General Information

Determinism is the theory that all human action is caused entirely by preceding events, and not by the exercise of the Will. In philosophy, the theory is based on the metaphysical principle that an uncaused event is impossible. The success of scientists in discovering causes of certain behavior and in some cases effecting its control tends to support this principle.

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Disagreement exists about the proper formulation of determinism - a central issue in philosophy that never ceases to be controversial. Physical determinism, which has its origin in the Atomism of Democritus and Lucretius, is the theory that human interaction can be reduced to relationships between biological, chemical, or physical entities; this formulation is fundamental to modern Sociobiology and neuropsychology. The historical determinism of Karl Marx, on the other hand, is transpersonal and primarily economic. In contrast to these two formulations, psychological determinism - the philosophical basis of psychoanalysis - is the theory that the purposes, needs, and desires of individuals are central to an explanation of human behavior. The recent behavioral determinism of B F Skinner is a modification of this view, in that Skinner reduces all internal psychological states to publicly observable behavior. His stimulus - response account also uses modern statistical and probabilistic analyses of causation.

Jean Paul Sartre and other contemporary philosophers have argued that determinism is controverted by introspection, which reveals actions to be the result of our own choices and not necessitated by previous events or external factors. Determinists respond that such experiences of freedom are illusions and that introspection is an unreliable and unscientific method for understanding human behavior.

This view has been modified within the scientific community, however, with the enunciation of the Uncertainty Principle by the physicist Werner Heisenberg. Ramifications of his work in quantum mechanics led Heisenberg to assert that the scientist, as much a participant as an observer, interferes with the neutrality and very nature of the object in question. His work also questions whether it is possible to determine an objective framework through which one can distinguish cause from effect, and whether one can know an objective effect if one is always a part of its cause.

Determinism is sometimes confused with Predestination and Fatalism, but as such it asserts neither that human affairs have been prearranged by a being outside the causal order nor that a person has an unavoidable fate.

Jesse G Kalin

B Berofsky, Determinism (1971), and Freedom from Necessity (1988); G Dworkin, Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility (1970); R L Franklin, Freewill and Determinism: A Study of Rival Conceptions of Man (1968); W Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (1962); S Hook, ed., Determinism and Freedom (1969); J R Lucas, Freedom of the Will (1970); A I Melden, Free Action (1961); J Monod, Chance and Necessity (1972); B F Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971); E Squires, The Mystery of the Quantum World (1986); G H Von Wright, Causality and Determinism (1974).

Will (philosophy) (Free Will)

General Information

In philosophical discussion, will is usually paired with reason as one of two complementary activities of the mind. The will is considered the faculty of choice and decision, whereas the reason is that of deliberation and argument. Thus a rational act would be an exercise of the will performed after due deliberation.

The will has figured prominently in the thought of many philosophers, among them the 19th century thinkers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Historically, debate has centered on the issue of the will's freedom, a question of prime importance for the analysis of human action and moral responsibility.

Philosophers have often thought that persons are responsible only for those actions that they have the option either to do or not to do or to will or not to will. If all acts, including acts of will, are predetermined, then this option does not appear to exist.

In the philosophy of mind, the question is whether reasons in the mind are identical with or reducible to events in the brain and, if so, whether physical events determine choices, decisions, and acts. A wide variety of answers has been proposed, including ones derived from Freudian psychoanalysis and the various forms of behaviorism. Some philosophers in the analytic tradition have argued that Determinism is a matter of causes and decisions a matter of reasons and that the two are mutually exclusive. The issue remains controversial.

G S Davis

D M Armstrong, A Materialist Theory of the Mind (1968); W K Frankena, Ethics (1973); A Kenny, Action, Emotion, and Will (1963); K Lehrer, ed., Freedom and Determinism (1976); G Ryle, The Concept of Mind (1949); R Taylor, Action and Purpose (1966).

Brief Definitions

General Information

The view that every event has a cause and that everything in the universe is absolutely dependent on and governed by causal laws. Since determinists believe that all events, including human actions, are predetermined, determinism is typically thought to be incompatible with free will.
The belief that "what will be will be," since all past, present, and future events have already been predetermined by God or another all-powerful force. In religion, this view may be called predestination; it holds that whether our souls go to Heaven or Hell is determined before we are born and is independent of our good deeds.
free will
The theory that human beings have freedom of choice or self-determination; that is, that given a situation, a person could have done other than what he did. Philosophers have argued that free will is incompatible with determinism. See also indeterminism.
The view that there are events that do not have any cause; many proponents of free will believe that acts of choice are capable of not being determined by any physiological or psychological cause.

Freedom, Free Will, and Determinism

Advanced Information

There are three basic positions concerning man's choices: determinism, indeterminism, and self determinism. Determinism is the belief that all of man's actions are the result of antecedent factors or causes. Naturalistic determinists, such as Thomas Hobbes and B F Skinner, argue that man's behavior can be fully explained in terms of natural causes. Theistic determinists, such as Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards, trace man's actions back to God's controlling hand. The opposite position to determinism is indeterminism. On this view there are no causes for man's actions, antecedent or otherwise. The final position is self determinism, or free will. This is the belief that man determines his own behavior freely, and that no causal antecedents can sufficiently account for his actions.


The belief that man's actions are the result of antecedent causes has been formulated naturalistically and theistically. The naturalistic view sees human beings as part of the machinery of the universe. In such a world every event is caused by preceding events, which in turn were caused by still earlier events, ad infinitum. Since man is part of this causal chain, his actions are also determined by antecedent causes. Some of these causes are the environment and man's genetic make - up. These are so determinative of what man does that no one could rightly say that a given human action could have been performed otherwise than it in fact was performed. Thus, according to determinism, Bob's sitting on the brown chair rather than the blue sofa is not a free choice but is fully determined by previous factors.

