Saturday, April 14, 2007

Free Choice of the Will

Contrary to the insistence of agnostic and atheistic determinists, as well as strict pre-destinationists, the Church recognizes and teaches that human persons have the power of free choice of the will.

“Free will” is the metaphysical truth of independent agency and elective power, including the ability to exercise autonomous and rational control over one’s decisions, thoughts, and actions. The existence of free will means that the actions of the body, including the brain and the mind, are not wholly determined by physical causality, that one’s thoughts somehow go beyond and transcend the physical body, suggesting the existence of an extra-corporeal aspect to the person, which we call the spirit or soul. It is because we are both body and spirit that we are able to transcend and overcome the mere biological electro-chemical reactions in the brain.

The human brain is like a computer. A computer operates strictly according to its software programming and the efficacy of its hardware. So long as there is no physical damage or defect, the computer will only do what its program dictates, without any deviation whatsoever. The actions of the computer are totally pre-determined by its programming. Likewise, the human brain operates according to its own hardware and software, by electro-chemical impulses along synapses, which interact with memory that has been created by certain chemical markers on the brain tissue. However, human persons are possessed with more than a body and computer-like brain.

Our Faith, revelation and reason, informs us that we are also possessed with a soul, and this spiritual component of our being is able to rise above and go beyond the merely material and physical, including the physical laws of cause and effect. As a result, we are able to make independent decisions with respect to actions taken. We lift our hand and move our fingers because we consciously choose to do so of our own volition, not because of some pre-programmed biological memory and electro-chemical reactions in the brain, and not because God has pulled a puppet string. We are made in the image of God, and therefore possess to a certain degree that same power of the Logos, that is, we have a certain power of creative reason, which transcends and overrides the physical brain and permits independent thought and agency. Now, we do not have the power of the Logos to create reality itself, much less a reality which is contrary to Truth, but we do have the limited power of creative reason to form our own thoughts and act upon a free choice of the will. That is, to break the chain of purely material cause and effect and create a completely new and independent cause.

Freedom belongs to the basic structure of creation, to the spiritual existence of man. We are not just laid out and determined according to a particular model. Freedom is there so that each one of us can shape his own life and, along with his own inner self, can in the end follow the path that best corresponds to his essential being.

-- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
God and the World

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