Freedom and Determinism: What’s the Difference?

Free agency, states Hugh McCann, exhibits three essential features. First, free actions cannot be “the product of independent event-causal conditions. An autonomous agent has to be a center of novelty—a point from which, to the extent he influences it, the history of the world takes a new beginning” (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 101). If an action is coerced by forces external to the agent or determined by the firing of neurons in the brain or by one’s strongest desire, then it cannot be said to be free. One is only free if one might have done otherwise, as libertarian theorists like to remind us. To the extent my decisions can be sufficiently explained by a set of nomic conditions and states that antedate my decisions, I do not enjoy genuine autonomy; I do not exercise direct control over them. “Far from being able to control their influence through my decision,” McCann observes, “they are in fact controlling me” (“Divine Sovereignty and the Freedom of the Will,” p. 591). With David B. Hart we may question whether the incompatibilist position offers a convincing explanation for human action, but at a this-worldly, existential level it enjoys a strong intuitive appeal, as well as a measure of support in the Eastern patristic tradition. As St John of Damascus writes:

Strictly all mental and deliberative acts are in our hands. Now deliberation is concerned with equal possibilities: and an ‘equal possibility’ is an action that is itself within our power and its opposite, and our mind makes choice of the alternatives, and this is the origin of action. The actions, therefore, that are in our hands are these equal possibilities: e.g. to be moved or not to be moved, to hasten or not to hasten, to long for unnecessaries or not to do so, to tell lies or not to tell lies, to give or not to give, to rejoice or not to rejoice as fits the occasion, and all such actions as imply virtue or vice in their performance, for we are free to do or not to do these at our pleasure. (De fid. orth. II.26)

The possibility of choosing an alternative would therefore seem to be a necessary condition for human freedom. I might have done otherwise.

Second, free agency will “feel” spontaneous to the agent. “When we engage in decision and volition,” McCann explains, “we do not feel that something is happening to us, or that we are being acted upon. We feel energetic and unconstrained—as though we are starting something” (p. 102). This phenomenal quality is unmistakable. Of course, determinists assert that the quality is illusory. We only feel, they say, that we are in control. Yet without this sense of independence and personal autonomy, we probably would not even think of ourselves as distinct persons.

Third, free agency is intentional. We mean to do exactly what we do, when and where we do it. We intend both the goal and performance of our action. Free acts do not just happen to us. We do not will to do something accidentally or inadvertently. Intention is the content of decision. If I decide to go on holiday in Colorado, I necessarily intend to go to Colorado, and in so deciding I have initiated the implementation of my intention. McCann elaborates:

When I decide, I see myself as a center of spontaneity in the world. Rather than being controlled by my circumstances, I see myself as exerting control over them. In particular I see myself as freely determining which of my motives shall find fulfillment in my behavior. And what makes this freedom libertarian is that in deciding, I see myself as controlling my decision itself: as settling the issue of whether it shall occur at all, and what its content shall be. So when I decide to take my vacation in Colorado, I am determining in that very act not just what I shall do about my vacation, but also what I shall decide about it. That is what is implicit in my decisions being intrinsically intentional and nonaccidental. If they were not so our decisions would be things that befall us, and libertarian freedom would reduce, even from the point of view of the agent, to blind happenstance. (“Freedom of the Will,” p. 591; also see McCann, “Making Decisions,” and his entry on “Action” in The International Encyclopedia of Ethics)

Absence of physical or natural necessity, spontaneity, and intentionality—however we formulate the relation between divine and creaturely agency, these three features properly characterize the freedom of both God and man.

At this point McCann hastens to exclude from consideration what he calls the model of command and causation (see the lengthy quotation on divine creation in my article “Eternal Now“). Think about God’s speaking the world into being in Genesis 1: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” One might easily interpret the divine act as a command (“Let there be …”), followed by the intended effect (the appearance of light). If divine and human agency is construed along these lines, then outright determinism is the result. God thinks the mental command “Let there be Al Kimel typing these lines on his computer,” and voila! here I am typing. The divine fiat is followed by the consequence. My typing is no more free than the billiard ball that falls into the corner pocket.

