Free Will and Its Discontents

fatalism_large1OK, so let’s talk about free will. I’ve had several people ask me to explain my understanding of it lately, so apparently it’s a subject of interest. As the conversation usually breaks out, you have free will on one side and determinism on the other. Free will says we make our own choices. Determinism says that everything is decided for us. Free will is a mental illusion and nothing more.

Now, to be frank, I’ve never had much interest in the subject of free will. The reason being that it makes no real difference in how we live our lives. If the reality is that I have no actual free will, then either choice I make will be the inevitable which is more confusing than helpful when faced with a decision. How do you pick the “right” path when whatever I choose is inevitable. It’s a supremely unhelpful concept when you have to make some decision.

As a practical matter, I must chart my course as if I had free will. Even if predestination is true, the illusion of free will is such a powerful internal sensation that for all practical purposes, it’s my reality. That being the case, what difference does it make is from some cosmic perspective everything is predestined?

Now, my personal understanding is that we have incomplete free will. There are simply too many factors which can take away our ability to choose freely to say that we have unfettered free will. Like I can’t stick my elbow in my ear. Seriously, I’ve tried and I just can’t do it, not matter how much I freely choose to. Or take someone who is facing extreme poverty, war, crime, sickness, oppression, etc. People’s options can become so circumscribed by circumstances that free will loses any real meaning.

However, within the limits we are working under, I think we have complete free will. More than people even realize, in fact. I believe strongly that we are always free to choose to do anything we want, so long as we are willing to live with the consequences. Not only do I believe that, but I  believe that this attitude is key to living a life of freedom, wisdom and power.

The problem I have with free will enthusiasts is the often unstated assumption that having free will means we are all captain of our own ships and masters of our domain. If life is directed not by outside forces, but by the direction of our free choices, then clearly we are all responsible for those choices and the consequences of them. It is my opinion that this is why the idea of free will is so popular in American Christianity. We like to judge. We feel that it is our duty to judge. When we refuse to judge, we end up with reality TV shows featuring Flavorflav in hot tub filled with erotic dancers. If we have free will, then people are culpable for their own choices and our job of warning people away from such things is both simple and a moral imperative.

Now, if you are fairly privileged; if you are not impoverished, under-educated, disabled, living under oppression, haven’t suffered significant trauma, don’t have a chronic illness, aren’t being held hostage by stoned pirates, etc., then free will is very appealing. It means that a fairly direct line can be drawn between what is good in your life and the good choices you made and the bad choices you turned away from. You can take responsibility for both your poor choices and the good choices you made which allowed you to overcome them. You are free, wise and powerful.

However, what I know from experience is that for someone who is not so privileged, the teaching of free will becomes a trap of condemnation. If you made a bad choice, it was because you freely made a bad choice and therefor can be held accountable for the consequences. It doesn’t really matter if you were so stressed and overwhelmed by circumstances that you couldn’t think straight. It doesn’t matter if you were in so much pain that your judgment was compromised. It doesn’t matter if you were trying to escape a dangerous, untenable situation by any means possible. It doesn’t matter if you made your choices without the sort of maturity or information that would have allowed you to make a good choice. You made your choice. It was a bad choice. It’s all your fault, so don’t expect any coddling or sympathy from the good people who knew better than to choose so poorly.

In fact, so deeply ingrained in a lot of Christians’ thinking is the idea of free will that the church is well known for resisting psychology, many social justice concerns and calls to display greater compassion towards society’s undesirables. Frequently such things are seen as excuse making by and for those who are unwilling to take responsibility for themselves. The fact that the average church goer is better educated, happier and wealthier than the rest of the population means that a lot of white Christians, in particular, haven’t ever spent years on end being pushed past the limits of their ability to cope and so have no real idea what life is like for those they see as excuse making failures.

If we admit that things like trauma, oppression, addiction, mental illness, poverty, abuse and ignorance remove at least some culpability for people’s poor choices, then the answer is to do something about the sources of trauma, oppression, addiction, mental illness, poverty, abuse and ignorance.  And really, it’s much easier to tell people to buck up and get their acts together. In practice, free will enthusiasm is frequently an excuse for eschewing any responsibility for lifting burdens, ending oppression and righting injustices.

Of course, I am writing this as a child of western culture which is excessively married to the idea of free will. There are plenty of people who come from cultures that are excessively married to the idea of fate. I suspect that for a person who has been told that life is all up to God and fate, the idea of free will is exactly what it should be – a source of freedom, wisdom and power. But for someone like myself, the idea that fate has its say is a comfort to me. It’s a bit of reprieve from a harsh, judging and demanding world that blames me for all of my own suffering.

In the end, only God really knows the extent to which life is and isn’t in our control. It is foolish arrogance to claim to have such knowledge ourselves. The best we can do is accept that even if it’s not our own experience, for most people, life is continually circumscribed by circumstances beyond their control. Not every obstacle can be overcome through force of will. Sometimes we are completely powerless and just going along the best way we can figure out how. Yet, when an option presents itself, we do have the right to choose, so far as we are able. And frankly, many people do not take full advantage of the free will they do have because they do not consider the full range of options available to us. As usual, the best answer seems to be both/and rather than either/or.

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