Free Will

Free will is the power to exercise control over one’s decisions and actions. The interest of free will in philosophy primarily lies in whether free will exists. While hard determinism denies the existence of free will, other schools such as incompatibilism, soft determinism (or compatibilism), and libertarianism recognize it in some way or others. These various schools differ on whether all events are already determined or not (determinism versus indeterminism) and also on whether freedom can coexist with determinism or not (compatibilism versus incompatibilism). Philosophers are interested in free will also because free will is considered to be a requirement for moral responsibility. For example, it makes sense to punish criminals only if they choose their fates. But different schools naturally have different responses to the problem of moral responsibility.

The principle of free will has scientific and religious implications. For example, free will may be implied in the basic indeterminism of quantum mechanics. Also in neuroscience, it may imply that the actions of the body, including the brain and the mind, are not wholly determined by physical causality. In the religious realm, free will may imply that it is not totally determined by the causation of karma (Hinduism and Buddhism), or that its power over individual will and choices is not entirely controlled or predestined by an omnipotent divinity (monotheistic religions).

Given all the above positions and their variations, one fundamental issue which underlies them all perhaps with the exception of hard determinism is: Given their free will that may be in some tension with karma or with predestination, how are humans related to nature and God? Are they compatible or incompatible with nature and God? Open theism, a recent school of theology that was developed amongst some Evangelical Christians, stands for the compatibility of God, humans, and nature from the perspective of love that redefines the connection between divine omniscience and omnipotence and human free will.

Does Free Will Exist?

An Example of the problem

Before delving into the problem of whether free will exists, it will be helpful to present an example of the problem. So here is a simple one:

We often praise valedictorians for their intelligence or industriousness (or both). But some philosophers would argue that since no one can choose to become a valedictorian, no one deserves praise for becoming a valedictorian. For instance, if a person Jen is a valedictorian because she is very smart, then Jen’s genes, not Jen, determined her accomplishment. Furthermore, if Jen is a valedictorian because she is hard-working, then either her environment (e.g., her parents) or her genes determined her accomplishment—because these are the only causes of character traits. However, Jen did not choose her environment, and we already know that Jen did not choose her genes. Hence, Jen did not choose to become a valedictorian, it was determined from the day she was born.

Thus generalizing this reasoning to all of our actions poses a dilemma: that all of our actions might be determined. But just what does it mean for an action to be determined?

Free Will

Free Will

Determinism or indeterminism?

The debate over whether free will exists is a debate about the compatibility of free will with how the world’s events proceed. Two dominant philosophical views on how the world’s events proceed are determinism and indeterminism. Determinism claims that the laws of nature and all past events fix all future events. For example, according to Newtonian mechanics, which is a deterministic physical theory, after two elastic bodies A and B come into contact with initial momentums pA and pB, the final momentums of A and B are fixed from pA and pB and the law of conservation of linear momentum.

In contrast, indeterminism claims that it is not true that the laws of nature and all past events fix all future events. For example, according to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is an indeterministic physical theory, Heisenberg’s relations stipulate that the momentum and position of quantum particles are two physical quantities of which we cannot simultaneously assign values. Thus we cannot predict the momentum and position of an electron at a future time even if we knew its momentum and position at a past time.

Theories on free will and determinism

Major metaphysical theories on the compatibility of free will with how the world’s events proceed are outlined below:

  • Hard determinism. Determinism is true and free will does not exist.
  • Incompatibilism. If determinism is true, then free will does not exist.
  • Soft determinism (or compatibilism). Determinism is true and free will exists.
  • Libertarianism. Indeterminism is true and free will exists.

Discussion of the theories

Hard determinism

Hard determinism is the bold view that determinism is true and that, as a result, free will does not exist. Thus hard determinists are nothing more than incompatibilists who are also determinists. Some hard determinists believe that science (especially biology and psychology) shows that human behavior is ultimately reducible to mechanical events. For example, thinking is just neuron firing, and bodily movement is just muscle contraction, both of which reduce to certain chemical reactions, which themselves reduce to certain physical events. So, these hard determinists claim that if we could acquire all of the past facts about a human, then we could predict his or her future actions from the laws of nature.


