Sunday, June 17, 2012

Thoughts: Does Free Will Exist?

Let's presuppose God exists - for argument's sake. Then let us attempt to answer the question: does free will exist? (Inspired by an argument with a coworker.)

First, we must define free will. Let's take the definition with the broadest scope: to be able to do whatever it is you want to do (to have the ability), presupposing that it is possible.

If you put your hand on a stove and get burned, will you touch the stove again. No. But this does not mean you don't have free will. You can touch the stove again. It would be stupid. But you could. People have, after all, set themselves on fire. Pain is not a constraint, it's more of an incentive, one that has kept our species alive and well.

What if you are given a choice between two things, any two things (a bicycle or a tarantula, say)? What forms the basis of the decision you make and does that basis limit you?

I argue that our actions are a product of three things. First, nature, our biology. We have biological predispositions that create a tendency or temperament. Cats, for example, are predisposed to be endlessly fascinated by yarn. Humans not so much. Parents have reported that their children have completely different personalities from the start, that that is just the way they are.

But we are not slaves to our biology. Nurture also plays a role. We can learn to conquer our fears. We can train to run marathons, even pale white guys. Our experiences can alter how we see things or how we tend to act or who we become, despite our predispositions. IQ might be strongly correlated with your genes, but if you never study, it won't help if your dad's Einstein.

Then there's chance. Sometimes we make seemingly random choices. Cocoa pebbles or Cap'n Crunch? Red shirt or blue shirt? We simply don't have time to properly analyze all the decisions in our daily lives. Jonah Lehrer describes this in How We Decide. He basically says that we have to trust our gut, our instincts, that that's an important part of the decision-making process without which we would endlessly contemplate what cereal to choose in the supermarket. So we just have to make random choices sometimes. And with all the random stimuli we receive (what sounds are in the background, whether you're hot or cold, how much lighting there is) we can't make an accurate prediction of all the decisions we make on a daily basis.

These things produce us. So we cannot say that they limit us. They are us. Only physics, or what is possible, limits us. We cannot fly, for instance. Not naturally. But, with technology, more and more is becoming possible. It may be, in fact, that nothing is impossible, that technology will enable us to do whatever we can think of. That, surely, is free will. But it may not be so. We may all be doomed when the universe ends in a Big Freeze, or we may never be able to travel faster than the speed of light. Presupposing God exists, why would He not give us this free will in its purest form? Well, if He did, then there would be nothing to separate us from Him. We would be equal. That could be bad. It might also mean that there would be no distinction between Him and us, which could cause a bit of an identity crisis.

Just some thoughts.

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