The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Is libertarian free will even possible?


I’ve been thinking about this issue recently, and as far as I can see, libertarian free will seems like an incoherent concept. In my mind, and event either a) has a sufficient cause, or b) is a “random” occurrence. a) seems to clearly rule out libertarian free will, and b) doesn’t seem to help either; is a randomly determined occurrence really a “free” decision? I think not. I don’t see any room for a free will framework to sneak into. It seems to me that, in the Christian realm, libertarian free will is an ad hoc concept tacked on to biblical theology in order to make God seem more fair and to provide a justification for the concept of moral guilt and punishment. Arminianism, the main conduit for free will theology, was created in response to Calvinism, not as an original idea. Typically, libertarian free will is explained by the existence of the soul, which supposedly can transcend physically imposed determinism or randomness, and make libertarian free will decisions. However, the way I see it, wouldn’t the soul be imposed to the same sort of constraints a purely physical being would? For example, an animal acts based on its nature, desires, and experiences. There is both nature and nurture - an animal has certain innate tendencies, yet it can also be trained to exhibit certain behaviors, either positive or negative (think of dogs - good owner vs. bad owner). In a similar (although likely not identical) fashion, humans are influenced both by nature and nurture. I am born with (or perhaps, God designed me with) a certain set of parameters that shape and constrain my nature. These parameters are, in many ways, plastic, but seem highly susceptible to be influenced by my environment and experiences. Think of a kid born into a perfect, loving Christian home vs. a kid born to a single mom on crack, living on the streets, getting raped, beat up, made fun of, etc. Who do you think is likely going to turn out to be the better adult? Is the kid born into the perfect Christian family a great adult because of some sort of libertarian free will decision, or because life shaped her that way? Getting back to the idea of the soul, if everything is either sufficiently caused or random, why would the soul be any different? Why is the soul somehow different than a physical entity? Wouldn’t there simply be “spiritual causes” and “spiritual randomness” rather than physical versions of these? If my soul chooses something, isn’t that because I was either wired that way, or the sum of my experiences bent me towards choosing that way? Even if my previous decisions influence the current state of my soul, I think that the beginning of the chain was either deterministic or random. In short, free will seems impossible, but it does seem to be implied by the Biblical concept of guilt and punishment, which is why I think people hold to it.


Those are some interesting thoughts. We have a number of existing threads on this subject, such as:

Maybe your post could be added to that, so we can kinda keep things together? I’ll ask @JasonPratt


If an “event” is a “libertarian free will” decision, what is “ruling out” that decision being caused by a choice of one’s “libertarian free will”? In that case the “cause” of the “libertarian free will” decision was the God given ability of the person exercising that God given ability to make such a decision.


I’m saying that what “rules out” the decision being caused by a choice of one’s libertarian free will is that, as far as I can see, an event is either sufficiently caused or is a random occurrence. If all events are either sufficiently caused or random, this leaves no room for any other type of event, which would rule out libertarian free will. In my mind, this principle not only applies to physical events (eg a ball rolling down a hill (sufficiently caused) or a the observed spin state of an electron (random)), but also to decisions made by our soul. I don’t see how God could have given us decision making capabilities that go beyond this framework. Either an event is random, or it’s non-random, and if an event is non-random, it must have had sufficient causes. You seem to pushing the problem back one stage - what caused me to make a decision x over decision y? Again, my choice itself was either random or sufficiently caused. At least that’s how I see it, but I could be completely wrong.


Usually “free will” biblically speaking is defined as humans having the ability to make choices but certainly our choices are influenced. So the extent of that influence is usually unclear , but simply making choices doesn’t take much. Computers make choices, animals make choices but one is controlled by software & the other by instincts.


I agree with you on that definition of free will. When I typically hear people talk about libertarian free will, it’s in the context of using it as a justification for moral guilt. That is, I could have chosen differently, so my choice to sin makes me morally accountable. The assumption seems to be that there’s something innate to myself, completely independent of prior causes, that has the ability to make choices. That is where I disagree with the typical conception of libertarian free will, because to me, any uncaused choice must be ‘random’, which diminishes the idea of true moral guilt.


But there are degrees to everything like a choice can be partially caused or influenced by something external but not necessarily forced. Even a random choice may only be partially random. An apparent random choice may be influenced by someone’s DNA or life experience or social experiences without the chooser even knowing it.


It sometimes seems that we assume our will is ‘free’ because we have the ability to make decisions, or choices. But the reality is that in response to inquiries, computers also regularly make choices, though we’d probably not say that they possessed free will. This suggests that the meaning of free will may be more elusive.

