Man is the intersection of two worlds….In him there takes place the conflict between spirit and nature, freedom and necessity, independence and dependence. ~Nikolai Berdyaev
Everyone involved in understanding the human person wrestles with Berdyaev’s two worlds: freedom and necessity. What are these two worlds? What is their relationship to each other? What impact does this have on everyday life? And, the answers to these questions go in many, often contradictory, directions.
Like most debates, this one tends to focus on the areas of disagreement. That, of course, is the heart of the argument. So, it’s not surprising that the disagreements get most of the attention. But, we lose something when we only focus on disagreement. At the very least, we lose the opportunity to appreciate what really is (and isn’t) at stake in the discussion. If we’re going to approach the free will debate with clarity and charity, this can’t be our starting point.
So, instead of highlighting that which divides, I’d like to focus on 5 areas of general consensus in the debate. Before I start, though, it’s important to realize that I’m talking about the free will debate as it currently stands among evangelical Christians. So, these won’t necessarily be areas of consensus for philosophers, scientists, and theologians coming from other perspectives. But, among evangelicals Christians, these are 5 areas on which both libertarians and compatibilists agree.
1. Human persons have free will. Everyone agrees that human persons do in fact have free will. We must affirm this at the beginning of the discussion. I often hear people assert that some group denies the reality of free will. No, they don’t. Even if you think you have reasons for questioning the adequacy of their overall view, you shouldn’t incorrectly suggest that they deny the reality of free will. Among Christian theologians, there are few (if any) hard determinists. So, let’s stop pretending that there are.
2. Human persons are morally responsible beings. Since I included moral responsibility in my definition of free will, this area of agreement is technically a part of the first one. But, it’s so important that I thought it worth mentioning separately. Many of the arguments in the debate center on accusing some other perspective of denying or undermining moral responsibility. And, of course, it is possible that they actually are undermining this key principle. But, let’s begin the discussion by recognizing that they do not think they have done so and have no intention of doing so. All of those involved explicitly affirm the responsibility of human persons for their actions and decisions. Let’s start there.
3. Not all human actions and decisions are meaningfully free. Everyone agrees that not all of our actions/decisions are meaningfully free. Instinctive actions over which I usually have little or no control (e.g. breathing) do not qualify as “free” actions in the sense that most intend. Nor would actions that result from external coercion and/or manipulation. No one is talking about these kinds of actions, though they come into play as thinkers have to determine how to distinguish between free and non-free actions.
4. Free will is compatible with divine sovereignty. Again, everyone agrees that God is sovereign and that this is fully compatible with affirming that humans have free will. This one gets abused often enough that I need to say it again. Both sides affirm that God is sovereign (yes, including Arminians), both sides affirm that humans have free will (yes, including Calvinists), and both affirm that these two assertions are compatible with one another (even if they struggle to explain how).
5. Free will is importantly related to antecedent conditions. As I explained in yesterday’s post, determinism is best understood as the view that any event necessarily results from antecedent conditions plus the laws of nature. Because antecedent conditions are associated with determinism like this, many conclude that libertarian views have no room for antecedent conditions. That is not the case. Every major view of free will recognizes the importance of antecedent conditions for understanding free will. They differ significantly in the role that they ascribe to antecedent conditions, but no one simply ignores them. So, it’s just not true that libertarians see decisions as being made in a “vacuum,” isolated from things like character and environment. Everyone agrees that such factors influence free will in important ways.
As you can see, evangelicals involved in the free will debate actually agree on a broad range of issues. Most importantly they agree that human persons are meaningfully free and morally responsible, and that this is fully compatible with a strong affirmation of divine sovereignty. For everyone, these provide the framework within which they struggle toward a more detailed understanding of human volitionality.
Unfortunately, the agreements often get buried under the disagreements. And, we lose sight of how much we share in common. We’re not strangers from different countries waging war over disputed territory, but close neighbors linked by a long history of shared assumptions, disagreeing about what’s best for the neighborhood.
This is the second in our series on approaching the free will debate with clarity and charity.