Objection to Free Will: We Always Do What Seems Best At the Time

Kreeft and Tacelli implicitly define free will as the capacity of the intellect to make decisions in a way that is not entirely determined by material factors such as genetics and environment. Is this a good definition of free will?

It appears to me the following argument can be made that we do not have free will, that our decisions are entirely determined in a material way: We always choose the option that seems best at the time. Even when we sin, we sin because at the time it appears to us as a good action and the best course of action at the time. Never have I done anything thinking it was less than the best response at the time. We necessarily choose the option that seems best at the time from that same instinct that drives us to procreate, an instinct for preservation of the species. I posit that we are not capable of acting without first determining that act to be the best response (to the subconscious or conscious question ‘What is my goal and how do I obtain it?’), unless we are acting under mental disorders causing irrationality (insanity), which is clearly understood to be unhealthy, a lack of proper function. Therefore, it is an illusion to say that we freely choose between various options, because we must obey an instinct which impulses us to choose that option which we think is best.

You may say that free will consists in the determining process, that it is up to us to pick A, B, C, or D, that no third party is forcing us to scratch out A B and D and choose C. This is changing the definition of free will – the question is not whether we are free of an external source pressuring our decision, but whether our will is controlled by material forces that dictate its final decision. The only remaining question, then, is whether the process whereby we eliminate A, B, and D in favor of C is mechanically determined. If it is not, then free will is correct. It seems to me that we cannot be sure which answer to this question is correct, but that there is a compelling case that it is entirely determined materially: Our intellect is determined from genetics (our parents’ shaping our body) and our environment (how and what we have learned). Our thought process is then a consequence of instinct, social conditioning, genetics and biological processes.

What are your thoughts? Do you see a problem with this objection to free will? How do you conclude that free will exists, given our inability to act other than how we think is best?

I intend to read the OCE’s entry on free will, hoping it will address this objection.

I envy you. (Not in the sinful sense :slight_smile: )

I frequently make decisions that I know are unwise or wasteful (usually of time), or just wrong.

Shall I have that second doughnut?
Shall I watch another hour of (inoffensive, but not EWTN) TV?
Shall I post to CAF when I should still be working? (argh, now that I’ve looked that question in the face, I’ll have to work late!)

If you never do things like that, well, it must be awesome to be you. :slight_smile:

Nonetheless, irrational is not the same as insane. I have no reason to think that I am insane, since despite taking 15 minutes out of my workday to post, I am employed full-time, and am self-supporting, and there haven’t been any doughnut interventions by my friends.

In addition, I think the fact that twins raised together often turn out quite different from each other indicates that determination of behavior is not entirely material.

Finally, from experience, it doesn’t feel like my decisions are pre-determined.


I think of free will as a part of what God created for us when he first made us. He did not create little fearful beings that were imprinted with blind obedience. He is not a parent who solely expects perfect god-like behavior. He is a parent and creator who created a human mind to discern the way for ourselves.

In other words, he is a parent like my Mom who gave us chore schedules for dinner night, dishes, yardwork, etc., but doesn’t tell us every step of how to do those chores. One of my brothers used to make a yummy tamale pie on his dinner night and then another brother used to serve the easy meal of cottage cheese and peaches. Over time we encouraged brother no.1 and complained about brother no. 2. My mother praised both brothers, and brother no. 2 continued cottage cheese but added pears and potato chips to diversify. If anyone did not do their chores, there were consequences.

Both brothers grew up to be good cooks.

Excuse the parable but this is how I understand free will. We all have our rules (chores) God’s laws, and we all have our free will to follow them or not. And there are consequences. Hopefully, our brothers and sisters help us avoid the bad consequences so we don’t get the bad consequences when we die.

If the will is not free, then what is choosing between the options, regardless what goods each option offers us? And what changes, if at one point in life we would choose option A, while later we decide it better to choose B or C or D?

It appears you’re missing my point: In all of those examples, you made the decision that seemed best-suited to meeting your immediate goal. For example, your goal in the second doughnut may have been to pleasure your tastebuds; for television, seeking entertainment; for posting, self-expression. My point is that you have in mind, consciously or not, an immediate goal, and you necessarily pick whatever seems best to your immediate goal. I am not positing that we always act in accordance with our end (our ultimate good, heaven), to which idea you appear to be responding.

I know of no such cases. Nevertheless, one can easily conceive of subtle differences of experience, influences that combine in the psyche to result in different desires. Even having a twin can be such a factor to drive differentiation.

It sounds like you are agreeing that you act in accordance with “the capacity of the intellect to make decisions in a way that is not entirely determined by material factors such as genetics and environment.”

We think about the choices and we choose.

Material factors would include being given a stupefacient drug, under the influence of which you could do things you normally do not. Genetics, I suppose might include a tendency towards a serious psychotic disorder, in that you could harm someone when in a delusional state. The environment can be very stressful and people can break down. In these sorts of instances it is difficult to form intent, the person’s free will is incapacitated to some degree.

I’m not sure what you mean.
“How do you conclude that free will exists, given our inability to act other than how we think is best?”
Our acting the way we do, the way we think best, is the expression of free will.

