01 March 2012

Wednesday’s Words – Free Will

I have decided to add a little descriptive section to my Wednesdays Words title this past few weeks because my previous entries were turning into quite long and rambling discussions on a certain topic, rather than just the quotes that spurned them forth. This has again happened this week, with a seemingly innocent quote regarding free will launching me into a diatribe against the free will argument as it is applied by religious apologists.
What can I say; I am missing my regular Christian debates now that Facebook has disabled their old discussion boards. Nevertheless, I hope this is somehow engaging. Enjoy!

“We have to believe in free will. We’ve got no choice” – Isaac Bashevis Singer

The idea of free will has always been interesting to me.
Looking at the world from our inevitable first person bias, our own will seems all but indisputable. Yet by the same token there are things in me that I cannot control, things that appear to be beyond the purview of my will, but which nevertheless I would consider an integral part of myself.
For instance the love I have for my wife and son is not something I have brought about due to my will, but it is nevertheless something I consider a core part of my being. Much more so than other things which are a part of me, but not subject to the whims of my free will. Things such as my automatically beating heart, or my preference to cry, if I have been sufficiently hurt.
I, like Dawson, am only human after all
But then the limits of what we mean by our will are also not so easily defined. I like to think of my will as my ability to deliberate in my own mind, to come to decisions and then to act so that these things are brought about. However as mentioned above, any decisions I make are inevitably based on further components of what I consider as central to my being. I can’t will that I love my wife, but I can will to marry her, and to devote myself in this way.
It’s like Schopenhauer said, “a man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”.
Another reason why we find free will as central to our views on life is because it inevitably links in with our concepts of responsibility. I can be held accountable for things only if they arise from my own free will, and are not forced upon me by others.
However free will is also a common scapegoat when it comes to one of my other interests; atheism/religion debates.
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
The above quote is one of the more formidable and pressing arguments against the existence of certain kinds of gods in our universe. This is often referred to as the ‘Problem of Evil’, and is generally credited as being put forth by the ancient philosopher Epicurus, though it may date even further into antiquity than he.
The argument has retained a place in modern culture, well within the realm of the everyman, because of a few defining qualities it possesses. For starters it is simple; everyone can remember it, and it walks forward in a nice syllogism, with steps we can all follow. It is also very pertinent to our daily lives, with the evidence of pain and suffering evident across the globe to any caring person.
There are arguments against the existence of god (or for it) that delve too far into philosophical parlance, so that we have to try and understand concepts like ‘necessary agents’, or ‘parsimonious existence’,  before we can even begin to ponder the questions themselves. But the problem of evil argument is put forth in a way everyone can understand.
It is a burning question for people trying to reconcile the way the world is, with the way gods are presented to them. If a Christian puts forth the idea of their god as a loving god; one who is all-powerful and keenly interested in the affairs of man, then there appears to be a contradiction at play when you fail to see this divine agent acting out to alleviate the ills of the world. [Then there are I suppose the worst cases of Christianity, where they ascribe natural disasters to the very same gods capricious wrath.]
So we must ask ourselves why these actions aren’t taking place; is the god unwilling or unable.
It is at this point that we find the interjection of free will into the argument, as rather than addressing the question directly, religious proponents seek to skirt the problem altogether.
Their answer: There is evil in the world, because there is free will.
Here religious apologists seek to connect some of the worst factors of existence with arguably one of its finest; with our ability to think independently, and act of our own accord.
There is evil in the world because we have our own free will, and the only way to stifle this evil, to stop it at its core, is to withhold that very same will. To take what is free, and bind it in the staples of religious dogma.*
I prefer this kind of Dogma
Something important to consider however is that not all restrictions of will are violations of free will. This is especially worth noting, as if we are to grant these gods the credit for designing the universe, then these limits on our will must be intentional, and part of the design.
As an example of restriction of will, versus removal of free will, consider a prisoner. We have restricted his will (statistically it is a he); he cannot leave his cell, he cannot choose his meals, and he cannot run for political office. However this is a restriction upon his exercising of this will; not of the will itself. He can still will these things to happen; he just cannot make them happen. If we were on the other hand to subject him to a bit of advanced neurosurgery so that even though his cell door was open, he was unable to will himself to walk through it, we have taken away some of the freedom of his will. [Does that even make grammatical sense?]
But then if we want to apply this kind of thinking to a creator god, we have to ask a lot of incisive questions regarding not only the motivations of the god, but also the nature of creation.
Under the free will explanation for the existence of evil in the universe we have a god who allows evils to take place, because it feels that this freedom of will is more important than freedom from suffering. Generally in a theological sense this freedom must be present so that we humans have the ability to choose to worship a god freely, because apparently these gods prefer voluntary submission to some form of mandatory one. Its smacks of egoism to me, but anyhow.
We thus find ourselves with the ability to do evil actions, but also to choose to do good actions. Evidently some will choose to do evil over good, and we arrive at the world we are in today.
Now ignoring the fact that Christians believe everyone must choose evil actions at some point (which is either a violation of free will, a design flaw, or else a misunderstanding of statistics), I will instead focus on the curious fact that these evil choices are even presented to us at all.
I say presented to us, because the mere presence of free will does not mean there must intrinsically be evil options to choose from. After all, this creator god is apparently (or at least in most cases) all powerful, all knowing and perfect. So when creating the world we live in, there was a deliberate design in all the options that are available to us.
Looking at this critically it brings up some unpleasant realities, as this means that things like murder, rape and physical abuse had to have been systematically made possible from a physical and biological standpoint.
Why is it I can use my free will to batter a man to death, but I can’t employ the same free will to psychically slay him with my brain powers? It’s because such things are not possible in the physical realm we reside in.
It may seem a ridiculous point to argue, but it is something that needs to be addressed. Because just as I can posit a world where we have extra abilities, and thus room to commit more evils, I can likewise hypothesise a world where such physical killings are made impossible not through the removal of free will, but rather due to a physical restriction on certain actions within the physical world. Such a world would be preferential int he sense that it contains not only less evil, but less possible evil.
Then there is the fact that you could still have a world with free will, but protect the innocent from harm. Take murder for instance. Murder is evil, is a sin, and with rational reasons behind it. However one need not remove the ability to murder in order to eliminate the suffering caused by murder.
This god could stop you stabbing someone by turning the knife into a fish. It could prevent a shooting death by making the bullets disappear. True this hypothetical god intervening universe would then lead to a lot more questions (would guns have even been invented for instance) that I don’t have room to go into here. But the fact remains that the will to do evil does not require that actions are allowed to be taken through to fruition. This is why we have attempted murder charges after all.
At any rate, I think this ramble has gone on far too long, and perhaps I best save my atheistic arguments for a more dedicated post. There is evidently a lot to say on the subject of free will, and its place within the atheist/theist debate, and I would be interested in any comments here.

*Disclaimer: I have spent long enough debating online and in person with religious people to know that it is worth making a distinction here before people accuse me of generalisation. Being an atheist, I have to argue against not just one form of theism, but all forms of theism, and as a result there are no doubt theists out there who don’t share some of the values I am ascribing to them here. So I will make myself clear now., I am not saying that the views expressed in this post as belonging to theists must belong to all theists. I am arguing against a theistic argument, not against all theism. I simply omit pointing this out overtly throughout the post, as it becomes a bit tedious to always be saying, ‘a subset of theists’, or ‘theistic evolutionists’ or some other such group within theism. If you don’t agree with the form of theist I am presenting, don’t assume it is a straw man argument; instead recognise it as an argument against some other form of theist.
That was a damn long disclaimer...

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