We are prone to represent creation in terms of a model of command and causation: thus, in the present case, to believe that if God is indeed creatively responsible for our decisions and volition, these must occur through a mechanistic relation. He must first engage in some activity specifically directed to creation, some sort of command or concurrence, which in turn has the event-causal consequence that we will the things we do. If such were the case, it would indeed be plausible to think that involving God as creator in our decisions must destroy creaturely freedom, for then the relation between the operation of God’s will and ours would be perfectly analogous to what would obtain if our decisions were caused by our strongest desire. The apparent active quality of deciding would be destroyed, and we would be just as passive in deciding as we are in experiencing the onset of desire. (Creation, p. 103)

This point is critical for a right understanding of McCann’s position. As we shall see in subsequent articles, he will argue for a version of noncompetitive double agency. His position thus needs to be carefully distinguished from deterministic views that envision Deity as causing volitional acts in the same way that creaturely beings cause events. McCann proposes an alternative reading of Genesis 1. Instead of reading the text along the lines of event-causal sequence, we might read it instead as presenting a kind of fait accompli. The wording of the text “implies that in the very command itself, the appearance of light was achieved, that in the very exercise of God’s creative will, dry ground finds its existence” (p. 43). The world in its actuality is the content of God’s eternal decision to create, analogous to the way intention is intrinsic to human decision.

There can be no event-causal means—not even the operation of his own will—which God employs as creator. Rather, his will is, in itself, immediately efficacious in the task of creation, so that all that is, including rational creatures and all that they do, find their being in the very act through which they are created. A fortiori, there is no nexus that binds God’s will to ours, nor is there any causal distance whatever between God and us or any of our willings. Indeed, there is not even causal contiguity. Rather, we and all that we do have our being in God, and the first manifestation of God’s creative will regarding our decisions and actions is not a command that causes those acts, but nothing short of the acts themselves. (p. 103)

McCann does not discuss specific philosophers and theologians as representatives of the command and causation model. I surmise he is thinking of folks like St Augustine, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Domingo Báñez, Jonathan Edwards, Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, and Paul Helm. Despite differences between their respective theologies, these men share one feature in common: they deny libertarian freedom.

Applied to human willing, command and causation models would certainly restore God to full knowledge and governance of the world, but only at the expense of making his will as governor an independent determining condition of creaturely willing—the very thing any definition of libertarian freedom must rule out. If the relationship between God’s will and ours took this form, the spontaneity of free will would be gone; we would have every right to feel we were mere puppets, and God the puppeteer. The problem is substantially similar for views that provide God a role in creaturely action, but treat it as a concurrent or assisting one, in which his action is both independent of ours, and necessarily efficacious with respect to it. Here too it is possible to guarantee God full sovereignty and omniscience; but as long as his action is conceived as independent of ours, the situation regarding freedom ends up no better. (p. 106)

Freedom from coercion, manipulation, and nomic determinism, yet total control by the transcendent Creator—one certainly can’t fault McCann for lack of ambition and daring. But can he pull it off? Stay tuned.

(Go to “The World is a Novel”)

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26 Responses to Freedom and Determinism: What’s the Difference?

  1. Young and Rested says:

    For years I basically took the libertarian view of freedom for granted, feeling like it was pretty obvious that in order for a choice to be free it must have been possible to do otherwise. Then I ran into Tom Talbott and David Bentley Hart…

    It seems to me that this basic tenet is highly suspect. If we must be able to choose either good or evil in order to be truly free, then there’s a sense in which we are freer than God in this area. It would also seem that creatures in heaven who now will only the good have lost their freedom, which God supposedly values enough that it was worth the cost of eternal damnation of his creatures to preserve (although, the damned, being eternally consigned to choosing evil would seem to also have lost all semblance of freedom).

