Unrestricted Free Agents: Examining Libertarian Free Will


We are exploring different views on free will. In the first post we described a situation where a running back in the NFL has entered free agency. The player has 3 different offers. In this example we have avoided complicating the illustration by avoiding choices where a person is exercising saving faith or committing a sin. We already took a look at how a compatibilist might view this choice. Now we tackle the same scenario from a libertarian free will perspective.

Sam Harris, an atheist and determinist, calls the concept of free will an illusion. In his book Free Will he defines the type of free will that he argues does not exist:

The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently that we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.

This is a reasonable definition of Libertarian Free Will (LFW). I would only make the second assumption more explicit than what is implied here. That in the present we have the actual ability to choose differently.

The choice according to Libertarian Free Will (unrestricted free agent):

Our running back has been presented with 3 different contract offers from Team A, B, and C. The player has chosen to sign with Team C. This is the team that offered him the most money and the opportunity to be the starting running back.

Under the LFW view this player is an unrestricted free agent. He freely chose to sign with Team C and bears full responsibility for that decision. This decision came after deliberation and wrestling with conflicted desires. This choice was “open” because the player could have chosen any of the three teams. Contrary to determinism and compatibilism there would not need to be any any changes in past events for a different choice. The player’s ability to freely choose does not mean that God is not sovereign or that He was caught by surprise when the choice was made. God, being omniscient, knew ahead of time (foreknew) what the outcome was going to be.

If foreknowledge makes the outcome certain, isn’t that the same as being determined?

Compatibilists understand that there is a tension between human responsibility and God determining events. How can God have a predetermined plan that accords with His will and still allow people to make choices according to their will. Michael Horton argues that those holding to LFW have the same problem as Calvinists when it comes to dealing with this tension. Why? Because God having foreknowledge makes the outcome just as certain as if it was determined.

Classic Arminian theology shares with Calvinism—indeed with all historic branches of Christianity—that God’s foreknowledge comprehends all future events. There is nothing that happens, nothing that you and I do, that lies outside of God’s eternal foreknowledge.

… everyone who affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge has exactly the same problem as any Calvinist. If God knows that Adam will sin—or that you and I will sin—and could keep it from happening, but does not, and God’s knowledge is infallible, then it is just as certain as if he had predestined it. In fact, it is the same as being predestined.

However, I think Horton is wrong in assuming that foreknowledge is the same as determinism (being predestined). Knowing something will happen with certainty is not the same as ordaining that it must come to pass.The fans of Team A may be upset that the player signed with another team. They might even struggle with why God allowed it to occur. But God cannot be logically held responsible for that choice even if He knew about it in advance and let it happen. In His sovereignty He allowed the player the freedom to make his own choice.

However, if God is ‘ultimately, decisively in control of all decisions’ then it would seem logical to assign some responsibility to Him. Horton says  only a hyper-Calvinist will see God’s decrees as being the cause of any determined event. But if God does not bring the event to pass how is it theologically determined? If God’s decree ordaining the event is not the ultimate cause then the question becomes who (or what) was? If one answers this question: ‘the desire of the player’; then we must ask what caused this desire in the player? Most Calvinists would list a host of factors that caused the desire, but in a deterministic system it would logically follow that God was the ultimate cause of these factors and therefore the desire as well.

The player was limited by genetics and the offers that were presented so he was not free to choose anyway?

C.Michael Patton tries to explain how a Calvinist understands LFW. Writing against LFW, Patton explains that there are numerous factors in your life that factor into determining who you are that you do not get to choose. These include when and where you were born, your genetics, etc.

Not only are you who you are because of your identification with a fallen human race, but notice all these factors that you did not choose that go into the set up for any given “free will” decision made. … All of these factors play an influencing role in who you are at the time of any given decision.

He is correct, these factors all play a role in the decision that is made and the desires of the person making the decision. Had our player not been born with the genetics and athletic abilities needed to be a football player he would never have the opportunity to play in the NFL let alone choose the next contract he would sign. However, that does not mean that the player does not have LFW. It just means that factors like genetic makeup and where/when a person lives will be factors that shape the person and limit the options they have available to choose from.

I don’t think Patton is making the case here that limited options are a reason to reject the LFW view. But it is important to understand that LFW is not the ability to choose anything. It is the ability to choose from a set of possible options. Athletic ability, hard work in practice, coaching philosophies, draft positions, injuries to players, and cap room are some of the numerous factors that came into play when teams evaluate whether to make an offer to a player. However, while these affect what options are possible, they do not mean that the player did not have a LFW ability to choose from among those that were available.

If the player has LFW then his choice is random?

In the same post C.Michael Patton says that a if a person has LFW then he is not making the choice because the will must be neutralized to have the freedom to choose against one’s will. This would make the choice a random act.

In a truly libertarian sense, this decision cannot have influences of any kind. Any decision without influences is arbitrary. It would be like flipping a coin. I chose A rather than B, not because of who I am, but for no reason at all. It just turned out that way.

Over at Ligonier Ministries they arrive at the same conclusion regarding LFW.

This understanding of human freedom says that we have the ability to make spontaneous choices contrary to our dispositions and inclinations. Nothing determines our choices. We are always able to choose good or evil. Our wills are wholly neutral.

… if our wills are neutral, why do we make decisions at all? For example, consider what would happen if I were presented with an apple and an orange and must decide which one to eat. If I am neutral I will have no preference for either fruit and no reason to choose one or the other. Nothing will move me to pick one, and I will starve to death.

If I understand the Calvinist reasoning here, they are arguing that a person makes a choice according to their will and it is always done according to their strongest desire. In order to choose something other than what they desire the most, the person would have to have their desires neutralized. But once that happens the person’s will is no longer involved in the choice.

However, only an a priori assumption that we must choose according to our strongest desire requires this kind of reasoning. LFW rejects determinism and therefore can logically conclude that our will and desires, while being shaped and influenced, are not determined solely by past events or genetics. Our will is a part of us that allows us to make conscious decisions at a point in time choosing freely from among competing desires.

J. C. Thibodaux, an Arminian, writes in a post exploring this in more detail:

The Calvinist case here essentially states,

We can’t choose otherwise since we can’t intend otherwise.

… Such a statement only makes sense if one already assumes that people have no control over their intents/reasons for how they act.

He goes on to conclude that there is no logical reason to assume that we can’t intend otherwise. The only reason to assume we can’t is because Calvinists have defined free will in a way that excludes that possibility.

This is the third in a series of posts that explain how I understand the debate over free will and where I currently “land the plane”. Having started the series with the band Rush’s lyrics to Free Will I will end with them as well:

I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose freewill.

How do you choose between these options? And if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

What do you think?

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