Inspired and Blessed by Bob Acebedo
Inspired & Blessed

Is Free Will An Illusion?

May 22, 2021, 12:26 AM
Bob Acebedo

Bob Acebedo


“While God did not require our consent when He created us, but when it comes to our salvation – or on the most profound issue of choosing or not choosing God – our consent or free choice is most needed. He cannot save us without us consenting to His offer of salvation.”

Back when I was in the seminary, we’ve been taught that free will – or our human capacity or power to choose or act in certain situations independent of natural, social, or divine restraint – is a faculty or inherent ability of the soul.

Particularly, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, there are three powers of the human soul, which can be described as the intellect (perceptive, apprehensive, cognitive), the will (motive, appetitive, conative), and the passions or feelings (sensitive, emotive).

For Aquinas, freedom is a property of the whole human being, not just a component part of a person. The human will is not independent of the intellect. Intellect and will are engaged in a dynamic, complex interaction, with multiple stages between an initial perception and cognition by the intellect to the final action of the will, with occasional interruptions or overrides by the passions.

Still, from my past learnings, the will must be free and the exigency of free will is grounded on two fundamental issues: freedom of action and moral responsibility.

First, free will is necessary for free action. If we assume that human actions are those actions that result from the rational capacities of humans, we then see that the possibility of free action depends on the possibility of free will. To say that an agent (or doer of action) acted freely is minimally to say that the agent was successful in carrying out a free choice or volition.

Second, moral responsibility requires free will. An agent can be said to be morally responsible for an action or event only if he or she is the appropriate recipient of moral blame or praise for that action or event. If an agent does not have free will, then that agent is not morally responsible for his or her actions.

If we expand this to the wider human societal spectrum and assume that there’s no such thing as free will, how on earth could we account the moral responsibility for all the human evils – and thus render the futility or irrelevance of all our laws and justice system?

Candidly, all along from my seminary days, I have always believed in the reality and necessity of free will. However, contemporary challenges – particularly coming from neuroscience – have tickled my erstwhile comforting notions about free will. Invariably, these modern-day deniers or naysayers of free will agree that free will is but an illusion. Let me mention some of them.

First is Alfred Mele, an American philosopher. Mele contends that free will is an illusion even if granting that determinism (the idea that a complete description of the condition of the universe at any point in time, together with a complete list of all the laws of nature, would entail all other truths about the universe, including all the truths about everything we do) is both true and false:

“If determinism is true, then every event is fixed by a previous event, and there is no room for free will. If determinism is false, then randomness rules, and we do not have sufficient control of our actions. But because we think or feel we do have free will, such feeling or thinking is an illusion and so is free will.”

Then, there’s neuroscientist Patrick Haggard, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. Haggard, affirming the authenticity of the Benjamin Libet experiment, believes that consciousness – which is the basis for free will – is only a product of our brain activity, or that brain activity comes before or precedes conscious awareness:

“We think we make the decisions, but our brain knows already before we know.” Purportedly hence, where’s free will then?

Then also, another free will denier is Thalia Wheatley, experimental psychologist at Dartmouth College, USA. According to Wheatley, it’s our neural activity that creates our action prior to our awareness or consciousness of it (our action):

“The common definition of free will is that my conscious self is freely deciding, initiating causes of action. But there’s no scientific evidence that it’s the case. Rather, it seems like consciousness is coming very late in the stream of things to be causal in the way we think of a conscious self-causing action.”

Now, if the above “free will as illusion” or determinism arguments are deemed true or valid, this can pose for us a frightening possibility. All the while, we feel that our lives are up to us or to our making, that we can choose our kind of life, our profession, our partner, etc. However, the challenge from determinism presents the possibility that none of our choices is ours to make. Instead, they were decided at the Big Bang, even before we existed. Might as well, as suggested by the classic movie series, “The Matrix”, ours is but a simulated life and world? Quite intriguing, huh?

Yes, deterministic patterns in the brain may provide evidence that free will is an illusion, but for Roger Walsh (Australian professor of Psychiatry, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of California-Irvine), beliefs, thoughts, or feelings – even as they remain as such – of having power or capacity to choose or determine oneself can have beneficial effects on the person’s well being and growth:

“Beliefs, as in one’s capacity to be effective, are strong determinants of psychological health, enhancing one’s well being and growth. We may not have the choice in controlling our environment, but we have the choice how to respond to it.”

But whilst, on the other hand, German philosopher and author of “Why Free Will Is Real”, Christian List argues that free will is indeed real despite the possibility of deterministic physics. List proves his point by dismantling the three principal objections to the existence of free will posed by radical materialism, determinism, and epiphenomenalism.

On the first objection, radical materialism avers that free will requires intentional thought. But, since the brain is radically materialistic, there is no free will. List responds to this by positing that intentionality – the ability to have mental representations of the world, like beliefs, goals and intentions – is a high-level psychological phenomenon rather than a phenomenon to be found in the brain.

Next objection is from determinism, claiming that a person is incapable of making a choice since there are no alternative possibilities, given the deterministic patterns in the brain. List replies by arguing that determinism in the fundamental physics does not necessitate “agent-level” determinism, which is the level of a person’s choice, and that free will is a high-level property. Hence, according to List, one could still form multiple alternative possible intentions even if his or her brain state is predetermined by deterministic physics.

Finally, the last objection is from epiphenomenalism, which adduces that intention (a property of free will) has no causal impact in the physical world. List replies to this challenge by invoking his preceding argument that free will is an high-level phenomenon, not to be found in the fundamental physics.

But what about from theology? Is free will real or an illusion?

To start with, the biblical ground for free will lies in the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve in having “wilfully chosen” to disobey God by eating the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden.

On a side thought, would it have been a better lot if God did not at all endow us with such freedom of will? And being so, we could have been saved from falling into sin, or freed from the moral responsibility for our choices?

Would Jean Paul Sartre be thus no less correct in positing the agonizing truth that “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does”?

But, thoughtfully so, why did God have to will that we should have free will?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1730) verily states:

“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 (underscoring mine).”

In a similar vein, St. Augustine of Hippo once wrote: “Deus, qui creavit te sine te, non salvabit te sine te (God, who created you without you, cannot save you without you).”

In sum, truth to speak, while God did not require our consent when He created us, but when it comes to our salvation – or on the most profound issue of choosing or not choosing God – our consent or free choice is most needed. He cannot save us without us consenting to His offer of salvation.

Unmistakably, God is most pleased if we FREELY or RESPONSIBLY give our “YES” to Him.

Tags: #commentary, #columns, #InspiredAndBlessed, #salvation, #freechoice

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