TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 2: Free Choice, Self-Determination, Community, and Character

Appendix 4: Only believers accept the reality of free choice

Apart from those who share in the truth of divine revelation, virtually all of humankind either ignores or denies that there is a power of free choice.

One reason for this is that free choice is unique. In general, everything that happens in the world of experience has a cause, and the precise way things happen is determined by definite features of their causes. One imagines that if one knew at a given moment the whole state of the universe—what everything is, where it is, what it is doing—then one could in principle predict the state of the universe at every future moment. This supposition is the theory of physical or natural determinism.

True, most things can be accounted for by antecedent causal conditions. If this were not so, there could be no natural science, for the world would not have the order it has. But determinism does not hold true of everything. It is not true of God the creator, because nothing in any sense causes him to create. Nor is determinism true of the miracles God does in the world to signal us, in order to initiate or to call attention to his revelation. Nor, of course, is determinism true of our own free choices.

People who hold a deterministic view are likely to look at human behavior as if it were the behavior of a subhuman animal or even as if it were the output of a complicated machine. Such entities do not have the God-like ability to be of themselves. They are what they are, and they become only what they are caused to become by their own internal programming and by external factors. If their behavior or output is abnormal, this “evil” has to be accounted for as sickness, malfunction, or breakdown of some kind.

Even Aristotle sometimes thought of human life in this way, although it is inconsistent with other aspects of his philosophy. What human persons ought to be is settled entirely by their nature. If one is brought up properly, lives in a good environment, and has a healthy disposition, one will naturally understand what is good. Understanding it, one will want it and act for it, thus to fulfill oneself. Choices—not free choices—come in for Aristotle only because there are diverse ways of attaining one’s good, due to the complexity of the world.23 A god would not have this problem and would have no choices to make.

Many modern and contemporary thinkers accept essentially the same view. One finds it almost everywhere in psychology and the social sciences. Not only individual but also social moral difficulties are considered as if they were problems in the ways things “work,” not results of wrong choices people make. So, just as individuals seek treatment to get rid of guilt, married couples want therapy for their broken-down relationships, and nations try to find ways to “tune up” their economies.

An obvious reason for the attractiveness of this view of human life is that it is a true picture of a great deal of human behavior, for not everything people do follows from free choice, and choices themselves can only be between options which occur to one and seem interesting. To the extent that determinism is true, the individual and social human condition can be treated and tinkered with so that it is healthier and works more smoothly. When one is somewhat successful in improving matters on a deterministic approach, there is a natural tendency to suppose that one has the key to complete human liberation and progress. It is hard to admit that much human evil simply cannot be fixed.

Determinism also is attractive because it excludes real moral responsibility and denies real moral guilt. It therefore functions as a means of rationalizing, which allows one who holds it to act immorally while pretending not to be able to do otherwise.

Another reason why free choice is overlooked or denied is that it seems in one way to be inconsistent with one’s own experience of deliberating and choosing. One does not make a choice for no reason at all. One always chooses for the sake of some good (see S.t., 1–2, q. 13, aa. 5–6). Thus one always can give a good reason—or at least a plausible reason—why one has chosen as one has. Moreover, after a choice is made, it often seems in retrospect that what one chose was obviously the better (or best) alternative. One could hardly have chosen otherwise. This impression will be especially strong if one has done something morally evil, because then it is comforting to feel that one did the only reasonable thing.

It is obvious that one can affect one’s own choices and the choices of other persons by getting or providing information. One cannot choose unless one thinks of something, sees it as interesting, and considers it possible (see S.t., 1–2, q. 14, a. 1). In many cases, people who lack necessary knowledge make very poor choices, but begin to make better choices when they learn better. This situation suggests (falsely) that whenever bad choices are made, the problem is a lack of knowledge. So on this approach, moral evil is reduced to ignorance, and salvation is sought by education. If sin always is a matter of mistakes and ignorance, knowledge is virtue.

Plato perhaps held a view along these lines.24 Much Eastern religion seeks to overcome illusion and to help people to accept the way things are. A great deal of modern and contemporary Western thought—with its tremendous confidence in science and in education—is based upon a very similar view of human life.

The difference between Eastern mystical passivity and Western pragmatic activism is due to a difference in assumptions about reality and knowledge. The view of Eastern religion is that reality is one; knowledge reveals the impossibility of changing anything; and so knowing liberates by eliminating useless desire and effort. The view of Western pragmatism is that reality is a struggle; knowledge reveals how things work and gives power to obtain wanted results; and so knowing liberates by showing how to get what one wants.

