Free Will and Determinism

Free will and Detrerminism

Free will

Generally we work on the assumption that we do have free will. We seem to be able to make choices about how we behave and how we act and we think that we could have behaved in a different way in the same circumstances. When we praise or blame others for how they behave this implies that we believe that they are free to chose how to act and therefore they are morally responsible for the consequences.

Non-religious Determinism:

However, there are various reasons why we might argue that people are not free to choose how to act.

Genetic Determinism:

  • your genes decide what you will be

In particular, a person who disagrees with genetic determinism might argue that:

  • Children often differ dramatically from their parents and from their siblings which implies that they are not fully determined by either nature or nurture.
  • Genes for physical characteristics can be affected by other things. A person genetically predisposed to grow tall will not reach their full potential height if they are malnourished. Therefore, genes for character traits can also be affected by other things. Perhaps something like meditation can be used to control a genetic inclination towards anger.
  • Whilst certain genes have been linked to certain types of behaviour it is highly unlikely that there is one gene for violence (for example). Genetics is a lot more complicated than that.

Physical Determinism:

  • It seems to make moral laws pointless.
  • It seems to make judgement pointless.
  • It does not seem to be fair - why would an omniscient loving God create the reprobate at all?
  • There are many verses in the Bible which imply people do have a genuine choice in how they behave (although there are also verses which can be used to support predestination too).

The nature of God:

Another potential problem for the idea of free will is the doctrine of God's omniscience. If God is truly omniscient and knows the future as well as the past then he knows what we do before we do it. If he knows what we do then we cannot not do it (i.e. we cannot make the opposite choice). Some people argue that it is incoherent to maintain both that God is omniscient and human beings are free.

There are several possible responses to this problem:

  • God knows all possible outcomes but not which one we choose.
  • God knows the end result but not the means we choose to get there.
  • God could know, but chooses to limit his foreknowledge in order to allow us genuine freedom. This is analagous to sight. You can see, but you can choose to shut your eyes. God can choose to 'turn off' his foresight!
  • God is transcendent and therefore he does not see things 'before' they happen. All time is the present for God.


  • Humans are not free
  • God is not omniscient