Some assert that man has free will. Some assert that all is determined. Some say (as I do) that free will is compatible with determinism. The debate has raged, unabated, for millennia.

Clearly, an interceding God presents problems for free will. However, a cosmic God - a Creator who does not intervene in human affairs - might be compatible with free will if he keeps his omniscience and omnipotence to himself.

Despite the fact that most Christian denominations teach free will, the Bible itself is rife with determinism and predestination. Because we all live as if we have free will, it's highly unlikely that anything we author will not give lip service to free will. When we take credit for our actions or blame others for theirs, we're paying lip service to free will. Thus, the Bible has many verses consistent with free will but is, nonetheless, a largely deterministic tome. Here are just a few examples (for brevity, just the verses are listed) that clearly state that God determines who is going to heaven or hell and that there's nothing you can do about it:

Acts 13:48
Romans 8:29-30
2 Timothy 1:9
Ephesians 1:4-5
2 Thessalonians 2:11-13
Jude 4
Romans 9:11-22

Even the Lord's Prayer contains 2 instances of determinism:

1.) Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.
2.) And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

In an effort to discover why the Bible is so inconsistent on this issue, I tried many Google searches, using many keywords. I couldn't find dates for the concept of free will but I did find references to those who developed the concept. It appears that the concept of free will stems from the concept of freedom and that it grew very slowly, taking centuries to mature into a formal doctrine.

From the 4th century to the 2nd century B.C., the seeds of free will were being planted. Plato had a concept of rational governance which flirted with but skirted the concept of free will. Aristotle added an element of voluntary action but still skirted free will. The first, primitive, form of free will appears to arise with Epicurus, around 300 B.C. Determinism did not mesh with his observations. He diverged from the strictly deterministic Atomists of his day by claiming that atoms do not move in a pre-determined way. Making the motion of atoms random allowed him to break the perpetual causal chain of events kick-started by the Prime Mover. This opened the door for his assertion that man has free will. At around 50 A.D., Lucretius wrote his epic (6-book) philosophical poem, “De Rerum Natura”, explaining Epicurean physics. In it, he explained how atomic collisions can occur in the first place and why it is necessary to postulate randomness in the motions of atoms ("an unpredictable ‘swerve’ at no fixed place or time"), to account for the evident fact of free will. Otherwise we would all be automata, our motions determined by infinitely extended and unbreakable causal chains. This uncanny resemblance to the randomness postulated by modern quantum physics has helped make this passage a favorite in the free will debate. But it is, in fact, Epicurus, not Lucretius, who originated the idea of indeterminacy in the motion of atoms.

It's hard to understand how the ramifications of free will would take centuries to fully reveal themselves to our ancient philosophers. With the introduction of Christianity and its morality, particularly after it became the state religion (Roman Catholic Church) of the Roman Empire in 326 A.D., the development of free will was given a boost. Free will matured into doctrine, thanks largely to St. Augustine. He began advocating free will, around 400 A.D, to promote good works and responsibility for our own actions.

That's 700 to 800 years of free will as a neglected, fuzzy, immature concept! It's hard to imagine when most of us are now familiar with the concept(s) of free will.

The Old Testament was sealed about 200 B.C. (others claim it was sealed between 500 and 100 B.C.) and the New Testament was written between 45 A.D. and 140 A.D. This means that the concept (much less doctrine!) of free will didn't even exist in the region while the Old Testament was written and was, at best, a primitive and fuzzy concept when the New Testament was written. Free will still hadn't been fleshed out when the Roman Catholic Church was created in 326 A.D.

So it appears that the Bible is so inconsistent with the application of free will because a formal concept of free will wasn't available to the Bible authors. The authors lived in a deterministic world, so that's (mostly) the way they wrote.

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Replies to This Discussion

You don't understand the Bible on this matter and many true Christians are hazy on it if not most, but simply put: the will is free, however the ability to do whatever you want with it is not part of the will, nor realization of all possible options. The Bible teaches God restricts and compels in part to get the will to do what he wants it to. - You can read various things about so called "free will" and destiny at - just search in the keywords or categories or use google.

I would say he does understand the bible. The bible was written by many different people with an evolving notion of God, free will, determinism, omniscience as divine foreknowledge and so on. The ideas you put forward are ad hoc contrivances by theologians trying to harmonise the data (different books of the bible) with the classical characteristics and core beliefs (from Christianity) if their God. I would argue that it simply cannot be done, and there IS inconsistency in the bible. Also, divine foreknowledge IS incoherent with free will.


This is not hard, because free will is incoherent on its own, but even if it was not, and even with middle knowledge, there are still huge philosophical issues. which is why it is still hotly debated today, and why there are different exegeses of the bible (Calvinism, Arminianism etc). 

