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Concept Of Free Will: Definition And Explanation

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The concept of free will varies depending on whom you ask. If you were to turn to religion, it would say your free will lies solely in moral decision making; what you choose to have for breakfast is not free will and is already determined. If you were to ask a compatibilist, they would say we do in fact have free will with only some deterministic aspects. If you were to ask a libertarian, they would say you have absolute free will. If you were to ask a determinist, they would say there is no free will what so ever; everything you do, big or small, good or bad, has already been determined by a higher power (for our case, that would be God). I am arguing in support of the compatibilist concept of free will because if there is a God who is an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent (or in other words, all-merciful) being, He would never remove our right to act freely.

Free will can be defined as the ability to make one choice over another if the will to carry out said choice is present. Determinism is defined as the belief that all events, human or not are caused by an external force or in other words, fate. These seem to be two very opposite concepts which leads us into compatibilism. Compatibilism is the belief that in order to have free will, to be a free agent, and to be free in choice and action is simply to be free from physical or psychological constraints (Strawson, 1998, p. 1). In no way do your character traits, preferences, which you are not responsible for, undermine your control over decision-making. To have compatibilistic freedom of will means to be able to consciously choose one way over another.

So what role does determinism play in this act? Determinism comes in when presenting the choices and the subsequent consequences of your choices, meaning you can not control what choices are being presented to you nor can you control what will happen to you once you make that choice. For example, I find three psychedelic carrots in the woods. I pick carrot A which then gives me a sudden craving for cotton candy, so I decide to rob a cotton candy store and find myself in jail. So while I did have the ability to choose freely between carrots A, B and C, I did not have the ability to choose what would happen to me after I ate that carrot.

So does that mean I was “fated” to be imprisoned? No, not necessarily simply because I had the same amount of power to choose to eat psychedelic carrot B or C, which have their own set of consequences or I would have chosen not to eat it and not experience any of their respected consequences. Just because there are consequences of our actions that we must bear, does not mean we do not have free will. If I had known that I would suddenly crave cotton candy to the point of robbing a store should I have this carrot, I would have chosen to not eat it. And this is how we make a lot of our choices in our day to day lives, through the understanding of possible consequences.

It is through this concept that we are not only expected to, but also justified in holding individuals accountable for their actions. If free will did not exist, and we were all in agreement that we have no choice but to do the things we do then how can we properly, and justifiably hold people accountable for their actions? If person A suffered a psychotic break and thereby hurt person B, they would not get into nearly as much trouble had they hurt person B while in a fully rational state. This is because we understand that hurting person B was out of their control due to the fact they were not aware of their actions. If person C had a gun to their head and was told by person D to shoot person E, person C would not receive life in prison because it was not person C’s choice to pull the trigger. The first situation would be an exemption from compatibilism because person A did not have the freedom to choose. The second situation however, is not an exemption because person C could have just as easily chosen not to shoot person E even though it would have resulted in the loss of their life. This then begs the question, did person C really have free will? For the compatibilist, yes they did because they still had the opportunity and ability to choose otherwise. Any thought, deed or notion is of free choice but it is up to the subject to choose what set of consequences they want to bear.

Now that our concept of free will has been explained, it leads us to our next question: is there such a thing as a God? If free will is an illusion, then it would mean that God (if there is one) would be lying to us which is not possible because of his omnibenevolence. Descartes explores this in his Five Meditations. In his Third Meditation, Descartes finds himself wondering where this idea of a perfect God came from.

“I immediately recognize that in me it is very small and seriously limited; and at the same time I form the idea of another faculty that is far greater, one indeed that is supremely great and infinite, and, from the very fact that I can form the idea of it, I perceive that it belongs to the nature of God” (Descartes, 2013, p. 41)

Here in his Fourth Meditation he claims that God must exist because something finite such as Descartes, cannot create something so infinite and perfect such as God. He briefly wondered if it were possible for him to come into existence without God but quickly debunked that when realizing that something as imperfect as him cannot do what only a perfect being (God) can. Going back to where we mentioned that God could be lying, Descartes wrote in his Fourth Meditation the following:

“First of all, I recognize that it cannot happen that he should ever deceive me; for in all deceit and trickery some element of imperfection is to be found; and although to be able to deceive seems to be some indication of intelligence or power, nonetheless to wish to deceive is beyond doubt a proof of malice or feeble-mindedness, to which God cannot be liable. Besides, I know by experience that there is within me a faculty of judging, which I certainly received from God, along with everything else that is in me; and since he does not wish to deceive me, this God-given faculty must be such that I shall never go astray, as long as I use it correctly” (Descartes, 2013, p. 38)

He explains that simply the act of deception is already enough of a flaw that threatens Gods perfection which is impossible because then he would not think that God was perfect in the first place. Any deception that he feels is because of his limited understanding. Though he understands enough that he has the power to choose how to use his judgments and that if he makes the right choices with his judgements, he will no longer be deceived. This exercise of judgements is what we call free will.

