Actually, free will probably is free

July 12, 2007    By: Geoff J @ 2:56 pm   Category: Determinism vs. free will,Theology

It seems like whenever the subject of free will comes up among religionists — especially Christian religionists — someone chimes in with some variation of this old chestnut: “Free will is not free!” (When Mormons use it they sometimes say “Free agency is not free” but the intent is the same.)

I disagree. I think that our free will is not only free, it is inescapable. In other words, I think that free will in the libertarian sense is entailed by sentience. As far as I can tell, you can’t have one without the other.

Now this is an assumption upon which a lot of theology rests so if there are good reasons why I shouldn’t assume free will is entailed by sentience I’d like to hear about them. As an aside — I do believe that there are likely degrees of sentience and thus degrees of free will but I suspect that is a subject that ought to be fleshed out further (perhaps in a future post).

Scriptures on agency

There are some scriptures that indicate that the atonement makes us free. However, I am convinced that most of those scriptural passages are not referring to the philosophical doctrine of free will but rather the more narrow freedom that we are granted to choose to become one with God as a result of his grace and atonement. To put it in another way, we are only free to choose to become at-one with God or not (and secondarily with our spouses and families) because God has gracious invited us to become at-one with him. This is what the at-one-ment is all about and I completely agree with Blake Ostler on that front. So because of the atonement we are specifically free to choose eternal life. If there were no atonement and God was not graciously inviting us into his loving embrace we would still have free will but we would not be free to choose oneness with God because he would not be offering that oneness to us.

And lest anyone argue that our free will started when we arrived on earth, we do have this scripture that seems to indicate otherwise:

36 And it came to pass that Adam, being tempted of the devil—for, behold, the devil was before Adam, for he rebelled against me, saying, Give me thine honor, which is my power; and also a third part of the ghosts of heaven turned he away from me because of their agency; (D&C 29:36)

So what do you think? Is free will free or not and why?

[Associated Radio Thang songs: The Housemartins – Freedom; and Special AKA – Free Nelson Mandela]


  1. Geoff,

    First, glad to see the radio blog back, and right off the bat we have two classics–Special AKA and Housemartins. Nice.

    I am convinced that most of those scriptural passages are not referring to the philosophical doctrine of free will but rather the more narrow freedom that we are granted to become one with God as a result of his grace and atonement. To put it in another way, we are only free to choose to become at-one with God

    I don’t think the scriptures you are referring to allow for this maneuver. They say quite explicitely that we are free to choose either at-one-ment or separation.

    26 And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.
    27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself. (2 Ne 2)

    The phrase “act for themselves and not to be acted upon” does not limit itself to the freedom to choose the right. These verses say very directly that our freedom to choose either eternal life or captivity and death come because of the redemption brought about by the Messiah. I know these verses don’t go well with your theory of atonement, but this maneuver doesn’t do justice to the text.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 12, 2007 @ 4:06 pm

  2. Jacob,

    I think you misunderstood that sentence you quoted from me. (Probably because it was poorly written.) The whole sentence originally said:

    To put it in another way, we are only free to choose to become at-one with God (and secondarily with our spouses and families) because God has gracious invited us to become at-one with him.

    The “because” in that sentence is to say we would not be free to accept or reject that invitation if it were not extended to us first. I just added an “or not” in the post to clarify that.

    Or did I misread your comment?

    Comment by Geoff J — July 12, 2007 @ 4:23 pm

  3. I agree that free will is free and inescapable.

    However, I think it is necessary to draw a distinction between free will and agency. As used in the scriptures agency is something granted to us by God and which can potentially be lost (see Moses 4:3, 7:32, D&C 101:78).

    So I see the scriptural sense of agency as essentially a divinely or governmentally protected domain of personal discretion, or what we usually call freedom. Freedom definitely isn’t free. Neither is agency.

    D&C 101:78-80 states that God inspired the Constitution and “redeemed the land by the shedding of blood”, in order so that every man may act according to his own moral agency.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 12, 2007 @ 5:19 pm

  4. Okay, I certainly agree with the sentence you have in #2. I originally read you to be saying that Lehi is not talking about free-will, he is only saying that the atonement makes us free in the sense that we now have the opportunity to be with God whereas we did not have that opportunity beforehand. I think it is saying something more than that. We might be agreeing, I can’t tell for sure.

    There is a conundrum surrounding the fact that the scriptures say in some places that God gave us our agency and in other places that our agency is intrinsic such that God could not take it away even if he wanted. I offered my thoughts on that conundrum in my atonement article (starting on page 13 under the heading “Agency”).

    As to whether or not free-will is “free,” I think it boils down to the sense in which we are using the word free. If it was genuinely a result of the atonement as Lehi says, then it came at a price (I think this is an okay point, but a dumb way to make it). This is what people usually mean when they say free-will is not free. Or sometimes they mean that it is not free in that it comes with responsibilities to choose the right (I think this is a dumb point regardless of how it is made). I believe the “free” in free-will is referring to “freedom” not to whether or not it came at a price or has responsibilities attached to it.

