Free Will: Articles and Some Thoughts

I came across this special issue by the Chronicle of Higher Education dealing with the question “Is Free Will an Illusion?” It features 6 short essays on the topic. Pretty interesting, give it a read!

I’ve been vaguely fascinated by the topic of free will for some time. I found myself, through my own random musings, being lead more in the direction of determinism, or denying free will, which at first alarmed me because such a position felt so counter-intuitive; surely most people would reject such a position as ridiculous. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found, upon reading up more on the subject, that this was actually a pretty common position amongst those who have explored these issues!

My thoughts on free will started from thinking about religion and belief. To me, free will was religion’s ‘trump card’, the reason why suffering exists, why God cannot simply pluck us out of disasters, and essentially why I’m going to hell: because I choose to reject God.

I argued that no one chooses that. No one would ever say, “Yes, I know God is my Creator, I know he is Truth and I know the consequence of rejecting Him. But in accordance to my right to free will, I can choose to reject Him, and I do.” No body chooses to reject the truth.

I’ve heard some arguments from the religious about why God doesn’t just reveal himself to all that run as such: If God were to do that then people would be forced to believe in Him, but God wants us to come to Him of our own free will.

So… knowledge eliminates free will but ignorance allows it??

When you say, “I don’t believe in God.”, it hardly feels like a choice. Given my background, the way I approach problems, all that I know and I that I’ve read up till today… couldchoose to say instead, “I believe in God.’? No. The reason why I don’t believe in God is that the concept doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t believe in God, at least not right now knowing and having experienced all that I have. Just take the case of those who deconvert– they certainly didn’t choose to lose their faith, and often times they really, really, really want to keep believing, but found that they couldn’t do it anymore.

I also wondered about when a decision counts as a choice.

If you’re ignorant and have no knowledge–say you’re given three blank doors with no clues as to which contains the prize– is it an exercise of free will when you pick one?

Or when you’re in possession of a lot of information about two different options– say you have to pick between two types of medical procedures– is it an exercise of free will when you weigh all the pros and cons and pick which one you think is best? But given the information that you had, and coming to the conclusion of which looked like the better option, could you have not picked that option?

Maybe free will and true choice only exist when there are no right or wrong implications to the choice, that is, when it is a subjective choice. For example, choosing between vanilla or chocolate ice-cream. Seems I could easily choose one or the other freely. But then again… that’s determined by some sort of internal bias– chocolate tastes better to me, or I’ve subconsciously come to prefer chocolate because there’s a subconscious, cultural implication that vanilla is for girls and sissies. If you hate durian or classical music, can you really choose to love them?

All just preliminary thoughts on a very complex issue. Hope to continue reading more and thinking more about it. :) :)

Although I’m not sure I fully support his dating analogy, the basic message is the same: it’s not a choice and no one chooses to reject God.


4 thoughts on “Free Will: Articles and Some Thoughts

  1. Hey there, Great read.
    I’m sitting in a New Testament class at a Bible Seminary in Australia and I’m totally distracted by your post. I admire your honesty and ability to convey your thoughts in a soft and compassionate way. You rightly point out that free-will isn’t as black and white as some people might choose to believe.

    The bible describes mankind as physically alive but spiritually dead. This would imply that we need some help in making spiritual decisions.
    An example of this is: ‘if you choose to call yourself a Christian, you can choose to read the Bible, you can choose to go to a church and choose to pray’; but as you rightly pointed out those things won’t make you earnestly believe in Christ and your need for Him.
    Good decisions might positively effect your spirituality, (the opposite is also applicable), but just as a dead man cannot choose to breathe, so a spiritually dead person cannot choose to live.

    I find it hard to relate to your analogy of blank doors. The problem in life is we don’t have blank doors. For example, if you have knowledge of the bible, then that door might have Jesus written on it. If you have knowledge of the Quran, then that door might have Muhammad written on it. I would argue that no one is living in complete ignorance, hence no one is faced with blank doors. Whichever door we choose to open, we open becuase of some sort of external influence.

    Although you can make moral decisions to appear ‘Christian’, becuase mankind is unabe to make spiritual decisions He needs an external influence to make him truely believe.

    Just an opinion from a bored Aussie.
    Keep thinking, Keep posting. I’ll keep reading.
    Abundant Blessings, and I’ll pray for you… (hehe)

    • Hey, thanks for taking the time to read and comment, really appreciate it. :)

      Like I said in the post, I’ve so far only dabbled in the concept of free will, so my stand on it isn’t really fixed yet (but, as mentioned, seems to be tending towards the position that free will is an illusion).