A contemporary example of naturalistic determinism is B F Skinner, the author of Beyond Freedom and Dignity and About Behaviorism. Skinner believes that all human behavior is completely controlled by genetic and environmental factors. These factors do not rule out the fact that human beings make choices; however, they do rule out the possibility that human choices are free. For Skinner, all human choices are determined by antecedent physical causes. Hence, man is viewed as an instrumental cause of his behavior. He is like a knife in the hands of a butcher or a hammer in the grip of a carpenter; he does not originate action but is the instrument through which some other agent performs the action.

A philosophical argument often given for determinism can be stated as follows. All human behavior is either completely uncaused, selfcaused, or caused by something external. Now human behavior cannot be uncaused, for nothing can happen without a cause, nothing cannot cause something. Human behavior cannot be self - caused either, for each act would have to exist prior to itself to cause itself, which is impossible. Thus the only alternative is that all human behavior must be completely caused by something external. Naturalistic determinists maintain that such things as heredity and environment are the external causes, whereas theistic determinists believe that God is the external cause of all human behavior.

There are several problems with this argument. First, the argument misinterprets self determinism as teaching that human acts cause themselves. Self determinists, for example, do not believe that the plays in a football game cause themselves. Rather they maintain that the players execute the plays in a football game. Indeed it is the players that choose to play the game. Thus the cause of a football game being played is to be found within the players of the game. Self determinists would not deny that outside factors, such as heredity, environment, or God, had any influence. However, they would maintain that any one of the people involved in the game could have decided not to play if they had chosen to do so.

Second, the argument for determinisim is self defeating. A determinist must contend that both he and the nondeterminist are determined to believe what they believe. Yet the determinist attempts to convince the nondeterminist that determinism is true and thus ought to be believed. However, on the basis of pure determinism "ought" has no meaning. For "ought" means "could have and should have done otherwise." But this is impossible according to determinism. A way around this objection is for the determinist to argue that he was determined to say that one ought to accept his view. However, his opponent can respond by saying that he was determined to accept a contrary view. Thus determinism cannot eliminate an opposing position. This allows the possibility for a free will position.

Third, and finally, if naturalistic determinism were true, it would be self defeating, false, or be no view at all. For in order to determine whether determinism was true there would need to be a rational basis for thought, otherwise no one could know what was true or false. But naturalistic determinists believe that all thought is the product of nonrational causes, such as the environment, thus making all thought nonrational. On this basis no one could ever know if determinism were true or not. And if one argued that determinism was true, then the position would be self defeating, for a truth claim is being made to the effect that no truth claims can be made. Now if determinism is false, then it can be rationally rejected and other positions considered. But if it is neither true or false, then it is no view at all, since no claim to truth is being made. In either case, naturalistic determinism could not reasonably be held to be true.

Another form of determinism is theistic determinism. This is the view that all events, including man's behavior, are caused (determined) by God. One of the more famous advocates of this view was the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. He maintained that the concept of free will or self determinism contradicted the sovereignty of God. If God is truly in control of all things, then no one could act contrary to his will, which is what self determinism must hold. Hence, for God to be sovereign he must cause every event, be it human or otherwise.

Edwards also argued that self determinism is self contradictory. For if man's will were in equilibrium or indifferent to any given event or decision, then his will would never act. Just as a scale cannot tip itself unless an outside force upsets the balance, so man's will could never act unless God moved it. Thus to speak of human acts as self caused would be like speaking of nothing causing something. But since every event must have a cause, self determinism, which denies this, must be self contradictory.

During Edwards's own day some thinkers objected to his view on the grounds that it ran contrary to the biblical evidence which supported human freedom (e.g., Prov. 1:29 - 31; Heb. 11:24 - 26). Edwards responded in his Freedom of the Will that human freedom is not the power to do what one decides but rather what one desires. The cause of man's desires is God, and man always acts in accordance with them. Thus freedom is not uncaused, which is nonsensical, but caused by God.

Like naturalistic determinism, theistic determinism may be objected to on several grounds. First, to view freedom as that which one desires is inadequate. People do not always do what they desire; no one desires to carry out the garbage or clean a dirty oven. Further, people often desire to do what they do not decide to do, such as taking revenge on someone for wronging them.

Second, according to self determinism, Edwards's position evidences a misunderstanding of free will. The acts of free human beings are not uncaused but self caused. To say they are self caused is not to say that they arise out of nothing or exist prior to themselves. Such would be an uncaused or self caused being, which is nonsensical. However, self determinism maintains that man's exercise of his freedom is self caused becoming, which is not contradictory. In other words, persons exist and can freely cause their own actions (not their own being).

Third, Edwards's argument suffers from a faulty view of man. Human beings are not like a machine (scale) which cannot be moved until some outside force tips it in one direction or another. Rather, man is a person created in the image of God as a personal living soul (Gen. 1:26 - 27; 2:7), and he retains this image even after the fall (Gen. 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7). This image includes the ability to make choices and act upon them. Hence, since man is personal, it is at best inadequate to illustrate his behavior by impersonal, mechanical models, such as a scale.

And fourth, Edwards is mistaken when he argues that human freedom is contrary to God's sovereignty. God sovereignly gave man his freedom by creating him a free creature, and God sovereignly continues to allow man to exercise his freedom by sustaining him moment by moment in existence (Col. 1:17). Thus the sovereignty of God is not thwarted by human freedom but glorified through human freedom. For God gave man free will, he sustains man so he can act freely, and he brings about all his purposes without violating man's free will. As the Westminister Confession puts it, "Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly, yet by the same providence he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently" (V, ii).