Incompatibilism is a view about the inconsistency of free will and determinism. It is not a view about whether determinism or free will exists. So, an incompatibilist can believe that free will exists if she does not believe that determinism is true. Peter van Inwagen (1983) is a philosopher that holds an incompatibilist view. He defends incompatibilism with what he calls the “consequence argument.” He summarizes it as follows: “If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us.”

Although Van Inwagen elaborates on the consequence argument, his main point is that compatibilism is incoherent because in order to have free will in a deterministic world, people must be able to violate the laws of nature, because we certainly cannot change past events. Since it is absurd to think that anyone (with the possible exception of God) can violate a law of nature, it is absurd to believe in compatibilism.

Soft determinism (or compatibilism)

Soft Determinism (or compatibilism) is the view that determinism is true, but free will exists nevertheless. Soft determinists have two critics: hard determinists and incompatibilists. Although the arguments against soft determinism seem insurmountable, there are several ways to reply to the critics. One way is to challenge the truth of incompatibilism. For example, some philosophers disagree that we would need to violate a law of nature in order to have free will. One such philosopher is David Lewis, who argues that we might be able to do things that require a law of nature to be broken without ourselves breaking a law of nature. Lewis calls such an action a “divergence miracle” because it requires that a miracle occurs, but not that we are the ones conducting the miracles. For example, God could render a law of nature false so that one of us can act in a way that violates a law of nature.

Another way to reply to the critics is to argue that while determinism is true, the interpretation of it that leads to incompatibilism is not true. This reply answers hard determinists. Roderick Chisholm is one philosopher who takes this approach. He revives Aristotle’s (384-322 B.C.E.) view that not all events are caused by events, but rather, some events are caused by agents. In Aristotle’s words, “A staff moves a stone, and is moved by a hand, which is moved by a man.” Thus Chisholm claims that agents or events can determine events. He calls the former “agent causation” and the latter “event causation.” So, although determinism that assumes only event causation leads to incompatibilism, determinism that assumes event and agent causation leads to compatibilism.

There is, however, a popular criticism against soft determinism inspired from the thesis of agent causation, and it is that this form of soft determinism is implausible because agent causation appears from nowhere. In short, science cannot explain how agent causation is possible because scientific laws apply to events. Specifically, how does a human being move a stone, as Aristotle claims, if not by a series of events such as muscle contraction and neuron firing? Hence agent causation is mysterious from a scientific point of view. Chisholm’s response to this concern is that this criticism applies equally well to event causation. For example, how do positively charged bodies cause negatively charged bodies to move toward them? There is no answer to this question because electromagnetic force is a fundamental—and thus inexplicable—physical cause. Thus causation between events is equally mysterious. Chisholm’s explanation of this dual mystery is that what is not well understood is causation. Thus all apparent problems about agent causation are really problems about causation itself.

As another philosophical compatibilist, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) shifts the discussion to a different kind of distinction—the distinction between the “self-causation” of a subject by which the subject determines itself and the “efficient causation” from objects by which the subject is determined. According to him, both causations function harmoniously and compatibly because through the former causation the subject creatively incorporates the latter for the final constitution of itself. Whitehead applies this to all subjects called “actual entities” and analyzes the relations of God, humans, and nature in terms of compatible actual entities.


Philosophical libertarianism (not to be confused with political libertarianism), is the view that indeterminism rather than determinism is true, and as a result, free will exists. A major impetus of defending indeterminism instead of determinism is the advent of quantum mechanics. However, one should be aware that not all interpretations of quantum mechanics are indeterministic, such as Bohmian mechanics and other hidden-variable theories.

But more importantly, even if the world’s events are indeterministic, some philosophers argue that indeterminism is incompatible with free will. For example, J. J. C. Smart argues that libertarianism posits the absurd concept of “contra-causal freedom,” which is metaphysical freedom that exists in the absence of causes, since all undetermined events should occur by chance, instead of a cause, in an indeterministic world.

