For quite some time, I have been perplexed by the concept of free will. It started early in my walk with Christ, but I’m happy to report it is starting to clear up. My first thought on the matter was, If God is omniscient, He already knows what choices I am going to make. Does that make my fate determined? If God already knows the end it seems as though we’re living out the manuscript. Well, that blew the old canoodle, and it took me a while to recover. For a while, I settled for the de facto free will stance—that I made the choice to trust Jesus of my own free will and secured my salvation. This is a widely accepted view, but I have come to understand that it is incorrect.
Today, we tend to flippantly use terms and phrases, and many times we have only a vague concept of what the word means as a result. But if we bothered to examine its definition, we would realize just how we’ve misused it…or that it isn’t even a word at all! The phrase that comes to mind is “I could care less.” People misuse this one all the time to express how much they don’t care, but the correct phrase is actually “I couldn’t care less.” The former means “I care and it is possible I could care less than I do” while the latter properly expresses what a person is trying to say—“I couldn’t possibly care any less than I do right now.” Still confused? Consult the handy infographic below!
I have come to realize that the term “free will” is one of those terms. Some folks refer to it as their “chooser.” First of all, let’s deal with the primary argument used to naysay the non-existence of free will. Typically, Calvinists and Arminians clash on this subject, but the term itself is misunderstood, probably due to decades of improper use. People who argue for the existence of free will often say of the opposition, “If man doesn’t have free will, then man has no control over his own actions and cannot be held responsible by God for them since he never had the free will to do anything but what was pre-ordained.” I completely agree with the objection, but the problem is the misunderstanding of what the will actually is. This leads to a mischaracterization of the stance against free will, resulting in a straw man argument, a logical fallacy.
I was watching a documentary called Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead the other day. When one of the men being featured in it spoke of dieting, he mentioned something that stuck in my mind. He said, “I don’t have the willpower.” Hmmm, let’s unpack that a bit. What is he actually saying here? Most of us have used that phrase, and I do believe it is at the core of our misunderstanding of free will. What we are expressing with this simple sentence is that we know in our minds that we need to diet but lack the desire to do so. Because our mind and desire are at odds with one another, we give in to the stronger of the two—in this case the desire to eat a yummy, clog-your-arteries cheeseburger draped in bacon and doused with barbeque sauce that’s paired with a huge helping of fries and a diet soda to wash it all down with. (The cola is pointless of course, but it makes us feel not so wretched about our dietary discretion…or lack thereof.)
Notice there are two other key players here: the desire and mind. (Granted, there are other underlying forces such as motive and nature, but for now let’s keep it simple.) Desire says one thing, the mind says another, and the result is a lack of willpower, or lack of will. When we say “will,” we actually mean “willpower” but leave off the “power” because it is understood. Think of it this way, when you see a child running around a playground screaming like a banshee, you tell your friend, “Wow, that kid is hyper.” You leave off the word “active” (hyperactive) because it is understood. The man in the dietary documentary could have just as easily said, “I don’t have the will to do it,” and his assertion would have meant the same thing.
The will is a power, or faculty, of the mind. What if we change the circumstances? Imagine something you really desired and made up your mind to obtain. What was the result? Oftentimes, you succeeded because your will (power) was strong. The desire and mind were in concert with one another resulting in a strong will (power). What if the desire is strong, but the mind is tougher? Then the mind wins, but the will (power) is vastly weakened by the conflict and becomes susceptible to temptation.
So the will is the power of the mind to control actions and thoughts, hence the term “willpower” But we’ve grown accustomed to dropping the second part of the term due to assumptive language, and as a result, our understanding of the term has been altered.
Well, does that mean we are not free? Certainly we are. But the mind is free, not the will. Freedom can belong to an agent, but not a faculty. To use the term “free will” is like saying your hands and feet are free when we all know they are completely controlled by the brain. We can freely think both in concrete and abstract terms. We can imagine, dream, problem solve, plot, and scheme, but that is not done by the will. These acts, as well as the act of decision making, are all functions of the mind, not the will. Once the mind is made up, the will follows; the mind wields the will in order to fully realize the decision it has made.
For further in-depth study of this topic, I highly recommend the works of great thinkers like Sir Francis Bacon and John Locke, especially the latter’s masterpiece, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.”