This view contends that human behavior is totally uncaused. There are no antecedent or simultaneous causes of man's actions. Hence, all of man's acts are uncaused; hence, any given human act could have been otherwise. Some indeterminists extend their view beyond human affairs to the entire universe. In support of the indeterminacy of all events Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty is often invoked. This principle states that it is impossible to predict where a subatomic particle is and how fast it is moving at any given moment. Thus, it is argued, since subatomic events are inherently unpredictable, how much more so are complex human acts. From this they conclude that human and nonhuman events are uncaused. Two noted exponents of indeterminism are William James and Charles Peirce.

There are at least three problems with this view. First, Heisenberg's principle does not deal with causality but with predictability. Heisenberg maintained that the movement of subatomic particles was unpredictable and unmeasurable; he did not maintain that their movement was uncaused. Thus this principle cannot be used to support indeterminism. Second, indeterminism unreasonably denies the principle of causality, namely, that every event has a cause. Simply because one does not know what the cause is, is not proof that an event is not caused. Such lack of knowledge only reflects our ignorance. Third, indeterminism strips man of any responsible behavior. If human behavior is uncaused, then no one could be praised or blamed for anything he did. All human acts would be nonrational and nonmoral, thus no act could ever be a reasonable or responsible one.

Indeterminism is unacceptable for a Christian. For if indeterminism is true, then either the existence of God or any causal connection between God and the universe would have to be denied. But clearly a Christian could not hold this, for the Christian position is that God created the world and he providentially sustains it and intervenes in its affairs (Matt. 6:25 - 32; Col. 1:15 - 16).

Self determinism

On this view a person's acts are caused by himself. Self determinists accept the fact that such factors as heredity and environment often influence one's behavior. However, they deny that such factors are the determining causes of one's behavior. Inanimate objects do not change without an outside cause, but personal subjects are able to direct their own actions. As previously noted, self determinists reject the notions that events are uncaused or that they cause themselves. Rather, they believe that human actions can be caused by human beings. Two prominent advocates of this view are Thomas Aquinas and C S Lewis.

Many object to self determinism on the grounds that if everything needs a cause, then so do the acts of the will. Thus it is often asked, What caused the will to act? The self determinist can respond to this question by pointing out that it is not the will of a person that makes a decision but the person acting by means of his will. And since the person is the first cause of his acts, it is meaningless to ask what the cause of the first cause is. Just as no outside force caused God to create the world, so no outside force causes people to choose certain actions. For man is created in God's image, which includes the possession of free will.

Another objection often raised against self determinism is that biblical predestination and foreknowledge seem to be incompatible with human freedom. However, the Bible does clearly teach that even fallen man has freedom of choice (e.g., Matt. 23:37; John 7:17; Rom. 7:18; 1 Cor. 9:17; 1 Pet. 5:2; Philem. 14). Further, the Bible teaches that God predestines in accordance with his foreknowledge (1 Pet. 1:2). Predestination is not based on God's foreknowledge (which would make God dependent upon man's choices) nor is it independent of God's foreknowledge (since all of God's acts are unified and coordinate). Rather, God knowingly determines and determinately knows those who will accept his grace as well as those who will reject him.

A further argument for free will is that God's commandments carry a divine "ought" for man, implying that man can and should respond positively to his commands. The responsibility to obey God's commands entails the ability to respond to them, by God's enabling grace. Furthermore, if man is not free, but all his acts are determined by God, then God is directly responsible for evil, a conclusion that is clearly contradicted by Scripture (Hab. 1:13; James 1:13 - 17).

Therefore, it seems that some form of self determinism is the most compatible with the biblical view of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility.

N L Geisler
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Augustine, The Free Choice of the Will and On Grace and Free Will; B Holbach, The System of Nature; W James, "The Dilemma of Determinism," in Pragmatism; M Luther, The Bondage of the Will; R Taylor, Metaphysics; A Farrer, The Freedom of the Will.


Catholic Information

Determinism is a name employed by writers, especially since J. Stuart Mill, to denote the philosophical theory which holds -- in opposition to the doctrine of free will -- that all man's volitions are invariably determined by pre-existing circumstances. It may take diverse forms, some cruder, some more refined.

Biological and materialistic Determinism maintains that each of our voluntary acts finds its sufficient and complete cause in the physiological conditions of the organism. Psychological Determinism ascribes efficiency to the psychical antecedents. In this view each volition or act of choice is determined by the character of the agent plus the motives acting on him at the time. Advocates of this theory, since Mill, usually object to the names, Necessarianism and Fatalism, on the ground that these words seem to imply some form of external compulsion, whilst they affirm only the fact of invariable sequence or uniform causal connectedness between motives and volition. Opposed to this view is the doctrine of Indeterminism, or what perhaps may more accurately be called Anti-determinism, which denies that man is thus invariably determined in all his acts of choice. This doctrine has been stigmatized by some of its opponents as the theory of "causeless volition", or "motiveless choice"; and the name Indeterminism, is possibly not the best selection to meet the imputation. The objection is, however, not justified. The Anti-determinists, while denying that the act of choice is always merely the resultant of the assemblage of motives playing on the mind, teach positively that the Ego, or Self, is the cause of our volitions; and they describe it as a "free" or "self-determining" cause. The presence of some reason or motive, they ordinarily hold, is a necessary condition for every act of free choice, but they insist that the Ego can decide between motives. Choice is not, they maintain, uniformly determined by the pleasantest or the worthiest motive or collection of motives. Nor is it the inevitable consequent of the strongest motive, except in that tautological sense in which the word strongest simply signifies that motive which as a matter of fact prevails. Determinism and the denial of free will seem to be a logical consequence of all monistic hypotheses. They are obviously involved in all materialistic theories. For Materialism of every type necessarily holds that every incident in the history of the universe is the inevitable outcome of the mechanical and physical movements and changes which have gone before. But Determinism seems to be an equally necessary consequence of monistic Idealism. Indeed the main argument against monistic and pantheistic systems will always be the fact of free will. Self-determination implies separateness of individuality and independence in each free agent, and thus entails a pluralistic conception of the universe. (See DUALISM; MONISM.) In spite of the assertions of Determinists, no true logical distinction can be made between their view and that of Fatalism. In both systems each of my volitions is as inexorably fated, or pre-determined, in the past conditions of the universe as the movements of the planets or the tides. The opponents of Determinism usually insist on two lines of argument, the one based on the consciousness of freedom in the act of deliberate choice, the other on the incompatibility of Determinism with our fundamental moral convictions. The notions of responsibility, moral obligation, merit, and the like, as ordinarily understood, would be illusory if Determinism were true. The theory is in fact fatal to ethics, as well as to the notion of sin and the fundamental Christian belief that we can merit both reward and punishment. (See FREE WILL; ETHICS; FATALISM.)

