Free will, determinism, or something in between?

For the religious adherent, whether we are agents created by the Almighty to freely act according to our desires, or we are under His divine direction will depend on your theology.  A case could be made either way I suppose.  I think the Atheist has a more difficult time reconciling the determinism/free agency divide than does the Theist, but that is his to do.  This debate is more lively in circles of Theists  due to the deeper theological consequences, and thus more interesting to me, but I will ask for the Atheist’s input toward the end.

For some, if man has a libertarian freedom it is said to diminish God’s sovereignty and exalt man.  If God is not firmly in the driver’s seat, it belittles His authority as God.  For others, if man does not have an unhindered will, he cannot be said to truly love God; he is nothing more than a sophisticated puppet.  Then there are those for whom there is a mixture of the two.  We are both directed by God, but simultaneously freely act.  Of the three positions, I find the latter the most difficult to defend without talking out of both sides of your mouth.

If I had to summarize my view, I would have to say that I believe for the most part we are free to make decisions and act in the libertarian sense.  From day to day our actions and thoughts are completely our own doing.  However, the Bible makes it clear that God intervenes in our lives for whatever purposes He has.  So in a sentence, we are ordinarily free in the libertarian sense and God intervenes as He sees fit to fulfill His purposes.

This applies to conversion as well.  The Reformed theological position is that God chooses individuals whom will accept Christ’s sacrifice and be saved.  If you are among the chosen (the elect), you will believe.  Another view is that individuals choose for God, not so much uninfluenced, but certainly uncoerced.  From what I understand to be how the Bible describes this process is that people have the ability to accept or reject God, but that some people are elect in the way the Reformed position claims for all people.  God would have the authority to choose some people specifically because it serves the purpose of His will.  Moses and Paul are two examples.  Because He is the Creator, He has the unique authority to do as He pleases with it.

So I’m fairly certain adherents from both (and other) camps will have their say as to where I’m mistaken.  That’s a good thing.  I don’t mind being corrected provided the arguments are persuasive and well founded.

To my Atheist readers: it seems you are stuck with only one option, strict determinism. For if the universe is only comprised of matter, then physical reaction is all there can be.  Like an avalanche, the snow falls where it falls, it doesn’t plan its route.  It simply reacts to its immediately prior cause.  How can we be any different?  If there is no difference between our mind and our brain, a mere semblance of agency, then we have a false perspective on reality.  The synaptic reactions we believe are conscious thoughts are only chemical dominoes.  How did (could) the illusion of free agency even come about especially since there are many organisms who survive quite well on pure mechanical instinct?

How do you see it? Are we free agents acting as the prime cause of our actions? Or is there no other way we can think or act?


  1. To my Atheist readers: it seems you are stuck with only one option, strict determinism.

    Well, that’s obviously not true.
    Are you saying that all animals other than humans act deterministically?

    Here’s an interesting article:

  2. Stephen Hawking has a great essay titled “Is Everything Determined?” that tackles this very question from the atheist’s point of view. He’s conclusion: Yes, everything is determined, but since we do not know WHAT is determined (that is we can’t predict ourselves the outcome of the natural laws and physical reactions that have brought us to the present moment and to each moment that follows) we might as well act as if we have free will. The illusion is born, he suggests, as a survival mechanism of sorts,providing a certain amount of accountability, self-preservation, and order for the human race.

    • If it is true that everything is determined, no one is morally accountable for their misbehaviors since they couldn’t have done otherwise regardless of how they feel.

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