      So on one hand (the common sense, everyday view), I agree with you that while you can’t will belief (or love, or happiness) and turn it on and off like a switch, you can choose your actions. You can choose to read the bible, go to church, listen to classical music even though you find it boring etc. even if you can’t choose, directly, what you feel or think about it.

      On the other hand, people who take the stand that free will is an illusion deny even that. Because everything you do, you do because of something, as a result of something. For example, I may wake up feeling grumpy, but then ‘decide’ that I have an ‘active choice’ in what kind of day and force myself to smile and think positive thoughts. But the reason I ‘chose’ to do that was probably because I’ve been exposed to ‘think positive’ material before, because of my personality that tends to be optimistic and positive, because of previous experiences that convinced me of the power of mind over matter, previous experience of having a bad day due to my mood and not wanting to repeat that… and so on. In other words, given who I am (me personality and biology), what I know and what I’ve experienced before and ALLL of the reasons (known or unknown) that caused me to make that decision (which were already fixed at the point of the decision making), I couldn’t actually have made a different decision, even though it doesn’t feel that way to me.

      Oh, the blank door analogy wasn’t meant to reflect choosing religions or anything in real life, I was just trying to think of examples (and bringing them to extremes) so as to see when we consider a decision a real choice. Does less information make me choice more of a free one, or more information? and my conclusion seemed say, neither: If I had perfect ignorance, then that seems like just blind guesswork and not a choice on my part. If I had perfect knowledge, then I would know which was the ‘right’ answer, and wouldn’t be choosing ‘freely’ either. So if our everyday decisions are somewhere in between, it would seem that they are part guesswork and part weighing information, neither of which seems ‘free’, so where does free choice come into the picture?

      yeah, about needing an external source to make him believe… saved solely by grace and not by works, right?

      that one thoroughly confuses me because apparently it’s my fault (i choose to reject god) and yet it’s totally out of my control (there is nothing I can do to make myself believe.)

      • hey thanks for the lengthy reply. awesome.
        would you agree that there’s two types of will.
        a) (i define as moral) do i catch the bus or drive to work?
        b) (i define as spiritual) if it exists, do i choose to have eternal life?

        I reckon free-will is a loaded term, and in fact I am inclinded to think that the abuse of free-will is the cause for suffering in this world. I’m not necesarily going back to original sin and Eden, (although that might be helpful), but day to day, people make conscience decisions at a disadvantage to others.

        talking about MORAL free-will: I hear you loud and clear when you say that humans, to whatever extent, are all preconditioned by our culture, environment and experiences. I think this add’s to the argument that we can’t always live in a way that [insert God / society / family etc here] expects us to. Sooner or later we will slip up, based on the fact that as humans we are relatively easily compromised.

        And about SPIRITUAL free-will: As far as grace vs. works and choosing and rejecting God goes; R.C. Sproul, a relgious dude says this – “man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily, and not by compulsion”.

        I might be putting words in his mouth, but Sproul might suggest that free-will isn’t about making decisions as much as it is about having the inevitable potential to turn order into chaos and more specifically being accountable for it… A provoking thought: If there was no free-will, how can one be held accountable for unjustified murder; if he was compelled to do it?

        Again, I’m just rambling, it sounds like you’ve put much more thought than I have into this area. I’m probably just being influenced and conditioned by the people I hang out with and therefore from no will of my own, I’m compelled to respond to your post reflecting their beliefs… hehe. Hope not.

        • Hey, sorry for the lag in reply!

          hm.. I’m not entirely sure I understand why a distinction needs to be made between what you call ‘moral free will’ and ‘spiritual free will’. Don’t they both rest on the core idea that you are free to pick one choice over another? What’s the difference?

          Haha, I think it goes beyond not being able to do what god/family/society expects of us. Sometimes we can’t even do what we expect of ourselves hurhur. But a denial of free will isn’t just saying we struggle to do what we choose, it’s saying that when we struggle and when we choose, based on who we are and what we know, we couldn’t have NOT struggled or NOT choosen what we did.

          About accountability. Yeah, people who deny free will do acknowledge that they have to give up the idea of moral accountability or blame. But that doesn’t mean they deny the need for punishment, just that the focus and rational for it changes. I haven’t read too much about this, so i’m not too clear on the argument.

          Thanks for commenting. x)

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