter on the image of God: christocentrism, qualified uniqueness, mystery, relationality, moral responsibility, embodiment, and brokenness. This is the theological framework within which particular scientific/philosophical theories must function to be theologically adequate. So, I evaluate any approach to free will by its ability to operate coherently and convincingly within this theological framework.

I won’t take the time here to unpack everything that I develop in that chapter. But, here’s the conclusion:

Working through each of these theories using our criteria for a theologically adequate anthropology, we can see that each struggles at certain key points. Certainly, classic compatibilism is viewed by most as inadequate both because of its failure to provide an adequate explanation of where desires and beliefs come from, as well as its inadequate explanation of alternate possibilities. New compatibilist theories have worked hard to overcome these weaknesses. Nonetheless, we have seen that they still struggle to explain how the complete determination of the human person’s character and affective states does not ultimately undermine the person’s responsibility for actions that result from that character and affective condition. The source of the person’s ‘deepest self’ seems important and unfortunately opaque in the compatibilist system. For theological compatibilists, this leaves them susceptible to concerns surrounding the origin of sin and the nature of evil.

Libertarian theories are subject to important critiques as well. Indeed, the libertarian approach struggles to explain how there can be sufficient indeterminism to allow libertarian free will, without ultimately foundering on the problem of luck or the loss of any causal significance for human reasons, beliefs, and desires. And theologically, libertarianism struggles to explain how God can be causally active in the lives of human persons without undermining their free will.

Our discussion in this chapter has not focused on trying to resolve these debates. Indeed, I have argued that given the currently ambiguous and debated relationship between moral responsibility, causality, and free will, it seems unlikely that the debate will be resolved any time soon. So, as with the mind/body debate, I think that we will be on safer ground identifying those things about the human person that must be affirmed in any adequate theological anthropology and use those as our guiding criteria. With these in place, we can acknowledge that each of these theories has important strengths and corresponding weaknesses. We cannot rule either of them out of bounds on this basis, but we can develop a picture of what any adequate view of free will must be able to affirm and move forward from there.

Like I said above, this isn’t a satisfying answer to the problem, though I do find it to be a compelling way of approaching the discussion.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (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 June 13, 2011, in Anthropology, Metaphysics. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hey everyone, if Cortez is your teacher, listen to him. This guy is really, really, really smart. One of the clearest, most probing, yet always kind, thinkers I know.

    • If you didn’t know, “Matt Jenson” is actually a pseudonym that I use when I want to post really nice things about myself around the internet. Don’t tell anyone.

      (Thanks Matt! See you at SBL?)

  2. Yep, see you at SBL – and every day in the mirror, oh my alternate self.



  1. Pingback: Elsewhere (06.14.2011) « Near Emmaus

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