Robert Kane, a well-known libertarian, claims that philosophers who attribute contra-causal freedom to libertarianism misunderstand the thesis of indeterminism because their view rests on the false assumption that the “luck principle” is true. The luck principle states that “If an action is undetermined at a time t, then its happening rather than not happening at t would be a matter of chance or luck, and so it could not be a free and responsible action,” but this principle is false according to Kane because indeterminism does not reject causation, only deterministic causation. In fact, some other philosophers such as Patrick Suppes and Wesley Salmon have constructed reasonable and detailed theories of probabilistic causation. To prove the possibility of indeterministic causation, Kane provides a “shaky assassin” counterexample to the luck principle:

Consider an assassin who is trying to kill the prime minister but might miss because of some undetermined events in his nervous system which might lead to a jerking or wavering of his arm. If he does hit his target, can he be held responsible? The answer (as J.L. Austin and Philippa Foot successfully argued decades ago) is “yes,” because he intentionally and voluntarily succeeded in doing what he was trying to do—kill the prime minister.

Thus Kane argues that an indeterministic world does not undermine our control over our actions because we can voluntarily and intentionally cause events to happen even though we cannot guarantee their occurrence due to indeterminacy.

Seniors Care For The Elderly Protection Protect


Moral Responsibility

Society generally holds people responsible for their actions, saying that they deserve praise or blame for what they do. However, many believe moral responsibility to require free will, in other words, the ability to do otherwise. Thus, the issue here is whether individuals are ever morally responsible, and if so, in what sense.

Incompatibilists tend to think that determinism is at odds with moral responsibility. After all, it seems impossible that one can hold someone responsible for an action that could be predicted from the beginning of time. Hard determinists may say “So much the worse for moral responsibility!” and discard the concept. Clarence Darrow famously used this argument to defend the murderers Leopold and Loeb. Conversely, libertarians may say “So much the worse for determinism!”

This issue also appears to be the heart of the dispute between hard determinists and compatibilists; hard determinists are forced to accept that individuals often have “free will” in the compatibilist sense, but they deny that this sense of free will truly matters, i.e., that it can ground moral responsibility. Just because an agent’s choices are uncoerced, hard determinists claim, does not change the fact that determinism robs the agent of responsibility. Compatibilists often argue that, on the contrary, determinism is a prerequisite for moral responsibility, i.e., that society cannot hold someone responsible unless his actions were determined by something. St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans addresses the question of moral responsibility as follows: “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Romans 9:21, KJV). In this view, individuals can still be dishonored for their acts even though those acts were ultimately completely determined by God. A similar view has it that individual moral culpability lies in individual character. That is, a person with the character of a murderer has no choice other than to murder, but can still be punished because it is right to punish those of bad character.

If indeterminism is true, however, then those events that are not determined are random. One questions whether it is possible that one can blame or praise someone for performing an action that just spontaneously popped into his nervous system. Libertarians may reply that undetermined actions are not random at all, since they result from a substantive will whose decisions are undetermined, and that they, therefore, are morally culpable.

The Science of Free Will


Throughout history, people have made attempts at answering the question of free will using scientific principles. Early scientific thought often pictured the universe as deterministic, and some thinkers believed that it was simply a matter of gathering sufficient information to be able to predict future events with perfect accuracy. This encourages individuals to see free will as an illusion. Modern science is a mixture of deterministic and stochastic theories. For example, radioactive decay occurs with predictable probability, but it is not possible, even in theory, to tell exactly when a particular nucleus will decay. Quantum mechanics predicts observations only in terms of probabilities. This casts some doubt on whether the universe is deterministic at all. Some scientific determinists such as Albert Einstein believe in the “hidden variable theory” that beneath the probabilities of quantum mechanics there are set variables (see the EPR Paradox). This theory has had great doubt cast on it by the Bell Inequalities, which suggest that “God may really play dice” after all, perhaps casting into doubt the predictions of Laplace’s demon. The leading contemporary philosopher who has capitalized on the success of quantum mechanics and chaos theory in order to defend incompatibilist freedom is Robert Kane, in The Significance of Free Will and other writings. Kane’s arguments apply equally well to any “unthinking” entity that behaves according to quantum mechanics.


