The past two post I’ve talked about freedom: Finding Freedom Through Unbound and Freedom From Perfectionism. Yet neither blog post makes sense if we are not free agents. So I decided to ask myself, how do I know I have free will?
Well the easiest answer is that the Church teaches it to be so
God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him. (CCC 1730)
But that wouldn’t be any fun and a very short blog post. So today, I am tackling the question of how we have free will.
The Topic of Free Will
Buckle up, dear readers, we are in for a bumpy ride. This topic is so challenging and yet fascinating to me. It intersects with a wide variety of fields of study. You have theological questions: If God is all-knowing, doesn’t God predetermine our choices? Philosophy questions exist: what is the nature of this kind of control: does free will exist at all. Lastly, you have ethical questions: is it possible to be held accountable if there is no free will?
To keep it short, I will focus on the theological question.
Theology and Free Will
Theology assumes the existence of a free will. The Bible states,
It was he who created humankind in the beginning,
and he left them in the power of their own free choice.
If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given. (Sirach 15:14–17 (NRSV))
So if free will exists, how is that compatible with God’s omniscient? Two major thinkers addressed this question: St Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
St. Augustine is often misunderstood. His teachings are often exaggerated to support ridge predeterminism. Yet the reality is that St. Augustine believed in free will. According to St. Augustine, God has an infinite store of motives. God also has the foreknowledge of motives to which the will of each human will consent.
I know it is confusing, but maybe an example will help.
Imagine you are standing in line at a hamburger and hot dog stand. The stand is cash only. Hamburgers are $5 and Hot Dogs are $1. You see that the person in front of you has only $2 in cash. Thus you know that the person in front of you will be buying hot dogs. God’s foreknowledge is similar to knowing how much cash the person has in front of you.
St Augustine’s teachings would be the beginning of the Church’s theology regarding free will.
St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas built on the foundation of St. Augustine. In some ways, St Thomas Aquinas may have complicated the relationship between free will and God.
In order to understand free will, we must first understand the nature of the will. Aquinas borrowed from Aristotle’s understanding of the nature of man. Both Aristotle and Aquinas think that man has rationality. This rationality contains the will.
So What is the Will and Is it Free?
Aquinas divides rationality into two parts: the intellect and the will. The former has three functions: Understanding, judgment, and argument. The will has two parts: free will and motive.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, all humanity is motivated by the good. In other words, no one intentionally does evil. All actions are done for the good of the person. Humanity is still open to choose from a multitude of good things.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, man has free will as a rational agent. Yet this will is moved towards the good by God.
Wait, what, how can God move our will and still be free?
How God Fits In?
St. Aquinas a much smarter man than me anticipated this question and responded to it.
it does not of necessity belong to liberty that what is free should be the first cause of itself, as neither for one thing to be cause of another need it be the first cause. God, therefore, is the first cause, Who moves causes both natural and voluntary. And just as by moving natural causes He does not prevent their acts being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions of being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature.(ST. I. Q83 A1 ad 3)
What on earth is St. Aquinas saying?
Basically, he is saying that God caused the world to act the way it does. Yet God is the originator of everything does not take away our freedom. God created us to desire the good. Yet we are still free in our choices of the good.
Example from my own life. I can choose to read or I can choose to watch Netflix. According to Aquinas, I am going to use my intellect to choose the one that will lead to my ultimate happiness. My free will must choose the one my intellect deems appropriate.
Does the fact that my will is influenced by an outside force make me less free?
When I started researching and writing for this blog post, I thought for sure that free will entailed both being free from external forces and free from deterministic inner motives. Yet the more I read about St.Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine the more I’m persuaded otherwise. Obviously, in today’s society, we take the free will for granted. We assume blindly that free will exists. Yet the implications of such a statement greatly influences both theology and secular ethics. I believe that as long as I am free to make choices, the presence of inside or outside influences do not affect me.
For more on St. Thomas Aquinas and free will, watch Thomas Aquinas on Free Will