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Free will

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Free will is the faculty that the human being would have to determine himself freely and by him alone, to act and to think, as opposed to determinism or fatalism, which affirms that the will would be determined in each of his acts by “forces” which require it. “To determine oneself” or “to be determined by” illustrate the issue of the antinomy of free will on the one hand and fate or “necessity” on the other.


Augustinian origin of the concept

Augustin de Hippo, by Sandro Boticelli(Saint Augustine was one of the first to ponder the concept of free will (imaginary portrait by Botticelli, c. 1480).)

“Free will” (liberum arbitrium in Latin) is most often used as a contraction of the technical expression: “free will of the will”. From this concept forged by Latin patristic theology, it is no exaggeration to write that it was developed to clarify the responsibility for evil, imputing it to the creature of God. This appears in the treatise De libero arbitrio by Saint Augustine (Augustine of Hippo). This treatise is a work of youth, begun in Rome around 388 (Book I) when Augustine was 34 years old (that is to say only two years after his conversion), and completed in Hippo between 391 and 395 (books II and III). It describes the dialogue of Evodius and Augustine. Evodius puts the problem in blunt terms: “Isn’t God the author of evil?”. If sin is the work of souls and souls are created by God, how could God not ultimately be the author? Augustine answers unequivocally that “God has conferred on his creature, with free will, the capacity to do evil, and thereby the responsibility for sin”.

Thanks to free will, God remains impeccable (not guilty): his goodness cannot be held responsible for any moral evil. But isn’t that shifting the problem without solving it? Why has God given us the ability to sin:

“How come we do this wrong? If I am not mistaken, the argument has shown that we do this through the free will of the will. But this free will to which we owe our faculty to sin, we are convinced of it, I wonder if the one who created us did well to give it to us. It seems, indeed, that we would not have been exposed to sin if we had been deprived of it; and it is to be feared that in this way God too will be taken for the author of our evil deeds (De libero arbitrio, I, 16, 35). “

Augustine’s answer is that the will is a good, which man can certainly abuse, but which also makes man’s dignity. Who would not want to have hands on the pretext that they are sometimes used to commit crimes? However, this is even truer of free will: if one can live morally while being deprived of the use of one’s arms, one can never gain access to the dignity of moral life without free will:

“The free will without which nobody can live well, you must recognize and that it is a good, and that it is a gift of God, and that it is necessary to condemn those who misuse this good rather than to say of whoever gave it he should not have given.” (Ibid., II, 18, 48)

But Augustine’s paradox, which is also his richness and which explains why he was able to inspire such divergent theologies within Christianity, lies in the diversity of his adversaries. If he affirms, in the treatise De libero arbitrio, the existence of free will against the Manichaeans who attributed to the divine the responsibility for evil, he tends, against the Pelagians, to minimize its role in the work of salvation, under pretext that man has, through original sin, lost the use of this faculty: amissa libertas, nulla libertas (“freedom lost, freedom null”). Only grace, freely bestowed by God, can then accomplish the work of salvation. This is how the 16th Council of Carthage in 418 affirms the doctrines of original sin and of saving grace, approved by Pope Zosima.

This paradoxical position means that Reformers and Catholics will be able, without contradiction, to lay claim to Augustine in the controversies about the respective roles of grace and free will in the work of salvation.

Scholastic elaboration

Scholasticism considerably reworked this concept invented by Saint Augustine, relying on Aristotle. The Greeks were ignorant of free will, not having the notion of will but rather that of voluntary act, studied in the third book of the Nicomachean Ethics.

In this book, Aristotle defines the voluntary act by the union of two faculties: the spontaneity of desire (to act by oneself), the opposite of which is constraint, and the intentionality of knowledge (to act according to a cause and knowing this cause), the opposite of which is ignorance. So, I act voluntarily when:

  1. I act spontaneously (I then find the principle of my actions within myself, unlike the individual who is taken with bound hand and foot by kidnappers), and
  2. I act knowing what I am doing (unlike someone who administers a poison to a patient sincerely believing he is administering a remedy, because the pharmacist has reversed the labels).

The voluntary act thus supposes the union of spontaneity and intentionality; it is the condition of the moral responsibility of the individual (I cannot be held responsible for having left my country when I was kidnapped by aggressors from whom it was materially impossible to escape, or when I inadvertently crossed a border which was not clearly marked, with the intention of staying in the national territory). These Aristotelian analyzes were fundamental to the scholastic elaboration of the concept of free will. Christian theologians will retain from Aristotle the notion of free will as associating will (spontaneity) and reason (intentionality), and as the basis of the responsibility of the individual before moral, penal and divine laws.

Scholasticism traditionally defines liberum arbitrium as facultas voluntatis et rationis (faculty of will and reason: cf. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 82, a.2, obj. 2). This expression is correct if it designates the collaboration of these two faculties in the genesis of the free act, but erroneous in a more technical sense. Strictly speaking, free will is a power of the will (ibid., Q. 83, a. 3); better, it is the will itself insofar as the will makes choices. Free will, in its essence, is none other than the will in the free disposition of itself; to want is to decide freely, and therefore to be free. The free act responds to the following scheme: the will experiences the desire for a good (appetition), which constitutes the end of the action; it requests reason to deliberate on the means of achieving this good (deliberation), but it is up to it to choose the means that it deems the most appropriate (electio in Latin, which means choice) to achieve this end, to move the body to implement these means (the action itself), and to enjoy the good obtained (fruition). It is therefore the will (more than reason) that plays the driving role and it would achieve nothing without the help of reason. In this schema of action, free will is most evident in choice, which Thomas Aquinas defined as the actus proprius (the eminent act or proper act) of liberum arbitrium.