St. Thomas Aquinas studied Descartes meditations and provides five logical arguments in his The Five Ways, explaining the existence of a being that we define as God. His first argument is the Argument from Change which states that something in its natural (actual) state cannot be in its potential state at the same time and that in order for it to go from its actual state to its potential state is for an outside source to change it. The example he uses is, in order to make a piece of wood hot (something it has potential for but is not in actuality), it would be needed to heated up with fire (something that is hot in actuality). He uses this same argument to state that in order for something to be in motion, an outside source (mover) needs to move it, which needs its own separate mover in order to be moved and so on so forth. However, it is very easy to slip into this regression in trying to find the “first” mover which lead into an infinite therefore impossible to have a first mover which will in turn not have a subsequent second or third mover which in itself is impossible. From this, Aquinas says that there is a necessity to stop at a first mover that itself is not moved by anything and that is understood to be God (Thomas, 1911, p.380)

His second argument is the Argument from Causation which can summarized simply by saying that nothing is the cause of itself because then it would exist before itself which is impossible. You cannot proceed to infinity with causes because then there would be no first cause and if there is no first cause, there would be no intermediate or final cause which Aquinas says is clearly false. Through this, Aquinas believes that what men call God, is the first efficient cause (Thomas, 1911, p. 381).

The third argument is the Argument from Contingency and here Aquinas says that nothing that does not exist cannot come into existence on its own. “(6) But everything which is necessary either has or has not the cause of its necessity from an outside source.” Here he preludes that it is not possible, according to the case of efficient causes, to proceed to infinity when trying to find a first necessity. Thus, there has to be something that has necessity in itself but not coming from an outside source and this is called God (Thomas, 1911, p. 382)

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The fourth argument, the Argument from Degrees of Excellence, states that there are different degrees found in things. For instance, in the case of something being “more” or “less” has to do with the proportion as they approximate in their different ways to something which has that said “more” or “less” quality in the highest degree. Aquinas uses the example of calling something hot when it reaches more nearly to that which is hot in the highest degree and then leads on to saying that there has to be something existing that carries that quality to the highest degree which allows other things to share that degree (e.g: fire in itself is hot to the highest degree and then in turn cause other things to become hot). From this he comes to the conclusion that the thing with the highest degree of goodness and perfection which allows there to be goodness and perfection in all other things, is in fact God (Thomas, 1911, p. 382)

The fifth and final argument is the Argument from Harmony which goes on to discuss nature and its processes. Aquinas says that these things which contain no knowledge, all work to achieve some sort of goal which he describes as an End. He also notes that they obtain this End through the same process, showing that it is not by chance but rather on purpose which means there has to be something with knowledge guiding these natural processes and that he calls God (Thomas, 1911, p. 383).

For every argument for the existence of God, there is a counter argument. In Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Dawkins attempts to disprove the validity of Aquinas arguments. He grouped the first three arguments under the theme they share in common, an infinite regressor. He does not believe that just because you cannot infinitely regress to a first, you should categorize it as “God”. He then proceeds to explain how omnipotence and omniscience are mutually incompatible because “If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he cannot change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.” (Dawkins, 2016, p. 78). However this cannot be taken truthfully because as we have mentioned before, God exists outside of time and space, so while yes he does know when he would intervene, it does not mean he does not have the power to stop it. Time may be linear but it does not mean there is only one path. Just like how we have the ability to make choices, so does God, and each of those choices branch out a new path with different, potential changes to the future.

A second way he attempts to disprove the infinite regressor arguments is by bringing up the case of the atom. He proceeds to explain how scientists used to wonder if they could dissect gold into the smallest pieces. The scientist would continue to dissect a piece of gold up until it regresses to its atom which contains all of its protons, neutrons and electrons. Dawkins then claims that should the scientist try to dissect that atom, the end result would no longer be gold so it that atom serves as a “natural terminator” (Dawkins, 2016, p. 78). This also does not make sense because a scientist does not need to split a gold atom to no longer have it as gold, any chemical change to any element automatically changes its core. For example, a piece of wood on fire is going through the same chemical change as that atom being split. What Dawkins is forgetting here is that gold, or any other element down to its barest form, is a finite thing whilst the forces that Aquinas was referring to, are infinite.

