Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Free will: Being human is not easy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 26, 2021

Our intrinsic freedom as human persons is extraordinarily difficult to fathom, as it is hedged on all sides by things which tend to distort or limit it. For example, our freedom is limited by our innate abilities and opportunities. We cannot become doctors without a large measure of intelligence and serious study, any more than we can win a track-and-field event without significant coordination and the health to undergo rigorous training. And even if we possess the requisite physical and mental characteristics, we may never have any opportunity to do some things that we have at least thought we might like to do.

Vision Book Cover Prints

In the human person, the freedom to choose this or that is profoundly conditioned by circumstances over which we have little or no control. There is a kind of enslavement in the human condition. We are in significant ways bound by time and place and opportunity, by the condition of our bodies, by the particular strengths and weaknesses of our personalities, and by various kinds of compulsions which psychologically limit our ability to direct our lives as we would wish. And we must not forget our passions!

That we recognize all of this is a proof of the existence of both intellect and will. We face all kinds of obstacles and find ourselves at war with ourselves. It is not easy being human.

Freedom experienced

And yet every basically healthy human being perceives the existence of his or her own free will. We all have the experience of making choices, sometimes even difficult choices, between two or more options that are set before us. These choices may be value-neutral, such as what color shirt to wear today; or they may be strategically different, such as choosing the best way to reach a particular goal; or they may be morally crucial, such as whether or not to cheat on a spouse, betray a friend, or compromise our moral principles to gain advancement.

I don’t say that we can prove in what we would call a “scientific” way that all of these decisions are the result of genuine choice. Science (as we typically use the term today) deals with material processes only, which places beyond its purview the most distinctive features of our humanity. Indeed, our very experience of choice moves the discussion beyond its restricted bounds.

But I do say that we all experience our decisions to be the result of genuine choice, which is made more obvious by the discontent we feel when our choices are limited. Even if we sense pressures to choose one way or another, we realize that we can resist those pressures—assuming we are willing to face whatever consequences follow from that resistance. We recognize that we are fundamentally different from other “animals”—even the highest in the pecking order—because our actions and accomplishments are guided by an intellect which enables us to consider options which go far beyond animal instinct (and so admit of significant change and even significant progress); and because, as we consider the full range of options, we are capable of making a choice.

In a Psychology class in college, I had a professor who, on the first day, announced that all human behavior is materially determined. With a dramatic flourish, he claimed that the only reason he was lecturing that day was because he was, in effect, forced to do so by the sum-total of material variables which dominate his existence. There was absolute silence in the lecture hall. Most students had heard such ideas often enough by then, I believe, but rarely so baldly stated in a way which eliminated any possible concern the professor could have about them. He in turn perceived this silence as meaning that the students felt insulted (as indeed they should have). To recover the situation, he hastily blurted out: “Of course, I really want to be here too!”

Intelligent students (at least those without ulterior motives) realized immediately that they had a blind guide who would happily lead them into a pit (Mt 15:14; Lk 6:39). There is absolutely no reason to deny our own universal experience of thinking things over and choosing. Indeed, we have to be carefully taught from an early age to interpret life as utterly deterministic. We have to be cowed into thinking we are foolish to accept our own natural observations on our own experience. And the chief sources of such lessons, if we will but take the trouble to notice it, are those who wish to justify a different moral order in a willed rejection of God—from whom alone can come non-material qualities such as intellect and freedom of the will.

Difficulties with freedom

There are, of course, many difficulties in living “freely”. There are all the constraints I have mentioned which limit the available choices; there are disturbances of the body and the psyche which obscure and even diminish our freedom; and there are also attractions to bad or reckless courses of action which sometimes press us to violate even our own better judgment. This too is part of our daily experience, as are, in most cases, the lack of a clear understanding of intellect and will, of how they work in the human person, and of how the most important purpose of free will—that is, of our interior freedom, despite limiting circumstances—is simply to choose the Good, not for gain but for Love.

St. Paul makes it clear that doing evil is a manifestation of slavery to sin, and doing good is the result of resisting and freeing ourselves from that slavery. It is the essence of Christianity that God Himself helps us to liberate ourselves: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). In another place, he writes of our universal experience of falling short even of our own expectations:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! [Rom 7:15,19-25]

This is a “psychology”, if you will, that instead of denying our experience takes full account of it. Unfortunately, at a certain stage of more or less deliberate intellectual rebellion against reality in order to justify bad choices, we can be locked in such darkness that we no longer recognize and respond to the ordinary signals which call us back to honesty, and from honesty to hope.

The interior process of acting freely

Fr. William Most (1914-1999) wrote one of the great works on free will (Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God, available on our website and still available in print), a study which offered substantial insights into how grace interacts with the human intellect and will to make a fully human freedom possible despite the effects of sin on that freedom. This is a long and scholarly book, full of theological citations, especially from Aquinas, but one key concept is worth repeating here.

When a person’s intellect is presented with a choice between good and evil, grace is made present to the intellect to discern and propose the good to the will, but the will may resist the proposition of the intellect and instead instruct the intellect to provide a different set of reasons to justify the willed course of action—that is, what the person desires to do. Under this impetus of the will, the intellect then excels at the task of finding and expressing arguments which justify to us what otherwise would be rightly recognized as evil. We call this rationalization.

Every one of us has experienced this, but sometimes our intellects become darkened to the point at which we habitually fail to recognize when we are doing it. At this point, either the school of hard knocks may bring us to our senses, or we may require an extraordinary grace to penetrate the resulting hardness of heart.

If, however, the will accepts the initial presentation of the intellect concerning the choice between good and evil, and encourages the intellect to continue to serve the person so well, the intellect grows in its apprehension of the good and in its ability to reason about it. Meanwhile, having now accepted the information from the intellect that choice A is good and choice B is evil, the will is given a second form of grace that enables the person to put this decision into action.

End Game

Further reflection on our fundamental, interior, human, personal freedom leads to a far greater understanding of both ourselves and others, of our brokenness as a result of sin, and of all the many difficulties which attend God’s plan for us. This includes the difficulties God Himself faces as a result of His decision to create us in His own image. God, in his absolute perfection, is love itself; He is never “motivated” by anything but genuine (that is, unselfish) love, and as such He is always perfectly free. But authentic love is always both an expression and a proof of freedom. Therefore, to be capable of love, limited creatures must be made “in the image of God”, with precisely the qualities of intellect and will we have been discussing here.

These ingredients of intellect, will, freedom, grace and love are at the very heart of what it means to be human; their denial is precisely dehumanizing. The very fact that we alone, of all bodily creatures, can reflect on our own decision-making process sets us apart from all that is materially determined. That we are conscious of ourselves as unique moral actors is a conclusive proof of our possession of the spiritual qualities of intellect and will. This self-reflection and our consequent alignment (or misalignment) with the Good lie at the heart of every significant question or problem we face—up to and including the question of our eternal salvation.

To deny these things is mere pretense. Fraught with difficulties as we find life to be, we remain “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14). But with great love comes great responsibility.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.