Free Will, Determinism and Religion
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of free will, and how we as humans feel that all our decisions are our own. As mundane as the idea might seem, it’s actually one area that is misunderstood by many, abused by some, and taken for granted by most.
I’m not just talking about the ability to choose my favourite flavour, or what clothes to wear when you go out. I’m talking about the larger space, the free will we think we practice on a daily basis, everything from what we say, do, eat and think, all the way to the freedom to steer our car away from an obstacle, or navigate our way through a shopping centre without running into things. What’s interesting about these decisions, conscious or unconscious, is that every one of them has been predetermined in some sense by the many happenings before the outcome. In fact, every action that ever takes place has been set in motion by the actions of the early beginnings of the universe.
Yes that’s a big claim, but it’s a claim we must make if we agree with the idea of causality in any sense. Everything must have a cause, and many things arise in the brain long before we are even aware of it. Sam Harris says, in The Moral Landscape (and here on his blog):
Interesting to note here, that this should not be mistaken for determinism, but there is a certain amount of determinism involved with our day-to-day lives. If taken to the ultimate reductionist standpoint, as Harris has explored, there is not a single thought which arises in our brain of which we are aware instantaneously. It takes time for these thoughts to arise, and they do appear to rise our of nowhere, or rather from somewhere inside our brains. There is no denying that our brains still, when delivering these thoughts and body commands that they are reacting to outside stimuli, but some thoughts appear to just spring into existence on their own.
The deterministic nature of the universe is not something that we can easily pin down; humans operate on a scale of time and dimensions so that things of this nature elude our senses and sensibilities. The mechanisms behind determinism are not things we can see, just as the mechanisms behind thought are not something we are aware of in our daily lives. Quantum mechanics has shown us that some things just happen (it could also be the case that we are yet to understand why or how they happen). Things pop in and out of existence seemingly randomly all the time. Whether they all have an affect on the outcomes of the universe is still unknown, but it is likely that they have potential to. But just because we don’t fully understand something does not make it a fanciful notion. If, in fact, everything is deterministic, then every action has been determined in advance, because of the way that the universe reacts against itself. This is by no means a fatalistic notion, it may just be that this is the way things are. We will continue to live as if there IS free will regardless of the reality of the situation.
Some people will take this idea of determinism and attach a God to it. For example, “It is God’s will that such-and-such happened the way it did” is a way of saying, though we don’t understand how and why something occurred, but we are comforted by the notion that it’s “All part of God’s grand scheme”. The bible claims in many passages that humans have been give free will by God as a test, serving to back the tenets of choosing Christ over hell, choosing “right” over “wrong”, and choosing to follow the moral dictates of the scriptures. As we are discovering, however, things like “right and wrong” and morality are subjective to the people who claim it, so the idea of free-will from that standpoint is confusing at best. The one thing that many religious folk find hard to grapple with is the dichotomy of determinism versus free-will, where an omniscient God knows the future (as he knows everything), he is omnipotent (can do anything and has created the universe), and has therefore determined the outcome of any situation. Apologists, while they agree with this statement will say that while God knows the future, he leaves it up to humans as individuals to choose the right path. This leaves us with a conundrum, and the best way to reconcile this position is to leave God out of the equation altogether and just stick to what we can measure.
People wrongly take the idea of a determinism and create a hopelessly fatalistic situation for mankind. This is to say, if what will happen is already determined by the initial state of the universe, then what’s the point of existence? If there is no striving for betterment, and our actions are all reactions against pre-existing conditions, then why not just lie back and see what happens, rather than going about our menial daily tasks? If it’s all predetermined, then why bother acting it out?
The fact of the matter is, whether the universe is deterministic or not, we as humans still operate in our lives as though we can make all our own decisions. We act and react against our environs, our brains offer positive reinforcement in the form of love and happiness, and negative reinforcement in the case of pain. Whether we understand these notions does not affect our humanness, any more than knowing how a rainbow is formed somehow makes it less beautiful. We are humans in the universe, and we have evolved to be this way.
As I write this I am formulating the words in my brain, the brain is also telling my fingers to type, but all of these “decisions” have already been determined, either by the physical deterministic factors of the universe (I move my hand towards the keyboard, gravity and muscle movements pushing the key downward making the computer respond to my movements), or in what most people would consider my “free will” (the brain making the necessary connections to make it happen). Again, Sam Harris has talked about this in his book and on his blog: