Friday, February 22, 2008

The Illusion of Free Will

I happened across an interesting piece on the illusion of free will the other day. It doesn’t give any arguments I haven’t heard – or made – before, but it does make you stop and think. It makes me think I should read Erasmus and Luther instead of just thinking about it. But I guess that would require, well, maybe not entirely free will – if I had free will, I certainly never would have a migraine – but some will.

This type of argument annoys me with its smug dismissal of people who believe in one thing or another that hasn’t been proven (some things could be proven but just haven’t yet). A good friend of mine thinks I am completely bonkers for believing in God, just because I am reasonably well-educated, in two very different fields (neither of them religion). I even go the Christian route, a choice I made based on the fact that I understand the mythology, having been brought up in Baptist and Methodist churches (mind you, I stopped going as soon as I was too big for them to drag to church, unless I had ulterior social motives, and I don’t go as an adult).

Yes, I consider the whole Bible a myth. That doesn’t make it less powerful or less real in any important sense. And it doesn’t mean that some of it isn’t historically accurate. Neither does the fact that some of it is historically accurate prove that Jesus rose from the dead or that Mary was inseminated via a dove, or any of the other crucial (sometimes literally so) points in the Bible.

Hamlet is very real to me, more so than many people who have lived and breathed, or are even living in very close proximity to me. I know Hamlet a lot better and have seen him at his best and at his worst. Yet, as with my neighbors, I don’t know what goes on offstage. That part’s on me and my struggle between reason and imagination (note that I am not saying that either is more important than the other). But I could carry that much further. Do I really know the person I’ve lived with for nearly twenty-three years? She’s not here now. And she had a good deal of her life before we met. The fact that I know, as well as I know anything, what she’s capable of and what she would never do is based solely on my experience with her. It still boils down to faith. I have faith in Kaye, and I have faith in God’s existence. Both are based on the same kind of experience and reason.

I don’t begrudge atheists their belief system. I do think it takes as much of a leap of faith not to believe in God as it does to believe in God, since neither position can be proven. Given those options, I’ll choose the more hopeful one. I am not afraid of God, because I don’t believe that any omniscient, benevolent entity would be as petty as the Bible often claims. I know lots of people who would; it’s just that none of them have the kind of power that God would have. That’s a combination of reason and faith. That God is omniscient and benevolent is part of my definition of God.

I just get tired of being stereotyped as an idiotic, bigoted, closed-minded person because I have decided that I believe in God. So now I’m going to prove, to myself, anyway, that I have at least limited free will and take control of my life to the degree of clearing up my study, which, as my mother would say, looks like a hurricane swept through it.

I respect other people’s rights to think what they think. I don’t think I’m always right. But I do think.


Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of a quote by Arlo Guthrie: "I have come to the conclusion that understanding ain't all it's cracked up to be. In other words, serve now, live now, love now. Don't wait to understand."

I'm also reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. I'm sure you've heard it; the blind man who felt the ear said, "Ah, an elephant is just like a banana tree!" and the man who felt the leg said, "Ah, an elephant is just like a tree trunk!" and the man who felt the side said, "Ah, an elephant is just like a wall!" and so on. Each man was right, and each man was wrong.

I think God is the elephant, and the blind men are dogma.

Snark said...

Compared to most of the world, I was born lucky. I was a white American with enough intelligence and perspective to get me this far. I worked hard to achieve my potential. That said, I have a lot of problems, some of which surely aren't my fault, or anyone's, like the scar on my brain that causes all kinds of neurological problems (I am convinced that the damn migraines are among them). We don't know much, but we need some sort of philosophy. Most Christians wouldn't recognize me as one of them. Most non-Christians, it seems, would condemn me for considering myself one. The minorities I'm in are largely still stigmatized. It's maddening that I'm stigmatized by people I respect for being in the seemingly few majorities I belong to. Some of us do want to know what life's about. All we can do is hope it's about something, and if hope is all we've got, so be it. We don't know everything. Just be good to people, including yourself. And expect to screw up. My study remains a disaster area.

Isla said...


I hope my blog entry didn't stereotype all Christians as "idiotic, bigoted, closed-minded [people]." Actually, many are, but some aren't. I understand that people generally just try to get by the best way they can, using the information that they have and making decisions based on the influences that have shaped their lives.

You've clearly decided what you want to believe about God and that's your prerogative. You've decided that he's an "omniscient, benevolent entity", and say that your opinion is based on a combination of reason and faith. I would be interested to know how you've reasoned that God is omniscient and benevolent. As you don't believe in the Bible, I'm wondering where you get your information about God from.

***I have faith in Kaye, and I have faith in God’s existence. Both are based on the same kind of experience and reason.***

Your experience with your wife covers many years of daily contact - sight, touch, communication. She was a physical reality in your life. God, if such a being exists, is an invisible, supernatural entity. Could you explain what your experience with your wife and your experience with God have in common and how you can reason God into existence?

***I don’t begrudge atheists their belief system. I do think it takes as much of a leap of faith not to believe in God as it does to believe in God , since neither position can be proven.***

Atheism isn't a belief system. It is an absence of belief in any kind of god. And it doesn't take faith, because faith is the choice to actively believe something without any verifiable proof of its reality.

You can't prove that the Flying Spaghetti Monster does or doesn't exist. But do you have to exercise faith not to believe in its existence? No, because there's no reason to believe. So it is with atheism. No faith is needed because atheists don't think there's any good reason for belief in God.