Publication information Written by Michael Maher. Transcribed by Rick McCarty. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV. Published 1908. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York

Free Will

Catholic Information



Free Will in Ancient Philosophy

Free Will and the Christian Religion

Catholic Doctrine

Thomist and Molinist Theories

Free will and the Protestant Reformers

Free Will in Modern Philosophy






The question of free will, moral liberty, or the liberum arbitrium of the Schoolmen, ranks amongst the three or four most important philosophical problems of all time. It ramifies into ethics, theology, metaphysics, and psychology. The view adopted in response to it will determine a man's position in regard to the most momentous issues that present themselves to the human mind. On the one hand, does man possess genuine moral freedom, power of real choice, true ability to determine the course of his thoughts and volitions, to decide which motives shall prevail within his mind, to modify and mould his own character? Or, on the other, are man's thoughts and volitions, his character and external actions, all merely the inevitable outcome of his circumstances? Are they all inexorably predetermined in every detail along rigid lines by events of the past, over which he himself has had no sort of control? This is the real import of the free-will problem.


(1) Ethically, the issue vitally affects the meaning of most of our fundamental moral terms and ideas. Responsibility, merit, duty, remorse, justice, and the like, will have a totally different significance for one who believes that all man's acts are in the last resort completely determined by agencies beyond his power, from that which these terms bear for the man who believes that each human being possessed of reason can by his own free will determine his deliberate volitions and so exercise a real command over his thoughts, his deeds, and the formation of his character.

(2) Theology studies the questions of the existence, nature and attributes of God, and His relations with man. The reconciliation of God's fore-knowledge and universal providential government of the world with the contingency of human action, as well as the harmonizing of the efficacy of supernatural grace with the free natural power of the creature, has been amongst the most arduous labours of the theological student from the days of St. Augustine down to the present time.

(3) Causality, change, movement, the beginning of existence, are notions which lie at the very heart of metaphysics. The conception of the human will as a free cause involves them all.

(4) Again, the analysis of voluntary action and the investigation of its peculiar features are the special functions of Psychology. Indeed, the nature of the process of volition and of all forms of appetitive or conative activity is a topic that has absorbed a constantly increasing space in psychological literature during the past fifty years.

(5) Finally, the rapid growth of sundry branches of modern science, such as physics, biology, sociology, and the systematization of moral statistics, has made the doctrine of free will a topic of the most keen interest in many departments of more positive knowledge.


Free Will in Ancient Philosophy

The question of free will does not seem to have presented itself very clearly to the early Greek philosophers. Some historians have held that the Pythagoreans must have allotted a certain degree of moral freedom to man, from their recognition of man's responsibility for sin with consequent retribution experienced in the course of the transmigration of souls. The Eleatics adhered to a pantheistic monism, in which they emphasized the immutability of one eternal unchangeable principle so as to leave no room for freedom. Democritus also taught that all events occur by necessity, and the Greek atomists generally, like their modern representatives, advocated a mechanical theory of the universe, which excluded all contingency. With Socrates, the moral aspect of all philosophical problems became prominent, yet his identification of all virtue with knowledge and his intense personal conviction that it is impossible deliberately to do what one clearly perceives to be wrong, led him to hold that the good, being identical with the true, imposes itself irresistibly on the will as on the intellect, when distinctly apprehended. Every man necessarily wills his greatest good, and his actions are merely means to this end. He who commits evil does so out of ignorance as to the right means to the true good. Plato held in the main the same view. Virtue is the determination of the will by the knowledge of the good; it is true freedom. The wicked man is ignorant and a slave. Sometimes, however, Plato seems to suppose that the soul possessed genuine free choice in a previous life, which there decided its future destiny. Aristotle disagrees with both Plato and Socrates, at least in part. He appeals to experience. Men can act against the knowledge of the true good; vice is voluntary. Man is responsible for his actions as the parent of them. Moreover his particular actions, as means to his end, are contingent, a matter of deliberation and subject to choice. The future is not all predictable. Some events depend on chance. Aristotle was not troubled by the difficulty of prevision on the part of his God. Still his physical theory of the universe, the action he allots to the noûs poietkós, and the irresistible influence exerted by the Prime Mover make the conception of genuine moral freedom in his system very obscure and difficult. The Stoics adopted a form of materialistic Pantheism. God and the world are one. All the world's movements are governed by rigid law. Unvaried causality unity of design, fatalistic government, prophecy and foreknowledge--all these factors exclude chance and the possibility of free will. Epicurus, oddly in contrast here with his modern hedonistic followers, advocates free will and modifies the strict determinism of the atomists, whose physics he accepts, by ascribing to the atoms a clinamen, a faculty of random deviation in their movements. His openly professed object, however, in this point as in the rest of his philosophy, is to release men from the fears caused by belief in irresistible fate.