We’d probably say that a computer’s responses are steered by the influence of the programing that shapes its’ responses. And to some it appears that while more complex, the way that our own genetic and experiential data steers our responses to events and ideas can be parallel to this explanation of choice-making.


I basically agree with your computer analogy. We definitely make decisions, but like a computer, our propensity to make one decision over another is ultimately due to causes outside of ourself. Perhaps some causes “come” from us in some sense, but at the start of the cause-and-effect chain was external to us. And if there is something internal to us that creates new cause-and-effect chains, I’d call that “random”, because if something has no cause, it is by definition random or probabilistic in nature.


I definitely agree with you that there can, at least theoretically, be degrees or randomness of degrees of causation. It sounds like you’re proposing two additional types of events: caused, but partially random, and random, but partially caused. I concur with your assessment of event-types. I’d say we can envision any event as existing on a 1-dimensional continuum between caused and random. Although, perhaps everything is in fact sufficiently caused, and things just appear to be random from our vantage point.


I will propose that libertarian free will (LFW) choices are caused by the choice of the God created being who has the God given ability of LFW. When such a being exercises that God given ability of LFW to make a LFW decision, that decision is the “cause” of that “event”. Nothing else caused the event or LFW decision, even if it was informed & influenced by a number of other internal & external forces, whether they were for or against the decision that was made.


[quote=“Origen, post:11, topic:13761, full:true”]

“libertarian free will (LFW) choices are caused by the choice of the God created being who has the God given ability of LFW.”

Origen, you appear to explain that “Free will choices are caused by a choice made by a being who has the ability of LFW” (i.e the ability to make a free will choice). Wouldn’t skeptics say that “choices are caused by choices” asserts a tautology that explains nothing about what “caused” particular choices?

Unlike my computer analogy, it seems to me to just assert a desired faith that human decisions are somehow able to operate differently from all other events which are explained by the forces that act upon the entities involved. But many moderns would say that the cumulative evidence is profound that human reactions and choices are not especially independent of the influential forces that act upon individuals. Indeed, that the more we know about such factors, the more our beliefs and actions begin to seem profoundly predictable.

E.g. my wife is rarely surprised by choices I make, and when she is, I perceive that it is not because I am exceptionally free of the cause and effect principles of the forces that act on me, but simply because she was unaware of some of the considerations or influences that shaped that particular choice.

It doesn’t appear very rationally believable to me to believe that I have ability to believe or do something that is contrary to my strongest motives (which I perceive as genetically and experientially shaped). Indeed, it appears to me that I always end up going the direction that appears to have the most powerful motives attached to it. (Hopefully some of those motives are righteous :slight_smile: )


The concept of determinism was present even in the second century. But every early Christian writer of whom I am aware, opposed it and supported free will. Here are some quotes:

100-165 AD : Justin Martyr
“We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and rewards are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Otherwise, if all things happen by fate, then nothing is in our own power. For if it be predestinated that one man be good and another man evil, then the first is not deserving of praise or the other to be blamed. Unless humans have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions—whatever they may be.” (First Apology ch.43 )

[About the year 180, Florinus had affirmed that God is the author of sin, which notion was immediately attacked by Irenaeus, who published a discourse entitled: “God, not the Author of Sin.” Florinus’ doctrine reappeared in another form later in Manichaeism, and was always considered to be a dangerous heresy by the early fathers of the church.]

130-200 AD : Irenaeus
“This expression, ‘How often would I have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldst not,’ set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free (agent) from the beginning, possessing his own soul to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God…And in man as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice…If then it were not in our power to do or not to do these things, what reason had the apostle, and much more the Lord Himself, to give us counsel to do some things and to abstain from others?” (Against Heresies XXXVII )

150-190 AD : Athenagoras
“men…have freedom of choice as to both virtue and vice (for you would not either honor the good or punish the bad; unless vice and virtue were in their own power, and some are diligent in the matters entrusted to them, and others faithless)…”(Embassy for Christians XXIV )

150-200 AD : Clement of Alexandria
“Neither praise nor condemnation, neither rewards nor punishments, are right if the soul does not have the power of choice and avoidance, if evil is involuntary.” (Miscellanies, book 1, ch.17)

154-222 AD : Bardaisan of Syria
“How is it that God did not so make us that we should not sin and incur condemnation? —if man had been made so, he would not have belonged to himself but would have been the instrument of him that moved him…And how in that case, would man differ from a harp, on which another plays; or from a ship, which another guides: where the praise and the blame reside in the hand of the performer or the steersman…they being only instruments made for the use of him in whom is the skill? But God, in His benignity, chose not so to make man; but by freedom He exalted him above many of His creatures.” (Fragments )