    To summarize: I agree with this post from Rusty, but not this one from Don.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 12, 2007 @ 6:00 pm

  5. Jacob: If it was genuinely a result of the atonement as Lehi says, then it came at a price

    Hmmm. This is the point I was making. I don’t think Lehi is teaching that free will in general is a result of the atonement. I think free will is intrinsic to sentient spirits/intelligences. The atonement is what makes us free to choose eternal life — not what gives our spirits LFW. I don’t think LFW can be given or taken away.

    Now that point may be moot because there may never have been a time when God (however one defines the term God) was not inviting all sentient beings to come unto him in a personal relationship. In fact I highly doubt that there ever has been or will be a time when that invitation does not stand. So if we consider that grace/invitation to be the overall atonement (rather than just calling the Christ Event the atonement) then the atonement would be infinite in scope and time as well and it is moot that LFW is separate from the atonement/grace of God.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 12, 2007 @ 7:09 pm

  6. Let’s construct a hypothetical scenario. There are these free individuals. (For sake of argument we’ll say they are free in terms of LFW) Now a mad scientist has a device that will make these folks do what ever he wants. Our hero (let’s call him Buzz Lightyear) stops the evil villain but it was at great cost. Now, is free will free for these individuals?

    Comment by clark — July 12, 2007 @ 7:33 pm

  7. Clark,

    Yes. Whether someone is restricted from doing what they want has nothing to do with whether they can will what they want.

    The villain does not deprive them of their will, he deprives them of their freedom to effectively exercise their will. A person cannot be deprived of his will – any artifice or substitute would not be genuinely his anymore.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 12, 2007 @ 8:11 pm

  8. Mark is right. While the villain controlled the body where would the consciousness of the person be? Would it be like some out of body experience for the victim? In any case, my theory is that the libertarian free will of the person is fundamentally associated with the consciousness of the sentient person so if someone took over the functions of her body she would still retain her LFW as long as she retained consciousness. Now your Buzz Lightyear would indeed be a hero if he restored the liberty to control her own body, but that liberty and power to control ones own body is not the same as LFW. Thus Jesus was that very type of hero when he healed the lame and halt — he restored power over their bodies to people. He did not restore their free will because that was not lost.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 12, 2007 @ 8:31 pm

  9. But with LFW being restricted from doing what you want is sufficient to eliminate LFW. LFW, as was once made clear to me, makes no distinction between physical limitations and ontological limitations.

    As for Geoff’s point, their consciousness would be partially under the control of the scientist. (Indeed this is somewhat possible now)

    Comment by clark — July 12, 2007 @ 10:04 pm

  10. Geoff, you missed the point of the argument. Jesus didn’t restore something lost, he prevented its loss. Which arguably is even better than restoring it.

    Comment by clark — July 12, 2007 @ 10:05 pm

  11. Well then your thought experiment is begging the question Clark. I have opined in this post that consciousness entails LFW and that a person cannot have one without the other.

    Also, if a person’s legs stopped working and Jesus healed that person so their legs worked again that is indeed restoring something lost. I don’t understand why you say it is “preventing loss”. If you are saying Jesus prevents us from losing LFW you are begging the question again.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 12, 2007 @ 10:37 pm

  12. Clark: But with LFW being restricted from doing what you want is sufficient to eliminate LFW.

    By this logic a quadriplegic person would have no free will. That simply is not the case. As long as we can control our own thought we have free will. And I think that controlling our own thought means being conscious.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 12, 2007 @ 10:52 pm

  13. Clark: I believe that it is reasonable to take the position that the will is perfectly active and not passive. If we can reason, if we can think as we will, if we can divert our attention to what we choose to pay our attention to, then I believe that Geoff is correct. As you are undoubtedly aware, from a process perspective to be is to be creative and in this sense to be is to be, to a degree, free.

    Comment by Blake — July 12, 2007 @ 10:55 pm

  14. Geoff (#5),

    I agree with you that there is a fundamental aspect of autonomy and independence which is intrinsic to intelligence. Resolving this claim with Lehi (and other scriptures about God giving us our agency) is what I address briefly in my paper.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 12, 2007 @ 11:40 pm

  15. It seems clear to me that we had free will in the preexistence. Those who did not keep their first estate are evidence of this. It also seems clear that there were different levels of ‘performance’ in the preexistence which also seems evidence of free will.

    By the way, you should have ‘Free Will’ by Rush on your radio list.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — July 13, 2007 @ 4:08 am

  16. It seems that embodiment impacts our agency and our ability to express our free will. I believe it is analogous to the impediment to our spiritual eyes that we still have but we don’t believe we can still see with them.

    Comment by Blake — July 13, 2007 @ 7:48 am

  17. I do not see what the great mystery is. 2 Nephi 9 states without the atonement we would become “subject to the devil”. D&C 101 states that the land was “redeemed by the shedding of blood” because it was not right that “any man should be in bondage“.