    If sin is really a type of bondage of the will and truth sets us free, it would appear that true freedom comes from fully apprehending the nature and consequences of our decisions for or against God. Given our primordial orientation towards the Good as a transcendental end, it seems to me that since freedom in the fullest sense involves perfect understanding of the choice being made, that creatures who are fully free would will and choose only the good. It may need to be logically possible to choose otherwise, but a choice can still be free even if, as Tom Talbott puts it, it is not psychologically possible to choose otherwise. I keep going back to the example that I believe both Talbott and DBH use regarding the deranged person sticking their hand into a fire. In a strict “you must be able to choose otherwise in order to be free” world, the deranged man who may or may not thrust his arm into the flames, thinking it could be pleasurable, is freer than the man who understands the nature of the choice and is thus never going to choose to burn himself. I think that examples like this are enough to show that there must be more to freedom than simply being able to choose otherwise.

    To quote DBH in what I’m currently thinking is a very good construal of freedom:

    “The classical Platonic-Aristotelian-Christian understanding of freedom is one in which the rational will of necessity, when set free from ignorance, wills the good end of its own nature; and perfect freedom is the power to achieve that end without hindrance. Thus God is perfectly free precisely because he cannot work evil, which is to say nothing can prevent him from realizing his nature as the infinite Good.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I too found that David Hart’s writings have challenged and changed my thinking about human freedom, as has the meditations and comments of our own Brian Moore.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Chris says:

        Which websites would you recommend for more reading in these things?


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Quite frankly, Chris, the best stuff on the web on the theme of double agency is right here on my site. 🙂

          Search for “double agency” or “divine agency” or “freedom” or “creatio ex nihilo.” Those should find for you most, if not all, of the articles where I discuss this them, with plenty of references.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    If our acts are in and of themselves the willed acts of God, in what sense do we actually have any independent will at all?


  3. Tom says:

    DBH: The classical Platonic-Aristotelian-Christian understanding of freedom is one in which the rational will of necessity, when set free from ignorance, wills the good end of its own nature; and perfect freedom is the power to achieve that end without hindrance.

    Tom: Yes, quite. But as we are ignorant and have not this ‘perfect freedom’ presently, what sort of agency is it we exercise in doing what we are able to avoid, and not doing what we ought – all in ways that leave us responsible before God? Is there a name for such agency?


    • Tom says:

      McCann’s a libertarian. Right. And DBH elsewhere (here on EO last year) granted libertarian agency per se as well (i.e., within a teleological framework of course; not absolute voluntarism).

      So McCann wants full libertarian agency AND meticulous providential control of the precise exercise of that agency without remainder.

      This better be good! 😀


  4. If purpose and reason are causes, then any rational being that makes choices based upon their own purpose and their own reasons may be termed “deterministic”. But the fact that the decision is authentically their own, and not forced upon them against their will, should qualify as free will. I’m a Humanist (an atheist with Christian values) and a compatibilist. But in theory, God is a rational being acting authentically according to his own purpose and for his own reasons. Therefore, every choice he makes is, at least in theory, predictable. But since it is also authentically his own choice, it is also an act of free will. The opposite of predictable is erratic or irrational. So predictability is not a bad thing. And our free will would work exactly like His. It is simultaneously a choice we make of our own free will and also one that is totally predictable by an omniscient being.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Welcome, Marvin. Hugh McCann would agree with you that our free choices are grounded in reasons, such as one might formulate as premises in a practical syllogism; but he does not think of this as deterministic. Reasons are not, he believes, nomically determinative. They do not “cause” anything, but rather are the content of intention.

      At least that’s what I think he believes. Take a look at his article “Making Decisions” and tell me if I’m reading him rightly.

      Where I think we might get into an interesting discussion is on the nature of God. I suspect we might have some differences, perhaps even significant differences. I’m not sure, for example, that I can make any sense of the transcendent Creator as one who makes rational, and therefore predictable, choices, as creatures do.


