The Mystery of Free Will


Purpose and problem statement

Do we have free will? For quite a few people, including the author of this article, a positive answer seems obvious, at least at first glance. But if we examine the question further, we find that many others are convinced of the opposite, reportedly even most of the current scientific world. It is therefore worthwhile to consider what their opinion is based on and whether we should review or, as far as possible, nuance our spontaneous convictions.

It has been my intention to write something about this controversial subject for quite some time since the will (free or otherwise) plays (or appears to play?) a key role in our decisions and actions and is therefore also important for their moral evaluation. If my will is not free, am I still responsible for my actions, or are they entirely due to factors that “I” have not decided myself, such as predisposition, character, upbringing, accidental impulses, neural peculiarities, etc.?  What can be the concrete meaning of the concept of “I”, if my full action is dictated by processes that happen on their own and over which that subjective “I” in fact has no control? The answer can have far-reaching consequences in various domains: legal, religious, moral, social, psychological, It could even be these domains themselves that influence our conception of this and that we unconsciously use circular reasoning.

The reading of the well-written and enlightening book by the well-known Flemish philosopher Gerard Bodifee on free will (1), has helped me to finally put my intention into action – hoping to help untangle or cut this pesky Gordian knot. To begin with, let’s consider how that knot arose and what it consists of, using the introductory chapters of the cited work. To this end, we briefly propose a few passages and accompany them with comments on the issues raised.

The core of the problem

On page. 16, the author outlines the core of the problem: “Animals and humans act with a purpose in mind, as perception and experience teach us. Yet in biology, and even in psychology, only causal relationships are accepted as valid scientific explanations for actions performed. Not the goal, not the intention, only the cause is at the origin of the act. . .”  Causal connections lie in the past, goals are directed to the future. Scientifically accepted causes are defined with strict formulations and are bound by inevitable and identifiable consequences, while goals are usually vaguer and often more abstract and will not be achieved with certainty. They can hardly be at the root of our actions together. But what is the reason why “science” in its analyses and conclusions almost exclusively considers causes, whereas in scientific methodology itself, the pre-formulation of suitable objectives is usually considered an important requirement?  May scientific reasoning in principle only be causal? Is there a scientific taboo on everything that has to do with purpose?

Of course, one can suggest that objectives always have a cause. That is purely theoretically correct, but in this way, we almost inevitably end up in a continuous series of causes and effects, which no longer yields useful scientific results. It should therefore be definitively proven that goals without scientifically demonstrable causes are impossible, something that is not feasible in my opinion. A world that would respond to this is called “deterministic”. The author points out an additional aspect of this: “In a deterministic world… all statements are made because they necessarily have to be made. What inevitably needs to be said doesn’t necessarily have to be true… The conclusion is that if determinism is possible, no one can be trusted.” From this we can already deduce that a deterministic worldview does not exactly meet the hopes or expectations of most of us.

As far as our moral sense and actions are concerned, the consequences of a lack of free will are even more significant. So we read a little further in the 2nd chapter: “Only by his free will can man recognize moral values and assume moral responsibility for his actions…” This free will is not just a theoretical possibility or product of our human imagination. He is part of the necessary triangular relationship between freedom of will, morality and love of life and truth. After all, love can only come from free will and must be focused on life that is true, for what we call true love does not focus on inanimate objects or falsified states. It is also easy to see that a morality without love is as powerless as an electric motor without electric current. Only in their interaction with each other do these three immaterial but fundamentally important elements form a meaningful and fruitful whole.

This conclusion is not a philosophical sophistry, but something that we can easily deduce from our personal experiences with our common sense. A good example of this is the moment when a bridal couple gives each other the yes-word. Even without a scientific survey, it is evident that when that yes is given with free will on both sides, carried by true mutual love, in full awareness of the moral responsibility one takes, valid for life and aimed at – or open to creating and nurturing new life, this commitment has the best chances of success.