    2 Ne 2 states that because mankind was redeemed from the fall they have become “free forever, knowing good from evil, to act for themselves and not be acted upon”. Acting for oneself and not being acted upon is a good working definition of freedom, as in freedom from bondage.

    And being subject to the devil, even “angels to the devil” on in bondage to sin or to another hardly implies a deprivation of free will, but rather a deprivation of freedom, and thus agency (which is essentially freedom with accountability).

    There is no scripture that properly describes being deprived of one’s free will, but rather the ability to exercise it effectively. There are an arbitrary number of ways the latter can be traced to the atonement. In a general sense, everything God does is part of the atonement. We might well say that it is his work and his glory to bring to pass the at-one-ment, or reconciliation of God and man.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 13, 2007 @ 12:10 pm

  18. (I’m at a hotel in SF, so I can make a few comments)

    Geoff (#12), I was talking about in-toto. Whether limiting available robust choices entails a loss in degree of LFW is an interesting question that has been debated. My point though was simply that (a) we can imagine a situation in which my will and its implementation isn’t open and (b) a case in which my will is under someone else’s control.

    I recognize that some interpretations of LFW tie freedom, consciousness and so forth and make them ontologically fundamental. However this need not be the case (as for LFW proponents who see it emerging out of the brain). In this case one can (and many philosophers have) conceive of a mad scientist that controls the brain such that LFW doesn’t emerge.

    Your point about “opin[ing] . . . that consciousness entails LFW and that a person cannot have one without the other” is a good one to bring up. I just can’t accept that in the least. But you’re right I’m not following terms of your premises. Merely pointing out a way to read the scriptures that makes sense of all this.

    Comment by clark — July 13, 2007 @ 9:41 pm

  19. To add, I should note that I agree that the agency interpretation makes more sense. I just don’t think that those who buy into the actual atonement enabling free will are off their rockers.

    Comment by clark — July 13, 2007 @ 9:42 pm

  20. Mark: I’m stumped by the distinction between lacking free will and not being able to exercise free will. If you mean that we can always decide something (we can will) but we cannot carry out (say due to some physical impediment) then I can see the distinction. However, if what you mean is that we can will but our will is deprived of the ability to act, then I would say that we don’t have a power to will at all. I’m unclear what it is that you are saying. If the former, then it is completely in accord with what Geoff is saying. If the latter, I think it is logically incoherent. I’m not asserting one way or the other, I’m just asking for clarification.

    Comment by Blake — July 14, 2007 @ 10:23 am

  21. Blake,

    I mean the former. I don’t think our will per se can be deprived of the power to act, only impeded by external impediments.

    I would say that such impediments restrict our freedom and reduce the scope of our agency without placing any constraint on the will.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 14, 2007 @ 1:42 pm

  22. Our moral freedom, like other mental powers, is strengthened by exercise. The practice of yielding to impulse results in enfeebling self-control. The faculty of inhibiting pressing desires, of concentrating attention on more remote goods, of reinforcing the higher but less urgent motives, undergoes a kind of atrophy by disuse.

    Comment by Micky — August 11, 2007 @ 8:29 am

  23. Geoff,

    Your distinction between free will and freedom from bondage is an excellent one. When the Protestant Reformers talked about free will and “the bondage of the will,” they did not have the determinism/libertarianism debate in mind. Rather, their interest was in the effects of original sin. Augustine, for example, held that fallen human beings were free to do anything they pleased except the good. For these people, it was non posse non peccare— not possible not to sin. Augustine held that the atonement restores human freedom and frees it from bondage to Satan, such that it now becomes possible for the redeemed person not to sin– posse non peccare. The Reformers– Calvinists and Arminians alike– adopted Augustine’s model. This Protestant contrast between bondage of the will and freedom is reflected in the early LDS scriptures, as illustrated by Mark D. in # 17. Moses 6:54 even explicitly teaches the doctrine of original sin, to which it takes the classical Arminian approach of saying that original sin has been removed by Christ’s atonement. Bottom line: many of the early LDS references to agency and bondage are designed to resolve the historic Protestant debate over original sin, not the modern debate between determinists and libertarians.

    With respect to whether agency (before the Fall) was created or inherent, the LDS scriptures are not entirely consistent. This is because in the early scriptures the pre-existence of souls is unknown, whereas in the later scriptures spirits are said to have existed eternally. Thus does the record of Enoch in D&C 101 speak of agency as a created feature of the person (see the passages linked in post # 3), a doctrine that would be alien to the later Book of Abraham (where the spirits have existed for all eternity and are already inherently “good” and “intelligent” as a result of their uncreated nature).



    Comment by Christopher — May 11, 2009 @ 2:35 am

  24. Thanks for stopping by Christopher. I’m glad you appreciate the distinction I have made in this post.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 11, 2009 @ 3:14 pm