Free Will Ain’t Free

One thing I’ve often heard from Catholics, particularly “traditional” or conservative ones (most notably guys such as philosopher Edward Feser), is that free will is supposedly a good. Whenever someone brings up the fact that an omnipotent God could simply force everyone to worship Him (thereby resulting in no-one going to hell), people like Feser say that would be an abrogation of free will, so God wouldn’t do that. To quote directly from Feser’s latest book, “Five Proofs of the Existence of God,”

“It is good for there to be creatures which act of their own free will rather than being mere automata. But creatures with free will might abuse it and carry out evil actions. So, to eliminate the possibility of such evil actions, God would have to eliminate free will as well.” (Feser, Edward. Five Proofs of the Existence of God (Kindle Locations 4902-4904). Ignatius Press)

I suppose most folks would agree with this. Patrick Henry’s famous remark, “give me liberty or give me death” resonates with a lot of us, and not for no reason. But, of course, common sentiment is hardly an infallible barometer of philosophical truth. And, in a stroke of curious irony, at least a few of Feser’s compatriots might disagree with that particular American patriot.

I must hastily make clear that I’m not referring to Catholics in general when I describe the following arguments, nor critiquing Catholic theology or tradition. I’d wager many Catholics would find them problematic, to say the least. But Feser has fashioned himself a defender of monotheism generally–he goes so far as to say, again in Five Proofs, that “the real debate is not between atheism and theism. The real debate is between theists of different stripes—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, purely philosophical theists, and so forth—and begins where natural theology leaves off.” (Feser, Edward. Five Proofs of the Existence of God, (Kindle Locations 150-151). Ignatius Press. Feser considers Hinduism similar in some ways to his Catholic monotheism because, as he writes at, “Hinduism affirms a single self-existent and unchanging divine reality”)

Thus, given the fact that at least some of his fellow monotheists–both Catholic and Protestant–believe the following things, it seems fair to me to contrast them with the pointedly non-denominational arguments Feser gives for a benevolent God.

Take, for instance, the habit some Christians have of calling themselves “slaves” affectionately. The most obvious example I can think of is the “Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” which according to Wikipedia ( is a group of Catholics notable for being particularly anti-Semitic. Embarrassing, but the specifics aren’t important–think harder about their name, *slaves* of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. A slave is someone without freedom, one whose ability to act in accordance with their free will has been abrogated, whether by the whip or some other form of coercion.  This is, obviously, why most people do not want to be slaves, and indeed would be insulted at the insinuation they are slaves. But these particular slaves of Mary’s Immaculate Heart apparently don’t feel that way. Yes, I’m sure they’d argue I’m missing some nuance here, and that they’re not really slaves in the same sense Frederick Douglass was. Of course, that’s undeniable–they’re not chattel, joined the religious life of their own free will, and so on. However, they call themselves “slaves” specifically, as opposed to some other term like “servant,” with full knowledge of what the term implies. In some sense–even if a very vague, abstract one–they apparently feel as if having their freedom abrogated in some way is, at least in some circumstances, acceptable. Perhaps even desirable.

So, it seems like there’s at least a case to be made that freedom isn’t necessarily a good in all cases and at all times, and can be given up in pursuit of a higher end. Perhaps Feser wouldn’t agree (I don’t know how he feels about this Immaculate Heart thing, I found no references to it on his blog), but even he would have to admit that his co-religionists have opened the subject up to debate.

The troubling thing is, though, that if we consider the goodness of freedom to be up for debate–in other words, we do *not* consider freedom to axiomatically be a good, or begin from the premise that freedom is good–then it is much harder to consider free will itself to be axiomatically good.

Feser implies it would be bad if we were all “mere automata,” and that the evil of some of us being sent to hell for choosing wrongly is outweighed by the good of us having free will in the first place. But why should we believe this? If–as the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary would have us believe–it is occasionally acceptable, even laudable, to sacrifice our freedom, might it not be occasionally acceptable, even laudable, to sacrifice our free will entirely? After all, an automaton is nothing so much as a perfectly efficient, optimized slave. A slave is capable of rebelling against, or even just failing to properly obey, his or her master. But offer any master a choice between a human slave and an automaton otherwise physically identical to that slave, and they will choose the automaton most of the time. It will never intentionally betray them or fail to carry out their orders–from the perspective of a slaveowner, just a better investment all around.

