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Free Will: God's Alibi

Ken Watts's picture

We have to believe in free will. We’ve got no choice.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

I've been thinking about the idea of free will lately. There was a time when the subject seemed perfectly obvious to me, and I could defend the idea at length.

Now, I have trouble seeing what the point was.

"Otherwise, what kind of a role model can God be?"

I think this is because I've lost the motives that made the concept so compelling, but more about that in a moment.

First, my current puzzlement. Free will, I was taught at one time, was the opposite of "determinism". Determinism was the idea that everything we said or did was a function of what we are.

If you were a materialist, and thought that you were flesh and blood and genetic code and neurons, then your behavior would be "determined" by how those things interacted with your environment.

If you were a supernaturalist, and believed that you were basically a ghost, driving your body around the way you might drive a car, then your behavior would be "determined" by the way God had created your soul (the ghost you).

The objection to this was that you had no real "control" over your own behavior. It was controlled by your genetics or neurons, or by the kind of soul God gave you, and you had nothing to say about it.

Free will was the idea that this wasn't true, that you did have control.

I can't remember when I first got the sense that there was something wrong with this picture, but at some point it occurred to me to ask who this "me" was who had control, if not my soul, or my brain. Was I supposed to believe that my soul had another ghost, driving it around? And if God made this other soul, then wasn't it just as "determined"?

I don't think it was probably an accident that at about the same time I ceased to worry about the whole idea of determinism. I could no longer see the problem.

This had something to do with the idea of freedom, and for me became much clearer as I began to ask, "freedom from what?"

The reason I value freedom is the same reason my cat values freedom (presumably without free will). Neither one of us likes to be forced to do something we don't want to do. The freedom we value is freedom from exterior coercion.

I wouldn't like being put in a cage, or being forced to do things that are distasteful to me, or being kept from doing that which I want to do. I want to be free to be who I am.

But this is a completely different kind of freedom than the kind associated with free will. The kind associated with free will appears to be the freedom to be who I'm not—to do those things that my basic nature, whether it's flesh and blood, or whether it's ectoplasm, would not do of itself.

The more I thought about this, the more I began to wonder why anyone would want to believe in that kind of free will.

Then I asked myself what use this idea was—literally. Who made use of the idea of free will, and what did they use it for? The answer surprised me, though it shouldn't have, given my background.

The main use of the idea of free will was to relieve God of responsibility for evil.

Here was the problem. God made everything, including humans. But a basic doctrine (in the King/Law/Force model) is that humans are bad and rebellious and responsible for most of the suffering in the world. It seems immediately obvious to any thinking person that God must bear some responsibility for this.

But, of course, that's impossible. God is The King in this model, and, as we all know, The King can do no wrong, by definition.

So the blame must lie elsewhere.

Enter free will. It's God's loophole, his alibi. We, the subjects, are to blame, even though God made us the way we were, because he has given us the great gift of free will, and so cannot be held responsible for our behavior.

That's it, really. The job description for free will is to plug a hole in the King/Law/Force model.

I'm quite happy without it, thank you very much. I'd just as soon not have random acts—by which I mean acts that are not rooted in my nature, whether evolved or created—not have random acts popping up here and there, for me to take responsibility for.

And by the way, if there is a God, I would like to believe that he or she is big enough, and responsible enough, to take some blame for how things have turned out.

Otherwise, what kind of a role model can God be?

At least, that's what I think today.

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