“Liberty, according to my metaphysics, is an intellectual quality, an attribute that belongs not to fate nor chance. Neither possesses it, neither is capable of it. There is nothing moral or immoral in the idea of it. The definition of it is a self-determining power in an intellectual agent. It implies thought and choice and power; it can elect between objects, indifferent in point of morality, neither morally good nor morally evil.1“
–John Adams, in a letter to John Taylor (15 April 1814)
This will be the first of a series of posts intended to work out the principles of Natural Law. It will draw from the body of works and understandings of those who have come before me, but it is largely the result of my own effort to work out the principles that govern human behavior. Unless I cite another source, I am asserting that all parts of the extended argument which will follow are my own. If I happen to argue something that parallels or agrees with something from another source, I can assure you, it is only because that source and I were on the same path and, should there be such convergences (and I already know there are), it only serves to validate our common conclusion(s): that there does exist a Natural Law to human interaction in this universe; that it can be discovered through human reason; and that is establishes a universal moral code by which we ought to live.
Many people have started from the assumption that we own our life, but while I agree with this assumption, I disagree that it is the first principle of Natural Law. As I look to history, study human nature and even the holy books of all the world’s major religions, I find there is a central theme running through every one of them: that man has free will. There are those who would argue we cannot know this, but they are wrong. We can know this because we each think. This is part of the brilliance of Descartes’ simple phrase:
“I think, therefore I am.”
Not only does that phrase prove we exist, it proves we exist as individuals, and that we have free will.
No one forced Descartes to think those words; he did that of his own free will. Nor did the random happenstance of this universe cause him to think those words. While it may be fashionable in some intellectual circles to believe that everything that has or will ever happen was pre-ordained by the circumstances of the universe at the first moment it was born, logic dictates that this cannot possibly be the case of our reality. If it were, then how could we ever imagine something that has no basis in any reality? This is a difficult concept to understand, but it is one we must examine because it is the most common avenue of attack for those who seek to deny the existence of free will.
The logical point here is easy to state, but not so easy to comprehend. If you are nothing but a collection of matter and you are hopelessly bound to do whatever the forces acting upon you from the first instant of time dictate you must do, then how can you imagine something that does not, has never and can never exist in this universe? A perfect example would be the world of Harry Potter. Magic does not exist in this world, yet, a human imagined something that does not and cannot exist. Logically, this is impossible – unless you have free will. It is a logical extension of another philosophical principle: that which is finite cannot imagine or understand the concept of infinite. If you think about it, this is the primary difference between us and the animals: we know there is a past, present and future. We can even understand that which is infinite. The fact that you are reading and understanding these words is proof of this as the logic governing the English language is infinite. It existed before this universe began and will exist even after this universe ends. So, what all of this means is that we do – in fact – have free will and it can be demonstrated through reason.
There is another aspect of free will that will help bolster my argument. The ability to create is a function of free will. If we look at our example of harry Potter again, that story is not only a creation, but an example of free will. If we were just matter doing what physics dictates, then there would be no way for us to imagine anything outside the actual existence of this universe. The best we could do would be to re-arrange the things we see in our universe, but little more. And though we might call this “creation,” a re-arranging is all it would actually be: putting that which already is together in different ways. It would not actually be a “creation.” But Harry Potter goes totally outside everything we know of this universe and the laws that govern it and truly creates a new world, a world that lives only in our imaginations. That is an act of free will. This then means that the idea we are just matter going through the motions dictated by the universe is a creation, which affirms the existence of free will.
There is one more aspect of human existence that speaks to the existence of free will. Humans can not only discover and learn to understand the laws that govern this universe; we can harness them to serve our desires. That not only demonstrates that we have the ability to understand the infinite, but that we have free will. Desire, itself, is a manifestation of our will, as are the actions we take to satisfy that desire. So, when you turn on your computer to read this post, you benefit from man’s ability to understand, harness and manipulate the principles governing electromagnetism (among other things). At once, this demonstrates the ability to understand the infinite, to manipulate natural laws, to create and – ultimately – free will. Everything about our existence speaks to the fact that we have free will.
Now for the most important aspect of free will. It is free will. That means you control what you think and believe. While outside forces may influence you, ultimately, you are the only one who can control your thoughts and your beliefs – your heart. You make or break yourself depending upon how strong you are. If you would rather go along to get along, you can be easily controlled – but that was still your choice. However, if you are strongly rooted in what you believe, you may resist attempts to control you unto death, and many have done just that. And that – again – speaks to the existence of free will, for how could the universe dictate self-destruction? It cannot. That would take an act of free will by a being capable of acting outside of the universes laws of physics. In other words, it would require a being with free will.
Finally, for those of faith who may be reading his, there is one more point I would make. In most religions of which I am aware, the Creator grants us free will. Now, do not misunderstand: I am not saying the Creator is not sovereign over all things, because He is. If He were not, then He couldn’t be the Creator. But even though He is sovereign, He has still granted us free will. It has to be that free will is the one thing the Creator has given us over which He has chosen not to exercise complete control. He can take our wealth, health, freedom – even our lives. But He has chosen to allow us free will. If this were not the case, we could not worship Him; we could not love Him; we couldn’t even reject Him or refuse to believe in Him because all of those things require free will.
Therefore, the first principle upon which all Natural Law must rest is that of free will.
Next in this series: