Eric – you make a very good point that the way that we exercise our free will is affected by the many other factors that have conditioned our worldview – he lists sex, race, religion, the stars born under, mother, father, nationality, wealth or poverty, education, thousands of other environmental influences, and dumb luck.
I agree that these are all factors in how we exercise our free will. However….
[And for a moment here I wish that we could have this discussion, as Rico previously described, in a slightly over-caffeinated state in a comfortable coffee shop. A blog is a far from perfect forum for lively exchange of ideas. I just hope that my next comment comes across in the spirit in which it is intended – of philosophical debate, rather than contradiction.]
I would suggest that free will is still free will, even if we poor limited humans are not capable of exercising it freely. Let’s imagine that free will is like a camera. It is a fine camera, brand new, in perfect working order. If we take a bad photograph, it is because of poor eyesight, or a shaking hand, or because we aimed the camera too high or too low. It is the human that is at fault, not the camera. These faults can all be corrected – better eyeglasses, improved breathing control, reframing our picture – through the means that Eric suggests – a conscious attention to day to day life with Buddhist like mindfulness. And then free will can be exercised accurately and effectively. The image in our camera viewfinder will be clear and pleasing.
A few other comments brought up the question of limiting circumstances, and here it is important to make a distinction: we may have free will, yet not have freedom of action, nor freedom of choice. I might decide that I want to be a basketball player, but at five-foot-four I am unlikely to succeed. To continue the camera metaphor, I am restricted to aiming it at things that are within my line of sight, so I do not have free choice of what will appear in my photograph. It is a camera, not a gun, so I can only shoot photographs, not bullets, so I do not have full freedom of action. But, according to my worldview, I still have free will in the sense that I choose what to aim my camera at, and when to fire the shutter. There is no omnipotent micro-manager raising my hand, taking aim, and pressing the shutter for me.
UncaDoug put this well: “We have free will in how we navigate and negotiate the obstacles that arise. Our ability to respond creatively and to initiate are how we rise above destiny. Destiny might be the unpredictable events over which we have no control. But our inventiveness reflects our personal choice.” To refer to my hero Viktor Frankl again, it is almost impossible to imagine more restrictive circumstances than being a prisoner in a concentration camp, yet he still exercised his free will when he resolved to always act with dignity and integrity, no matter what was being done around him and to him.
As to whether free will and the existence of God are mutually exclusive – far from it. To draw a parallel: as my mother sometimes says, with a sigh, she brought me and my sister up to think for ourselves. There is no disputing that she gave birth to us, but that does not mean that she controls every aspect of our lives. She brought us into this world, equipped us as best she could, and then sent us on our way. I agree with Daniel and Thomas’s comments on this one.
So, what is the upshot of all this? Is it just an intellectual debate, or does it have practical ramifications? I think it has very real, and very immediate relevance, and you won’t be surprised to hear that I see it in relation to the environment.
There is a school of thought that we would not be allowed to exploit the Earth’s resources as we do if this was not part of the divine plan. According to this logic, the very fact that we are doing it proves that it must be not only our right, but in fact our destiny. If it was not our destiny, God would intervene and stop it from happening.
I prefer to take the view that we have free will to choose how we treat our one and only planet. We have evolved (or been blessed, depending on your belief system) with intelligence, the ability to consider long-term consequences, and the capability to make wise decisions based on scientific evidence and common sense.
Believing in free will necessarily means taking responsibility for our future. We get to choose, because nobody else is going to make that choice for us. Believing in destiny means that it is all pre-ordained and no matter what we do now, we are either destined to survive or doomed to extinction.
Which belief do you prefer?
The sea anchor is out. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had to use it, but the wind is against me. Over the next 48 hours it is due to move around anticlockwise through all the points of the compass, before getting back to normal. Neptune only knows where I’ll be by then. And everything had been going so well, too….
Problems with incoming email again. As podcast listeners will know, I’ve been having poor satphone connections recently, which affects my data service as well as my weekly calls with Vic. And in any case, this blog is plenty long enough already. Hopefully normal service, including responses to comments, will be resumed tomorrow.
Quote for the day: “Life is like a game of cards. That hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.” (Jawaharlal Nehru)
Sponsored Miles: Grateful to Erica Vaccan and Allison Urban for sponsoring some of today’s miles.