Thomas Aquinas intends to prove the reality of free will by two means.

  • The first is moral proof, a correlate of the anti-fatalist moral argument. Man is held morally responsible for his actions; this would be impossible if he were not gifted with freedom. The doctrine which denies free will is amoral in that it refutes the very principle of responsibility (that is, the power of the will to follow its ends, rational deliberation only relating to the choice of the means ).“Man has free will; or else the counsels, exhortations, precepts, prohibitions, rewards and punishments would be in vain (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 83, a. 1, rep.). “
  • The second Thomist argument in favor of free will is the study of human action, which is distinguished from physical movements (the stone necessarily falls downward) and animal actions (animals act on instinctive judgment, which is not free: the instinct of the wolf necessarily pushes him to hunt the sheep). Only man acts according to free judgment, which “is not the effect of a natural instinct applied to a particular action, but of a reconciliation of data operated by reason (…). Consequently, it is necessary for man to have free will, by the very fact that he is endowed with reason “(ibidem). To choose is always to determine oneself, by intelligence, between two or more possibilities, the possibility of which is not posed by the act of reason alone: ​​it is therefore to be free.


The concept of free will has been the subject of three categories of criticism, one theological (to attribute to man free will, is this not to deny or at least to minimize the role of divine grace in work of salvation?), the other philosophical (does not free will amount to denying the influence of motives or reasons which determine our choices and our actions?), and the last order is psychoanalytic (the free will is only possible if one is able to dominate his unconscious) or what we call the human sciences. The first criticism is motivated by “predestinationism”: it leads to the quarrels around predestination characteristic of the Reformation in its Calvinist version. The second is motivated by “necessitarism” (but also, to a more complex extent “rationalism”), fatalism and determinism.

Sociological criticism: determinism

In sociology, many coercions (those of Durkheim) oppose the idea of ​​free will. They are of several kinds:

  • Legal coercion: indeed, we are pushed (conditioned) by the law not to want to do certain things, steal, kill …
  • Social coercion: the practice of certain actions can push the individuals with whom we are linked, to punish us, or even to exclude us from the group. This is what happens when you betray a person, for example, you are reprimanded.
  • “Geographical” coercion: we cannot take the highways as we please, or drive where there are no roads.
  • Coercion of other types: if a person stands up to applaud, we will tend to stand up too (herd instinct)

These critiques are characteristic of a nineteenth-century sociology, a discipline which seeks its methods in the natural sciences, namely, it wants to explain a society by social “laws”.

Theological criticism: The predestination controversy

Free will is one of two possible answers to the question of salvation (soteriology) as elaborated by Renaissance theologians. The other answer is predestination of Martin Luther, or even the “double predestination” of John Calvin, theologians who, in opposition to free will, both defended the serf arbitrator thesis.

More broadly, the question of free will attempts to locate the role of human will in the conduct of a good life (likely to lead to salvation) in the face of a God conceived as omnipotent. In this way, the question of free will crosses the three monotheisms and the answers each of them give merit consideration.

With humanism, Erasmus and Luther share a taste for reading and commenting on the Bible with the rejection of the scholastic gloss. Luther is a “hardliner” while Erasmus is a moderator. Luther hoped to have the support of Erasmus, whose moral authority was then considerable, in his quarrel against ecclesiastical authority. But the two men will clash on the concept of free will. Erasmus supports free will, that is, the responsibility of man before God for his actions. On the contrary, basing himself in particular on the dogma of original sin, the Augustinian monk Luther defends predestination, that is to say the serf arbiter and justification by faith, dear to Paul of Tarsus. So Erasmus and Luther lose all moderation in their controversy. While Brother Martin in 1519 called himself a “convinced admirer” of Erasmus, he came to qualify him as a “poisonous polemicist”, “Epicurus’ pig” (Epicurus, a hedonistic philosopher, is represented followed by a pig by his followers.), “ridiculous, dizzy, sacrilegious writer, talkative, sophist, ignorant”.

Philosophical criticism: The problem of freedom from indifference

The philosophical critique of free will relates to the role of motives (reasons for choosing) in determining choice and, therefore, action. Am I really free to choose between two objects (and two ends), one which represents a great good, and the other a lesser good? Of two things, one.

  • Either I choose the greatest good: can we then say that my act is free? Is it not rather determined by the motives, or more exactly, by the preference of one motive over another?
  • Either I choose the lesser good, but how then could such an absurd act be free? And if I choose it in order to prove that I am free, it comes down to the first scenario: the desire to establish the reality of my freedom has turned out to be a more determining motive than the preferable object. Either way, I wouldn’t be free.

To remedy this problem, the doctrine of the Second Scholasticism invented the concept of freedom of indifference, of which Buridan’s Donkey is a famous example. Or an individual called upon to choose between two identical goods, and therefore indifferent. There is an equivalence of motives here: nothing determines him to prefer one over the other. Now, the will feels that it is endowed with spontaneity: even then, it can make up its mind to choose. The act therefore does not find its explanation in the motives, nor consequently in the objects, but in the subject himself in so far as he is endowed with the capacity to act arbitrarily. The concept of freedom of indifference would establish, with the spontaneity of the will, the reality of free will. By extension, the freedom of indifference also applies to cases where there is no equivalence of motives: I can very well prefer a lesser good to a greater good, thus proving that I am the only subject or the sole cause of my actions.

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