Free will

The idea of free will was first put forth in the West by Epicurus, around 300 BC. He believed we had freedom because of the “clinamen”: an ability of human desire to change the way atoms interact. It wasn’t really a big issue then, however, since most societies comfortably assumed that human affairs were in the hands of the gods and they therefore had a natural belief in determinism.

It came up as a serious question in Christianity with the moral question of repercussions in a future life. Augustine thought we had the freedom to choose between good and evil. Pelagius argued we must also possess the ability to act on our choices. Later church figures debated that the will of man is enough; he is at least 99% dependent on the grace of God to accomplish what he intends.

At the time of the Enlightenment, science founded its own view by including man in the mechanistic scheme of physical law, thus stripping him again of free will, completely. This view persisted for several centuries, becoming highly popular, and leading to the belief that sciences could be formulated to describe human behavior with precision, such as psychology and sociology. The “nature versus nurture” argument still rages on, and the influence of Darwinism only strengthened the idea that we act according to programmed motives and not by free choice.

When quantum physics appeared, science noticed that nature itself is not deterministic, but in some way involves the observer in the outcome of probability. This harkens back to Epicurus’ clinamen, providing a foothold once again for serious argument in favor of a free will.

The Bahá’í view expresses elements of all these past schemes of thought:

  1. That man is bound by fate in many things which he cannot change, except through supplication to God.
  2. That man is free in his choice between good and evil.
  3. That man relies entirely upon the grace of God to act on his choices.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains

….this condition is like that of a ship which is moved by the power of the wind or steam; if this power ceases, the ship cannot move at all. Nevertheless, the rudder of the ship turns it to either side, and the power of the steam moves it in the desired direction. If it is directed to the east, it goes to the east; or if it is directed to the west, it goes to the west. This motion does not come from the ship; no, it comes from the wind or the steam.

In the same way, in all the action or inaction of man, he receives power from the help of God; but the choice of good or evil belongs to the man himself….1

This means we have both a contingent freedom – that is, we cannot choose the scope of what we are free to do and not do – and the conferred ability to act on those choices.

That is to say, though the choice of good and evil belongs to man, under all circumstances he is dependent upon the sustaining help of life, which comes from the Omnipotent. The Kingdom of God is very great, and all are captives in the grasp of His Power. The servant cannot do anything by his own will; God is powerful, omnipotent, and the Helper of all beings.2

We have freedom to choose, but not a true freedom to act; the latter is given to us invisibly in the form of divine assistance, which may be increased by faith and prayer.

  1. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.289↩︎

  2. ibid↩︎