About Free Will

Life is ambiguous.  Ambiguity is woven into each quantum of the cosmos.  These quanta are neither particles nor waves, but both and neither.  Does nature indicate a Creator?  It does and it doesn’t.  Is that possible Creator a personal God involved with mankind or indifferent, distant unknowable mystery?  The answer again is both and neither.  Does our consciousness survive death?  Maybe and may be not. 

The Beginning of Philosophy

It there is one thing that we know for certain about reality it is that we are not meant to know exactly what is going on.  Any person who seriously believes that he or she knows exactly what is going on is a fool and possibly dangerous.  It is said that Socrates invented ignorance because he questioned and doubted all human wisdom.  He only believed the voice of God that spoke to him in his heart.  He said that this God never told him what to do, but only what actions not to take.   It was the voice of this God that prevented him from going into politics after the wars when he was declared a hero.  When he considered whether to accept death or banishment, he chose death because his internal voice did not speak out against it.  He thought that this might mean that there was an afterlife, but he was not certain.  Only certain enough to accept that death was the right path.

Why is the world so ambiguous?  Of course, non-believers don’t believe in asking why.  This makes their universe essentially so much more dull that one in which we can wonder why. 

Personally, I think that there is an answer.  It is so we have true freedom of choice.   If God and the afterlife were a certainty, how free would we be?  Preserving the ambiguity of the world is important even critical to our freedom.  This freedom of choice allows us to measure our character by the quality of choices that we make. 

The Choices of Evolution

This strangely enough brings us to Darwin and evolution.  I am always amazed that people think that Darwin in some way disproved the existence of God or the value of the bible.  I know much is made of the fact that some Christians somewhere believe in a literal interpretation of the bible, but people will fight the silliest battles of the silliest issues.   This is just human nature.  As far as being a literal document, the bible itself contains many debates about how to interpret the text.  The New Testament itself offers many “non-literal” interpretations of the Old Testament that define it as highly symbolic foreshadowing of Christ.  

Yet, even today, the debate about what evolution proves or disproves goes on.  Many popular writers on evolution today are among the most intensely “anti-religious” scientists that I read.  Their reaction to the many recent scientific challenges to the mechanism of evolution is to attack their challengers as religious without addressing their arguments.  The focus of these scientific challenges is not religion, but the foundation of scientific method itself.   The basis of scientific method is that we test theories by constructing experiments that would disprove them.  No theory is ever “proven” in science.  Instead, it simply withstands tests until holes are found and a more complete theory is developed.  The problem with evolution is that you can’t construct a test that will disprove it.  It is exactly like divine action in that it can explain any result, no matter how unlikely.  The platypus, the tail of a peacock, and the human brain can all be “explained” by constructing evolutionary scenarios, but these scenarios are invulnerable to any testing. 

Though these recent scientific debates on evolution are interesting (especially for me because some involve chaos theory which, next to physics, is my favorite science), they are irrelevant to the issue of faith.   I personally have always liked the idea of evolution as a mechanism for the unfolding of a divine plan.  Remember, my earlier discussions about a “timeless” view of creation.  From a timeless viewpoint, all time exists as once.  I like the idea that prime mover created that universe in such a way that, from the very beginning, our Earth and humanity would arise over time as it did, naturally.  For me, “naturally” means by the rules of nature or, more specifically, by the rules laid down at the beginning of the time.  For me, this view is much more elegant and “godlike” that a view that divinity has to push and prod creation to go in the direction desired.  The fact that things take a long time is pretty meaningless to a timeless Creator. 

After years of thinking about “the meaning of life,” it became clear to me that life has only one goal: survival.  Those which survive get a chance to create the future.  The interesting thing about survival is that it depends upon coping correctly with the environment.  Assuming that “choice” in more primitive life forms is biological or instinctive, the results are determined solely by chance and random permutations.  At some point, however, creatures become complex enough that they can make decisions.  At that point it is their understanding of the environment and the choices they make, that is, their software instead of their hardware that determines whether or not they survive.   Of course, no creature can complete understand its environment, but still, without any complete understanding, all intelligent creatures must make choices that affect their survival and the survival of their descendants. 

These choices have peculiar results.  For example, the evolutionary explanation of the peacock’s tail attributes it development to the sexual preferences of the peahen.  I don’t know how well much thinking goes into the choice of a peahen, but it is easier to think of this as a choice than it is a random mutation.  In any case, the peacock’s tail clearly creates survival difficulties for its owner.  The preference of a groups females isn’t enough to explain its existence because if those females’ male descendents have a lower survival rate, the feature doesn’t survive.  In some way, the tale must have conveyed a benefit in the environment greater than its disadvantage.  It isn’t enough to explain why peacocks with short tails died out because peacock and hens are compete against all other creatures in their environment, not just their fellow species of birds.   It may be that only the strongest males were able to survive having a long tail and therefore fathered fitter offspring, but it is hard to imagine why the fittest males without tails wouldn’t have offspring that survived even greater rates including female offspring that didn’t prefer long-tailed mates.  We may not understand why the female choice for big tails worked out the way it did, but that is the point: the environment rewards our choices whether we understand them or not. 

We must remember that evolution only temporarily rewards any ability to fit into a given niche.  Over the longer term, it rewards adaptability in general since the environment can suddenly and dramatically change.  The most obvious example is the dinosaur and the meteor winter that destroyed it, but less dramatic shifts in environment such as ice ages also recur continuously.  In the end, these big changes filter out less adaptable forms that can live in only narrow niches in favor of those than can survive in wider environments.   Of course, the most adaptable creature of all is humanity which is actually able to reshape and create a large part of its environment.

It is hard for us today to imagine the world before Darwin and modern science. In this world, every natural force was a miracle with a special intent.  Every type of bird or beast was a special creation with a special purpose.   What was lost in the transition was the sense of a divine purpose behind every breath of wind, every chirp of a cricket.  The resulting world was divided between the predictable world of Newtonian physics and the world of individuals making choices with unpredictable results driving evolution.  Divinity was no longer a conductor, pulling all the gears and levers, but instead an quality at the heart of all other things. 

 The Evolution of Human History

The split between the (seemingly) choice-less world of physics and the choosing world of evolutionary science is not the only such division in the environment. 

When I was in high school, I began to realize that we lived in two distinct environments.  The “natural” environment is the larger environs from which we can never really escape since our bodies are a part of it.  Within this natural environment is the artificial environment created by humanity to protect us from nature. 

This artificial world is in many respects as complicated as the natural environment.  Like the natural world, it has a large variety of niches, roles, by which we support ourselves.  As we learn and build more, this artificial environment grows ever more complex and the roles we play in it become more abstracted.  In this artificial environment, the rules of evolution as still at work, but they apply directly to organizations.  These organizations grow, multiply and die depending on how well they fit the needs of the environment.  Because of our organizations, humanity itself is largely protected from the pressures of evolution.  Our organizations tend to support the survival of everyone, not just the “fittest.”   Instead, the fittest organizations tend to grow and reproduce and include a larger and larger percentage of people. 

Karl Marx wasn’t the first person to notice the progress of human institutions and their evolution.  This idea can be traced at least as far back in time as Plato.    He is, however, the one who has had the biggest impact on the last century.  The theory of Marx and others of his ilk is that the evolution of human organizations follows a certain pattern through history.  Marx, of course, didn’t define this progression as divine in origin, instead he called it “natural” in the sense very much like those of emerging properties in chaotic systems.  What made Marx’s approach different was that he applied his analysis primarily to economic system.  He proposed that economic evolution was predictable and, more to the point, inescapable, in other words, that individual choice had nothing to do with this progression.  Karl Popper, a modern historical philosopher who I greatly admire, calls this philosophy “historicism.”  It makes a god out of human history, giving it a force that shapes society quite independently of the individuals involved.

This theory is also sometimes call “humanism” because it puts “humanity” or more precisely “the common good” as the highest value.  Individuals are expected to sacrifice their needs and what is good for them to a bigger and better common good. 