155-225 AD : Tertullian
“I find, then, that man was by God constituted free, master of his own will and power; indicating the presence of God’s image and likeness in him by nothing so well as by this constitution of his nature.” (Against Marcion, Book II ch.5 )

185-254 AD : Origen
“This also is clearly defined in the teaching of the church that every rational soul is possessed of free-will and volition.” (De Principiis, Preface )

185-254 AD : Origen
“There are, indeed, innumerable passages in the Scriptures which establish with exceeding clearness the existence of freedom of will.” (De Principiis, Book 3, ch.1 )

250-300 AD : Archelaus
“There can be no doubt that every individual, in using his own proper power of will, may shape his course in whatever direction he chooses.” (Disputation with Manes, secs.32,33 )

260-315 AD : Methodius
“Those [pagans] who decide that man does not have free will, but say that he is governed by the unavoidable necessities of fate, are guilty of impiety toward God Himself, making Him out to be the cause and author of human evils.” (The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, discourse 8, chapter 16 )

312-386 AD : Cyril of Jerusalem
“The soul is self-governed: and though the Devil can suggest, he has not the power to compel against the will. He pictures to thee the thought of fornication: if thou wilt, thou rejectest. For if thou wert a fornicator by necessity then for what cause did God prepare hell? If thou wert a doer of righteousness by nature and not by will, wherefore did God prepare crowns of ineffable glory? The sheep is gentle, but never was it crowned for its gentleness; since its gentle quality belongs to it not from choice but by nature.” (Lecture IV 18 )

347-407 AD : John Chrysostom
“All is in God’s power, but so that our free-will is not lost…it depends therefore on us and on Him. We must first choose the good, and then He adds what belongs to Him. He does not precede our willing, that our free-will may not suffer. But when we have chosen, then He affords us much help…It is ours to choose beforehand and to will, but God’s to perfect and bring to the end.” (On Hebrews, Homily 12 )

120-180 AD: Tatian
“We were not created to die. Rather, we die by our own fault. Our free will has destroyed us. We who were free have become slaves. We have been sold through sin. Nothing evil has been created by God. We ourselves have manifested wickedness. But we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it.” (Address to the Greeks, 11)

(died 180 AD):Melito
“There is, therefore, nothing to hinder you from changing your evil manner to life, because you are a free man.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 8, page 754)

163-182 AD:Theophilus
“If, on the other hand, he would turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he would himself be the cause of death to himself. For God made man free, and with power of himself.” (Theophilus to Autolycus, Book 2, Chapter 27)

130-200 AD:Irenaeus
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds’…And ‘Why call me, Lord, Lord, and do not do the things that I say?’…All such passages demonstrate the independent will of man…For it is in man’s power to disobey God and to forfeit what is good.” (Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 37)

150-200 AD:Clement of Alexandria
“We…have believed and are saved by voluntary choice.” (The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 6)

155-225: Tertullian
“I find, then, that man was constituted free by God. He was master of his own will and power…For a law would not be imposed upon one who did not have it in his power to render that obedience which is due to law. Nor again, would the penalty of death be threatened against sin, if a contempt of the law were impossible to man in the liberty of his will…Man is free, with a will either for obedience or resistance. (Against Marcion, Book 2, Chapter 5)


Paidion, You nicely cite second century writers supporting ‘free will.’ And I don’t doubt that they not only shared my own antipathy for the view that God determines or predestines our sins and choices, but indeed assumed that their own sovereign choices were exempt from any determining laws of cause and effect.

But on other such partially scientific questions about how the life we observe operates, such as whether the earth was the center of the solar system, the 6000 year old age of the earth, or whether decisions were formed in the chest area of our heart, I assume there also was profound consensus in the second century. Yet that reality does not keep some of us 21st century folk from questioning whether their assumptions necessarily match up with our own contemporary observations and modern knowledge. As reflected in my last post’s reasoning, my own sense is that we are not apt to feel bound by the views of the second century.


What’s to explain, Bob? LFW choices are self caused by the God given ability to do so. The OP declares an “event either a) has a sufficient cause… a) seems to clearly rule out libertarian free will” (LFW). I’ve seen no evidence or proof of anything in this thread that “clearly rule out libertarian free will” as the “cause” of an “event”, i.e of all (100% of) the decisions that human beings make. If even 1 in a 10, 1000 or a million human decisions are decided by LFW, then that statement about an “event” is incorrect. I leave the burden of proof on the OP making his case in questioning, as per the title of this thread, whether LFW is “even possible”. Why wouldn’t it be possible?

