I have written an eight part series on agency, which is the idea that people can indeed have free will and make free moral choices. The first of this series explains the importance of the issue and can be found here, but note that posts five to eight have the real heart of the justification for free will. I have also written a lighthearted response to those who continually insist that free moral choice somehow needs a cause outside the person (see here).
My previous explanations for free will rest upon the fact that everything that moves from potential to actual must do so by the power of something that is already actual. While this explanation is valid, today we explore another valid explanation for human free will.
When we seek an explanation for something, we look at the technical terms necessary and sufficient. Fuel is necessary for a fire, but fuel by itself is not sufficient for a fire. Merely having fuel does not make a fire. Oxygen is necessary for a fire, as is heat. Any of these three things, taken one at a time, is necessary for fire but not sufficient. When we put together all three — fuel, oxygen, and heat — we have fire. Therefore the conditions of having fuel, oxygen, and heat together are sufficient conditions for fire. Therefore if we have sufficient conditions, we can logically say we need not seek any further conditions to prove a thing’s existence.
So let us keep in mind the concepts of act/potential and sufficient conditions when we explore human free will agency.
Is an act of the will something that begins to exist in the sense that it needs a prior cause, or are all the conditions there from the beginning, and free will is not a separate act that needs a prior cause? The movement of my hand is an act of will, but is the decision to move my hand a separate event that needs a prior cause?
I submit that human agency is a different type of thing than many other events. We can explain human agency as the ability to choose between alternatives and act on the choice. An act of the will is a judgement based on prior-existing desires and the ability to make reasoned judgments. I have a desire, such as hunger, and I reason that the object in front of me is food, therefore I move my hand to get the food. The free will act to grab the food requires no other cause nor condition than the desire, the ability to reason, and the power to move. These prerequisite conditions are sufficient for a free will act of human agency.
Author Timothy O’Connor seems to agree, for he has a similar explanation in his book Persons & Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will. Taylor describes a subject whose desire grows to the point that it overcomes the judgement, and the agent acts. Another subject trains his judgement to the point it shapes his desires, and a decision is made to act or not. (p. 93-94). O’Connor refers to “self-determining causal activity” (p.93) that is the agent making a choice. Note that the cause comes from the self, which tells us where the activity is sourced (the self) and that it is caused. Yet the activity is not uncaused from nothing, but is explained by the existence of desire, reason, and power to act. Thomas Aquinas speaks of similar mental activity when he speaks of human judgement acting upon sense perceptions as the basis for our knowledge.
Does a free will act require some prior cause not explained by desire, reason, and power to move? I have addressed this in the eight-part series, and O’Connor addresses this very question in explaining the work of Richard Taylor (p. 52-55, 61). Because an agent causes an event, there is no logical reason to insist that there must be a cause acting upon the agent from outside, causing the agent to act. The conditions from within the agent are sufficient to cause the free will act, therefore the act is caused by the agent. One of the conditions placed into the mind of the agent is the ability to deliberate about decisions.
We therefore agree with Taylor when he says “No reason has been given why we cannot adequately explain an action by characterizing it as the freely initiated behavior of an agent who is motivated by a particular reason.” (p.91) He also says “Agent-causal events are intrinsically actions — the exercise of control over one’s behavior. It is senseless to demand some further means of controlling this exercise of control.” (p. 58-59)
Therefore the world does not act mechanistically, and all events are not inevitable and predetermined. When we chose to lie and break God’s commandment, it was our choice. Therefore the common-sense description of free moral agency is supported. The Bible takes this view, for it tells us to “choose this day whom you will serve” and repeatedly speaks of people making a choice to receive the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.