Origins and further developments

We might now be inclined to regard the debate as largely settled or irrelevant, but that is a miscalculation.  The mystery of free will certainly lies not in the fact that we cannot see it at work and at some crucial moments even almost “sense” it but lies in its intellectual elusiveness. Opposition to the idea of free will dates back at least to ancient Greece. Moreover, it does not only come from the scientific/philosophical angle but is also very much alive in certain religious communities. In chapter 5 Gerard Bodifee outlines how the problem arose when the Greek philosopher Democritus, who lived on the transition from the 5th to the 4th century BC, had discovered in some inexplicable way that the universe consists of nothing but randomly colliding atoms, which leads to a deterministic overall picture of natural reality. The author succinctly describes how the Greco-Roman philosophical world found a sophisticated response to this, which preserved the acceptance of human free will for several centuries. But within the various philosophical movements the discussion about this slumbered further and eventually even found its way into religious circles.

The intellectually extraordinarily gifted church father Saint Augustine (2) dealt very deeply with this issue in his writings. He developed a theological synthesis on this subject, combining the omnipotence and providence of God with human free will and the Fall. With his writings he successfully opposed both the deterministic followers of Mani, and the followers of Pelagius who strongly believed in free will but denied original sin. Thus, this great sage played a major role in the development of a full-fledged Catholic theology, compatible with the earliest Christian testimonies.  Among other things, he explains in detail why there need not be a contradiction between the fact that God knows the future and our possibility of free will. A good century later, the Christian Boethius (3) in prison will analyse this question even more deeply philosophically and come to the comforting certainty of free will.

A millennium after the discussions between Augustine and Mani, the conflict between supporters and opponents of free will flares up again. Its protagonists were the Catholic priest Erasmus (4) and the Protestant church reformer Luther. Erasmus relies primarily on biblical texts in which there is talk of a “choice”. One of his strong arguments in favour of free will is that if there is no free will and everything is determined by God (as Luther proclaimed), one must conclude that God accomplishes not only our good, but also our bad deeds. There is therefore no longer any reason why man should still be subjected to a final judgment.

Luther sees it completely differently: man is addicted to sin and therefore has no free will. Moreover, such a thing would contradict God’s sovereignty. The human will can only be set free by God’s grace. Man, himself cannot choose eternal bliss: if he is not redeemed by God’s grace, he is doomed to slavishly follow the will of Satan. Luther even goes so far as to call the assumption of human free will a sacrilegious “deification” of man. For him, only God has a sovereign will, while man is only free in his daily decisions, necessary for his livelihood. If man uses that secondary freedom to do good works, then he is outwardly free in it, but that does not give him inner freedom. This can only be obtained by faith, and only with this can he attain his eternal bliss with God’s grace.

Criticism on Luther

Although Luther’s position uses correct basic elements of Christian doctrine (such as faith, grace, divine sovereignty), it leads to a rather bizarre and defeatist view of life. The problem lies both in the mutual relationships and the effect he assigns to those elements of faith, and in ignoring or subordinating important others, such as the Divine Mercy. From his argument one must conclude that God coldly decides which of his creatures may enter his kingdom, no matter how well or badly they did their best. According to this great reformer, only faith in God saves man from sin guilt and unfreedom, but how that choice of faith can come about from an unfree will is rather puzzling.

Moreover, according to Luther, a mere “formal” faith is sufficient, while the apostle James taught that “faith without works is dead” (James. 2: 14-26). One can also ask why God would forgive sins without repentance and conversion. How can an unfree man proceed to this, if God does not grant him the special grace of that faculty? But why does He give this privilege to one man and not to another? Doesn’t Christianity teach that God loves all people? Luther preached about “Christian freedom,” but on closer inspection it means that the Christian reconciles himself to the bitter thought that he is by nature an unfree sinner, whose fate largely depends on an unpredictable divine arbitrariness.

