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.

The Process is Life

Scriptures say that creation testifies to God. Science is simply the study of creation. It is the gathering and studying of the testimony of creation. Which is why I think that it is important for people of faith to be using science to deepen our understanding of God and his ways.

We see Jesus doing this, for example, in his teachings about seeds dying and bearing much fruit. It’s not just that Jesus was using a process which people were familiar with in order to explain something. It’s that this familiar process of creation is actually a living illustration of a much deeper, mysterious spiritual truth. It’s not just a coincidence that a seed works the same way that our spiritual life does. Rather, it’s reflects something purposeful in creation that testifies to God’s creation.

When you learn to see creation this way, all of life becomes imbued with deeper meaning. And it provides a corrective to our erroneous ideas. What we believe about God and his ways must be consistent with this universe he made.

That might seem to be a big claim to make, however, allow me to share something I read recently which illustrates just how deep this rabbit hole goes. I’m going to get all sciency with y’all for a bit. But I’ll make it simple and if you bear with me, I think you’ll see how taking creation’s testimony seriously can be a spiritually fruitful endeavor.

So, what I’m going to be talking about today has to do with the very origins of life. Not necessarily how life began – that’s a mystery we are rapidly closing in on. But the why. Why is there life at all? Continue reading

Playing With Time

Can you imagine if God had tried explaining to Moses that the Earth is 6 billion years old?  We live in an age where huge numbers get thrown around all the time.  There are 6.5 billion people on the planet.  The gdp of the United States is in the trillions.  The universe we can see is thought to be 16+ billion years old.  Heck, some people have billions of dollars.  We’ve all heard those explanations of how if the history of the earth were crammed into a year, humans wouldn’t show up until a few seconds before midnight.  So when we hear “billions” we have some frame of reference for understanding that amount of time although it remains incomprehensible.  But if God had told Moses that the Earth was 6 billion years old, it would have meant nothing.  A billion.  Eternity.  It would all be the same.

So what do eternity and time mean to us today?  The best explanation I can think of is to imagine each point in time as a tiny particle.  Now, imagine each of those particles lined up in a line like a string.  Now, imagine taking that string and wrapping it up like a ball of yarn.  Now, imagine that you could enter that giant ball which contains all that has ever been or ever will be here in the physical world, all at once.  Imagine that you could experience it all at once – like a constant hum of movement and emotion and light.  Imagine that you could see the ball of time from the outside and watch what it does – again as a constant pulsing, moving, feeling thing.  Imagine that you could reach out and take hold of one particle that represents one point in time.  Or a section of the time string to watch events unfold.  I imagine that depending on how much detail you looked at, it would be like looking at a picture or a movie or even a poem that captures a sense of place and emotion.  This is all very theoretical and speculative, but when I imagine what it must be like to exist outside of time, this is the idea that helps me to even begin to conceive of such a thing.

If we could see from the perspective of eternity, we would be able to see how things all hold together and work themselves out.  We could know in a way that right now we can only hope for and believe in that God really “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” – Roman 8:28.  If we could see the whole ball of twine, so to speak, it would all make sense.

But the reason that everything can work itself out that way is because we exist inside time rather than outside of time.  In time, things can change, grow, morph, even die.  Outside of time, what is – is.  Outside of time, if tragedy strikes, it just is.  Inside of time, if tragedy strikes, we can fight back, survive, learn and grow from it and allow it to become something beautiful or even just recede so far from memory that it no longer has any sting.  Time is the gift we have been given so that things can work themselves out into a beautiful whole.  Without time, whatever pain, sorrow and suffer we experience would just exist.  It would exist alongside of whatever joy, triumph and pleasure we experience, to be sure.  But it would always be there.  And frankly, that’s not good enough for me.  I don’t believe it’s good enough for God either.

*Originally published 8/2011

I think about weird things

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Illustration from The Upside Down World by my sister Cindy

At the very end of my book The Upside Down World – A Book of Wisdom in Progress, I have a section which I called “Quantum Christianity”.  It consists of several pages of fairly random notes about a variety of subjects ranging from quantum physics to abortion.  I don’t usually makes notes, but I do usually think about a variety of odd things.  I like thought experiments.  I like logic puzzles.  I like looking for odd connections between seemingly unrelated things.  My favorite item from this section of the book is this thought experiment: What if everything in existence -galaxies, quarks, people, cells in your body – experienced its lifespan as a hundred years long?

I don’t know why, but I do spend an unusual amount of time thinking about weird things.  My 16 year old keeps telling me that I need to get a hobby – other than thinking.  So, in the spirit of “Quantum Christianity”, here are some of the odd things that I’ve been thinking about lately:

1. Motion as a source of clean energy.  I have heard of using the motion of vehicles and foot traffic to create power, but I wonder if there might be a way to capture the deep motions of the earth in order to create power.  Perhaps technology from a super sensitive seismograph machine and material that amplifies motion together?

2. How the progression of technology – particularly new forms of communication – affect our understanding of God and spirituality.  Until a little over 100 years ago, no one had ever heard the voice of someone who wasn’t there  unless they were mystics or crazy.  But now its common place.  Does the experience of carrying on a relationship via telephone enhance our ability to have a real relationship with God?  What about internet relationships?  Some of them are very real and rely on typed words to be created.  Does this make us more open to interacting with the words of scripture in a more dynamic way – since we are more familiar with the potential problems associated with communicating via written words alone?

3. The similarity between regular dysfunctions and addictions.  Both can seem impervious to our attempts to change and both are forms of coping with a world that is too much for us.  Both require learning new, healthier ways to cope with the stresses of life.  Perhaps the reason that we hear so much about various shopping or sex or internet addictions is because the pathology of addiction is essentially the same for all forms of dysfunction.  We just don’t label it addiction unless it has physical rather than relational and emotional effects.

