Monday, March 1, 2021

Choosing Free will


I will choose a path that’s clear

I will choose free will

Free Will, Rush

The concept of free will causes consternation between and among Christians, as well as between the larger secular society and Christians generally.  Let’s call this a working paper to parse this out a bit.

I will examine free will in three parts: free will toward salvation (as Christians commonly understand and use that term), free will in ends (toward the purpose or telos of a human being), and free will in means (toward achieving those ends).

At least from what I have read, the confusion or inability to separate these three arenas has led to much of at least the layman’s confusion on these matters – and on some of the more noteworthy disagreements that have been witnessed in history between Christians.

Examining each, in turn:

Toward Salvation

I don’t really want to argue this, as it gets to a fundamental concern for many Christians.  Words, nuance, background, changing definitions…all of which add confusion.  I must address it, however, for completeness – and hopefully I address it in a general and neutral enough manner that we can all move on as friends afterward.

As best as I can tell, the wide swath of Christianity (I cannot speak to the extremes) accepts some combination of grace, faith and works as having a role in salvation…well, maybe not so much works, as these are considered by many to be fruits that have meaning only after grace.

So, take grace, faith, and works.  Put theses in a bag and shake vigorously.  Each denomination, each tradition, might consider different proportions, but I don’t believe any major denominations or traditions deny any of these.

But it goes further: from what I can tell, most of Christianity will recognize that grace comes first – and there is no free will in grace.  Some of the words that I have read to try to minimize this reality of a lack of free will toward our salvation, or give some standing to a human effort to help bring it on, seem strained enough to suggest to me that even the writers have a hard time believing it. 

Conversely, in the caricature of some traditions we find a complete roll of the dice – playthings of the gods, or some such, an absolutist understanding of pre-destination.  If this was absolutely so, why plant new churches, why do any missionary work at all?  They were all pre-destined, one way or another.

With all that said, my conclusion: no free will in salvation.  Grace comes first, and it is God’s grace.  Exactly how that plays out is the issue.  Let’s just say that the devil is in the details…and I mean that about as literally as a statement can be that references the devil.

Anyway, hopefully we don’t get hung up on this point.

Toward Our Ends

While the word has taken on a very superficial, and even dangerous, meaning in our time, we still most often understand that happiness is ultimately what we are after in this life.  I have written too much about this to review it all here, but to summarize: when considering why we take any action, the answer points toward some objective – some end.

The answers offer insights to intermediate ends, as each of these intermediate ends still leave open the door to ask the question: Why?  Why that end?  Ultimately, it is because I want to be happy.

Certainly, people can choose ends contrary to happiness (properly understood) – but then are they acting human, as human beings?  As a society today, we seem to have moved toward the end of not dying – that’s it, nothing more.  All of life, all that makes life worth living, has been put on hold to avoid what many fear as the greatest plague in history.

Does this make it a proper end – this choice?  No.  it is an error, nothing more.  A human being has no such free will to choose its end – its telos.  It is beatitudo:  happiness – meaning fulfillment through other-regarding action.  Any other end makes us something other than human.

Does a lion have free will toward its ends?  It seems a silly question.  It is no less silly a question when it comes to human beings.

Regarding the Means

Plenty of free will here.  For example, there are numerous intermediate ends that one can choose toward achieving the ultimate end of beatitudo.  Different careers, personal choices regarding family, social causes, how one spends free time. 

The possibilities are almost limitless when one considers these intermediate ends as means toward the ultimate end.  The possibilities are almost limitless as well when one considers the means toward achieving these intermediate ends.

A Brief Aside

Natural Law points to the behaviors necessary when one considers the ends proper to a thing – in this case, to a human being.  This behavior for human beings has been conveniently summarized as the Golden Rule.  This behavior cannot be demanded by another – I cannot use force to compel you to treat me in accord with the Golden Rule.

Natural Rights points to that which one can demand from others.  Don’t hit first; don’t take my stuff.  In other words, my life and my property.  In some ways, it is conveniently summarized by the Silver Rule.  I can use force to compel you not to violate my life or my property. 

Natural Law should be guided by reason, and the guardian can only be an ethical guardian – and, in my opinion, it can only be the Christian church.  Natural Rights are the realm of government – really, governance, as it need not be “government” (a state) as we currently understand it.

If you want a true separation of Church and state, start here.

So…Returning to the Means

The ends justify the means.  This is true enough as long as we have a proper understanding of the proper end for human beings.  Am I saying that, for example, one can use the means of force to compel another to be charitable, to follow the Golden Rule?  In other words, as other-regarding action is the ultimate end for human beings, does this justify any means to make it so?