Like physicists, biologists have frequently addressed questions related to free will. One of the most heated debates in biology is that of “nature versus nurture,” concerning the relative importance of genetics and biology as compared to culture and environment in human behavior. The view of most researchers is that many human behaviors can be explained in terms of humans’ brains, genes, and evolutionary histories. This raises the fear that such attribution makes it impossible to hold others responsible for their actions. Steven Pinker’s view is that fear of determinism in the context of “genetics” and “evolution” is a mistake, and that it is “a confusion of explanation with exculpation.” Responsibility doesn’t require behavior to be uncaused, as long as behavior responds to praise and blame. Moreover, it is not certain that environmental determination is any less threatening to free will than genetic determination.


It has become possible to study the living brain, and researchers can now watch the decision-making “machinery” at work. A seminal experiment in this field was conducted by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s, wherein he asked subjects to choose a random moment to flick their wrist while he watched the associated activity in their brains. Libet found that the unconscious brain activity leading up to the conscious decision by the subject to flick his or her wrist began approximately half a second before the subject consciously decided to move. This build-up of electrical charge has come to be called “readiness potential.” Libet’s findings suggest that decisions made by a subject are actually first being made on a subconscious level and only afterward being translated into a “conscious decision,” and that the subject’s belief that it occurred at the behest of their will was only due to their retrospective perspective on the event. However, Libet still finds room in his model for free will, in the notion of the power of veto: according to this model, unconscious impulses to perform a volitional act are open to suppression by the conscious efforts of the subject. It should be noted that this does not mean that Libet believes unconsciously impelled actions require the ratification of consciousness, but rather that consciousness retains the power to, as it were, deny the actualization of unconscious impulses.

A related experiment performed later by Alvaro Pascual-Leone involved asking subjects to choose at random which of their hands to move. He found that by stimulating different hemispheres of the brain using magnetic fields it was possible to strongly influence which hand the subject picked. Normally right-handed people would choose to move their right hand 60% of the time, for example, but when the right hemisphere was stimulated they would instead choose their left hand 80% of the time; the right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere for the right. Despite the external influence on their decision-making, the subjects continued to report that they believed their choice of hand had been made freely.

Libet himself, however, does not interpret his experiment as evidence of the inefficacy of conscious free will—he points out that although the tendency to press a button may be building up for 500 milliseconds, the conscious will retains a right to veto that action in the last few milliseconds. A comparison is made with a golfer, who may swing a club several times before striking the ball. In this view, the action simply gets a rubber stamp of approval at the last millisecond.

Neurology and psychiatry

There are several brain-related conditions in which an individual’s actions are not felt to be entirely under his or her control. Although the existence of such conditions does not directly refute the existence of free will, the study of such conditions, like the neuroscientific studies above, is valuable in developing models of how the brain may construct our experience of free will.

In obsessive-compulsive disorder, a patient may feel an overwhelming urge to do something against his or her own will. Examples include washing hands many times a day, recognizing the desire as his or her own desire, although it seems to be against his or her will. In Tourette syndrome and related syndromes, patients will involuntarily make movements, such as tics, and utterances. In alien hand syndrome, the patient’s limb will make meaningful acts without the intention of the subject.

Experimental psychology

Experimental psychology‘s contributions to the free will debate have come primarily through social psychologist Daniel M. Wegner’s work on conscious will. In his book, The Illusion of Conscious Will, Wegner summarizes empirical evidence supporting that the human perception of conscious control is an illusion.

Wegner observes that one event is inferred to have caused a second event when two requirements are met: 1) that the first event immediately precedes the second event, and 2) that the first event is consistent with having caused the second event. If a person hears an explosion and sees a tree fall down, for example, that person is likely to infer that the explosion caused the tree to fall over. However, if the explosion occurs after the tree falls down (i.e., the first requirement is not met), or rather than an explosion, the person hears the ring of a telephone (i.e., the second requirement is not met), then that person is not likely to infer that either noise caused the tree to fall down.

