Is Free Will Defined as a State of Mental Indifference to Options?
Some scholars believe that a will would be free if, and only if, it were in a state of complete indifference to its possible choices. In other words, if there were any influences upon a will, the will would no longer be free. They argue that any influence upon a will would determine it to a particular choice among its possible options. It is granted by all that many things influence the human will. So, if free will were dependent upon having no influences upon it, these scholars would have made their case that human do not have a free will.
John Gerstner (?-1996)
An example of the denial of free will is found in the writings of the late professor John Gerstner of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He argued that a will is only free if it is free from any background influence or compulsion in its choices. Then, he followed by showing that this is an impossible state of affairs. He concluded that free will is "just a meaningless statement." In his A Primer On Free Will, he wrote,
"Spontaneously, without anything forcing me to make a choice, I did, of myself alone, arbitrarily if you please choose to pick up this book and read it." At least, that is what 95 percent of the persons who use that term, "free will," mean by it. They mean their choices are free of any factors in the background influencing them, let alone compelling them. p.1-2
Now, you see, that sort of thing—choosing regardless of considerations, or choosing without considerations, or choosing against considerations, and so on, is precisely what 95 percent of the people mean when they talk about "free will." p. 5
No, it is not of your own free will. We already have shown that there is no such thing as a free will. That’s a will-o’-the-wisp. You never make choices without reasons, not as a responsible or rational person. p. 11
We have shown that there is no meaning to the concept of free will. There isn’t any in God, or the angels, or the devils, or man in heaven or in hell. The concept is just a meaningless statement. p. 25.1
Anyone familiar with the classic definition of free will and with the reasoning behind its definition would immediately see how misdirected Professor Gerstner’s comments were. Historically, free will has been a term selected to designate the kind of will that is possessed by a rational being. A non-rational animal lacks an intellectual mind, and its will is directed by its natural instincts. A brute animal has a will, but it is not a free will. By contrast, a rational being has a will whose choices are made in the light of its rational mind. This kind of will has been historically defined as a free will, because it can make rational choices that go beyond the programmed behavior of animal instincts.
For example, a hungry lion looks at a herd of wildebeest and chooses one that is weak and vulnerable to attack. The lion does not think about the morality of attacking another animal to satisfy its needs. It feels no compassion or guilt for the animal it kills. It acts according to its instinctive nature. Komodo dragons eat their own young without any moral considerations. By contrast, humans are morally responsible for their behavior, because they have an intellectual mind that reflects upon appropriate behavior.
Essentially, Professor Gerstner presented a non-standard definition of free will and then proceeded to dismantle it. He did not base his views on the fundamental difference between the will of an animal and the will of a rational being. So, his assertion that humans don't have free will does not apply to the traditional understanding of the human will. His booklet's title is a really misnomer, since it is not 'A Primer On Free Will' nor is it helpful to students who seek to understand the topic, as it has been understood through the centuries. This is unfortunate, because it is vital that Christian students learn the rationale for traditional views, so they become equipped to engage the culture and to defend the Christian faith.
There are numerous influences and compulsions upon human beings. This is readily granted, and it is not a new thought. Free will has nothing to do with a state of indifference to options. It has to do with rational thought and the will choosing what the mind deems best morally. In fact, the human will is the least free when it is in a state of indifference to a set of choices. By contrast, the will is most free when a single choice is crystal clear without any ambiguity.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
Descartes in his Mediations on First Philosophy wrote that the human will is the most free when reasons of truth and goodness clearly point the way. Descartes understood that the freedom of the will did not consist in a state of indifference to options.
Next, when I look more closely at myself and inquire into the nature of my errors (for these are the only evidence of some imperfection in me), I notice that they depend on two concurrent causes, namely on the faculty of the will; that is, they depend on both the intellect and the will simultaneously.
For in order to be free, there is no need for me to be capable of moving both ways; on the contrary, the more I incline in one direction—either because I clearly understand that reasons of truth and goodness point that way, or because of a divinely produced disposition of my inmost thoughts—the freer is my choice. Neither divine grace nor natural knowledge ever diminishes freedom; on the contrary, they increase and strengthen it. But the indifference I feel when there is no reason pushing me in one direction rather than another is the lowest grade of freedom; it is evidence not of any perfection of freedom, but rather of a defect of knowledge or a kind of negation. For if I always say clearly what was true and good, I should never have to deliberate about the right judgement or choice; in that case, although I should be wholly free, it would be impossible for me ever to be in a state of indifference.2
Indifference to choice options has nothing to do with free will. Stones are indifferent to all options, and they feel no compulsion to do anything. This does not mean they are free. They are in total bondage to their physical nature. Humans have immaterial minds that give liberty and freedom to love, worship, and praise God. They can show love and kindness to others. Humans are more than instinctive animals. They are creatures made in the image and likeness of God.
1 Gerstner, John H., A Primer On Free Will, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Phillipsburg, NJ, 1982, pp. 28.
2 Descartes, Rene(1596-1650), Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies, Translated by: J. Cottingham, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1986, p. 101-102.