No.  The means must also conform to this ultimate end of other-regarding action.  And force does not fit where other-regarding action is the ultimate end.  There is no regard for another human being if he is nothing more than a means to another’s end – no matter how noble that end.


Each of us

A cell of awareness

Imperfect and incomplete

Genetic blends

With uncertain ends

On a fortune hunt

That’s far too fleet…

This demonstrates where materialists are lost – not materialist to the extent Marxists take the term, but materialists in terms of we are just the result of random atoms smashing together randomly (genetic blends). 

An improper understanding of free will has led us to the point where we have the free will to decide if we are male or female (one of many such similar examples).  Talk about having uncertain ends!  Is this “the path that’s clear” as offered in the opening lyrics, that uncertain ends allow for a clear path?

I have a difficult time understanding free will in this context: if my ends are uncertain, toward what do I aim?  A path toward what?  Of course, if I am nothing more than a genetic blend – a result of a completely random process – I have no ability to aim at anything.  It is all random, chance, fate, whatever.  There is absolutely no free will in such a life (as those like Sam Harris readily admit).

They argue that a god which we must blindly obey (a caricature) is a tyrant, then offer in its place a god (random atoms smashing together randomly) which we have no choice but to obey.

Talk about a meaningless life, a life with no free will.


  1. I agree that there is no free will in salvation and ends, but only means.

    My big question is about Natural Law is, what is it comprised of? You describe it as other-regarded action or beatitudo, which I think captures it generally. But I would really like to see more flesh on the bones so to speak.

    To me Natural Law would look a lot like the commands in the Bible about how to relate to God and other people. That doesn't complete it though, I don't think.

    Natural Law has to be general enough to apply to every unique person but specific enough so that the idea can actually be used to direct and guide our lives.

    Politically, Natural Law seems to me to be highly correlated with freedom. We should be free to pursue beatitudo. Government should strictly exist if it is to for the purpose of protecting my freedom. That's it.

    So then if a government says I can't stand within 5 feet of someone, it is clear that they are violating my rights and keeping me from pursuing natural law.

    1. RMB, in response to your questions, I am not sure where to start but here - although I am sure you have seen this - so maybe I am missing your point?

      To the issue of government and staying 6 feet apart, yes they are violating natural law (how can I provide charity at such a distance), and they are violating your natural rights (to your life and your property).

  2. Other than saying works have nothing to do with salvation ("For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." - Ephesians 2:8,9), but are a natural result of it, I think I am going to stay out of this.

    But I'm sure almost everyone here will appreciate the humor in this:

  3. "...take grace, faith, and works. Put theses in a bag and shake vigorously."

    Hilarious and true. For me it is as simple as God, through His Son, offers us His (right) hand of salvation to all (grace), but we must participate and reach for it (faith and works). We participate in our own salvation, but we cannot accomplish it without God's divine intervention.

    "With all that said, my conclusion: no free will in salvation. Grace comes first, and it is God’s grace. Exactly how that plays out is the issue. Let’s just say that the devil is in the details…and I mean that about as literally as a statement can be that references the devil."

    Exactly. The devil understands well the concept of divide and conquer. See the splintering of Christendom and the near simultaneous rise of the modern nation-state.

    "we seem to have moved toward the end of not dying – that’s it, nothing more."

    Covid, or the near ubiquitous government response to it, tested our faith, and it was found wanting. Turns out we favor living more than the Source of all life. We trust the purveyors of biology more than we trust those of theology. We look to the state more than we look to the church for guidance in a crisis (real or imagined).

    "Natural Rights are the realm of government – really, governance, as it need not be “government” (a state) as we currently understand it. If you want a true separation of Church and state, start here."

    Great insight! If only so many brilliant conservatives in our history could have made this distinction. I think it can still be made when reading their works.

    "The ends justify the means. This is true enough as long as we have a proper understanding of the proper end for human beings."

    Perhaps the ends justify the means, but the means must justify the ends as well. Reaching a state of fulfillment justifies putting your selfish desires aside and working toward the betterment of others. But spending your life engaging in other-regarding action also justifies the end of fulfillment.

    1. When Jesus is standing at the door knocking, it is the resident that opens the door - which suggests something of our role in all this. But Jesus is knocking first! If he wasn't knocking on your door, you would never know to open it.

      Regarding "the splintering of Christendom and the near simultaneous rise of the modern nation-state," I am working on a post based on a further section of the book about Luther and Erasmus. It is pointing to at least one of the episodes of that history that touches precisely on this point. I hope to have it ready for Friday.