Well, all that does is move the issue back a level. How do I choose the goal that will determine what I do? Sometimes I have the second doughnut and sometimes I don’t. Believe me when I tell you I don’t decide against the second doughnut because I wouldn’t enjoy it. :smiley:

It sounds like what you are doing is saying that one picks a goal that is met by whatever one does, and then deciding that goal has determined one’s action. Well, of course it has! But there are lots of possible goals. My free will is what I use to choose between them. Sometimes (hopefully pretty often), the goal I choose is not the strongest impulse I am feeling, but the one that my reason and will choose–hence sometimes I don’t eat the doughnut.

It seems that you are saying that you can tell what goal one (possibly unconsciously) meets by seeing what one does, and that what one does is determined by what goal one wants to meet. It seems a bit circular, and all it actually says is that we have some purpose to our actions. That certainly doesn’t contradict the notion of free will.

You’d really have to come up with some way of showing that the goal I choose to meet is determined materialistically, which would be awfully difficult. Why do I choose different primary goals in the same situation:

*]please my taste buds
*]get rid of the last doughnut not to waste food
*]save money
*]make sure I keep fitting into my clothes
*]avoid carb overdose and the spike and drop in energy that results

There’s five goals (and I could probably come up with more) and only two choices!

Until you can show an argument that explains how I decide which is my immediate goal, you aren’t talking about free will at all. All you said about it was:

All that is, is a statement of the materialistic position. It’s not an argument in its favor. Basically, you are saying you think the case for it is compelling. You haven’t presented any of that compelling case. You are saying, “I think it is true because it looks true to me.” Well, I can come back with, “I think it is not true because it doesn’t look true to me.” There’s not a whole lot of benefit in that conversation for either of us. :slight_smile:

What I am saying is from experience, I know that sometimes I choose what I think is for the best, and sometimes I don’t. To borrow an idea from C. S. Lewis, my best knowledge of how people work is by looking at how the person I’m inside works–me. And that’s how I work.

In general, I think it is the position that is contrary to experience that has the burden of proof. I feel like I am making choices at least partly from my will. I do not feel like a (highly sophisticated) robot. Sometimes our thoughts about ourselves aren’t correct, but the idea that says, “you think you are doing this, but actually you are doing that,” is the one which has to prove its point.

Of course all those material things influence behavior. That’s not at all the same as saying that they make behavior deterministic.

Frankly I think that determinism would be one of the hardest things to prove, even if it were true (which I obviously don’t think it is). Even if 9 out of 10, or 99 out of 100, decisions were made deterministically, that wouldn’t say anything about the existence of free will. Free will is what makes that one choice that is different. And as long as it makes one choice, it exists.*


  • this leaves aside the people who think that any choice that isn’t made in response to strict materialistic factors is random. This position is, as far as I can tell, completely impossible to prove ever, and therefore not really worthwhile discussing since you can’t go anywhere with it.

It seems to me you are talking more about decision making based on, (whatever) then the traditional views on free-will. If a decision has to be made, then what does one look to, to make it? Surly it is what is believed is true, or in many cases, tried and true. But in the reality of that who knows what is good for the decision maker? And therein lies the reason for the decision made. Take the prime example usually used in these discussions of free will. Adam and Eve trusted what when they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? They trusted that their own judgement was good for them. And didn’t trust that God’s Judgement expressed by His Commandment was good for them, which is what the serpent eroded when he saw that Eve didn’t really know what the Lord God said.

Jesus the Beloved Son of God trusted the Father’s Will, or Judgement, was what was good for Him. Bottom line, do you trust your own judgement of what is good for you, or do you trust some one else’s judgement of what is good for you, or do you trust God’s Judgement of what is good for you? In the end you will act on the judgement you trust no matter the information that is available to make a decision with.

The will is choosing. If you think a will that is not free ceases to be a will: The slave does not cease to work simply because he is enslaved while he works. In other words, a will that is not free does not cease to be a will. (It simply ceases to be a free will.) It simply has its decision made in such a way that is predictable if all the factors that went into its consideration are known.

The criteria by which one makes decisions changes, i.e. one’s “knowledge base”. To put it by way of analogy: If I’m at the beginning of a journey and want to travel from point A to B – say I’m at the top of a hill seeking to go to the other side of a valley, like in Lord of the Rings – I survey the landscape and determine the best path. If there’s then a storm and an avalanche blocks up one part of the landscape – or, if snow melts and one path becomes much nicer – then I would look at the same landscape and make a different decision.

It should be noted that neither of these questions you’ve asked relate to proving my OP hypothesis true or false. They are only clarification questions towards understanding what is being proposed. The question, again, is whether the decision depends entirely upon material factors such as genetics + experience, or whether there is a spiritual element to it. I wonder if it’s a matter of faith, rather than of reason.

Man pursues the good in order to maximize his happiness-that’s as right and natural as water running downhill. But he doesn’t necessarily know what’s truly good for him-and he may well be willing to compromise or ignore the truth-what’s actually right-if it may further his ambitions by doing so. And an aspect of man’s spirituality is that he’s a moral being-and so, as you mentioned, he must justify his actions before he does them. But I’d submit that if free will is a false notion then man cannot be a moral being; he’d be incapable of moral responsibility; the concept of an objective morality, right and wrong, would be totality meaningless, his actions completely determined and therefore no culpability/accountability.

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