      • I view living organisms as having a “biological will” to survive, thrive, and reproduce. This results in feelings of general need, like hunger and thirst. And then, with intelligent species, we have a “deliberate will”, one that involves the process of choosing (deliberation).

        The result of choosing is a specific intent, as in “I WILL go and get an apple to eat”. My reasons for choosing the apple and not choosing the cake would come up as I was considering each of my options. The “general cause” that initiates the deliberation process is my feeling of hunger. The “reason” I chose the apple rather than the cake would be a conscious desire to eat a more healthy diet. The reason would be the “specific cause” of my choosing the apple.

        As a Humanist, I view God as man’s creation to find comfort and to inspire moral intent (“to love good, and to love it for others as you do for yourself, all rules derive from and are judged by this intent” is how I’d paraphrase Matthew 22:35-40).


        • brian says:


          I suspect you are presupposing the metaphysics of theistic personalism in your assessment of the hypothetical nature of a divine action you do not believe in. Certainly, the instinct driven teleology towards the Good encountered in nature and the rational apprehension of the good achievable by intellectual natures do not indicate in a univocal fashion how one should think about the freedom of God. At minimum, one ought to reflect upon the fundamental ontological difference between creatures whose essence is distinct from their existence and a truly transcendent God whose essence is his existence. If one understands existence as not simply a bare ascription of “reality” as opposed to “imaginary,” but as the flourishing plenitude of being, one will be more aware of the need for an analogical approach to language about God. Unlike creatures who make choices based on biological/ontological lack, God’s acts from the perfection of his aseity. Further, since the Good is in no sense extrinsic to God, there is no need to prudentially calculate what is “reasonable.” On the contrary, even human reason is ecstatic by nature, drawn to a Good that manifests not only in need, but in beauty, and truth. The latter may indeed demand sacrifices and actions that appear strictly irrational according to an instrumentalist criteria of reason as directed towards lucidly apprehended pragmatic ends.

          The Good is not so easily comprehended and personal being evades attempts to circumscribe it by the limits of libertarian freedom. Individual identity is a social construction that is necessary, but it is by no means the full elucidation of personal being. Moments of existential crisis brought on by death, a great love, art, any number of experiences that stretch us beyond a sleepy comfort reveal a depth dimension to the person that is “beyond control,” but this does not mean this realm is irrational or opposed to human freedom. Rather, one may discern that at the deepest metaphysical level, our being is gifted to us and our personhood something as much discovered as invented. These discovered depths may be rejected or one may float on the surface of life, oblivious to them for many years, perhaps for an entire life. But they are still there. One assents to personal being and in so doing, finds in desire a teleological destiny that transcends the mere calculation of what is rationally beneficial.

          General causes are valid, of course, but they will also be clumsy tools for apprehending the existentially unique. While neo-Darwinians have attempted to use kinship selection as an adequate explanation for cases of altruism in nature, and by extension, in human culture at large, I suspect they are over-extending the reach of their model in order to justify their philosophical reductionism. Certainly at the level of human love, something greater than survival is aimed at, even when one appropriates a family or a people or a civilization as ersatz forms of personal biological well-being.

          It is, of course, difficult to engage in dialectic in this kind of forum. The main point is that there are multiple presuppositions, definitions, and global contexts that make sense of the meanings we assert. Often, we mistakenly think we are broaching a common subject when radically different concepts are actually involved. A lot of preliminary clarification is needed before one can properly ascertain the levels of agreement and disagreement. For myself, I am skeptical of Christian values rationally rooted in an atheist metaphysics. It is fine to assert or promote the former, but I suspect an insufficient understanding of the mystery of Christian values and frankly, too limited a sense of what reason is.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I don’t know what “a truly transcendent God whose essence is his existence” means in practical terms. But if it transcends our reality then my ignorance should be equal to everyone else’s here. The image of God we have from the Bible has a human personality. And if He does not behave rationally, reliably, and predictably (deterministically), then how is one to rely upon his covenants?