Free Will and the Christian Religion

The problem of free will assumed quite a new character with the advent of the Christian religion. The doctrine that God has created man, has commanded him to obey the moral law, and has promised to reward or punish him for observance or violation of this law, made the reality of moral liberty an issue of transcendent importance. Unless man is really free, he cannot be justly held responsible for his actions, any more than for the date of his birth or the colour of his eyes. All alike are inexorably predetermined for him. Again, the difficulty of the question was augmented still further by the Christian dogma of the fall of man and his redemption by grace. St. Paul, especially in his Epistle to the Romans, is the great source of the Catholic theology of grace.

Catholic Doctrine

Among the early Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine stands pre-eminent in his handling of this subject. He clearly teaches the freedom of the will against the Manichæeans, but insists against the Semipelageians on the necessity of grace, as a foundation of merit. He also emphasizes very strongly the absolute rule of God over men's wills by His omnipotence and omniscience--through the infinite store, as it were, of motives which He has had at His disposal from all eternity, and by the foreknowledge of those to which the will of each human being would freely consent. St. Augustine's teaching formed the basis of much of the later theology of the Church on these questions, though other writers have sought to soften the more rigorous portions of his doctrine. This they did especially in opposition to heretical authors, who exaggerated these features in the works of the great African Doctor and attempted to deduce from his principles a form of rigid predeterminism little differing from fatalism. The teaching of St. Augustine is developed by St. Thomas Aquinas both in theology and philosophy. Will is rational appetite. Man necessarily desires beatitude, but he can freely choose between different forms of it. Free will is simply this elective power. Infinite Good is not visible to the intellect in this life. There are always some drawbacks and deficiencies in every good presented to us. None of them exhausts our intellectual capacity of conceiving the good. Consequently, in deliberate volition, not one of them completely satiates or irresistibly entices the will. In this capability of the intellect for conceiving the universal lies the root of our freedom. But God possesses an infallible knowledge of man's future actions. How is this prevision possible, if man's future acts are not necessary? God does not exist in time. The future and the past are alike ever present to the eternal mind as a man gazing down from a lofty mountain takes in at one momentary glance all the objects which can be apprehended only through a lengthy series of successive experiences by travellers along the winding road beneath, in somewhat similar fashion the intuitive vision of God apprehends simultaneously what is future to us with all it contains. Further, God's omnipotent providence exercises a complete and perfect control over all events that happen, or will happen, in the universe. How is this secured without infringement of man's freedom? Here is the problem which two distinguished schools in the Church--both claiming to represent the teaching, or at any rate the logical development of the teaching of St. Thomas--attempt to solve in different ways. The heresies of Luther and Calvin brought the issue to a finer point than it had reached in the time of Aquinas, consequently he had not formally dealt with it in its ultimate shape, and each of the two schools can cite texts from the works of the Angelic Doctor in which he appears to incline towards their particular view.

Thomist and Molinist Theories

The Dominican or Thomist solution, as it is called, teaches in brief that God premoves each man in all his acts to the line of conduct which he subsequently adopts. It holds that this premotive decree inclines man's will with absolute certainty to the side decreed, but that God adapts this premotion to the nature of the being thus premoved. It argues that as God possesses infinite power He can infallibly premove man--who is by nature a free cause--to choose a particular course freely, whilst He premoves the lower animals in harmony with their natures to adopt particular courses by necessity. Further, this premotive decree being inevitable though adapted to suit the free nature of man, provides a medium in which God foresees with certainty the future free choice of the human being. The premotive decree is thus prior in order of thought to the Divine cognition of man's future actions. Theologians and philosophers of the Jesuit School, frequently styled Molinists, though they do not accept the whole of Molina's teaching and generally prefer Francisco Suárez's exposition of the theory, deem the above solution unsatisfactory. It would, they readily admit, provide sufficiently for the infallibility of the Divine foreknowledge and also for God's providential control of the world's history; but, in their view, it fails to give at the same time an adequately intelligible account of the freedom of the human will. According to them, the relation of the Divine action to man's will should be conceived rather as of a concurrent than of a premotive character; and they maintain that God's knowledge of what a free being would choose, if the necessary conditions were supplied, must be deemed logically prior to any decree of concurrence or premotion in respect to that act of choice. Briefly, they make a threefold distinction in God's knowledge of the universe based on the nature of the objects known--the Divine knowledge being in itself of course absolutely simple. Objects or events viewed merely as possible, God is said to apprehend by simple intelligence (simplex intelligentia). Events which will happen He knows by vision (scientia visionis). Intermediate between these are conditionally future events--things which would occur were certain conditions fulfilled. God's knowledge of this class of contingencies they term scientia media. For instance Christ affirmed that, if certain miracles had been wrought in Tyre and Sidon, the inhabitants would have been converted. The condition was not realized, yet the statement of Christ must have been true. About all such conditional contingencies propositions may be framed which are either true or false--and Infinite Intelligence must know all truth. The conditions in many cases will not be realized, so God must know them apart from any decrees determining their realization. He knows them therefore, this school holds, in seipsis, in themselves as conditionally future events. This knowledge is the scientia media, "middle knowledge", intermediate between vision of the actual future and simple understanding of the merely possible. Acting now in the light of this scientia media with respect to human volitions, God freely decides according to His own wisdom whether He shall supply the requisite conditions, including His co-operation in the action, or abstain from so doing, and thus render possible or prevent the realization of the event. In other words, the infinite intelligence of God sees clearly what would happen in any conceivable circumstances. He thus knows what the free will of any creature would choose, if supplied with the power of volition or choice and placed in any given circumstances. He now decrees to supply the needed conditions, including His corcursus, or to abstain from so doing. He thus holds complete dominion and control over our future free actions, as well as over those of a necessary character. The Molinist then claims to safeguard better man's freedom by substituting for the decree of an inflexible premotion one of concurrence dependent on God's prior knowledge of what the free being would choose. If given the power to exert the choice. He argues that he exempts God more clearly from all responsibility for man's sins. The claim seems to the present writer well founded; at the same time it is only fair to record on the other side that the Thomist urges with considerable force that God's prescience is not so understandable in this, as in his theory. He maintains, too, that God's exercise of His absolute dominion over all man's acts and man's entire dependence on God's goodwill are more impressively and more worthily exhibited in the premotion hypothesis. The reader will find an exhaustive treatment of the question in any of the Scholastic textbooks on the subject.

