I wanted to take some time to share my thoughts on free will. Drilling it down to the simple ability to make choices is far too simplistic and does not do the topic justice. The main idea I wanted to flesh out was this: how is our free will different from animals? They, at times, appear to demonstrate the ability to make choices, but, at the same time, those choices seem empty, unimportant. I wanted to look deeper into our own free will, and how it is something altogether different. I also wanted to tie it to the metaphysical as well.
The first question I asked myself was this, “is there a difference between the ability to make decisions and free will?” It seems like a silly question, but are they truly different ideas? Is choosing between chocolate ice cream and vanilla ice cream demonstrating the same free will as choosing between doing nothing while someone drowns or deciding to risk your own life to save that person? These two decisions seem so drastically far apart in comparison. This was the starting point of my thought process, and after a fair amount of thought, I came up with this distinction:
Free will is the ability to act outside of one’s own natural or instinctive behaviors for reasons that transcend their own earthly well-being.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. Let me elaborate. Choosing between those ice cream flavors does not demonstrate free will. The decision to consume food has already been made, this ice cream decision is simply details. A better example of free will, is the decision to eat or not. Our bodies require food and, naturally, it is in our best interest to meet that requirement. If we take fasting as an example (to tie in the metaphysical side of things), we can see that the individual rejects the natural instinct to consume food for spiritual reasons. From a purely naturalistic approach, this decision makes no sense. Why would you not consume food that is available? Take a look at dogs; they will never miss that opportunity when it arises. I think this is a good first step in separating out true free will.
Let’s look at another, more intense example. Risking one’s own life to save another. I would argue that, in some instances, this is a natural behavior in situations where a parent is being protective of their child. This is demonstrated in nature, not just in humans. Risking your own well-being to save someone you do not know does not make sense naturally. So why do it? Foregoing your own safety to help another for unselfish reasons is an excellent example of true free will. In fact, there is a verse regarding this:
“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13 NLT.
One of the truest examples of free will is done out of love. I think love plays a huge role in all of this discussion. Can animals truly love? Animals may show affection towards their owners, but this likely a natural response. You give them food, they like that. And yes, there are instances where an animal may be willing to fight to the death to protect its owner, but I think ultimately this again boils down to a natural instinct to protect what is theirs. I know that seems like a negative way to look at things, but it’s worth mentioning.
Bringing in the more spiritual side of things now. One of the primary arguments as to why we were created was so that God could have something that truly loved Him, not just a naturalistic programming to behave in such a way. That is why we were granted free will. But, in order to demonstrate true free will and our love for God, we must forego our earthly/naturalistic desires. Perhaps that is why the tree was originally placed in the garden. Man had to fight every natural urge to stop from eating, but yet was unable to do so. Man is not perfect, God knows this, but every time we are able to overcome our natural desires, our love is made known. Without God, this demonstration of love is wasted. Love can only truly be shown when we are willing to sacrifice our own natural, selfish desires; this cannot be achieved without free will. I think this thought process brings more relevance to God’s two greatest commandments with regard to free will:
“37 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Matthew 22:37-38 NLT
I had not intended to tie free will to love when I set out writing this, but when something hits you, you go with it. It’s important to keep your mind open to what the Holy Spirit has to say. A huge part of the Christian faith is that God asks us to reject our earthly desires in exchange for a greater gift outside of this world. I know this creates a rather large lack of appeal to those outside of the Christian faith, and that is truly understandable, but perhaps putting some reasoning with it can open oneself up spiritually. If one truly wishes to grow closer to God and find true, lasting happiness, it is required that you reject your own selfish desires to demonstrate love to God as well as to the other sharing this world with you. This is only made possible through free will. God’s love can be shared through your own love of others.
These are my initial thoughts on free will, I’d like to welcome others’ thoughts as well.