How Free is Free Will?

11:53:00 AMJosh Merlo

One of the hallmarks of a personalist view of man is the characterization of him as “radically free”. Flowing forth from man’s inner centre of subjectivity is the capacity to choose in an autonomous manner - that is, undetermined by external force or internal compulsion. He is one of the few beings - and the only embodied being - that can claim such a capacity.


Stepph I.jpgC.A. Campbell famously assigns this libertarian sense of free will to man. Though not a personalist himself, Campbell’s conception of freedom is present in the personalist school of thought. Indeed, it is often this trait (man’s free will) that is celebrated by the personalists. However, does the important place of freedom in man’s being man shield libertarian free will from limits? While it seems odd to think of something completely undetermined as having limits, it is a fair question. How far does “radical freedom” go? It can easily be said that the personalists’ idea of freedom far surpasses the scholastic idea of freedom, at least in the sense of what man is truly free to do. Going beyond the medievals, though: what, if anything, can constrain man - or any other autonomous being, for that matter - if he is truly free in the libertarian sense?


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Perhaps before delving into the preceding question, it would be good to contrast libertarian free will with determinism and compatibilism. For determinism, man is determined, and, as a result of such, is not free. For compatibilism, man is determined, but, despite such, is free. For libertarian free will, man in ultimately undetermined, and, as a result of such, is free. This final view is what is meant by the “radical freedom” spoken of by personalists, existentialists, and Kantians alike. To continue this present investigation, the qualities of a libertarian free will be analyzed. Kant speaks of freedom as “ ... that property [the will] by which it can be effective independent of foreign causes determining it …” (1) Freedom is autonomy, the “being effective independent of foreign causes”. In other words, to be free is to be ultimately responsible for whatever actions are carried out, and so to be the ultimate agent that carries out those actions.


Campbell would agree that freedom entails ultimate agency. Furthermore, he adds that freedom regards contingent things - it cannot be necessary. As he argues in his well-known essay, “ … our praise and blame … are really retrospective, being directed not to the agent qua performing this act, but to the agent qua performing those past acts which have built up his present character, and in respect to which we presume that he could have acted otherwise, that there really were open possibilities before him.” (2) Following the recognizing of these qualities, a first “limit” upon free will becomes obvious. Namely, a free being must be the sole author of his actions, actions that could have been done otherwise. However, this analytic concept is far from revelatory. To conclude that a free being acting freely must do so in a manner that makes the actions free is not remarkable; it is, in fact, tautological.


Jon Sullivan I.jpgWhat else, then, can be posited as a possible limit to freedom while respecting its libertarian nature? What of laws of logic, mathematics, and the like? For instance, can God make a round square or a boulder so large that He cannot lift it? If not, is not God’s freedom limited? After all, when creating rocks, God cannot make ones that He cannot lift; in a sense, this makes His creating rocks a certain way necessary. There is no possibility of making rocks other than they are, in respect to God’s being able to move them. In the same sense, man is not free to walk through walls or fly. When presented with a wall, there is only an option to not walk through it; there is no possibility of this being otherwise. For man, Kant easily resolves this difficulty - as all of our non-moral choices are made heteronomously, that is, in the world of natural necessity, it is unsurprising that we are subject to necessity. For God, the problem is resolved through a proper understanding of His omnipotence. For all of the actions God can do, He is free. However, there are some actions He cannot do; if God cannot do something, He cannot do it freely. This being said, as the action is impossible, God’s freedom is unaffected. God’s relation to ideal forms and laws, then, concerns His omnipotence, not His freedom, and so is beyond what this particular piece aims at investigating.


There are many other possible limits to freedom; the scope of this particular examination of such is limited. This being said, a basic pattern might be observed from the few so-called “limits” already proposed: they are either analytic (known through an understanding of what freedom is, and so already included in the concept of freedom) or not related to freedom per se. From this, it might be concluded (very tentatively, considering the above-mentioned scope), that freedom is self-limited. This is to say that the only limits to freedom in a libertarian sense are the limits of definition.
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  1. Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, 63.
  2. C.A. Campbell, “Has the Self ‘Free Will”, 3.
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