I have debated much about where to start with this huge issue. There really is no one place that just jumps out at me as the perfect starting place, so, let me start with the issue of free will and why I don't like the term.
Free will is a term that is tossed about yet rarely defined. I tried an exercise in my religion class last semester and I asked my students to define the term.
The answers came back something like this: "Free will means that I can do anything I want." Or, "Free will means that I have to freedom to choose anything at any time." I was not surprised by these answers and I think that this is vaguely what most people think this term to mean. I find that definition problematic for several reasons. First and foremost is that it is not thought out. It did not take long for me to convince my students that, if that was their definition of free will, then none of them has free will at all.
Here is what I mean. There are so many things in life that a person has no choice about whatsoever. Let's start with the most basic, but perhaps least obvious question, and that is whether to exist at all. None of us had a choice as to whether we wanted to be born. Given that choice, would everyone choose to exist? I don't know, but I suspect that there are some who would choose not to exist.
The second matter that none of us had a choice about is where and to whom we were born. None of us chose our parents. Depending on who you are and who your parents are, you might have been tremendously blessed, or unfortunately cursed. Yet, this one non-choice determines so much of the rest of one's life. Did your parents raise you with good values that have allowed you to become successful and happy in life? Did your parents save money to send you to college? Did your parents teach you how to socialize properly which is so necessary for getting along in this world?
Connected to the non-choice about our parents is the factor of personality, which plays such a large role in how and why each of us makes choices. Without getting into the nature/nurture question, I assume that we inherit our personalities in large part from our parents. Part of this comes through on a genetic level and part is formed through our upbringing.
One last non-choice that determines so much of our reality and future choices is the place in which we were born. I was born in a middle class town in America. This afforded me a great number of choices, such as a good education, good choice of colleges, a life of relatively good health care, a life of moderate luxury. And, perhaps most importantly, being born in America, I was offered the choice to become a Christian.
Contrast my situation with someone born, say, in a poor village in India. The choices were just greatly reduced. Education might be a struggle, if there is any option at all. College is probably not a real possibility. Health care is probably lacking. Luxuries are probably unheard of, and by inheritance one becomes Hindu. Marriage is probably arranged. All of these choices were made for the individual before he or she was even born.
The second reason I have a problem with the term "free will" is because I see no real reason to use it, at least not from a biblical stand point. It is not a biblical term. The Bible uses the terms will, and choice, and freedom, but these are not joined into one overarching term "free will."
Yet, since the term free will is generally accepted, I can use it, but I must say that it is a deeply limited free will. What I think I could agree to is to say that we all have relative levels of free will. Some people are more limited in their freedom of choice than others. Yet, no one has absolute free will, on the level of my students' definitions.
In the next post I will talk about choice. Before my next post, be thinking about the following question: "Why do you choose what you choose?" I think this is a profound and self searching question that gets at the very heart of this issue.