October 5, 2007

Total Self-Determinism

Posted in Philosophy at 9:16 am by Caleb Winn


Human choices are pre-determined. By this, I mean that they are functionally constrained, but not that they are externally imposed. We are never zombies whose bodies are compelled to action by a force external to ourselves. We make free moral choices, and are responsible for them. These choices are determined by our own Will, but that Will is shaped by our created Nature and our environmental Nurture.

The Self-Determinination Of Choice

These free moral choices are pre-determined, but they are determined by who we are. I will make the choices that I will make, based on an infinitely complex combination of internal and external factors.

Imagine that I freeze a single moment in time and replicate an infinite number of copies of the universe. In each of them, absolutely nothing has changed. I am confronted with exactly the same scenario, at exactly the same time. My body and soul are the same in each universe. Nothing is different.

In such a situation, with an infinite set of identical universes, I would make the same choice in each.  

Keep in mind that I am the same. If I do not change, but my choice does, then my choices are independent of my self, and are not contingent on who I am. This hardly seems like a “Free Will” position to me. If choice is not determined by the self, that seems more Random than Free. If anything, self-determinism is the only position that provides a robust sense of Will that is not externally imposed either by mechanistic forces or by inexplicable random chance.

Though I could choose otherwise, I would never do so. Choices are thus pre-determined, but are not externally imposed. Choices are totally self-determined by my Will.

The Origin of the Will

So we have “Free Will” in the sense that our Will is free to choose whatever it wants. These choices are only constrained by ourselves. However, it is important to note that the “self” that does the choosing is shaped and formed by external forces.

The Will — the mechanism by which we choose — is not autonomous. It is not self-originating. It is created by God, and shaped by His Spirit and His world. We are inescabably contingent beings. We do not — cannot — create ourselves ex nihilo.

This is not to say that we are a product of our environment. It is absolutely true that there each individual has an innate, immaterial soul that precedes external developmental stimuli. Indeed, Nature probably plays a larger role than Nurture in the development of the Will.

But the Nature itself is not self-originated. As created, contingent beings, our souls, our wills, those faculties which desire and choose, are set in motion by an infinitely powerful and infinitely personal God. We do not self-originate. We do not choose who we are, as our identity precedes our choosing. At the most basic level, “Who I Am” is a function of who I was created to be.

Physical Freedom as an Analogy for Moral Freedom

To draw an analogy, man is physically free when he is free from external physical restraints. If I am handcuffed, shackled, or blindfolded, I am not “free.” In these situations, there is an external force which limits my natural capabilities.

However, even free from external limitations there are limits to my physical power. I cannot bench press 500 pounds. I cannot leap tall buildings with a single bound. I am not, sadly, faster than a speeding bullet. Some are stronger than others. Some are athletes, while others are crippled. But all people have physical limitations which are not externally imposed.

These limitations are not restrictions on man’s physical freedom. They do not (as in the case of handcuffs) externally impose artificial limitations on his physical capabilities. Being unable to move and object due to external restraint is a restriction of physical freedom; being unable to move the same object because I am too weak is not.

Similarly, being unable to choose an object due to external restraint is a restriction of moral freedom; being unable to choose the same object because it is not in my nature to do so is not.

Human Will and the Divine

The Wills of God and Man are Free, in that they are constrained only by the self. The key distinction between the Will of God and the Will of Man is that God’s self is self-originated, while ours is contingent.

God’s will is constrained by His character. He could do anything, but He would never contradict His own nature. God would never act unjustly, for example. This does not mean that His will is somehow not free, for the only constraint on His Will is Himself. God is free to do whatever He wants, but what He wants is limited by who He is.

Similarly, man’s will is constrained by his character. We could choose anything within our physical power, but we would only choose those things which are consistent our nature at that particular moment in time. (Unlike God, man has a changing, dynamic character, which makes our choices more unpredictable, but no less self-limited.) Again, this does not mean that our choices are not free, for the only constraint on our choice is internal. We are free to do anything that we want (within our physical power), but what we want is determined by who we are.

The difference lies not in the nature of choice, but in those factors that shape the Will.

Because God is wholly self-originating, His Will is entirely self-determined. God is completely autonomous, and His will precedes any external factors.

In contrast, man is not self-originating. Though (like God) our choices are determined by our Will, our will is not ultimately self-determined. Man is contingent, and our Will is a product of external factors, including our own Nature (created by God, and not by ourselves), and through our interaction with external stimuli.

The Problem of “Free Will”

The biggest problem that I have with so-called “free will” is that it seems logically incoherent to me.

I cannot comprehend any freedom other than self-determination, which is a concept that I affirm whole-heartedly. I literally do not know what “free will” means if not, “I am free from external constraint, and will make choices in accordance with my created nature as shaped through my interaction with my environment.”

What is free will, if not the freedom to make choices in accordance with who I am? And if my choices are not determined by my self, what has the doctrine of Free Will become, but random chance? How can the Will of man be more free than the Will of God?

But the contingency of the “self” is, I think, inescapable. Man is not God. We do not self-originate. And we do not create ourselves ex nihilo.

That’s already been done.



  1. […] the one regarding predestination, free-will and self-determinism. The article is entitled “Total Self-Determinism“. One of the most poignant […]

  2. jen said,

    uhm.. is it just the same? i mean.. free will and total determinism (by b.f. skinner).. well.. i’m just confused..!

    i’m doing a reaction paper about this matter (total determinisn) but i can’t find what it means…

    **my comment is just the same with the previous comment..!
    ~peace out..! 🙂

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