Divine Neutrality, Blog. Science, Philosophy

A Case for Free Will

February 26th, 2014

A Case for Free Will


I have a friend whom I respect and admire as a rational man of intelligence and insight. He disdains belief in the supernatural. He rejects the idea of a God who intervenes in natural process. He subscribes to the notion that whatever happens is the result of natural cause. That there is nothing outside of nature. That superstition is the refuge of the ignorant. I agree with him on all these issues.

But on the issue of free will vs. determinism he is unswayable. He believes that free will exists; that it is not an illusion.

He insists that the decisions he makes come from something beyond what is accessible to science. From beyond natural cause! That choice arises from unexplainable sources – not computable by science. He insists that there is a fundamental residue in nature that is beyond the reach of science. Not everything of coercion by nature is ‘computable’. “There are elements of nature inaccessible to knowability and these elements produce free will”, says my friend.

As to his decisions being coerced by nature and thus determined by it he rejects this. “There are coercions you can’t predict,” says he. Some behavior is not figure-outable. From that comes ‘free will’.

Among his words there are no specific references to the supernatural. But their import is surely an appeal to the supernatural. If nature governs without exception, can there be a hidden residue where it does not govern? Since we are part of nature must we not be governed also by its imperatives? So the argument for a resevoir of free will – barricaded from nature – is no more than a recasting of the supernatural. But by the use of language like ‘non-computable’ the notion is made to appear scientific.

I believe free will is an expression of our ignorance of the cause of our actions. But this ignorance, although steadily decreasing, covers what is, in fact, completely determined by nature. That is the content of the behavior circle. Whereas my friend believes that there is a kernel of nature inherently inaccessible to inquiry – the seat of free will.

To me his argument lacks logic. Evidently the idea of free will is very precious to my friend – something that must be preserved. As must also a disdain for supernatural belief be preserved in his cache of values. But, in fact, the two are not compatible.

Is this a case of ‘commitment bias?’ Sometimes the need to preserve a prejudice overcomes rationality. Or a case of ‘wishful thinking’ in wanting inconsistent outcomes? That a supernatural free will be natural. Our minds are such tricky things.

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God Determines

September 22nd, 2012

The ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus (around 300 BCE), introduced the world to a conundrum called the Problem of Evil. It says: Since evil exists, God doesn’t. Here is the entire proof:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?

    Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able to prevent evil but not willing?

    Then he is not benevolent.

Since evil evidently exists,

    no omnipotent and benevolent God exists.

Lactantius, an early Christian living around 280 CE, was the one who attributed the Problem of Evil to Epicurus. To refute the argument he wrote:

I know that most of the philosophers who defend providence are commonly shaken by this argument and … are almost driven to admit that god does not care, which is exactly what Epicurus is looking for. … But Epicurus did not see … that if evils are taken away, wisdom is equally removed; nor do any vestiges of virtue remain in man, the nature of which consists in sustaining and overcoming the bitterness of evils.

Lactantius says that God gave us evil in order for us to know good. How does evil teach us what good is? Some examples might be these:

from strife we learn the value of harmony
from falling a child learns to walk
from knowing of death we learn the value of life
thus from the evil we learn the good

So Evil, itself, is a gift from God. Evil and God may both exist.

Pretty clever refutation.

What is interesting about this paradox of Epicurus is its vast generality – far beyond anything religious! It has a secular counterpart: it expresses the paradox of free will versus determinism. God corresponds to determinism, evil corresponds to free will. If God is controlling everything then how can evil exist? If determinism is controlling everything than how can free will exist?

By determinism is meant simply this: the recognition that if natural law governs all that happens, it must certainly govern how I act. It governs all the molecular processes of which I am made. Determinism is an expression of faith in natural cause. An individual’s behavior is the necessary effect resulting from the entire constellation of molecular processes, genetics and experience that an individual suffers in his or her existence. So it is determined by these.

Seen theologically determinism is equivalent to the notion ‘we are in the hands of god’. What we do is God’s will. God determines. When Einstein (1879-1955) used the word, God, he meant natural law.

The existence of God is the analogue of the existence of natural law.

The existence of evil is the analogue of the existence of free will.

By free will is meant the everyday experience of making choices. We feel we are freely choosing. We know the difference between coerced decisions and free choice. Free will is behavior without coercion. If you could have done otherwise, then what it is that you chose to do is by free will. Within free will should be included inspiration – something that arises as intimately and freely as will.

To do evil exemplifies free choice. The choice of good or evil is an act of free will. Christianity says you have free will to choose salvation. (Albeit there is the coercion of hell if you don’t.)

So the problem of Epicurus in secular form might be:

If everything is determined,

    you cannot choose your actions.

If you could choose actions,

    not everything would be determined.

Therefore determinism and free will

    cannot both exist.

But they do both exist; one an intellectual inference, the other a matter of experience. How is this possible? Lactantius had the answer: The feeling of free will is the gift of the deterministic world.

This idea is explored in the next posting.

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Innate Goodness

April 25th, 2009

mywayThe paragraph below is quoted from an interview with Jack Kornfield, one of the founders of Spirit Rock in Woodacre.

“Freud says, ‘Culture has to … erect barriers against the aggressive instincts of men … To love one’s neighbor as oneself is … completely at variance with original human nature ….’ From a Buddhist perspective, the opposite is true … aggression, hatred, and greed are … covering over our innate goodness.”

‘Original human nature.’ ‘Innate goodness’. Is there meaning attached to these phrases?

How measure what is ‘human nature’? How can one know what is at the core of all human activity? Is there a single ‘nature’ which drives the behavior of all humans? Is there any empirical foundation for the idea that ‘aggressive instincts are original human nature’ or for the opposite view that ‘aggression, hatred, and greed are … covering over our innate goodness.’?


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