On Free Will and Psychological Ability

“Remember ‘I cannot turn one hair black or white: but I can brush my hair daily and go to the barber at regular intervals.’ In other words we must divert our efforts from our general condition or frame of mind (wh. we can’t alter by direct action of the will) to what is in our power – our words and acts.” CSL, Letters 8/3/59

Believing in free will is essential to any adequate theology for two reasons: a) if there are no other independent causative powers other than God, then he alone is the ultimate cause of all that exists, including evil; and b) freedom is an undeniable data our existential experience: not only do we positively know we are free by directly experiencing freedom, we also know, morally and logically, that without freedom people cannot be responsible for what they do.

But, there are a host of problems that arise once we grant that free will exists. Doesn’t it simply reduce to “randomness” or an “uncaused cause”? And if so, how can that be a condition for moral responsibility? Or, isn’t it true that if we are free our salvation is works based, and doesn’t this detract from the glory of God? Or, if freedom means the ability to do otherwise, doesn’t this mean that God himself isn’t free, since he cannot fail to do good?

These are all good questions (and I believe they have sounds answers), but this post is going to look at one particular problem not mentioned above: namely, even though free will does seem to exist, nevertheless it also seems true that there are limits to this freedom. In fact there seems to be psychological limits, and these limits not only enable us to do moral actions, but they also do not detract from our personhood simply because we possess them. No one would complain of being a “puppet” simply because he does not have the ability to brutally torture his own dog.

The main problem seems to be this. There are certain psychological states which we are NOT free over, which nevertheless enable us and even lead us to do good behaviors, and these behaviors and mental states are not any “less” simply because they are not freely chosen. In other words, even though we are in certain respects libertarianly free, we also possess a compatibilistic freedom that completes our personnhood rather than violates it. How do believers in free will, who hold that God puts such a high value on its intrinsic good that he must tolerate all the evil that comes with its misuse, account for this compatibilist freedom?

It seems that libertarian freedom necessarily assumes some fixed, unchooseable psychological disposition. In fact to imagine a libertarian choice already presupposes an inexorable “playing field” on which genuine options are unavoidably present. How could one libertarianly choose anything if nothing was “given” and everything had to be freely chosen? So it seems to me not only possible that acts of free will and unchosen psychological states can co-exist but that free will necessarily requires the existence of unchosen psychological states.

Here is another thing that follows from this: the manipulation and even coercion of psychological states does not therefore imply a manipulation or coercion of free will. Now this point is very important to grasp for it helps us see a solution to several puzzles regarding God’s grace and our mental states. Let me explain.

St. Paul was knocked off his horse on Damascus Road and blinded by a vision of light. God audibly spoke to him and gave him a command. Now, it is very easy to say – and many Calvinists will argue this – that here Paul’s will was “violated” or “overridden” because Paul was a chosen vessel elected for God’s purposes. Paul’s freedom couldn’t thwart God’s plan, and if God had to overpower Paul’s psyche to get what he wanted then God was prepared to do so.

There are two things to note here. One, Paul himself implies that he could have disobeyed this heavenly vision (Acts 26:19). But two – and more importantly – we need not think that just because our psychological states are determined that we cannot freely operate within those states. It is true that certain actions are not possible given certain psychological states. I cannot torture the dog I have owned for 14 years – I am just not free to do that. But I still can neglect him in various degrees: I can fail to do my best for him, particularly when his interests and mine conflict. Suppose I know I should walk him. I know, too, that if I continue to type this post I will run out of time before I go to work. At this point I am free to either a) indulge my own pleasure at his expense; or b) walk him and crucify my pleasure. So while I am not free to “torture” him I am nevertheless free to do him some good or some harm. It is also true that given the decisions I make over time, I may open up a new range of psychological parameters. Supposing I get in a habit of not walking him, well, it may be easier not to even feed him the next time I am crunched for time. My point is that we need not be able to do the worst imaginable offence at every given moment in order to have genuine free will.

Now, if we imagine our psychological states as generating various ranges of possible options, we need not conclude that God (or even nature) overrides our free will simply because our states of mind are determined. In fact, as I’ve argued unless some mental state is given there is no realm of possibilities to choose from in the first place – for those very givens themselves would have to be freely chosen, which would involve an infinite regress.The way to say it would be that our particular unchosen states of mind are not things to which our actual free will extend. This does not mean we do not have free will at all – only that we do not have it over every single thing.

Thus it seems to me perfectly consistent to say that due to genetics, or past experiences, or drugs, or food, or how much sleep we get, or even a direct presence of the Holy Spirit, we may be absolutely determined in one respect, and that we still nevertheless possess libertarianly free will. The former things have to do with determining psychological ability, which we do not control, but free will has to do with our spiritual ability to function in those parameters that are already given to us.


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