I also believe that free will is compatible with determinism.  I took this from Wikipedia:


Self-determination is the idea of a positive freedom, a freedom for actions that we originate, actions that are "up to us." Such acts constitute the essence of free will.


Self-determination covers the classic problem of free will. Are our actions "up to us," could we have done otherwise, are there alternative possibilities, or is everything simply part of a great causal deterministic chain leading to a single possible future?[6]

Adler defines the natural freedom of self-determination as that which is not either circumstantial or acquired.

A freedom that is natural is one which is

(i) inherent in all men,

(ii) regardless of the circumstances under which they live and

(iii) without regard to any state of mind or character which they may or may not acquire in the course of their lives.

I don't think free will can be compatible with determinism without re-defining the common-sense understanding of free will. Since determinism means not-free will, as many philosophers have pointed out, this means that free will is compatible with not-free will, which is logically incoherent (see Ted Honderich on this).


So free will gets reinvented as self-determination. It seems you are quoting Mortimer Adler whose work is some 60 years old. He did not have the insights into neuroscience and genetics that we now have. As a result, it seems he bypasses the whole massive issue of internal determinism from genes and neurology. Yes, we all are authors of our own destiny - that is a sort of tautology - we are us, of course are actions are down to us. However, the issue is that you and Adler seem to see volition (as, say Descartes) as an uncaused cause. Is this the soul? Something else? 


What this does ignore causality within our own decisions. Essentially it comes down to this: Do you believe we have alternate possibilities? If yes, then how. Mechanistically, how? Because if there is no reason for a decision which is necessitated, it seems, from claiming an uncaused cause 9originator of the causal chain / free will), then it is random. If it has a reason, you need to ask HOW that reason came to be. This is answered by determinism, but there is a hole left by claims of free will.


It comes down to rationality and reasoning. These aren't just out of context nebulous mechanisms that can be controlled by volition magically. These are learnt strategies using logic, prior learning and so on. I teach these skills to kids! So when it comes to deciding whether to run across the road to get the ball, the child uses all the strategies and facultiies they have learnt and possess, as well as experience (whether they know anyone who has been run over, or seen an information film at school about it). all these things provide the causal circumstance, and if we rewind back to the point of the decision again THEY WILL ALL BE THE SAME. The child will have the same tools, the same learning and strategies, the same environment down to the last molecule. They will decide the same again!


Now you can redefine free will all you want, but there are no alternate possibilities.

@Johnny P,

You write as if free will is a definitive concept. It's not. Look it up. Wikipedia has a good wiki on free will. Here's a relevant quote from them:

This important issue has been widely debated throughout history, including not only whether free will exists but even how to define the concept.

As for volition being an uncaused cause, I never said or implied anything of the kind. It's not a question of caused or uncaused -- that false dichotomy is the result of linear thinking. I assert that free will stems from reciprocal causation. For a full explanation of reciprocal causation, please see this group's featured post: "Why Hard Determinism Fails".

Thanks for the reply. I have written a book and delivered a number of public talks on it.

I think it really does come down to definitions here.

It doesn't come down to definitions, Johnny P, for a simple reason: Who is going to define it? You? A neuroscientist? A philosopher?

The fact is, we don't really know exactly what it is. So what it really comes down to is explaining it or debunking it.

Reciprocal causation -- along with other emergent phenomena such as self-awareness, time-awareness, and other features of human intelligence -- offers one potential explanation that does not violate physical laws or introduce mind/body dualism.

Unlike intelligent, biological, beings such as ourselves, inanimate objects don't think or have motility. They merely react to whatever forces they encounter. We, on the other hand, interact with them. Multiple streams of both internal and external feedback are integrated into a single, cohesive, perception of reality informed by memory and applied to the future. It is our imaginations that power our intelligence. Without much effort, we are able to anticipate events seconds from now or decades from now. And that is our temporal advantage over causality.

We are able to plan our futures. We routinely take causality into consideration to make decisions in the present that impose our will on the future. That is my definition of self-determinism. We can hack our own paths into the future. That means we're responsible for our actions (barring some neurological disorder). Within the constraints of physical laws, life is what we make of it.

And I think that meets the minimum requirement for free will.

I thought I had originated the term, "self-determinism". I've never studied Adler, nor was aware that he thought of free will as "self-determination".

I'm sorry I was not aware that you had replied to my post. It's been quite a while! Since then, I've developed my ideas further. The operative process in self-determinism is "reciprocal causation". For a full explanation of reciprocal causation, please see this group's featured post: "Why Hard Determinism Fails".


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