Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Free Will to Choose Free Will

Fun fact: I'm an ordained minister. I got my ordination in exchange for a nominal fee and a short essay detailing my spiritual views and my life journey. So there were no long years of study in divinity school for me, but hey, I can legally marry people, if anyone's looking to tie the knot.

Thing is, I've always been fascinated by religions and the things people believe about spirituality and the afterlife. The study of religions and spiritual beliefs is something of an avocation for me. And lately, I've been brainstorming theological ideas for a paper I intend to write in pursuit of an online degree, through the same seminary that ordained me. Eventually, I'd love to run my own little chapel, and maybe even write a book.

The ideas have been coming at me fast over the past few days, almost faster than I can keep up with. As I was trying to sift through and synthesize my thoughts, I was struck by an idea that I know many others have wrestled with over the ages: the notion of free will.

As someone who despises being pinned down by circumstances and forced to follow someone else's edicts, the very idea that I might lack free will is a recipe for an existential meltdown. I'm like Neo in The Matrix, who says he doesn't believe in fate because "I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my own life."

But what if we're not? What if, even when we agonize over a choice, the choice we ultimately make was predetermined all along? Emerging science suggests that our brains "choose" our path before we carry out our decision. And the chains of cause and effect that occur all around us, every day, further suggest that our choices in life may be far more constrained than we'd like to believe they are.

It's the Butterfly Effect on an existential level. A influences B, and B causes C, and C leaves me with the options of D and E -- but my choice between D and E may have already been made before my conscious mind realizes it. There are no alternate timelines in which A didn't influence B and I chose differently between D and E. The way things played out was always the way they were going to play out.

Putting aside the troubling lack of personal autonomy in such a universe, the ethical consequences of lacking free will are somewhat horrifying. If you were always destined to steal those shoes from Walmart anyway, then are you really morally culpable when you actually act out your fate and do it? Could you even be prosecuted in court if you got caught? After all, you had no choice. 

Perhaps you can see how this ties into my religious ponderings. If God exists, and God is all-knowing, then God would know every choice we are destined to make. In such a scenario, free will is an illusion, and we are simply puppets having our predestined fate playing out on the stage of life.

And here's where things get really sticky. If God knows every choice we will make, then how could he ever hold us morally culpable for making those choices, if we were always powerless to choose otherwise? To touch on Judeo-Christian allegory, God would have always known that Adam and Eve would eat the forbidden fruit. And if that's so, then how could he justify punishing them if they never really possessed the choice not to eat it? Why give them free will at all? 

The same goes for the Flood. If you knew beforehand that the entire human race was going to become so rotten that you had to destroy everyone on Earth but a single family, then you rigged the game against all the people you killed from the get-go.

For that matter, why create a sacrificial Son to forgive humanity's sins if those same humans were essentially programmed to commit their sins in the first place? 

Heck, why even pray, if you can't alter the path that God has foreordained for your life? It's not like you're going to change his mind.

None of it makes any sense.

And the plain truth is this: If all your creatures are innocently acting out a script that you wrote, and you give them no power to alter the script, then you, the Divine Playwright, are nothing but a sadist who enjoys inflicting pain on people whom you set up to displease you in the first place.

Thus, it would seem that either an omniscient and omnipotent deity exists, or free will exists, but the two cannot coexist.

I sincerely hope we don't live in a universe that is so unjust that none of us has any agency to influence the path our lives take.

I have to err on the side of believing that we don't -- one, because the alternative is far too depressing to contemplate, and two, it would already seem that an all-knowing, all-loving God cannot logically exist in a universe where innocent people suffer, rendering the entire discussion irrelevant. Moreover, true omniscience would be impossible anyway, for not even a deity can create a four-sided triangle.

So in a sense, believers in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God paint their God into a corner precisely by attributing those characteristics to him. That would seem to leave us to draw one of several conclusions about the nature of God:

  • God doesn't exist, and everything got here through natural processes.
  • The deists were right: God had no further interaction with the universe after he created it. He wound the watch and walked away.
  • Some kind of impersonal creative force, but not an anthropomorphic deity, gave rise to the universe. The Tao, for example.
  • The Gnostics (Yaldabaoth help us) were right: The creator of this world was either incompetent, ignorant, or evil.

My hunch is that either the deists or the Taoists are on the right track.

Whatever the truth, I will, like Neal Peart, still choose free will. Who really wants to believe in all this fate crap, anyway?