The Supremacy of Choice

The problem with this theory is that it views individuals as slaves of history and, by extension, slaves of the organizations of human society.  Individual choices and lives don’t matter at all in the grand play of history.  Hitler, who also believed in historical destiny, certainly gets the most attention for killing large numbers of people, but the faceless bureaucracies of the Soviets and the communist Chinese killed at least ten or twenty times his total, from 20 to 40 million.   The deadly thing about historicism is that it absolved the decision-makers who doom these people from any wrong-doing.  From their view, these deaths were simple historical necessity.  In China, where leaders systematically starved rebellious provinces, the deaths were blamed on a simple lack of food, despite the fact that soldiers were sent out to confiscate grain in those areas.   Their deaths were required for “the common good.” 

“The common good” sounds like a wonderful thing, but no such thing exists in reality.  There is no such thing as “humanity” that perceives as a group and chooses as a group.  There only individuals.   Any opinion of “the common good” is only one person’s view.  All programs for “the common good” involve taking away from one group of individuals to give to another group of individuals.   None of these programs are good for everyone.  They are merely good for the group that does the taking and getting.  In other words, humanity and the common good are simply fictions under which one group of people works their will upon another. 

The humanist view of reality is the opposite of view that we get from our self-awareness.  Our self-awareness tells us that we are individuals.  Looking within ourselves, our individualism is the most important thing in the universe.   Those who are close to us, those that we love are as important or even more important that our own lives.  We attribute this same importance of the individual starting with those close to us and extending it outward.  To some degree, we feel sympathy for all other people because we think of them as like ourselves.   We care about other people, but we don’t assume that we know what is best for them any more than we want them to assume that they know what is best for us. 

One of the big lies of “historicism” or “humanism” is that human society always has one group taking advantage of some other group.   They attack “capitalism” because they say that under this system, the rich take advantage of the poor.

The free enterprise system is designed to provide individual with the maximum freedom of choice.  No individual is required to do anything against their will.  No individual is required to buy or sell anything at a price that they don’t agree to. All exchanges are  voluntary.  Individuals aren’t force to work, but no other individuals are forced to support them if they don’t choose to work.   Individuals choose the price that they put on their time or the product of their time.  Individuals can buy from whom they choose.  Since individuals are different and have different desires at different times, this system produces a vast array of products and services.  Individuals choose which of those arrays and services that they will provide and with which organizations they will work. 

The historicists who love “humanity” as a group naturally hate this individual freedom.  Their primary attack on the system is that allows individuals to make “bad” choices.  Individuals make choices by definition that are in their own “selfish” interest, spending money on new cars and jewelry instead of sending it to starving children in Africa, for example. Even in their own private sphere, individuals often think too short-term and don’t think about their needs longer term, preferring current pleasure over future needs.  They need the state to prevent their future suffering.  This “freedom” is actually a form of cruelty.  People who make these “bad” decisions about how to spend their time and the fruit of their efforts selfishly need to spend it on the betterment of “mankind” in general.      In the minds of the historicists, history demonstrates our need to evolve toward a society with a world government that balances the needs of everyone everywhere and prevents people from making the wrong decisions.  Morality doesn’t exist between an individual and his or her God, but among groups conforming to the demands of society. 

The with this theory is that all experience  indicate that individuals are much better at making choices for themselves than relying on organizations.  Certainly, all innovation comes from individuals.

Historically, rapid progress began with the introduction of the printing press in the West, where it empowered the individual to learn more about their world.  This resulted in a revolution of individualism that turn its back on the historical rule of empires, churches and kingdoms.  The “anti-state” force unleashed with the introduction of Christianity, culminated with the founding of the United States, which created a government designed to keep individuals free.  In other words, as human society began to recognize the “each person is the center of their own universe” view, we unleashed the incredible creativity of the individual in transforming the world.  Our “godlike” ability to create our own artificial world for the first time began to overtake and subdue the difficulties of the natural world.  In these free environments, people overwhelming choose to believe in a personal relationship with God. 