New schools of thought

The conflict, summarized here, teaches us how the view of free will divided the European world even more deeply during the great upheavals that followed the secularizing era of the Renaissance. This gave rise to new currents that ushered in a period of schisms and religious wars. For a century and a half (± from 1650 to 1800 AD) the impact of the new scientific achievements and worldwide discoveries systematically fuelled divisions within and outside European Christianity. The belief in the omnipotence and providence of God gave way to the belief in the unlimited potential of the human mind to solve all problems and issues and to give humanity a paradisiacal future. The adherents of these schools of thought saw themselves as “enlightened” spirits, finally freed from the yoke of the “dark” religious Middle Ages. Their period has since been called the “Enlightenment”. People usually deny or forget that a considerable part of their scientific knowledge and intellectual baggage was the fruit of the “monk work” of believing Christians, not infrequently clerics. If one does not violate historiography, one must recognize that European Christianity has been the impetus and breeding ground for fruitful and free scientific research (a few painful church-political misunderstandings, such as the Galileo affair, aside).

There, like a deus ex machina, the fascinating word “free” reappears in our discourse. How much blood has already been shed for more “freedom”? Did the exploited people who took part in the French Revolution know which “liberté” they were pursuing?  Had the revolutionaries learned from their “enlightened” leaders the difference between internal and outer freedom? Did they realize that outward freedom serves no purpose if one is inherently unfree? That in an agitated crowd one easily loses control over one’s own independent actions and can therefore be “unfree” internally, even if one captures authorities who curtail freedom or makes them a head shorter?

How many people who use with full conviction the slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité” are at the same time convinced that the idea of ​​free will is an outdated religious concept, impossible to coexist with scientific logic? The unbridled will to freedom has often in human history proved to be a many-headed monster that preys on anything that smells of free will. And yet the latter will never disappear, for as long as humanity exists. Why? To answer this, it is necessary to find out the fundamental errors in the image of man that has seeped into modern thought through many channels.

The modern visions

In the second part of his book Gerard Bodifee introduces us as intelligibly as possible to the theories on this subject of some famous thinkers. These intellectual greats have left their indelible mark on the very diverse basic concepts of current conceptions. In a world where we are permanently inundated with a deluge of new insights and information, this helps on the one hand to create some clarity individually, but on the other hand it creates insurmountable ideological barriers and a lot of misunderstanding.

For example, the philosopher Spinoza (5) replaced the biblical God with an all-encompassing (or “pantheistic”) infinite deity, of which man is an integral part. It is a completely rational God who strictly adheres to mathematically established laws. He thus shows no signs of “free will” and, consequently, all the less so to man, who is nevertheless urged to pursue outer freedom. As far as internal free will is concerned, Spinoza is therefore largely on the same wavelength as Luther, but otherwise one can classify him as a “deist”. He is one of the founders of the enlightenment and, according to some, even indirectly of modern atheism. He was a strong supporter of religious freedom and high morality, but free will was not required for this.

From this we can already conclude that there is a connection between the philosophical conceptions of God and the conceptions of free will. With Spinoza a mathematically determined God made the idea of a freely operating will impossible, with Luther the all-determining “sovereignty” of God was the big stumbling block.

Clearly and with great objectivity, Gerard Bodifee successively parses the views on this of some of his leading predecessors in metaphysics. After Spinoza come Kant, Schopenhauer, Maxwell, Bergson (6) and Carl Hoeffer, as well as the opinions of great scientists, such as Einstein, the mathematical genius who profoundly changed the scientific view of space and time. That is almost by definition heavy intellectual fare, but the author succeeds well in serving it as digestible as possible. The writer of this is not going to claim that, after a one-time thorough reading, he has fully understood it all, but tries to draw interesting conclusions from it and to add some thoughts.

A rather predictable conclusion is that there is generally a link between the psychological profile of the thinkers involved and their positions. A cheerful personality will more easily formulate decisions that are optimistic, while a sad individual almost automatically develops a gloomy worldview. There are exceptions, such as the bon vivant Julien de La Mettrie, who came to the depressing conclusion that man is a will-less machine. But perhaps this philosopher found in the unfreedom of the will a satisfactory explanation for a hedonistic lifestyle (?) In any case, theories of the human will can hardly be regarded as free expressions of will, for they are almost inevitably coloured by character and mood.