A naturalistic determinism and some sort of theory that sin is ignorance and knowledge saves often are mixed together in contemporary thought. Such a view is appealing for reasons analogous to the appeal of naturalistic determinism. It is especially appealing to intellectuals, since it makes that in which they are superior (intellectual activity) a guarantee of their quality as persons—that is, of moral superiority.

Not everything in experience seems to follow from natural necessity, nor does every inclination seem to arise from some definite knowledge. Against both naturalistic determinism and the view that knowledge is virtue, many people today do notice and make much of the reality of the unpredictable. Evolution seems to mean that really new things somehow emerge; nature is not simply a big machine forever grinding on in the same way. Similarly, human creativity is real. The genius is “inspired”; human art and science constantly innovate. When these facts are considered, one might suppose that the reality of free choice would be noticed and accepted, not ignored or denied.

But the great emphasis upon evolution and creativity during the past century has not led to a reaffirmation of free choice. For the emergence of novelty in nature and in the work of genius essentially is a nonrational, nonaccountable process. If human moral action is thought of in one of the nondeterminist ways provided by theories of evolution and innovation, no antecedent standards can be admitted as valid for such moral action. Nietzsche developed a theory along these lines.

While a free choice is not like a determined natural event, nor like the behavior which necessarily follows upon certain knowledge, neither is it like a stroke of genius or something which emerges inexplicably in the course of evolution. Free choices are made by persons; they are in our own power, while emergents and strokes of genius are not. Free choices do introduce novelty into the world, but the person choosing introduces and controls this novelty (at least initially) and so is responsible for it. There are antecedent standards for human free choices, because the power of choice is a power to fulfill or to stunt oneself in respect to the possibilities of human and divine fulfillment.

Thus, the great emphasis upon evolution and creativity in recent thought has not led to a reaffirmation of free choice. Instead, it has led to a denial both of moral standards and of the responsible persons to whom such standards would provide relevant guidance. Contemporary philosophies of evolution and creativity deal with some facts, but they overgeneralize from them.

In sum, only those who accept the Judeo-Christian account of creation are likely to admit the reality of free choice. Naturalistic determinists acknowledge prior reality, but conceive it in a way which excludes novelty. Gnostics acknowledge knowledge, but conceive it in a way which excludes love which surpasses understanding—including the love involved in free choices for which there can never be a sufficient reason. Contemporary theorists of evolution and creativity acknowledge novelty, but conceive it in a way which precludes its being a purposeful expression of an antecedent self to whom it belongs.

Only in the case of the creator and his pro-creators can novelties emerge from and in harmony with an antecedent, real principle, emerge shaped by wisdom and expressed by love: emerge through Logos and Agape. Only the three divine persons and created persons can be authors (the Father; the human self as moral agent) of novelty (creation; the self-determined human person) by wisdom (the Son; the plan for human fulfillment we call “moral norms”) and love (the Spirit; the very making of free choices). In making free choices, human persons display the image of God in which they are made.

23. Aristotle certainly maintains that vices are voluntary and that persons are morally responsible: Nichomachean Ethics iii, 1109b30–1115a6. But his handling of the problem of incontinence makes clear that competing psychic factors determine action: vii, 1146b6–1147b19. For a good, concise analysis of the relevant texts, see David J. Furley, Two Studies in the Greek Atomists (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 210–26. Writing in his own name but with evident inspiration from Aristotle, the Aristotelian scholar W. David Ross proposed a deterministic theory of moral responsibility: Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), 230 and 250–51. This treatment of free will seems to me to extrapolate Aristotle’s views very neatly to deal with a question he never explicitly treats.

24. In such dialogues as the Protagoras, Plato seems to accept the thesis that no one voluntarily does evil. Yet the interpretation of Plato’s dialogues always is difficult; it is hard if possible to derive his position from them. It might be argued that for Plato, as for the Bible, wisdom has a strong moral component, such that the fool is not so much ignorant as a rationalizing sinner(see Ps 53.2; 74.22), and so “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111.10; cf. Prv 1.7; 9.10). But it seems more likely that Plato, like Aristotle, falls short of understanding the radical initiation present in human free choice, modeled as it is on divine free creation. The Republic ends (614–21) with the myth of Er, an exhortation to moral seriousness, yet in this passage Plato fails to articulate the principle of free choice this seriousness presupposes.