Computers, other inanimate things, plants & animals do not have the knowledge of good and evil, or conscience, nor are they made in the image & likeness of God. Neither are they called “gods” by God. Also they are not held morally accountable by God for their life, actions, words & the thoughts of their hearts.

What evidence do they have that LFW does not exist?

She’s rarely surprised because the better one knows another person the more likely they will be able to predict their behaviour. Yet, in Scripture, even the omniscient God seems to express surprise by some human decisions.

What makes you think your “strongest motives” are never influenced by LFW? There are motives or desires of the flesh & motives or desires of the Spirit & these are opposed to one another (Gal.5:16-17). Why should I think that LFW is not a factor in whether or not one walks by the Spirit?

Did Love Omnipotent really decide to create a puppet show where these robots called human beings are programmed by Him like a computer to say “I love you” or to blaspheme Him? Why would God program human robots to diss Him like that. If you found out your wife was an android, would this please you.


While it’s my belief that both ends of the spectrum - LFW or determinism - are misguided, the very interesting results of twins studies should provide some real food for thought on both sides.
Perhaps the largest and most significant such study was the Minnesota Twins Studies.

This and other studies have looked at twins separated at or close to birth, and compared them later in life, after being separated with no contact, sometimes raised in different countries; and the findings are just fascinating.
You can read for yourself, but in the Minnesota study, the conclusion was that nature/nurture were almost evenly split in forming the choices each twin made through the years. Genetics 49% and environnment 51%, something like that.
Those results strengthen my assertion that we are a result of pre-determined factors as well as our responses to environment/culture etc.
I once again propound the ‘free-will enough’ defense. :slight_smile:


Punishment would be unjust if people didn’t have free will. Punishment for actions would be as cruel as punishment for height or eye color.


And in fact we do have ways to deal with those who do not know right from wrong, for instance, the legally insane.
My contention is that for all the rest of us, we have ‘free will enough’ to be held accountable - but the reason we have judges should be to recognize circumstances and predispositions as well.


You later re-ask where the evidential proof is that LFW does not exist, which I think reveals the pivotal difference in our approaches to how human thoughts and choices are formed. For I didn’t argue that I can be certain that any such philosophical theory, the meaning of which I don’t even comprehend, can be proven to be impossible. It is generally impossible to prove a negative

(I don’t find repeating that ‘free’ choices are “caused” by a given ability to make choices sheds light. If someone claimed that the choices computers make are ‘free’ because they are “caused” by its’ having the ability to make free ‘choices,’ it would not lessen my perception that observing how such choices actually get processed is relevant to whether I’m convinced that such choices are actually ‘free.’ It’s similar when you respond to my observation that our motives are shaped by what we inherit, experience and are taught, that actually ‘LFW’ may explain the strongest motives that govern our choices. My perception that the former is able to better explain them remains.)

I.e. for those who find it apparent that people’s way of thinking and their choices are best predicted and explained by their input and experience, it actually feels like the burden is on those who insist that there is a cause of such thoughts and choices that transcends these usual explanations that use such laws of cause and effect. You agree that my wife finds my behavior reliably predictable because she knows so well how I am formed. But that is precisely the evidence you ask for that some transcendent LFW is not the explanation for such behavior.

You appear to assume that the only alternative to LFW is that we are “programmed.” But Talbott writes reams arguing for a middle non-determinative existence, and unlike Qaz, assumes that God’s punishment is less about retributive dessert than having a pedagogical function for folk whose choices are ignorant, deceived, etc. And when we learn to follow the way of the Spirit, Talbott would say, rather than credit our own LFW for making a superior choice, we praise God, the brilliant Chessplayer who has gloriously led us in a saving direction.


Along with the Twins’ studies I linked to above, which prove imo the extensive effects of genetics in choice making, we are also getting into the area of epistemology - how to know what we know in order to even make choices, and more specifically into the age-old philosophical problem as well. From a good article on the subject at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:


The dispute between rationalism and empiricism concerns the extent to which we are dependent upon sense experience in our effort to gain knowledge. Rationalists claim that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. Empiricists claim that sense experience is the ultimate source of all our concepts and knowledge.

Rationalists generally develop their view in two ways. First, they argue that there are cases where the content of our concepts or knowledge outstrips the information that sense experience can provide. Second, they construct accounts of how reason in some form or other provides that additional information about the world. Empiricists present complementary lines of thought. First, they develop accounts of how experience provides the information that rationalists cite, insofar as we have it in the first place. (Empiricists will at times opt for skepticism as an alternative to rationalism: if experience cannot provide the concepts or knowledge the rationalists cite, then we don’t have them.) Second, empiricists attack the rationalists’ accounts of how reason is a source of concepts or knowledge."