Criticism of the course of the discussion

More generally, it is difficult or even impossible to prove that any of our outward actions are exclusively or primarily an expression of our “free will.” For most of these, it is easy to find causal explanations of a neural or biochemical nature (hormones, pain nerves, …), or environmental factors that cause e.g., stress symptoms, anxiety, hilarity, … (e.g., sounds have spontaneous effects on both humans and many animal species; the anger of one quickly transfers to the other, etc.) If we go down that road, as is often the case in vulgarizing “scientific” discussions, then we are completely on the wrong track.

A first reason seems to me to be that a concept (the will), which is spiritual and therefore abstract in nature, is inserted into causal reasoning about physical actions and material phenomena. But, as Gerard Bodifee rightly points out, there is also a problem with the method used, since most of the lines of thought used arise in a metaphysical framework based on unprovable axioms (such as a God who strictly adheres to his own laws of nature). He points out a different and much more certain way: the one that starts from objective observations of nature. We fully agree with this, in the belief that all that is life is fundamentally distinguished from dead matter, in that it partially replaces causation with its own purposiveness.

A different approach

Important in this controversy is that we define well what we mean by both “will” and “free”. Speaking of a “free will” we seem to unconsciously use a pleonasm, because a non-free will is rather the result of an obligation, e.g., a law or a criminal sanction. The pure will has no compelling cause and is therefore not causal, while it can also go in all directions. If one claims that there is no free will, it means that man has at most a very limited, unfree will, like the animal. In a similar reducing way one can e.g., also reduce the spiritual world to a collective name for everything we do not (yet) know or understand. In this way, one encounters a separation wall that makes further discussions about this sterile in advance.

One cannot de facto imagine a ‘non-spiritual’ pure will, but on the other hand, that will is the facet of our ‘spirituality’ that is closest to our physicality, since it is supposed to be able to directly dictate our actions. As said, this dictating will is not a priori bound by causes, yet it is tied to conditions created by the same internal free will. One of these basic conditions is the development of self-control in various areas. In religious jargon, we call this “virtues.”

Another condition is the possibility of self-assessment, something few will deny, although that faculty is difficult to explain without appealing to spiritual or at least “abstract” principles. To judge oneself morally, a person must make a comparison between two internal images: a mirror image of himself, whether correct or not, and an ideal image based on his deepest beliefs. The comparison between the two takes place in what Christianity has called “the conscience.” This introspection gives the will the possibility of a “choice”: either making the self-image more like the ideal image, or leaving everything as it is, or cultivating a self-image that differs more and more from that of one’s own convictions.

Therein lies the “freedom” of the will and it can therefore make both a positive and a negative choice. Through observations, we can externally check how this takes place internally in others, especially during the growth and upbringing phases of a child. The memories of our own early years of life can also give us a relevant self-insight into this. Perhaps many will remember their first lie, intended to get out of a nasty situation, but which was spontaneously accompanied by an internal discomfort, also known as “remorse”?

In an evolutionary framework, the question arises about the connection between the independent free will of the self-conscious human being and the general “will” for self-preservation that one sees at work in all life forms, in a creative but individually compelling (and therefore unfree) way. It is the basis of the laws of life, which, among other things, guide the specific “instincts” of the animal species.  We will cover this topic to the best of our ability in our “Creative Evolution” section.

I would now like to end these inevitably unfinished considerations with the finest example of free will I know: the last words of Christ on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” and “Father, into your hands I command my spirit.”


(1) Gerard Bodifee, De vrije wil, 2019, ed. Sterck & De Vreese, Gorredijk, The Netherlands. ISBN 978 90 5615 536 0.

(2) Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.C.). Most famous works: Confessiones and De civitate Dei. Cf: .

(3) Boethius (ca. 480-525 A.C.). Best known work: Consolation of Philosophy (De consolatione philosophiae).

(4) Desiderius Erasmus (1467 or 1469-1536).  Most famous work: Praise of folly.

(5) Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677). Works: a.o. Cogitata metaphisica and Tractatus theologico-politicus.

(6) Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941). Main works: Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, Matter and Memory, Creative Evolution and The two sources of morality and religion. He was one of the best-known defenders of vitalism, which assumes a spiritual dimension for every life form, which he incorporated into his vision of evolution. Our “Creative Evolution” section unintentionally bears the same title as the major work of this highly influential and religiously inspired philosopher.

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