Wegner has applied this principle to the inferences people make about their own conscious will. People typically experience a thought that is consistent with a behavior, and then they observe themselves performing this behavior. As a result, people infer that their thoughts must have caused the observed behavior. However, Wegner has been able to manipulate people’s thoughts and behaviors so as to conform to or violate the two requirements for causal inference. Through such work, Wegner has been able to show that people will often experience conscious will over behaviors that they have, in fact, not caused, and conversely, that people can be led to experience a lack of will over behaviors that they did cause. The implication for such work is that the perception of conscious will is not tethered to the execution of actual behaviors. Although many interpret this work as a blow against the argument for free will, Wegner has asserted that his work informs only of the mechanism for perceptions of control, not for control itself.

Freedom Silhouette Woman Backlighting Heaven

Human Freedom

Free Will in Eastern Religions

Hinduism and Buddhism understand the haunting presence of karma that explains determinism. At the same time, they quite often acknowledge human free will. So, the question is how they can explain both together.


In Hinduism there is no one accepted view on the concept of free will. Within the predominant schools of Hindu philosophy there are two main opinions. The Advaita (monistic) schools generally believe in a fate-based approach, and the Dvaita (dualistic) schools are proponents for the theory of free will. Different schools’ understandings are based upon their conceptions of the nature of the Supreme being (see Brahman, Paramatma and Ishvara) and how the individual soul (atma or jiva) dictates, or is dictated by karma within the illusory existence of maya. In the Samkhya, matter is without any freedom, and soul lacks any ability to control the unfolding of matter. The only real freedom (kaivalya) consists in realizing the ultimate separateness of matter and self. The metaphysics of the Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools strongly suggest a belief in determinism, but do not seem to make explicit claims about determinism or free will. A quotation from Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), a Vedantist, offers a good example of the worry about free will in the Hindu tradition:

Therefore we see at once that there cannot be any such thing as free-will; the very words are a contradiction, because will is what we know, and everything that we know is within our universe, and everything within our universe is moulded by conditions of time, space and causality…. To acquire freedom we have to get beyond the limitations of this universe; it cannot be found here.

On the other hand, Mimamsa, Vedanta, and the more theistic versions of Hinduism such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism, have often emphasized the importance of free will. For example, in the Bhagavad Gita the living beings (jivas) are described as being of a higher nature who have the freedom to exploit the inferior material nature (prakrti).

To Hindus such as the Advaitin philosopher Chandrashekhara Bharati Swaminah, fate and free will are not contradictory but harmonious because the doctrine of karma requires both that we pay for our actions in the past, and that our actions in the present be free enough to allow us to deserve the future reward or punishment that we will receive for our present actions. Thus:

Fate is past karma, free-will is present karma. Both are really one, that is, karma, though they may differ in the matter of time. There can be no conflict when they are really one…. Fate, as I told you, is the resultant of the past exercise of your free-will. By exercising your free-will in the past, you brought on the resultant fate. By exercising your free-will in the present, I want you to wipe out your past record if it hurts you, or to add to it if you find it enjoyable. In any case, whether for acquiring more happiness or for reducing misery, you have to exercise your free-will in the present.


Buddhism accepts both freedom and determinism (or something similar to it), but rejects the idea of an agent, and thus the idea that freedom is a free will belonging to an agent. In the words of the Buddha: “There is free action, there is retribution, but I see no agent that passes out from one set of momentary elements into another one, except the [connection] of those elements.”

Buddhism believes in neither absolute free will, nor determinism. It preaches a middle doctrine called pratitya-samutpada in Sanskrit, which is often translated as “inter-dependent arising.” It is part of the theory of karma in Buddhism. The concept of karma in Buddhism is different from that in Hinduism. In Buddhism, the idea of karma is less deterministic. The Buddhist notion of karma is primarily focused on the cause and effect of moral actions in this life, while in Hinduism the concept of karma is more often connected with determining one’s destiny in future lives.

In Buddhism it is taught that the idea of absolute freedom of choice (i.e., that any human being could be completely free to make any choice) is foolish, because it denies the reality of one’s physical needs and circumstances. Equally incorrect is the idea that we have no choice in life or that our lives are pre-determined. To deny freedom would be to undermine the efforts of Buddhists to make moral progress (through our capacity to freely choose compassionate action).

