Author Greg Koukl
Published on 07/11/2014

Do Humans Really Have Free Will?


I was reading a book recently that asked the question, “Do we have free will? If you don’t think we do, please turn to page 3.” When you turn to page 3, it says, “Gotcha.” Point being, we all have a basic awareness that we are making decisions that are ours, and we have at least some significant measure of freedom.

The question becomes, how does this play into theological issues? On the one hand, you have the reformed point of view that says God chooses us. On the other hand, there is scripture that says that we choose God. If you believe that God chooses us, then that seems to deny a free choice on our part.

What is free will? There are three different categories.

The first category is determinism. There are events that are caused by prior events, like dominos falling. No mind, no decisions of any kind, just things happening. This is the way the natural world works apart from consciousness. There is a deterministic set of events, and if you set up the dominos in exactly the same way, they are going to fall in exactly the same way every single time because they are determined based on the physical setup. That’s why there is scientific repeatability.

The second category is freedom. There are two different types of freedom. Both definitions trade on basic definitions that we have based on what it’s like to make a free choice. The first definition of freedom is: you do what you want. Your choice is free if you are doing the choosing and you are doing what you want. Some exterior thing that causes you to do what you do is not forcing you, instead you’re just choosing. It’s your choice. Most people think that’s a pretty good way of characterizing freedom of the will. We exercise our will, and if we can do what we want, then our act is free.

The second type of freedom adds another condition. That is, freedom of the will entails doing what you want, but it also needs to entail the possibility of doing something else. If you are doing what you want, but you have no real possibility of doing something else instead, then that’s not considered real freedom. The idea that you could have done otherwise is a condition that many people will add to freedom. It’s called the CDO condition—the Could have Done Otherwise condition. If you are doing what you want and you could have done otherwise, that is a more refined understanding of freedom.

There is determinism, the CDO condition (libertarian freedom), and lastly, you’re doing what you want, but you couldn’t have done otherwise. That is, your wants are determined by other things. Even though you’re choosing what you want to do, your wants are determined. Maybe they’re determined by a fallen nature. Maybe when you sin, you’re doing what you want, but it’s not the case that you could have done otherwise.

Maybe when you’re eating chocolate ice cream, you’re doing what you want, but just to be belligerent, you could eat mustard if you chose to. You might not want to, but you could choose to. So, you could have done otherwise. So, there you can see the different variations of these senses of freedom.

I believe that all things are in operation. That there are some things that are determined. Our molecules are like dominos falling in a certain way according to their chemistry and natural law, and we don’t make any decisions about those kinds of things. There are other things that I seem to make decisions on and I could have done otherwise, so I believe that there are libertarian freedoms that we have when we’re trying to make decisions about things.

There also seems to me that there are some things that I do because I want to do them, but I couldn’t have done otherwise. I don’t think it’s possible for us to live a sinless life. I seem to want to sin, and sometimes I want to do right. But even when I want to sin, and I do the sinful things, these are things that are, to some degree, dictated by my nature.

How that all plays out in our theology is a complex kind of notion. But when you’re addressing the question of free will, think of these different categories: strict determinism, strict libertarian freedom, and right in the middle, it’s called compatibilism, or soft determinism. Yes, some of the things are determined by your desires, and in that mix, you’re going to find a place for your particular theology.