I would love to hear about any weird things other people find themselves thinking about!  More kindling to the fire. 😉

BTW, If you like the things I write here or found this story interesting or intriguing in any way, I hope you will consider purchasing a copy of my book, The Upside Down World.  It’s an ecclectic collection of essays, short stories, poetry, ideas, spiritual memoir and more.  In it are many of the things I have written that I personally go back to for inspiration and comfort when I need it.  The book can be purchased on Amazon.  I am also offering a buy-one-give-one deal on full price copies of the book ($12 plus $2 shipping) ordered directly from me.  For each copy of the book purchased directly from me, I will donate a copy to Transport for Christ or Freedom Works Prison Fellowship.  These are two local groups who have agreed to give copies of the book free of charge to people they minister to.  If you are interested in the buy-one-give-one offer, please email me at ratrotter73@yahoo.com with “b1g1″ in the message.

Playing With Time

Can you imagine if God had tried explaining to Moses that the Earth is 6 billion years old?  We live in an age where huge numbers get thrown around all the time.  There are 6.5 billion people on the planet.  The gdp of the United States is in the trillions.  The universe we can see is thought to be 16+ billion years old.  Heck, some people have billions of dollars.  We’ve all heard those explanations of how if the history of the earth were crammed into a year, humans wouldn’t show up until a few seconds before midnight.  So when we hear “billions” we have some frame of reference for understanding that amount of time although it remains incomprehensible.  But if God had told Moses that the Earth was 6 billion years old, it would have meant nothing.  A billion.  Eternity.  It would all be the same.

So what do eternity and time mean to us today?  The best explanation I can think of is to imagine each point in time as a tiny particle.  Now, imagine each of those particles lined up in a line like a string.  Now, imagine taking that string and wrapping it up like a ball of yarn.  Now, imagine that you could enter that giant ball which contains all that has ever been or ever will be here in the physical world, all at once.  Imagine that you could experience it all at once – like a constant hum of movement and emotion and light.  Imagine that you could see the ball of time from the outside and watch what it does – again as a constant pulsing, moving, feeling thing.  Imagine that you could reach out and take hold of one particle that represents one point in time.  Or a section of the time string to watch events unfold.  I imagine that depending on how much detail you looked at, it would be like looking at a picture or a movie or even a poem that captures a sense of place and emotion.  This is all very theoretical and speculative, but when I imagine what it must be like to exist outside of time, this is the idea that helps me to even begin to conceive of such a thing.

If we could see from the perspective of eternity, we would be able to see how things all hold together and work themselves out.  We could know in a way that right now we can only hope for and believe in that God really “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” – Roman 8:28.  If we could see the whole ball of twine, so to speak, it would all make sense.

But the reason that everything can work itself out that way is because we exist inside time rather than outside of time.  In time, things can change, grow, morph, even die.  Outside of time, what is – is.  Outside of time, if tragedy strikes, it just is.  Inside of time, if tragedy strikes, we can fight back, survive, learn and grow from it and allow it to become something beautiful or even just recede so far from memory that it no longer has any sting.  Time is the gift we have been given so that things can work themselves out into a beautiful whole.  Without time, whatever pain, sorrow and suffer we experience would just exist.  It would exist alongside of whatever joy, triumph and pleasure we experience, to be sure.  But it would always be there.  And frankly, that’s not good enough for me.  I don’t believe it’s good enough for God either.

 

Wherefore art thou, authority?

Sorry for the long break in blogging.  I’ve been busy getting my gardens in order and just got back from a trip to Chicago.  Of course, not blogging isn’t the same as not obsessing over things, so I suppose I’ll just jump right back in with the latest fun item to be taking up brain space . . . the potential purpose and role of authority in our lives.  Sounds like a good time, eh? 🙂

I am a child of my age, and as such, I have always looked at authority as something to be handled cynically and derisively.  I recognize that certain authority, such as law enforcement needs to be obeyed if only to keep us all from crashing our cars into one another.  Much beyond that, any authority, be it parental, church, political or otherwise was held to a “prove it” standard.  And not just prove it to someone who would approve those in positions of authority, but prove it to me, the person you would have authority over.  Honestly, it’s hard for me to think of anyone whose instructions or thinking I would follow simply because they were “the authority”.  Question everything and everyone has been my MO.

Fear of or respect for authority were punch lines in my book, certainly not anything by which I would make decisions.  I would guess that a lot of people are like me in this regard.  However, I recently realized something which has made me re-examine my attitude towards authority.  You see, over the last 10-15 years, I have invested a lot of time and mental energy into constructing what you could call a philosophy of life.  It’s my understanding of the nature of life, the rules by which we ought to govern ourselves in order to live happy, productive lives which are a benefit to our families and communities.  I can provide detailed, well reasoned and thought-out explanations for what I believe.  You may disagree with my conclusions, but it would be hard to argue that I am simply making things up willy-nilly out of religious delusions or to justify my personal desires.

I have been compelled to do this, I think, precisely because I did not feel that there was a source of authority for how to live my life and think about the important questions of life which I could trust.  And now, at the age of 35, I have managed to construct a framework for living which I am pretty satisfied with.  The problem is that in the absence of authority, we’re all going to have to go through this process.  If we each need to figure out right and wrong and rules for relationships and all the important things in life for ourselves, we are leaving ourselves obscenely open to majorly screwing up our lives long before we have a chance to figure out what’s what.  Continue reading