Free will and the Protestant Reformers

A leading feature in the teaching of the Reformers of the sixteenth century, especially in the case of Luther and Calvin, was the denial of free will. Picking out from the Scriptures, and particularly from St. Paul, the texts which emphasized the importance and efficacy of grace, the all-ruling providence of God, His decrees of election or predestination, and the feebleness of man, they drew the conclusion that the human will, instead of being master of its own acts, is rigidly predetermined in all its choices throughout life. As a consequence, man is predestined before his birth to eternal punishment or reward in such fashion that he never can have had any real free-power over his own fate. In his controversy with Erasmus, who defended free will, Luther frankly stated that free will is a fiction, a name which covers no reality, for it is not in man's power to think well or ill, since all events occur by necessity. In reply to Erasmus's "De Libero Arbitrio", he published his own work, "De Servo Arbitrio", glorying in emphasizing man's helplessness and slavery. The predestination of all future human acts by God is so interpreted as to shut out any possibility of freedom. An inflexible internal necessity turns man's will whithersoever God preordains. With Calvin, God's preordination is, if possible, even more fatal to free will. Man can perform no sort of good act unless necessitated to it by God's grace which it is impossible for him to resist. It is absurd to speak of the human will "co-operating" with God's grace, for this would imply that man could resist the grace of God. The will of God is the very necessity of things. It is objected that in this case God sometimes imposes impossible commands. Both Calvin and Luther reply that the commands of God show us not what we can do but what we ought to do. In condemnation of these views, the Council of Trent declared that the free will of man, moved and excited by God, can by its consent co-operate with God, Who excites and invites its action; and that it can thereby dispose and prepare itself to obtain the grace of justification. The will can resist grace if it chooses. It is not like a lifeless thing, which remains purely passive. Weakened and diminished by Adam's fall, free will is yet not destroyed in the race (Sess. VI, cap. i and v).

Free Will in Modern Philosophy

Although from Descartes onward, philosophy became more and more separated from theology, still the theological significance of this particular question has always been felt to be of the highest moment. Descartes himself at times clearly maintains the freedom of the will (Meditations, III and IV). At times, however, he attenuates this view and leans towards a species of providential determinism, which is, indeed, the logical consequence of the doctrines of occasionalism and the inefficacy of secondary causes latent in his system.

Malebranche developed this feature of Descartes's teaching. Soul and body cannot really act on each other. The changes in the one are directly caused by God on the occasion of the corresponding change in the other. So-called secondary causes are not really efficacious. Only the First Cause truly acts. If this view be consistently thought out, the soul, since it possesses no genuine causality, cannot be justly said to be free in its volitions. Still, as a Catholic theologian, Malebranche could not accept this fatalistic determinism.

Accordingly he defended freedom as essential to religion and morality. Human liberty being denied, God should be deemed cruel and unjust, whilst duty and responsibility for man cease to exist. We must therefore be free. Spinoza was more logical. Starting from certain principles of Descartes, he deduced in mathematical fashion an iron-bound pantheistic fatalism which left no room for contingency in the universe and still less for free will. In Leibniz, the prominence given to the principle of sufficient reason, the doctrine that man must choose that which the intellect judges as the better, and the optimistic theory that God Himself has inevitably chosen the present as being the best of all possible worlds, these views, when logically reasoned out, leave very little reality to free will, though Leibniz set himself in marked opposition to the monistic geometrical necessarianism of Spinoza.

In England the mechanical materialism of Hobbes was incompatible with moral liberty, and he accepted with cynical frankness all the logical consequences of his theory. Our actions either follow the first appetite that arises in the mind, or there is a series of alternate appetites and fears, which we call deliberation. The last appetite or fear, that which triumphs, we call will. The only intelligible freedom is the power to do what one desires. Here Hobbes is practically at one with Locke. God is the author of all causes and effects, but is not the author of sin, because an action ceases to be sin if God wills it to happen. Still God is the cause of sin. Praise and blame, rewards and punishments cannot be called useless, because they strengthen motives, which are the causes of action. This, however, does not meet the objection to the justice of such blame or praise, if the person has not the power to abstain from or perform the actions thus punished or rewarded. Hume reinforced the determinist attack on free will by his suggested psychological analysis of the notion or feeling of "necessity". The controversy, according to him, has been due to misconception of the meaning of words and the error that the alternative to free will is necessity. This necessity, he says, is erroneously ascribed to some kind of internal nexus supposed to bind all causes to their effects, whereas there is really nothing more in causality than constant succession. The imagined necessity is merely a product of custom or association of ideas. Not feeling in our acts of choice this necessity, which we attribute to the causation of material agents, we mistakenly imagine that our volitions have no causes and so are free, whereas they are as strictly determined by the feelings or motives which have gone before, as any material effects are determined by their material antecedents. In all our reasonings respecting other persons, we infer their future conduct from their wonted action under particular motives with the same sort of certainty as in the case of physical causation.

