The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Is libertarian free will even possible?


How can a choice be anything other than either:

  1. LFW or
  2. Determined

I see no “middle” ground there. Either created beings are 100% puppets or they have, at times, some degree of ability to make LFW decisions whenever God grants them such an ability.

“…To clarify, what I mean by charade in my previous post is God’s call of sinners to repentance, His plea for them to turn from sin by the declaration that He doesn’t delight in the death of the wicked, His command for them to humble themselves, His “regret” that He had made man before the flood, etc. The calvinist understanding of God could be characterized by a man in his room holding a sock puppet on each hand, talking to them and voicing like a ventriloquist their responses, one puppet being the bad guy and the other the “good” guy. Then, after a long ridiculous show with pretentious loud drama, he rips the bad sock off and throws it in his fireplace, while the “good” puppet cheers him on.”

.Calvinism vs Scriptural libertarian free will (LFW)


That’s what I was referring to when I said that taking either extreme - and I think those two choices are extremes - can lead to tensions that are unnecessary. The twins studies I linked to, which I’m sure were read by everyone here LOL - AND the constant unresolved struggle between empiricism and rationalism, make it evident, I think, that the entire issue lies BETWEEN those poles.
God is a good judge and wise, and will ‘parse’ our critical decisions with the weight of that wisdom.
And - love.


I don’t think these are poles between which is a spectrum, Dave. I think they are two opposite positions like “heads” and “tails.”

“Libertarian Free Will” is often misunderstood by some who think it implies that its possessor can choose to do anything he wants and has the ability to carry out this choice. So they bring out counter-examples such as “I cannot choose to wave my arms and fly away.” This kind of thing is NOT what is meant by LFW. All it means is that I myself have the ability to choose what is possible to do and carry out that choice. That choice is influenced but not caused by any external factors. For example, I may notice that there is no more milk in the house. Later on when I go to the grocer’s I buy milk. My decision to buy milk was influenced by the fact that there was no milk in the house. But that fact didn’t cause me to buy milk. I could have chosen not to buy milk in spite of the fact.


You may be right, Don. I certainly understand the differences you brought out between choosing to do the impossible vs what is possible; there has been confusion on that point.
I think the ‘spectrum’ works for me since I recognize degrees of external influence, plus the added weight of genetic determinism as verified by a number of twins’ studies and longitudinal studies.
Thanks for clarifying one of the confusions!


Consider a person who resists a temptation one day & the next day gives into it, even though there was no apparent change in their circumstances from one day to the next. How is the scientific determinist (SD) going to explain this occurrence in millions of individuals, other than admitting to LFW? Will the SD say the devil made them do it? Or God ordered a demon to overpower them? Should the sinner then thank God for sending a demon to force them to commit adultery, rape, murder, etc? As Bob said:

" rather than credit our own LFW for making a superior choice, we praise God,…who has gloriously led us…"

Except in this case, with LFW nonexistent, we can blame God who ingloriously led us to commit evil & forced us to sin. He would be the cause of all the horrific events in history. Men would have an “excuse” for their sins: “the devil made me do it”, even though Paul says they are “without excuse” (Romans 1).


Well, as implied, to do this justice, you’ll find several essays on Dr. Thomas Talbott’s site detailing his middle ground. My over-simplified summary would be that he sees God creating a world where we can learn and grow in an environment where God generally allows the laws of cause and effect to operate (only intervening at crucial times). Thus he see God, not as having a script that dictates each action and decision in our world, but allows room for random developments…

The upshot is that humans enter this world and act out of ignorance and the ego-centered nature of their finite being, such that inevitably erring and being sinners is not something they have a choice to avoid (yet God does not directly orchestrate such)… But we are capable of learning God’s ways as we face the consequences of our foolish choices, and indeed become realities that are separate from God as we develop our own identity in this laboratory of learning. And of course as a universalist, Talbott is convinced that God graciously keeps pursuing us in this world of cause and effect, until we all become what God intended for us to become.

