Free Will & Determinism


Hello friends! I’ve recently been researching on the topic of free will, reading different articles and watching different videos and debates etc. I did read the Catholic Answers article on free will and the different philosophical implications of determinism and free will. The problem I have is that the more I research the more confused I am on this topic. The CA article I read was helpful but also quite confusing in terms of conclusions. But I feel that as I research I move closer to the “soft determinist” view and I was wondering if this view is compatible with Catholic teaching. Thanks in advanced!


What is soft-determinism?


Soft determinism is also called compatibalism. And it is the belief that we live in a deterministic world, and we are affected by deterministic forces, and yet we have a free will that allows us to act. Basically it’s the position that determinism doesn’t undercut free will.

And I think that’s the default Catholic position. But I could be wrong.


I do not believe the Church takes a stance on if the world, excluding our free will and any possible direct intervention by God, eg miracles) is deterministic or not.


We’re included in “the world”. In the jargon.


Thank you! I somehow felt that the soft determinist (or compatibalist) view was the Catholic position (and also Thomas Aquinas in his writings shows that he’s a soft determinist) although I asked this question because it isn’t well stated in Catholic Answers or the Catechism, I’m glad someone agrees with me!


Soft determinism miiiight work. But it better be real soft, like a German Shepherd puppy. Surely we have free will, but things can still influence us. A random misfiring of a neuron, our appetite, natural events, etc.
Our faith necessarily depends on free will. Without free will, there is no choice to follow God, and we fall into the predestination camp. So for our faith to stand well, and not devolve into Calvinist nontruths, the doctrine must be that we have free will.
So there’s the dogma answer.
The philosophical one is only a bit more involved. What is the proper view of the world? Going back to our faith, materialism is a nonstarter. It isn’t just matter, but more accurately, the world is properly viewed as being made up of what matters. It is a forum for action and values, not just a landscape of predetermined events.
I’m not explaining this as well as I could, so I think that’s sufficient. A couple more things. 1) If you’re ever talking to someone in person about this, try taking the determinist side, as an experiment. In this experiment, tell the other person they have no freedom to do anything because they’re basically just a robot. Everything has been decided for them. They don’t love their spouse of their friends, because they didn’t actually chose them, they just sorta happened. Now watch as the other person looks insulted. Surely it’s common belief that we have free will, and we all believe it innately, even if someone like a Sam Harris tries to reason their way out of it. 2) The excellently funny Michael Knowles had joked before, “If you’re ever in an argument with someone, and they say free will doesn’t exist, it isn’t a thing, just start punching them in the face. When they resist, and respond, ‘Why are you punching me?’, you should respond, ‘I’m not. I don’t have free will, this was just going to happen. I’m not even sorry about it, because there’s nothing to be sorry about, because this wasn’t my choice.’” :joy:


How would the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics fit in the picture of a deterministic world?


I don’t mean to sound antagonistic; how would it not? Some physicists have posited that it is possible to know the exact outcome of every single physical interaction, quantum or classical. We simply don’t have enough information at hand to make a prediction.
But perhaps you can explain your thoughts. Why would it not fit into a deterministic worldview? For the record, I’m not a determinist, but this sounds interesting


So most philosophers I’ve read on the subject mostly agree that “the world” (which is philosopher speak for everything, all of it) is deterministic. The slogan is “The current state of affairs at time T can be described by the state of affairs at time T-1 plus the application of physical laws” So if a ball rolling down the hill is at T, T-1 is someone pushing that ball.

I have read a few papers where the crux of the argument is that quantum mechanics throws wrenches into things - that it demonstrates that at some fundamental level, the world is actually indeterministic - all chaos and such.

I don’t know any research that actively follows that threat - as StephenBales said, I think we admit that if we had all the facts at hand in some state of affairs, we could apply a deterministic model to “the world”. It’s just such that we cannot ever know all the facts (for instance, the uncertainty principle)

It’s my understanding that if the world was indeterminism, free will would likewise be impossible.

Most seem to be compatibilists, which is soft-determinism. The world has certain properties and how it works can be modeled in a relatively predictable way. But, our own will is more than just brain chemistry and reaction to stimuli. So even though we sail through a world of deterministic forces, we can break that chain with our will, at least with regard to ourselves.


If everyone on Earth willingly obeyed God, then there would be peace on Earth with Justice.

We have the freedom to disobey God’s commandments, and the evidence of evil is there for us to see.

In the end, we will all have to stand before God, and God’s will be done.


Free will ? ha ha -
You need to pray the Our Father prayer more -
" Thy will be done "

Jesus even said that before being arrested in the garden.
" NOT my will - but THINE will be done "


The only answer I’ve found is that they have to work at the same time. From beginning to end, the universe is determined. God is sovereign.


You choose your actions and are thus responsible for them. But they were also predetermined.

So it’s another dualism. It’s like asking “which rail does the train run on? the left or right?”

It’s “both”, best I can tell…

If you find a better answer, lemme know. I’ve been looking for decades. :wink:


I think you can find both free will and determinism in Scripture. The way God’s sovereignty is described at times certainly sounds deterministic (e.g. Eph. 1:11, Pro. 16:9), but we can’t escape the fact that free will exists, either referenced explicitly (e.g. Sirach 15:14), through example (e.g. Ex. 8:32), by nature of being made in God’s image, or the simple fact that much of the New Testament makes no sense without free will.

So I think a “soft determinism” or compatibalism certainly fits within a Catholic framework. At the very least, I’m pretty sure Catholicism doesn’t embrace Hyper Calvinism or Open Theism, which is basically the result of throwing one’s self entirely behind determinism or free will respectively.


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