Is Free Will an Illusion?

Jennifer Mee is a 19-year-old Floridian who is charged with first-degree murder. The mainstream media, as is its wont, has put an interesting spin on her situation.

The young teenager had been afflicted with round-the-clock hiccups for over a month. These hiccups assailed her as often as 50 times per minute. Was it the hiccups that contributed to her distraught condition that led to the crime? And to what extent? Jennifer’s mother puts the blame squarely on the “curse of the hiccups.”

The so-called “hiccup defense” brings to mind other imaginative ways of exculpating a person from a crime. One may recall the celebrated “Twinkie defense” (too much sugar), “I was programmed by my genes,” “temporary insanity” or that old chestnut: “The devil made me do it.”

The court will decide whether Mee is guilty as charged, though we know that the judicial process does not enjoy infallibility. The “hiccup girl,” as media reports describe her, does raise an age-old question, one that is a good topic for discussions around the water cooler: Do we have free will? Are we truly responsible for our actions? Or, on the other hand, are we merely passive pawns who are completely at the mercy of impersonal or alien forces?

The wrong way of going about trying to answer this question is to begin with a particular case, such as the one that Jennifer Mee is embroiled in, and then try to reach some universal conclusion.

If we begin with something confusing, we remain immersed in confusion. The way to deal with the issue of free will is to start from a position that is clear and indubitable, namely from the nature of the human being.

We are rational beings. This means first and foremost that we possess reason. Now, this simple statement is devoid of controversy. No one asks, “Is there such a thing as reason?” The omnipresence of the computer is sufficient proof that human beings both possess and employ reason. But people often ask the question, “Is there such a thing as free will?”

There is an easy and direct way of answering this question in the affirmative, one that is essentially the way Aristotle and Aquinas answered it.

We are free precisely because we are rational. Reason and freedom are profoundly interrelated. And just as there is no doubt that we are rational, there is also no doubt that we are free.

Because we are rational, we are able to survey an array of possible choices.

Let us say that I want to watch TV. I use my reason to explore something that might be informative, edifying and entertaining. I am not compelled, mindlessly, to watch one program or another (such a compulsion would be the gist of a horror story). But the mere recognition that I have all the reasons I need to watch a particular program is not enough.

I need to choose to watch the program. Therefore, this additional faculty, called “free will,” is needed so that I can complement my act of reason with an act of free choice and actually watch the program.

Reason and will are both spiritual faculties. As such, they are personal expressions of our nature as human beings. There is good reason why St. Thomas Aquinas refers to the will as the “rational appetite.”

It is because the will is a desire (or inclination) that follows and is congruent with reason. In other words, our capacity for free choice is set up for us by reason.

Reason locates the good and then the will chooses it. We are free precisely because we are rational. And since no one disputes whether we are rational, no one should dispute whether we are free.

There are problems, to be sure. The clear water can be muddied by the addition of extraneous factors. Reason may be mistaken about what it takes to be good. There may be forces that overpower our ability to choose reasonably. We are not creatures of perfect integrity. But such problems belong more to the domain of psychology and jurisprudence than to that of philosophy.

We are, by nature, spiritual beings who are both rational and free. We should strive to be true to our nature and live a life of dynamic integrity in which we freely choose what our reason rightly identifies as good. It is most important for us to know this. We need not be distracted or confused by bizarre cases.

Concerning Jennifer Mee, the court will render a verdict. One hopes that it will be fair and just. We ourselves need not decide whether she acted freely with respect to the crime for which she has been charged. But we can take charge of our own lives and recognize that it is our nature to be free and that our freedom is grounded in our reason.

Thus, reason is the formal and unifying principle of ethics, not freedom. Reason comes first, and freedom follows. When people put reason aside in the mistaken hope of enlarging their freedom, they fail to preserve either. We preserve our freedom by maintaining its spiritual affinity with reason. And this is exactly what John Paul II meant by “becoming a person.”

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at St. Jerome University and an adjunct

professor at Holy Apostles

College & Seminary and Mater

Ecclesiae College.