P.S. you can ridicule Reformed theology (as well as the modern view that cause and effect determines our choices). Yet the reality is that in the Bible dominated evangelical traditions, a Reformed theological reading of the Bible has dominated our literature and tradition. E.g. growing up Arminian, and getting my degrees at Fuller, a progressive evangelical seminary, I was appalled to find that every professor in systematic theology assumed the Calvinist deterministic reading. I remember asking one, a Ph.D from Union Seminary, New York, how he could find such a theology rational or moral, and his response was that we are stuck with it, because the Bible so clearly teaches it! You, me, or Paidion may find the Bible assumes ‘free-will,’ but that is not the reading that has won the day in much evangelical scholarship.

For my part, it was Talbott’s argument that universalism combines the best insights of the Arminian and Calvinist readings that won me over. So if you’re interested in exploring a proposed middle ground, I’d recommend his articles on determinism.


No one doubts that creatures display the ability to choose things. But this example seems to imply a truly ‘free’ choice is the ability to choose what is contrary to the strongest motives present at that moment. But this claim, and the notion that we are always quite able to choose the other option, does not seem to me to be how human behavior works at all. And while, of course at some moments, other things may be more motivating than resupplying the milk, the nature of decision making seems clearer at times that we face moral choices.

For example: When asked if I could choose to rob the bank near my home, sure, I could say, in external physical terms, that I could make the choice to rob it. The reality is that, this is not a viable choice for me at all. For the formation of motives and values in my character means that I won’t even seriously weigh robbing that bank. And I’m not sure that the reality that I lack the ability to choose to rob the bank should be characterized as a lack of 'freedom." In some ways, I am actually the freest when, as some think we’ll be in heaven, I only have the ability to do what is right.

But I suspect that this specific example of how choices work actually reveals how all choices work. They are shaped by how the situation, our felt needs in that moment, and the part of how we are formed that is most relevant at that point, all come together to motivate us


It may not be a viable choice, but it’s a possible choice.

When a robber points a gun at your head and demands your money, you will probably give it to him in order to save your life. Later you might tell people that you were “forced” to give the robber your money. Yet it was possible for you to have refused to give him your money even though you might have died.So you have free will.

Consider the early Christians. They were threatened with death unless they denied Christ. Some of them chose to deny Him and live; others chose not to deny Him and die. The choice was theirs. They had libertarian free will.

I realize that determinists say that any action we do HAD to be that way because of various causes. I strongly disagree. Nothing causes you to choose a particular action. What are called “causes” are actually influences, whether weak or strong influences.

Indeed, I agree with the following definition of libertarian free will:

If P has performed action A at time T, then if P could have chosen not-A at time T, he has libertarian free will.


I agree with that portion of a sentence, but for me the big word is IF.
Certainly we can maintain that LFW is true; in fact noone has proved it wrong, but just as certain is that it cannot be proven right, either.
The only reason I think the argument has any importance is if the choice (ha) is made to build a formal legal structure around one end of the spectrum or the other. Somewhere along the line we have to have actual judges, who can weigh influences and causal relationships, and not blindly follow a law based on LFW or on Sociology, either one.


Actually judges in a law court assume libertarian free will. Otherwise, it make no sense to punish a thief with a fine or imprisonment. For he could not have done otherwise.


Yes, and we have prisons full of people serving long punitive sentences, and getting more corrupted during their incarceration, because of the blindness of LFW to very obvious things: causes and influences. It’s easier, I think, to just ‘lay down the law’ and not have to think about it.

That’s right, it is an assumption.


You guys are quite fun.:no_mouth:


Don, thanks for engaging my example. I sense that it may be tougher than we assume to be sure that we share the same semantics, even of simple words like “possible” and “could.” For in my vocabulary, my perception and precise point was intending to say that If asked if I ‘could’ choose to rob the bank near my home, the plainest answer would be “No, I could not do that!” And that I doubt that it would be desirable for me to even think it would be good to have the ability to actually make such a choice.