The same line of argument was adopted by the Associationist School down to Bain and J. S. Mill. For the necessity of Hobbes or Spinoza is substituted by their descendants what Professor James calls a "soft determinism", affirming solely the invariable succession of volition upon motive. J. S. Mill merely developed with greater clearness and fuller detail the principles of Hume. In particular, he attacked the notion of "constraint" suggested in the words necessity and necessarianism, whereas only sequence is affirmed. Given a perfect knowledge of character and motives, we could infallibly predict action. The alleged consciousness of freedom is disputed. We merely feel that we choose, not that we could choose the opposite. Moreover the notion of free will is unintelligible. The truth is that for the Sensationalist School, who believe the mind to be merely a series of mental states, free will is an absurdity. On the other side, Reid, and Stewart, and Hamilton, of the Scotch School, with Mansel, Martineau, W.J. Ward, and other Spiritualist thinkers of Great Britain, energetically defended free will against the disciples of Hume. They maintained that a more careful analysis of volition justified the argument from consciousness, that the universal conviction of mankind on such a fact may not be set aside as an illusion, that morality cannot be founded on an act of self-deception; that all languages contain terms involving the notion of free will and all laws assume its existence, and that the attempt to render necessarianism less objectionable by calling it determinism does not diminish the fatalism involved in it. The truth that phenomenalism logically involves determinism is strikingly illustrated in Kant's treatment of the question. His well-known division of all reality into phenomena and noumena is his key to this problem also. The world as it appears to us, the world of phenomena, including our own actions and mental states, can only be conceived under the form of time and subject to the category of causality, and therefore everything in the world of experience happens altogether according to the laws of nature; that is, all our actions are rigidly determined. But, on the other hand, freedom is a necessary postulate of morality: "Thou canst, because thou oughtest." The solution of the antinomy is that the determinism concerns only the empirical or phenomenal world. There is no ground for denying liberty to the Ding an sich. We may believe in transcendental freedom, that we are noumenally free. Since, moreover, the belief that I am free and that I am a free cause, is the foundation stone of religion and morality, I must believe in this postulate. Kant thus gets over the antinomy by confining freedom to the world of noumena, which lie outside the form of time and the category of causality, whilst he affirms necessity of the sensible world, bound by the chain of causality. Apart from the general objection to Kant's system, a grave difficulty here lies in the fact that all man's conduct--his whole moral life as it is revealed in actual experience either to others or himself--pertains in this view to the phenomenal world and so is rigidly determined.

Though much acute philosophical and psychological analysis has been brought to bear on the problem during the last century, it cannot be said that any great additional light has been shed over it. In Germany, Schopenhauer made will the noumenal basis of the world and adopted a pessimistic theory of the universe, denying free will to be justified by either ethics or psychology. On the other hand, Lotze, in many respects perhaps the acutest thinker in Germany since Kant, was an energetic defender of moral liberty. Among recent psychologists in America Professors James and Ladd are both advocates of freedom, though laying more stress for positive proof on the ethical than on the psychological evidence.


As the main features of the doctrine of free will have been sketched in the history of the problem, a very brief account of the argument for moral freedom will now suffice. Will viewed as a free power is defined by defenders of free will as the capacity of self-determination. By self is here understood not a single present mental state (James), nor a series of mental states (Hume and Mill), but an abiding rational being which is the subject and cause of these states. We should distinguish between:

spontaneous acts, those proceeding from an internal principle (e.g. the growth of plants and impulsive movements of animals);

voluntary acts in a wide sense, those proceeding from an internal principle with apprehension of an end (e.g. all conscious desires);

and, finally those voluntary in the strict sense, that is, deliberate or free acts.

In such, there is a self-conscious advertence to our own causality or an awareness that we are choosing the act, or acquiescing in the desire of it. Spontaneous acts and desires are opposed to coaction or external compulsion, but they are not thereby morally free acts. They may still be the necessary outcome of the nature of the agent as, e.g. the actions of lower animals, of the insane, of young children, and many impulsive acts of mature life. The essential feature in free volition is the element of choice--the vis electiva, as St. Thomas calls it. There is a concomitant interrogative awareness in the form of the query "shall I acquiesce or shall I resist? Shall I do it or something else?", and the consequent acceptance or refusal, ratification or rejection, though either may be of varying degrees of completeness. It is this act of consent or approval, which converts a mere involuntary impulse or desire into a free volition and makes me accountable for it. A train of thought or volition deliberately initiated or acquiesced in, but afterward continued merely spontaneously without reflective advertence to our elective adoption of it, remains free in causa, and I am therefore responsible for it, though actually the process has passed into the department of merely spontaneous or automatic activity. A large part of the operation of carrying out a resolution, once the decision is made, is commonly of this kind. The question of free will may now be stated thus. "Given all the conditions requisite for eliciting an act of will except the act itself, does the act necessarily follow?" Or, "Are all my volitions the inevitable outcome of my character and the motives acting on me at the time?" Fatalists, necessarians, determinists say "Yes". Libertarians, indeterminists or anti-determinists say "No. The mind or soul in deliberate actions is a free cause. Given all the conditions requisite for action, it can either act or abstain from action. It can, and sometimes does, exercise its own causality against the weight of character and present motives.


The evidence usually adduced at the present day is of two kinds, ethical and psychological--though even the ethical argument is itself psychological.

(1) Ethical Argument

It is argued that necessarianism or determinism in any form is in conflict with the chief moral notions and convictions of mankind at large. The actual universality of such moral ideas is indisputable. Duty, moral obligation, responsibility, merit, justice signify notions universally present in the consciousness of normally developed men. Further, these notions, as universally understood, imply that man is really master of some of his acts, that he is, at least at times, capable of self-determination, that all his volitions are not the inevitable outcome of his circumstances. When I say that I ought not to have performed some forbidden act, that it was my duty to obey the law, I imply that I could have done so. The judgment of all men is the same on this point. When we say that a person is justly held responsible for a crime, or that he deserves praise or reward for an heroic act of self-sacrifice, we mean that he was author and cause of that act in such fashion that he had it in his power not to perform the act. We exempt the insane or the child, because we believe them devoid of moral freedom and determined inevitably by the motives which happened to act on them. So true is this, that determinists have had to admit that the meaning of these terms will, according to their view, have to be changed. But this is to admit that their theory is in direct conflict with universal psychological facts. It thereby stands disproved. Again, it may be urged that, if logically followed out, the determinist doctrine would annihilate human morality, consequently that such a theory cannot be true. (See FATALISM.)

