Friday, 9 September 2011

The function of free will


A comment from WmJas stimulated what seems the clarifying insight that the 'solution' to perplexity over free will is to understand the function of free will.

It is what free will does that is vital - not trying to understand what it is, or how it works.


The essence of free will is that - although it is a natural, spontaneous and common-sensical understanding - free will is a theological concept.

Therefore, if we do not accept common sense, and try to elucidate the nature of free will in an atheist, non-transcendental, secular context - then confusion and error are inevitable.


Because if we do not know, or deny, the function of free will - we cannot ever grasp what it is.

(How could we understand the eye if we did not know it was for seeing? - or rather, if we denied that vision was a possibility.)


Aquinas (apparently) said that free will was given to Man by God; free will is not something found in most of the universe but was specifically given by God to Man (plus or minus other creatures, such as angels): free will is a defining feature of what it is to be human. 


Implicitly, free will was made a property of humans in order that Man *may* become the kind of creature God intends. A creature that may, but is not compelled to, choose salvation.

The fact that the rest of the perceived universe seems to be either determined or random is irrelevant: free will is a divine gift, God makes it work in whatever way it does work.

And however free will does work, it is not the same way that other things work that we we come across in the world.


But how free will works is not necessary to know - what we need to know is that we have it, and we use it to make choices: but to make the choices rightly we must accept that free will exists and that its use matters.


The reason we have free will is made clear in any true account of Christian salvation: humans have free will so that we may choose rightly. The right choice must be chosen.

These choices can be dramatic, or they can be (and necessarily are) mundane.

Most people make these choices very frequently and unavoidably: they are the core business of human life - the choices that (could be said to) move us either towards heaven or towards hell, salvation or damnation, The Good or the Anti-Good, truth or lies, beauty or ugliness, virtue or sin. 

These choices are happening: it is a further matter of choice whether we acknowledge the fact. 

Furthermore the choices are obfuscated by all manner of things: our own original sin, our accumulations of previous bad choices, the malign or confused influence of others, denial of the reality of choices, transcendental purposive evil at work in the world...


In such an account, free will should be, must be, regarded as non-problematic and essential. It is what we do with free will that matters; not definitions, nor descriptions, nor explanations of mechanisms.

But if (as modern man has done) we try to understand free will after subtracting (assuming the falseness or irrelevance) of God, creation, transcendental Goods, purposive evil etc - then it is not surprising that free will seems incoherent.

Instead of making right choices, we obsess over whether choices are real or how the choice mechanism works: a sure-fire recipe for ruin.


Thus a society in which we obfuscate the central human activity of choice (moral choice of course, but also choices relating to truth and beauty; and to the unity of virtue, truth and beauty) - this would be and is a society intrinsically damned.


NOTE: I accidentally changed the background colour of the text, and don't yet know how to revert it - sorry!



  1. I had thought the background colour to be signifying the especial gravity of the post :)

    Not only humans have free will...
    A raccoon, seeing my approach, scoots up a tree, no matter how well it knows me. This is automatic survival behavior.
    But after evaluating what I am, it decides it knows me well enough, and comes right back down to see if I am a food-source, as I often am.
    There is one raccoon that seems to have no clue: I call it The Retard. It is like a guileless child, and may curl up, suddenly, beside me, and fall asleep.
    But it may decide to stay awake, too, and watch me, or to play un-self-consciously with an ant.

    Free will is the ability to do things consciously, as opposed to automatically.
    To make decisions based upon evaluation. The freedom to get it wrong, as well as right.

    Nearly everything that lives would appear to have some degree of free will. Certainly they might not have it, without the unifying phenomenon behind life. But then, would they exist at all?

    I rarely see humans as the be-all and end-all of existence. Actually never.
    If we could stop this habit of focusing entirely upon ourselves, what then might we achieve?

  2. Ruling out the possibility of freedom, like ruling out the possibility of consciousness, gets a thinker into all sorts of problems because freedom is basic. It is an axiom of thought. One can’t reason properly, or understand anything, without presupposing it. In this respect, it is like actuality or potentiality, being or becoming, many or one, part or whole, consciousness or knowledge. They can be defined, their relations can be understood, but their existence cannot be proven, because they are the foreconditions of existence as such, and therefore of reason as such, and therefore of proof as such. If there is no such thing as consciousness, then no one can know that there is no such thing as consciousness. Likewise if there is no freedom, then no one is free to think about freedom, and therefore no one does think about freedom.

    If alternative states of affairs are really possible, then events per se necessarily have freedom built into them. But if no alternatives are really possible, so that only one state of affairs is can happen, then really the notion of possibility is vacuous: if only one state of affairs can happen, then that state of affairs must necessarily happen, and so it actually has happened, in its entirety, and from all eternity; so that it cannot *possibly* happen.

    Freedom, then, is just the fact of possibility.

    Obviously one can’t begin to think at all if “possibility is impossible” is numbered among one’s premisses. But since freedom is the facticity of possibility, this means that one can’t think properly about anything without presupposing the facticity of freedom.

    The presupposition of the facticity of freedom is just like the presuppositions that one actually exists, can understand, can reason, that there is an actual world and that it is a fit subject of our knowledge, that there is a causal order to things, and so forth. Unless all these things are presupposed, thought devours itself; for, to dispense with any one of them is to arrive instantly at the conclusion that one can’t justify any conclusions.

    If it is really possible that either A or B should happen right now, and if an entity e has the power to bring about A-or-B, e has the freedom to bring about A, or B. If we find that A has happened, and now exists as a fact, then we know that the relevant entity freely brought about A. So, to be is to have been decided upon.