Because Buddhists also reject agenthood, the traditional compatibilist strategies are closed to them as well. Instead, the Buddhist philosophical strategy is to examine the metaphysics of causality. Ancient India had many heated arguments about the nature of causality, with Jains, Nyayists, Samkhyists, Carvakans, and Buddhists all taking slightly different lines. In many ways, the Buddhist position is closer to a theory of “conditionality” than a theory of “causality,” especially as it is expounded by Nagarjuna in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

A contemporary American monk, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, puts it this way:

The Buddha’s teachings on karma are interesting because it’s a combination of causality and free-will. If things were totally caused there would be no way you could develop a skill – your actions would be totally predetermined. If there was no causality at all skills would be useless because things would be constantly changing without any kind of rhyme or reason to them. But it’s because there is an element of causality and because there is this element of free-will you can develop skills in life.

Free Will in Monotheistic Religions

Monotheistic religions talk about God’s omniscience and omnipotence, affirming a kind of determinism. At the same time, they also recognize human free will. Sometimes human free will is alleged to be in conflict with divine omniscience and omnipotence. How they can be reconciled is an issue these religions have been trying to address.


The belief in free will (Hebrew: bechirah chofshith בחירה חפשית, bechirah בחירה) is axiomatic in Jewish thought, and is closely linked with the concept of reward and punishment. This is based on the Torah itself: Deuteronomy 30:19 states: “I [God] have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (NIV). Free will is therefore discussed at length in Jewish philosophy, firstly as regards God’s purpose in creation, and secondly as regards the closely related, resultant, paradox.

The traditional teaching regarding the purpose of creation, particularly as influenced by Jewish mysticism, is this: “Man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in God, and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His Presence… The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desires is this world.” Free will is thus required, so that humans may be given or denied good for actions over which they have control. It is further understood that in order for humans to have true free choice, they must not only have inner free will, but also an environment in which a choice between obedience and disobedience exists. God thus created the world such that both good and evil can operate freely.

In Rabbinic literature, there is much discussion as to the contradiction between God’s omniscience and free will. The representative view is Rabbi Akiba’s (c.50-c.135) classic formulation: “Everything is foreseen, yet free will is given.” Based on this understanding, the problem is formally described by Maimonides (1135-1204) as a paradox, beyond our understanding:

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, knows everything that will happen before it has happened. So does He know whether a particular person will be righteous or wicked, or not? If He does know, then it will be impossible for that person not to be righteous. If He knows that he will be righteous but that it is possible for him to be wicked, then He does not know everything that He has created. …[T]he Holy One, Blessed Be He, does not have any temperaments and is outside such realms, unlike people, whose selves and temperaments are two separate things. God and His temperaments are one, and God’s existence is beyond the comprehension of Man… [Thus] we do not have the capabilities to comprehend how the Holy One, Blessed Be He, knows all creations and events. [Nevertheless] know without doubt that people do what they want without the Holy One, Blessed Be He, forcing or decreeing upon them to do so…. It has been said because of this that a man is judged according to all his actions.

Although the above represents the majority view in Rabbinic thought, there are several major thinkers who resolve the paradox by explicitly excluding human action from divine foreknowledge. Both Saadia Gaon (882 or 892-942) and Judah ha-Levi (c. 1075-1141) hold that “the decisions of man precede God’s knowledge.” Gersonides (1288-1344) holds that God knows, beforehand, the choices open to each individual, but does not know which choice the individual, in his freedom, will make. Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630) takes the view that God cannot know which moral choices people will make, but that, nevertheless, this does not impair his perfection.


In Islam, the theological issue is not usually how to reconcile free will with God’s foreknowledge, but with God’s jabr, or divine commanding power. Al-Ash’ari (874-936) developed an “acquisition” or “dual-agency” form of compatibilism, in which human free will and divine jabr were both asserted, and which became a cornerstone of the dominant Ash’ari position. In Shia Islam, Ash’ari’s understanding of a higher balance toward predestination is challenged by most theologians. Free will, according to Shia doctrine, is the main factor for one’s accountability in one’s actions throughout life. All actions taken by one’s free will are said to be counted on the Day of Judgment because they are one’s own and not God’s.