(2) Psychological Argument

Consciousness testifies to our moral freedom. We feel ourselves to be free when exercising certain acts. We judge afterwards that we acted freely in those acts. We distinguish them quite clearly from experiences, in which we believe we were not free or responsible. The conviction is not confined to the ignorant; even the determinist psychologist is governed in practical life by this belief. Henry Sidgwick states the fact in the most moderate terms, when he says:

Certainly in the case of actions in which I have a distinct consciousness of choosing between alternatives of conduct, one of which I conceive as right or reasonable, I find it impossible not to think that I can now choose to do what I so conceive, however strong may be my inclination to act unreasonably, and however uniformly I may have yielded to such inclinations in the past (Methods of Ethics).

The force of the evidence is best realized by carefully studying the various mental activities in which freedom is exercised. Amongst the chief of these are: voluntary attention, deliberation, choice, sustained resistance to temptation. The reader will find them analyzed at length by the authors referred to at the end of this article; or, better still, he can think them out with concrete examples in his own inner experience.


The main objection to this argument is stated in the assertion that we can be conscious only of what we actually do, not of our ability to do something else. The reply is that we can be conscious not only of what we do, but of how we do it; not only of the act but of the mode of the act. Observation reveals to us that we are subjects of different kinds of processes of thought and volition. Sometimes the line of conscious activity follows the direction of spontaneous impulse, the preponderating force of present motive and desire; at other times we intervene and exert personal causality. Consciousness testifies that we freely and actively strengthen one set of motives, resist the stronger inclination, and not only drift to one side but actively choose it. In fact, we are sure that we sometimes exert free volition, because at other times we are the subject of conscious activities that are not free, and we know the difference. Again, it is urged that experience shows that men are determined by motives, and that we always act on this assumption. The reply is that experience proves that men are influenced by motives, but not that they are always inexorably determined by the strongest motive. It as alleged that we always decide in favour of the strongest motive. This is either untrue, or the barren statement that we always choose what we choose. A free volition is "a causeless volition". The mind itself is the cause. (For other objections see FATALISM; ENERGY, THE LAW OF THE CONSERVATION OF; and the works referred to at the end of this article.)


Free will does not mean capability of willing in the absence of all motive, or of arbitrarily choosing anything whatever. The rational being is always attracted by what is apprehended as good. Pure evil, misery as such, man could not desire. However, the good presents itself in many forms and under many aspects--the pleasant, the prudent, the right, the noble, the beautiful--and in reflective or deliberate action we can choose among these. The clear vision of God would necessarily preclude all volition at variance with this object, but in this world we never apprehend Infinite Good. Nor does the doctrine of free will imply that man is constantly exerting this power at every waking moment, any more than the statement that he is a "rational" animal implies that he is always reasoning. Much the larger part of man's ordinary life is administered by the machinery of reflex action, the automatic working of the organism, and acquired habits. In the series of customary acts which fill up our day, such as rising, meals, study, work, etc., probably the large majority are merely "spontaneous" and are proximately determined by their antecedents, according to the combined force of character and motive. There is nothing to arouse special volition, or call for interference with the natural current, so the stream of consciousness flows smoothly along the channel of least resistance. For such series of acts we are responsible, as was before indicated, not because we exert deliberate volition at each step, but because they are free in causa, because we have either freely initiated them, or approved them from time to time when we adverted to their ethical quality, or because we freely acquired the habits which now accomplish these acts. It is especially when some act of a specially moral complexion is recognized as good or evil that the exertion of our freedom is brought into play. With reflective advertence to the moral quality comes the apprehension that we are called on to decide between right and wrong; then the consciousness that we are choosing freely, which carries with it the subsequent conviction that the act was in the strictest sense our own, and that we are responsible for it.


Our moral freedom, like other mental powers, is strengthened by exercise. The practice of yielding to impulse results in enfeebling self-control. The faculty of inhibiting pressing desires, of concentrating attention on more remote goods, of reinforcing the higher but less urgent motives, undergoes a kind of atrophy by disuse. In proportion as a man habitually yields to intemperance or some other vice, his freedom diminishes and he does in a true sense sink into slavery. He continues responsible in causa for his subsequent conduct, though his ability to resist temptation at the time is lessened. On the other hand, the more frequently a man restrains mere impulse, checks inclination towards the pleasant, puts forth self-denial in the face of temptation, and steadily aims at a virtuous life, the more does he increase in self-command and therefore in freedom. The whole doctrine of Christian asceticism thus makes for developing and fostering moral liberty, the noblest attribute of man. William James's sound maxim: "Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day", so that your will may be strong to stand the pressure of violent temptation when it comes, is the verdict of the most modern psychology in favour of the discipline of the Catholic Church.

Publication information Written by Michael Maher. Transcribed by Rick McCarty. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York


The literature of the free-will controversy is enormous, nearly all the leading philosophers having dealt with the problem. Perhaps the best general historical treatment of all the branches of the question--fatalism, predestination, necessarianism, determinism--is to be found in FONSEGRIVE, Essai sur le libre arbitre (2nd ed., Paris, 1896). See also ALEXANDER, Theories of the Will (New York, 1884); JANET AND SEAILLES, History of Problems of Philosophy (tr. New York and London, 1902).

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The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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