When disputing the fourth argument, Dawkins does not even acknowledge it as a proper argument. Calling it “fatuous”, he took Aquinas principle and applied to how people can be different kinds of smelly by comparing peers, and say that God would have to be the “pre-eminently peerless stinker” (Dawkins, 2016, p. 79). Dawkins mistake here is that he is applying this concept in a very superficial manner. Aquinas’ fourth argument can also be understood on a much deeper, more intrinsic level, the example of fire he used was only used to illustrate it in the simplest terms. Reaching perfection does not just mean physical perfection, but also inner perfection in terms of thoughts, deeds and notions and with God being perfection, Aquinas is saying that everything has the potential to reach that level of perfection.

For the fifth argument, Dawkins mainly uses Charles Darwins’ theory of evolution to debunk it. “Thanks to Darwin, it is no longer true to say that nothing we know looks designed unless it is designed. Evolution by natural selection produces an excellent simulacrum of design, mounting prodigious heights of complexity and elegance.” (Dawkins, 2016, p. 79). My argument to this is rather simple, Aquinas never specified what an “End” is. All he said was that all things work towards one goal and have a set process on getting to that goal. My question to Dawkins is, who is to say evolution is not part of that process? Is it true that once something evolves it changes the way it behaves? Yes, but it does not mean that its original design or what continues to motivate it to reach that End, changes.

These arguments by Dawkins can be considered “true” if you take Aquinas words and apply them to a very one-dimensional plane but as we saw, that was not the point of The Five Ways.

If Aquinas is right and there is an almighty being such as God, how can we have free will if said God already knows what is going to happen? To answer that, let us take it a step back for a moment. The only reason we are able to doubt the existence of God is because he is not in this world with us (if he were then we would witness him in a much greater capacity, removing the doubt). He is in a world outside of time and space, therefore he is able to see what is happens because to Him it already happened. To better illustrate this concept, pretend you are watching a film with a lot of twists and turns that the protagonists experiences. Say you loved the film so you watch it again at a later time but because it is your nth time watching it, you already know what is going to happen. The protagonist, however, does not. No matter how many times you watch it, the protagonist that is in the movie will not know what is going to happen next even though you do. That is the case with God and our world.

Now obviously the only difference is that while you have no power to change what the protagonist does, God has the power to change what we do. So then why does He not when he sees the world in turmoil? Why do good things happen to bad people and why is there such suffering in the world? Well this ties in to both our concept of free will and that God is an all-merciful being. Now when I saw all-merciful, I say it in the sense that God has mercy by continuing to allow us to choose freely thus exercising our free will. The act of giving us the independence to think we are choosing our actions as well as pieces of our own destiny despite being able to take full control is his mercy. Granted it can be taken as an act of benevolence as well, however I believe that God is being more merciful in the sense that he is making us suffer consequences created by our own, finite, power rather than his infinite power.

For instance, say your child accidentally breaks a beautiful vase. You as a parent have far more power over the child, thereby giving you the chance to punish them in any way. You can choose to have them pick up each individual glass piece with their bare hands, knowing they will keep getting cut. A second option would be to punish the child simply by removing a privilege such as television time or you can choose to not punish them at all. But you know that if your child does not learn their lesson, they will most likely do it again.

In the end you decide to have mercy and go with the second option but to the child that punishment is already enough to make them feel terrible. Now, you know that you could have given a much worse punishment but then that would make your child fear you, causing them to restrain themselves as much as possible around you so to not be punished again. Had you gone with the third option, the child would deem this deed normal and continue breaking every beautiful vase they see which will become a chaotic slippery slope.

This is the case with God “allowing” there to be suffering in the world. He knows that if he makes his full presence known to us this very day, it would be our last day even thinking about free will because we would be too scared to stray from his decrees because if we suffer from the consequences of finite beings, the suffering from a consequence of an infinite being is quite frankly, unimaginable. However, if God was constantly kind to us and forgave all of our sins without any sort of punishment, humanity would only degrade. Thus, allowing us to have free will and experiencing the predestined consequences.

As shown through Descartes meditations and Aquinas arguments, God is an omnipotent, omniscient but most importantly, an omnibenevolent being. By showing his mercy through allowing us to continue choosing freely, God leaves our destiny in our hands. These are the arguments I chose to use to defend my support of compatibilism; that free will can be exercised along with determinism. With free will being our ability to choose and determinism being the consequences that follow, it shows a natural order that we can never avoid but it nevertheless allows us to keep choosing even after. These consequences we face are necessary in being able to hold up accountability which is a vital aspect of a functioning society. Yes it is true that God can make anything happen, be it more suffering or no more suffering but as mentioned before, it is His mercy, His kindness that holds Him back from using His full power because once we experience that, there will be no concept of free will what so ever. From this we are left with this medium of being able to do what we want as long as we are prepared to face what we do not want. That is the relationship between us and God in regards to free will.

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Concept Of Free Will: Definition And Explanation. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from
“Concept Of Free Will: Definition And Explanation.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022,
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