In Christian theology, God is described as not only omniscient but omnipotent. This postulate, some Christians believe, implies that not only has God always known what choices individuals will make tomorrow, but he actually determined those choices. That is, by virtue of God’s foreknowledge he knows what will influence individual choices, and by virtue of God’s omnipotence he controls those factors. This becomes especially important for the doctrines relating to salvation and predestination.


Theologians of the Catholic Church universally embrace the idea of free will, but generally do not view free will as existing apart from or in contradiction to grace. Saint Augustine (354-430) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274) wrote extensively on free will, with Augustine focusing on the importance of free will in his responses to the Manichaeans, and also on the limitations of a concept of unlimited free will as denial of grace, in his refutations of Pelagius. Catholic Christianity’s emphasis on free will and grace is often contrasted with predestination in Protestant Christianity, especially after the Counter-Reformation, but in understanding differing conceptions of free will, it is just as important to understand the differing conceptions of the nature of God. The key idea is that God can be all-powerful and all-knowing even while people continue to exercise free will, because God does not exist in time.

According to Boethius (480-524 or 525), God’s knowledge is timeless and eternal because he transcends temporal categories. God sees past, present, and future altogether in his eternal present. So, his eternal knowledge of our future, for example, cannot be treated as if it were a temporal foreknowledge of the same. While God is indeed all-knowing, he does not foreknow the future as if he were present temporally. Thus, human free will can be completely secured. This view of Boethius has been widely influential in the Catholic Church as it has tried to address the problem of the tension between divine foreknowledge and human will.


Calvinists embrace the idea that God chose who would be saved from before the creation. They quote Ephesians 1:4 “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (NIV). One of the strongest defenders of this theological point of view was the Puritan-American preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). Edwards believed that indeterminism was incompatible with the individual’s dependence on God and hence with God’s sovereignty. He reasoned that if individuals’ responses to God’s grace are contra-causally free, then their salvation depends partly on them and therefore God’s sovereignty is not “absolute and universal.” Edwards’ book Freedom of the Will defends theological determinism. In this book, he attempts to show that libertarianism is incoherent. For example, he argues that by “self-determination” the libertarian must mean either that one’s actions including one’s acts of willing are preceded by an act of free will, or that one’s acts of will lack sufficient causes. The first leads to an infinite regress, while the second implies that acts of will happen accidentally and hence cannot make someone “better or worse, any more than a tree is better than other trees because it oftener happens to be lit upon by a swan or nightingale; or a rock more vicious than other rocks, because rattlesnakes have happened oftener to crawl over it.”

It should not be thought that this view completely denies freedom of choice, however. It claims that one is free to act on one’s moral impulses and desires, but is not free to act contrary to them, or to change them. Proponents such as John L. Girardeau have indicated their belief that moral neutrality is impossible; that even if it were possible, and one were equally inclined to contrary options, one could make no choice at all; that if one is inclined, however slightly, toward one option, then they will necessarily chose that one over any others.

Arminians and Molinists

Arminians in Protestantism, named after Jacobus Arminius, the celebrated Dutch Reformed theologian (1560-1609), and Molinists in Catholicism, named after Luis de Molina, the Spanish Jesuit theologian (1535-1600), recognize the significant power of free will, although they believe that, given our original sin, free will can only function after divine grace is given us. As regards the relationship of free will with God’s foreknowledge, they maintain that there is no contradiction there. While we are genuinely free to do anything because of our will, God foreknows what our decisions and actions will be like in the end. So, while God’s plan is virtually conditional upon human decision (i.e., virtual priority of human decision), it can still be maintained that God wills what he foreknows we will choose to do. Arminians have been strongly criticized by Calvinists, just like Molinists were sharply criticized by the conservative Dominican, Domingo Báñez (1528-1604). In Protestantism, the discord of Arminianism and Calvinism is allowed to exist, just like within Catholicism the disagreement of Molina and Báñez has been officially allowed to exist.