            When you said “even human reason is ecstatic by nature”, it reminded me of David Eagleman’s PBS series “The Brain”. He explained that making choices involves the emotion centers of the brain. In the case of a woman whose emotion center was injured, she could no longer make simple decisions about shopping. We often “feel” something is right or wrong based upon packets of memory linking thoughts to feelings.

            But the problem with feelings is that they are malleable. While there may be some instinctual characteristic we recognize as more beautiful than others, most tastes are acquired. In the area of morality, the correct sequence is to first find what is objectively good/better, and then secondarily choose to feel good about it.

            An important practical role of Church is to help people to feel good about doing good and being good (and feel bad about doing bad or being bad). Feelings and emotions are thus “spiritual” matters in the domain of clergy and psychologists. An example of this would be when you said, “Rather, one may discern that at the deepest metaphysical level, our being is gifted to us and our personhood something as much discovered as invented.” The perception of our being as “a gift” and the spirit of “gratitude” are desirable (and I think someone said that gratitude is actually good for our health).

            Another example of the importance of spiritual aspects is the difference between someone who does the right thing out of a sense of love and service versus someone doing it out of a sense of obligation and resentment. This is tremendously valuable to the “thriving” part of the built-in purpose to survive, thrive, and reproduce. It’s what I’d link to “life abundant”.

            The whole determinism “versus” free will debate can also be viewed spiritually. Is causal necessity really a constraint when it is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose? And isn’t every freedom we have to do anything dependent upon us being able to reliably cause an effect? So, is determinism something that “enslaves” us or something that “empowers” us?


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      “The opposite of predictable is erratic or irrational”
      This isn’t strictly true, even for straightforwardly mechanical systems operating in accordance with known and predictable laws and where the starting state known as accurately as it is possible to do so: “chaotic” systems where small changes lead to greater and greater effects over time are both absolutely rationally ordered and determined by physical rules but also completely unpredictable. This is relevant to the issue under discussion because it seems to me that most real-life situations, history, biology, evolution, the decision-making systems of the human brain and indeed the universe itself have all the hallmarks of “chaotic” systems in this sense, and, if so, there is a false dichotomy between completely predictable and simply random / erratic when discussing free will.


      • Right. It is usually qualified as “theoretically predictable”. Chaotic systems are “practically unpredictable”. A flip of the coin is unpredictable in practice but theoretically predictable if we knew all of the facts about the forces and conditions during the flip.

        And things become a little more complicated with human behavior, where the choice is made based upon reasons and feelings. Those who suggest we could predict everything with physics are being naïve. Physics can tell us how the apple fell on Newton’s head, but it cannot tell us how it ended up in Johnny’s lunchbox, 200 miles from the tree. For that you’ll need the life sciences and social sciences.


  5. brian says:


    The Existential Thomists like Gilson and Maritain — and David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God (Hart is not a Thomist) — would help elucidate what I mean regarding the real distinction between creatures and God. In rejecting theistic personalism, I am not rejecting a personal God. The Olympian gods are “part of the universe.” The god of theistic personalism operates within the same ontological plane as the rest of the universe. Such a god may be the highest good, but it is only an intensification (times infinity) of creaturely being. Being becomes a third term that comprehends both God and creatures. This plays out in the sense that language can be used univocally to talk about both God and creatures. There is an inherent rationalism in such a view; as opposed to a proper respect for reason. The Deist concept of God is as a watchmaker who may then serenely watch the finely tuned mechanism of the universe without intimate connection to the creature. All of these are mistaken in the light of Christian wisdom. As Augustine came to understand, God is more intimate to us than our very “selves.” Paradoxically, the proper sense of transcendence founds the greatest intimacy.

    One of the “practical” implications of this kind of theology is the understanding that art may be cognitive and it may tell us something about the other. It is not confined to an emotive subject. An aesthetic that is purely trapped in the feelings of the individual ego is often justified in modernity by a Cartesian divide between the “thinking thing” and a soulless mechanical world. Causality is only thought in terms of efficient and material. Final and formal causality is no longer thought or understood. There is a qualitative science that reaches beyond the confines of methodological science and repeatable experiment. The insight of the sage and the providential wisdom acquired through unique, unrepeatable experience is recognized as valid.

