How Free is Our Free Will?

Posted: 12 February 2012

What are we to make of ‘free will’ in our lives, the ability to choose our own direction? The classic Catholic response is that human beings are created free because without freedom they could not choose to love God or love others. I was recently talking to a friend who was questioning how real this freedom was. Her point was that while we may say that we have free will, at the end of the day the choice is to love God or go to hell. For example if you ask a child whether they would rather eat chocolate or get stung by a bee, then they would obviously choose the least painful option but can we even call that a choice? I have certainly thought that same thing at times in my own life, but if I am honest they were always times when I did not feel that life was treating me so well and I began to resent ‘having’ to do the right thing lest I break a commandment.

We can fairly easily fall into the trap of being a bit tough on God though and legalistic on the concept of freedom. It is an unfair comparison to think that we either love God or go to hell, and I do not believe it is completely true. Those who are in hell are those who have fundamentally rejected truth, beauty and goodness in their lives. Edith Stein, a Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism and was later killed by the Nazis, is quoted as saying, “all who seek truth seek God whether this is clear to them or not”. Inversely she is saying that all who reject truth reject God whether this is clear to them or not. To complain that we are ‘forced’ to choose the right path is akin to complaining that we are ‘forced’ to avoid drinking poison because if we do we will die. And in that sense it is true, we are not completely free as human persons. If I walk out in front of a moving train, I will die. If I pull off my fingernails with a pair of clippers, it will hurt (a lot). Our freedom is certainly limited but to go down the path merely thinking ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ will only lead to complete frustration and eventual insanity. Read the rest of this entry »