This Arminian-Molinist position can also be seen in the Eastern Orthodox tradition in general.


Methodists are Arminian in their emphasis on free will. But they understand the relationship of free will with divine omniscience and omnipotence in terms of “synergism.” While God initiates his relationship with human beings by giving them “prevenient grace,” once the relationship starts, human beings assume the capability and responsibility of response to God’d grace. Thus God and humans cooperate with each other in the process of salvation. According to John Wesley (1703-1791), human beings “can” and “must” respond to God’s grace, “working together with” God in their deeds of piety and in their deeds of love.

Open theists

Open theism is a rather new school of theology that was developed amongst some Evangelical Christians towards the end of the twentieth century. In the Arminian tradition it appreciates the free will of human beings, but it introduces a unique way of reconciling free will with divine omniscience and omnipotence. According to open theists such as John Sanders, God, of course, foreknows some future certainties such as those things which he himself ordains in his overarching plan for humanity (e.g., the coming of his Kingdom) and those things which are determined in the natural order of causation (i.e., the occurrence of an earthquake), but regarding future actions to be made by human beings that have free will, God foreknows only their possibilities and not their certainties. The future regarding human actions exists only in terms of possibilities rather than certainties. Human beings make choices, and God can neither predict nor control them. But God is still omniscient and omnipotent, in that he knows and does everything that it is possible for him to know and do.

Here we can find a new, interesting definition of divine omniscience and omnipotence. Traditional theism has defined divine omniscience and omnipotence based on its belief that a perfect God is immutable. For open theists, however, the immutability of God should not be the criterion. Rather, the love of God should be the criterion to explain a perfect God and his omniscience and omnipotence. Therefore, an all-knowing and all-powerful God, by giving us free will, can change and learn because of love. An all-knowing and all-powerful God can choose to be related and to respond to his creation because of love. If you argue that God can do none of these, you end up limiting God.


Hard determinism, which denies free will in its entirety, is a minority opinion. The other schools (incompatibilism, compatibilism, and libertarianism) admit of free will in one way or another. They raise two subsequent questions: 1) How is free will related to determinism or indeterminism? and 2) Does free will entail moral responsibility?

To answer the first question, a brief summary of what has been discussed so far would be useful. In philosophy and science, determinism usually refers to causation resulting from the laws of nature, while indeterminism refers to uncaused randomness and uncertainty in nature or free will in the human realm. When the discussion shifts to religion, then determinism means the causation of karma (Hinduism and Buddhism) or God’s omniscience and omnipotence (monotheistic religions), while indeterminism refers to human free will in face of karma (Hinduism and Buddhism) or God (monotheistic religions). So, the question is: How is human free will related to nature, whether nature is deterministic or indeterministic, and also how is human free will related to the determinism of karma and the determinism of God? More simply put, how are humans, while their free will is in tension with karma, related to nature and God? Given that kind of free will, are humans compatible or incompatible with nature and God?

In Eastern religions, the problem of karma, resulting from past human sinfulness, causes a difficulty to human free will. We can find its counterpart in monotheistic religions which also talk about the consequences of sin that limit our free will. Because of this, there have always been some reservations about the fully compatible relationship of God, humans, and nature. But, recent theology tends to go beyond sin to much more positively appreciate it. For example, Open theism among others maintains that God gave us free will because of his love for us. If so, our free will, when used properly, is expected not to separate us from God but to unite us with him. Also, our free will is understood to let us have a dominion of love and unity over nature on behalf of God. Hence open theism affirms human free will’s compatibility with God and also with nature. With this scenario, God is still all-knowing and all-powerful, given a new definition of the perfection of God centered on love. This more positive picture of the compatibility of God, humans, and nature, seems to be basically in agreement with the Whiteheadian thesis that all actual entities, including God, harmoniously determine one another, while at the same time they each have their own self-determination.

The second question of whether free will entails moral responsibility, is answered in the affirmative especially by compatibilists and libertarians. It can be observed that most religious people, regardless of the diversity of their religious and denominational affiliations, affirm moral responsibility as compatibilists.

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia

Leave a Reply