    In any event, I do not disagree with much of what you find important to a thriving life. It seems to me that when you invoke determinism, you are simply espousing that creation is made up of stable natures. When I talk about Christian existentialism, I do not mean a rejection of essences.


  6. Brian: “Paradoxically, the proper sense of transcendence founds the greatest intimacy.”

    ME: Wow! Mind-blowing.

    Brian: “Final and formal causality is no longer thought or understood.”

    ME: I always found it odd that they would use “final” to refer to the initial setting of the objective rather than to the last direct cause of the event. But the key to free will is that the mental process of choosing is the final responsible cause of what we do and what results from our actions. When I feel hungry and choose to eat an apple, there is no prior cause that has any interest in my choice other than what has become “me” at that moment.

    I’m not sure what existentialism is about. I majored in Psych and was taking Tests and Measurements in the same semester as Existential Phenomenological Psychology. I thought it would be cool to experiment with cutting classes and just reading the textbooks, so I only showed up to take the tests. I got a B in Tests and Measurements. But when I showed up for the final exam in my Existentialism course, it only had one question, and I had no clue what it was about, so I turned in a blank paper and flunked. So I have no clue what Christian existentialism is about. (And I’m not sure that I want to know!)


    • brian says:

      If you were an undergraduate today, that blank page would probably have gotten you cum laude honors. Existentialists like Sartre and to a degree, Camus, link certain aspects of idealism with voluntarist notions of freedom. So, for them, human freedom must confront essences as an illicit limitation on the desire to be completely unconstrained by the given. Their starting point, however, is one whereby existence itself is inadequate to human striving. They understand existence, as moderns do, as a narrow “jumping off point” from which “action” gnostically attempts to create.

      Christian existentialism has variants — Marcel and Gilson are quite different, Berdyaev is sketchy on some aspects of his metaphysics, etc. (though I generally like them all, with necessary qualifications) — but concentrating only on Gilson, whose metaphysics I find more compelling — existence, as I indicated in a comment above — is the perfect flourishing of being. Essences are limited participations in esse, but esse is itself dynamic and constitutive of relations. So the confrontational, hostile aspect of secular existentialism is turned on its head. Existence is both the ground and telos of becoming beings. Freedom is not a zero sum game at the expense of existence, but the fullness of participation in an eternal plenitude. (But all this requires revelation; you won’t find this in strictly Aristotelian notions of essence.)


      • Thanks for taking the time and thought to respond. But I fear that is all over my head.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Hi, Marvin. I don’t know if you’re interested or not in exploring further the classical understanding of deity that is informing Brian’s reflections, but if you are, may I recommend The Experience of God by David B. Hart.


          • I have a pragmatic view of “God”. There is an early experience we all have but none of us remembers. The first prayer is the newborn crying out to the universe for food and warmth and being answered by a being that to him appears to be the source of all Good. Later, as an adult, when beaten down by natural calamity, he cries out again. Sometimes things get better. Sometimes they don’t. But a habit created through intermittent reward is harder to extinguish then one that is always rewarded. Early gods were superstitions, idols were instruments of hope.

            The big evolutionary step was monotheism. Instead of just superstitious requests for favors, God now represented the ultimate Good. Rewards and penalties followed from obedience to a moral system of ethics. And that advanced morality for everyone.

            With Jesus we get personal Salvation, personal spiritual growth, and a moral philosophy based upon loving Good and loving good for others as well as for ourselves. All ethics is motivated by and judged by this moral criteria. (Matthew 22:35-40).


  7. I would agree there are some social aspects necessary to this topic. There is the obliged determinism in some, and all others with which God has no obligations. Being the defender of the widow and fatherless, assigns the rights and duties to God with all the freedom of God, but the obligation to act upon,in all omnipotence,the affairs of those to whom He is not obliged negates their passage of free agency.


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