Strangely enough, though historicism was founded on the idea of the natural progression of history, this progress clearly stalled where Karl Marx’s system was tried.  The godless society of the "common good: which was founded for the betterment of humanity produced a very opposite result.  New generations born into this society were expected to be less selfish, less self-centered, than their parents, working whole-heartedly for the common good.  Not surprisingly, their view of reality was still, like all of ours, focused on their individual self-awareness.  The great solitude of self-awareness was not satisfied by “the common good.”   Instead, the materialism often bred a new kind of heartlessness and, despite the failure of the Karl Marx’s vision, the elevation of materialism and “the greater good” over personal soul and individual character spread through modern society.

The Mechanical Vision of Mind

Abetting this spread of materialism is another nineteenth century invention, that of psychology.  Started with the noble intention of overcoming mental disease, Freud’s invention of the “science of the mind” has had a number of very sad repercussions in our world.  It was inspired, of course, by the huge strides modern medicine had made during that century.  In a mechanically adept century, the mechanics of the human body (though none of the chemistry of the cell) had become well understood.  It was naturally hoped that similar progress could be made in understanding the human mind.

We have made little progress understanding the human mind in general, though, a predicted by Freud, we have begun to control some mental problems through the use of drugs.  Sadly, however, despite our lack of true understanding, psychiatry in general has been used to attack the concept of freedom on choice.  The basic idea, fostered in a number of forms, is that people’s behavior is determined by various subconscious, biochemical, and/or sociological factors.   People cannot be blamed or praised for their decisions since they as individuals have no control over them. 

This philosophy often wears a forgiving face, absolving people who have done horrible things from the responsibilities for their actions.  It seems to portray people as basically good, but as victims of their inner demons. Like humanism, this philosophy often masquerades as a form of social kindness, appealing to those who naturally care about people, who don’t want to think that people are capable of doing tremendous evil, unless, of course, they are out of their right minds.  . 

From another perspective, this theory seems to advance our lack of control over the universe just one more small step.  As we have said before, despite our self-awareness putting us at the center of our own universe, we have little control over that universe, including our own bodies.  We can move our bodies, but we certainly don’t control their biology or their health. If we did, no one would ever get cancer.  This psychological view extends this idea to saying that we don’t really even control our own decisions. 

Choosing a Life that Matters

The problem with making this final step is that it entirely erases us as individuals.  It means that we don’t even make the choice about believing or not believing in a God or even a meaningful world.  It eliminates all meaning from our choices and thereby all meaning from the world.  It places the responsibility for everything that happens in the hands of “nature” and in a kind of atheist predestination, where our fate is determined by various historical, social, biochemical and other forces.  We cannot help what we do and we therefore are not responsible for our lives.  Certain choices may seem to lead to better lives, but that is an illusion because we really don’t have those choices. 

Psychology is often used as the ultimate attack on freedom because it says all freedom is just an illusion.  If that is that case, we are all slaves, no matter what our condition.  Our lives are random.  Our society is a hive of bees.  All the freedom of free enterprise is unnecessary and meaningless.  It is just luck that brings people to the top or bottom of society.  In the end, it doesn’t matter if humanity itself survives because there is nothing special about humanity that sets it apart from any other form of life.  The life of a whale or a sucker fish is as important as the life of a person.  Human, in their growth and spread, are a kind of cancer on the natural balance of the planet.  Humanism and historicism become anti-individual in their logical extensions, but the viewing people as psychological automatons leads eventually to an anti-human viewpoint. 

Standing against this theory, we have only the ideas of individuality and a spark of divinity within all us all that allows us to make meaningful choices.  In the end, the ambiguousness of the universe is a kind of test for us all.  We are never going to know what happens after death or how the world can into existence.  We can never prove that there is a personal God who knows and cares about our choices.  In the end, we simply choose whether or not to believe even in our freedom of choice.  

We cannot know the minds of others.  I can not believe that I am the only choosing awareness in the universe, Can I believe that a few people are denied the freedom of choice?  It seems the ultimate injustice to say that some people as human-seeming automatons, so driven by their impulses that they have no choice.  Instead, it is easier to believe that humans are given choices that matter and that they can make.  In other words, life is ambiguous for a reason, for the reason of allowing choice.