  4. In my analysis of left and right, I've found that the true (or logically consistent) leftist does not accept the primacy of free will. He must instead accept determinism as the fundamental 'a priori' of his epistemology, and this has a big impact on his sense of justice and preferred structure of government.

    He must accept determinism, because he believes in equality despite all evidence to the contrary. Because we are all equal, any inequalities we see among us must have arisen as a result not of individual choices (or the aggregated individual choices of a specific community or culture) but of differing physical environments.

    And if our actions are primarily determined by our environments, we are not individually responsible for our actions. And if we are not responsible for our actions, then justice becomes not a natural rights issue of a crime committed against an individual but rather a utilitarian abstraction of crimes committed against the community.

    And if crimes are committed against the community, then the punishment for such crimes will not be some approximation of a mandated proportional restitution towards the victim but rather a utilitarian judgment from an authority who decides whether an excessively lenient or harsh penalty (or anywhere in between) is justified for any particular crime.

    Since the overriding concern of the leftist is equality, and since our actions (and thus our ends) are primarily determined by our environment, obviously we cannot have two different standards of justice, because this would lead to differing environments and hence inequality. Therefore any authority governing a leftist community must be a centralized monopolistic one invested with the power to shape the environment of the community with the utilitarian's blade.

    Am I far off?

    1. No. You could go a step further: why would there be any punishment? But they won't go that far, perhaps, because this frees both friends and enemies - and leftists won't allow enemies to be left alone.

      To expand on your fundamental concept: materialists (we are the result of random atoms smashing together randomly) also state, when pressed that we have no free will. While I haven't fully thought through the connection, this leads to the ultimate leftist (and materialist) system we call communism.

      It is funny: they mock Christians for speaking of pre-destination, while at the same time their worldview is pre-destination - but with no hope for salvation or forgiveness or mercy.

  5. As far as my opinion of Peterson goes, after having watched the whole interview, I do have a bit more sympathy for him. He's like a man standing outside a church tortured about whether or not he should go in, weighing the pros and cons, stuck between as he calls it "two impossible choices," meanwhile his mumblings and rants to himself are convincing other passersby to go in one after the other after the other. And yet he remains outside.

    It is clear that he regards Jesus Christ as the greatest good, and that seeking the greatest good is the most rational thing to do with our existence. So why the tortuous hesitation? All signs point to Christ Jordan. Don't let the imperfections of real Christians (especially Christian leaders) dissuade you from picking up your cross in earnest. Don't let the imperfect attentions of the sons of Adam keep you from giving attention to the One who truly deserves it.

    Why is it so terrifying for Jordan to enter into the Church? He seems to think it takes a courage that he does not possess, but I believe he has it all wrong. It is not courage, but humility, and with it gratitude, that is required. Be humble Jordan. You've spent your whole life on the cutting edge of philosophical and psychological thought, and yet you still are in the wrong place. Meanwhile, tens of thousands (many more perhaps) of idiot rednecks who can't spell philosophy or psychology have been in the right place since they were kids.

    Be grateful that you were given life, even if the decisions that you've made have led you into this tortuous physical state. To the Catholic, suffering is a blessing. Take a page out of their playbook, and offer it up in support of Christ's mission. Use this situation to lead others to Him as well. You say that meaning is found in responsibility. Well, there's no greater responsibility than to follow Christ, especially after having become so familiar with his story.

    Or perhaps it is something different. Maybe he thinks he has sold his soul in some fashion to the Devil. In that case, a bit of libertarian contract theory should tell him that he cannot sell what he does not own. Any contract we make with the Devil is null and void the moment we choose to love and serve Christ instead. We own our bodies but not our soul. You can always choose Christ. Christ has made saints out of satanists.

    1. My sense is really the struggle that a left-leaning academic Enlightenment exemplar finds it almost impossible to let go of the (modern understanding of) rational. He has spent a lifetime in that world; I find it to his credit that he is willing to explore ideas so contrary to it.

      I have heard indirectly (as I have not listened to the podcast with her daughter) that Peterson's wife - who has suffered through both her own life-threatening issues and her husband's - has moved much closer to accepting the full Christian story. Don't take my statement as definitive, but this is what I understand via the conversation of others.

    2. "It is not courage, but humility, and with it gratitude, that is required." -- ATL

      I cannot speak for Peterson, but I can say with certainty that I had to walk that road, coming to grips with humility and gratitude. Romans 12:3 says this: " not think more highly of yourself than you ought..." and for someone who is prone to do that, humility is a difficult pill to swallow.

      Proud men do not admit wrong. Humble men have no problem with it.