So, is it that our perception of how we each make such choices differs? For I don’t sense that because I could and would make a choice not to rob banks, that I also really could choose to rob banks. I’d say that the force of the motivations associated with the moral character I have learned seems to make it not possible for me to make the choice to rob banks. Is it that our inner perceptions of our decision making differs, and that you feel that the capacity to rob banks more genuinely remains within you? :slight_smile:

Or, is the greater difference here in how we understand words? My Reformed professors insisted that though they believed God sovereignly controlled all that happens, including our choices (with God putting in place all the factors that shaped our lives and motives), it remained appropriate to say that we were responsible for our choices if we were not externally (or physically) forced to do them (but were in fact ‘free’ to do what the strongest motives found within us made us bound to do). Indeed, their language is that in this external sense, we “could” have done differently, or that it was “possible” for us not to sin. But like you probably would, I found this usage of “free, possible, and could” bizarre, and would have said the Calvinist view really means that persons could not do other than what they end up doing.

I realize that you are not a Calvinist, and see LFW as the better alternative. But given my perception about how human choices are actually made, I remain suspicious that the words we theological types throw around here are ambiguous at best. For again, my impression is that it’s too easy to say that the information, experiences, and heredity that appear to shape lives in an amazingly predictable way are only influences that don’t play a “causative” role (or that what explains our behavior is actually LFW, and in actuality we are forever shaped by the power of contrary choice). Again I conclude, I see little evidence in my observation & experience that it was indeed always ‘possible’ for me to have done not-A when I did A… so* e.g. that I truly “could” at this point in my formation rob the neighborhood bank. I find LFW is a theory that remains in search of empirical evidence.

P.S. I’ll risk a non-moral example. I often have a ‘choice’ of dessert: chocolate vs. pineapple. I LOVE and have always experienced chocolate as a joyous endorphin high! But found pineapple to be horrific, and I want to vomit. So I ALWAYS ‘choose’ chocolate!! So. what is the meaning of saying that this remains an LFW choice, or that I “could” freely choose pineapple, or that it’s quite “possible” to exercise my freedom and choose it? I sense such language only makes sense if our concern is the Calvinist sense of freedom from external coercion. For it’s true that no one will hold my arms behind my back if I grab a gallon of pineapple.

But in the more ordinary use of words, it seems to me appropriate to say with total confidence that I am bound to pick what my motives here totally reinforce, and that unless I’m not in my right mind at all, that it’s not ‘possible’ that I ‘could’ surprise everyone and go for the pineapple… I’m telling you that I’m honestly convinced that there’s no way I’m going to choose the pineapple! But I don’t worry about lacking such ‘freedom.’ :slight_smile:


The meaning is that you COULD choose the pineapple even though it made you nauseous. WHY would you choose it? Just to prove that you COULD. But then, the determinist would say that the desire to prove that you could CAUSED you to choose it. So it doesn’t matter what facts you bring out to prove you have libertarian free will, the determinist can explain it away.

But I say that that desire didn’t CAUSE you to choose it. But it was a strong influence. Notwithstanding, you COULD have chosen the chocolate anyway.


I like that. Thanks Bob.:wink:


Paidion, I sense that it’s hard to answer what it means to say that we “COULD” do the opposite of what we are motivated to do, without using the word and basically repeating the assertion that we “COULD”! For you astutely recognize that your counter example simply confirms the Calvinist meaning of free, that we are not physically constrained from eating what we have no motivation to eat, and so indeed “could,” IF a sufficient motive to do that was in place, such as a desire to prove that we “could” eat what we’d otherwise never freely choose to eat. But of course, as you intuit, that example will just sound to me like a great illustration of how choices are again governed by the factors in place at a particular moment which most motivate us.

Let me try posing the question in terms of God, whom I would suppose is maximally in the position to exercise a ‘free’ will. Does it follow that because God has freely performed action A (say a righteous and holy one), then he also “could” at that time have chosen not-A (an unrighteous and unholy action)? What would that mean? Does defining God as ‘free’ require asserting that it is quite “Possible” for God to choose Evil actions? That rhetoric seems peculiar to me.

I’d think it is more plausible to think and say that it is Not ‘possible’ for God to choose to do evil. And that saying He “could” is misleading since it is utterly predictable that he never will, because He will always act consistently with the character that directs His actions . But as above in my own example of moral choices with banks, I would not say that God’s inability to choose such a not-A, makes him less that the Freest One of all!