Suppose I leave the window open then leave home. A stack of banknotes can be seen on the table through the open window. An individual walking down the street notices the opportunity, thinks for a while, but decides to move on. Why would a man who has the opportunity to steal decide not to?
Some say that the decision not to steal is the result of the man’s correct moral choice—that is, an example of the exercise of free will. Others believe that a person’s decisions are determined by his greater need: in the case of the man in question, for example, the need to avoid punishment from his conscience or from others was greater than his need to steal; it is not a question of free will, but of a conditioned decision.
It is true that human actions do not arise from a vacuum of influences and determinants. Attempting to argue that man can act in the absence of any external causes, Nietzsche believed, represents a greater audacity than that of Baron Münchausen, who sought to pull himself out of a swamp by pulling on his own hair. People’s actions arise in a context, Nietzsche continues, in which God, the world, heredity, chance, and society all have an influence. At the same time, however, Nietzsche considered the naturalistic idea of the handcuffed will—of man who does only what nature, heredity, society, and God cause him to do—pure nonsense. From the German philosopher’s point of view, those in the first category stubbornly want to be given full and ultimate responsibility for everything they do, while those in the second category do not want to accept responsibility for anything they do.
In the physical world, we look for the physical causes of things that happen. This contradicts the idea of free will, which is defined as the ability to act according to one’s own will, independent of any influence.
At the same time, intuition and basic common sense tell us that we cannot operate outside the idea of responsibility and freedom of choice. It is in this sense that psychiatry seeks to restore the individual’s freedom to make decisions by suppressing the diseased state of his mind.
Therefore, the paradox observed by Nietzsche has not yet been solved by any naturalist, and our basic perceptions require us to recognise the existence and necessity of free will. From a Christian point of view, however, free will is easier to understand, because the Bible recognises that man cannot act independently of the influence of sin, but the man “born again,”—that is, the one who has accepted God’s influence in His life—is made able to choose against his sinful tendencies. In either case, however, man’s responsibility for his actions remains, precisely because God’s help to enable man to make the right choice is always available.
Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.