Ecker's Little Acre

Reflections on Life and Other Stuff

by Ronald L. Ecker

July, 2001; rev. December, 2007

Free Will and Determinism

"I was a-trembling because I'd got to decide forever
betwixt two things."
--Huckleberry Finn

It is a fact of life, embedded in our genome if not chiseled in stone, that we biological entities labor under genetic constraints. And these constraints combined with environmental influences likely determine our behavior. That's pretty much determinism in a nutshell. Free will is an illusion, or so I'm compelled to suspect.

Determinism does not deny that you have a choice about doing something. We make choices all the time. The point is, if we were able to know every cause and effect in the cosmos, past and present, as they converge on your particular life, on your particular genetical and environmental being, at a particular moment, down to the minutest detail--which is, of course, impossible, so this is all necessarily conjectural--then the choice you make would be entirely predictable. You make a choice, but you make the only choice that you would be expected to make.

Christianity's Saint Paul believed in predestination, according to which God foreknew and "did predestinate" all those called and justified (Romans 8:28-30). The late Baptist creationist leader Henry M. Morris, in the notes of his Defender's Study Bible, argued that the Apostle's doctrine of predestination does not negate free will, it's just that "Our finite minds cannot fully apprehend both truths (free will and predestination) concurrently." Still, many Christians see the doctrine of predestination as a problem, unavoidably contradicting free will. Adam and Eve (in the biblical literalist view) freely chose to disobey God, and free will is considered vital in the winning of souls to Christ. But I prefer to call the contradiction a mystery, a word used several times in the New Testament in reference to the Christian faith. ("We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery," Paul told the Corinthians, "even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory" [1 Cor. 2:7].)

I recently read the book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by the distinguished entomologist (and lapsed Southern Baptist) Edward O. Wilson. Wilson knows something about everything--you might even say he's a know-it-all--and he expresses the free-will conundrum well. Wilson allows that free will exists, but only in the sense that we can't possibly know all the operations of the brain. It's not that we couldn't theoretically know if we had a large enough computer to track all the microscopic episodes, stimuli, and one's unique history and physiology; it's just that we would need a computer with operations conceivably far more complex than the thinking brain itself. Wilson concludes: "Because the individual mind cannot be fully known and predicted, the self can go on passionately believing in its own free will. And that is a fortunate circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it the mind, imprisoned by fatalism, would slow and deteriorate. Thus in organismic time and space, in every operational sense that applies to the knowable self, the mind does have free will."

Edward. O. Wilson

The only place I disagree with Wilson is his suggestion that knowing or believing that free will is illusion would lead to mind-destructive fatalism. He should speak for himself. While I call myself a determinist (I believe, without knowing, that everything, including human thought, has a cause), I work as hard to get things done and try to use my mind as much as anyone else. Why? Because I want to do all I can to see that things happen the way I want them to. For all I know, I may actually have free will and can make things happen that wouldn't otherwise happen, though I suspect I'm just part of the cause-and-effect flow of things happening. It's nice to be in the flow (to be alive), indeed I try to make things happen as a matter of course without conscious regard to the question of free will at all. (How many people, determinist or not, stop to ponder, am I really free to do this?) Whether we have free will or not, we all have to follow St. Augustine's counsel: "Go forth on your path, as it exists only through your walking."

That's how the illusion of free will works (it's "biologically adaptive," as Wilson puts it), and trying to make things happen is part of what makes life worth living. Negatively speaking, it is true that a completely determined or predestined world raises profound questions about ethics, responsibility, criminal punishment, God's seeming complicity through foreknowledge, and so forth. (Which brings us theologically back to the word "mystery.") But there is also some comfort to be found in the idea of free will as illusion, when dealing with life's regrets and disappointments. For we never could have chosen, or not chosen, anything differently. Nothing in life, it turns out, could have turned out in some other way.

Copyright 2001, 2007 by Ronald L. Ecker

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