Thus, one is led to the conclusion that if it might be occasionally good to be a slave, it might well be even better to be a “mere automata.” I’m sure both Feser and the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart would say it’s very different to be a slave to God than anything or anyone else. But it’s not clear why this is the case, which means it’s not clear as to why free will is necessarily a good. Why, precisely, would God want slaves rather than puppets? If freedom is expendable, and worth giving up to become a slave to Mary, why is free will any less expendable? Why would Christ, or God, or Mary be displeased about having puppets/automata rather than slaves? And, given the terrible consequences of free will (eternal hellfire), why would it not have been better for God to simply do away with free will altogether? Why should He not have created a universe full of puppets capable of doing nothing but worshipping Him? To answer this question, Feser will have to explain why free will (not being a puppet) is inherently and inalienably good, while freedom (not being a slave) is rather more negotiable. It may not be an impossible task, but considering how closely related freedom and free will seem to be, I think it’s quite a difficult one.

Not the headiest entry I’ve ever written, but just a bit of food for thought this fine Thursday night. Maybe next time around I’ll do a longer post on  on freedom as criticized (admittedly obliquely) by Feser and one of his friends, Zippy Catholic. But for now, a more focused philosophical critique of an argument I saw in one of his published books will do.



  1. If freedom is defined by a range of possibilities, then why this range of possibilities (which includes the eternal punishment possibilities)?
    The inevitable answer: The Lord works in mysterious ways, if one insists that the Lord himself is unconstrained.
    I’m glad there are smarter folks, like Eddie, sorting this stuff out for us. I can’t make any sense of it at all.

    1. Good point, I hope you wouldn’t mind if I quoted you in the future. To connect it even more closely to Feser’s argument, “free will” is, under one definition, the ability to freely choose between a set of possible actions, states of being, etc. For instance, I’m exercising my free will if I choose to go to a restaurant over playing videogames tonight, or if I choose to become a lawyer rather than a doctor, or whatever. However, our choices are always necessarily constrained, and this is no real argument against the existence of free will. I cannot choose to go to the moon by myself tonight, for instance, or choose to become a chicken rather than a lawyer or doctor. These choices have, essentially, been made for me by the nature of reality. Why, then, could God not have constructed reality in such a way as to obviate the possibility of certain “wrong” choices? Why could God not have made it impossible for me to choose to disbelieve in Him, in the same way He has apparently made it impossible for me to choose to become a chicken or take an evening jaunt to the Moon? If lacking certain choices due to the laws of physics does not mean I lack free will, it is unclear why God taking away my ability to worship Him or not would necessarily involve taking away my free will.

  2. It’s not a coincidence that Christianity provided the template for the class structure of feudal Europe. The divine realm mirrored the earthly realm with the king at the top of the power structure. With the imposition of the belief of the Divine Right of Kings, to challenge or oppose the earthly slavery(feudal submission)was not only to commit an act against the monarchy, but against God.
    The Christian story has value not in its ethical prescriptions for the masses of sheeple, but in that it is a powerful psychological tool to inhibit people from thinking freely in their own interests.
    Ideas like the stories used in religion have consequences and they establish psychological and social constrictions on people that encourage selective behavior.
    Physical reality itself imposes constraints on everyone. Constraints work for and against certain objectives. Learning is what living creatures do to overcome physical constraints. By choosing to learn or not, and what we choose to learn determines the degree of freedom we have.
    Feudal Europe opposed learning, and therefor freedom.

    1. I wouldn’t go that far–Christian principles of charity and cooperation did serve a legitimate function in social welfare after the Roman state could no longer maintain itself, at least in the West. But you are correct to say that education is a good path to freedom, in multiple senses.

      1. Christianity is slavery!

      2. First, it is an authoritarian religion that degrades and lobotomizes is followers because only the clergy is qualified to interpret the religion for them. This disempower a the sheeple and makes them dependent on them for spiritual benefits and access to the afterlife. It also is a fear based religion threatening damnation, and asking for money…..all powerful, all knowing, infinite but Jesus just can’t handle money!
        Why do they want you to be a sheep, be a sheep, be a sheep? So you can first get fleeced and eventually slaughtered?
        The KKK is based on an ethno-theology that is the center of the American power structure. 80% of the senate and congress are still white Christian men. This provides the template for the social order!

      3. I mean, look, you’re entitled to your opinion but this is getting a little far into the weeds here. Like I said in my post, the intent wasn’t to criticize Christianity in general, but to criticize one of Feser’s solutions to the problem of evil. I’m no sheep and I hate the KKK, as any sensible person would, but not of that is really germane to my little essay.

  3. johnkutensky · · Reply

    I guess my issue with this line of thinking is wondering why we don’t have the free will to, for example, teleport or fly or telepathically share our happiness with others, but we do have the free will to murder and rape and steal. God got to define what was possible. We clearly don’t have entirely free will. We’re limited by the laws of physics and our bodies, limits chosen by God, if you believe in him. He couldn’t have made the male penis useless unless one’s partner is aroused and happy? Or simply made people immortal until they turn 18?

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