I remember a few conversations I had with some college friends, back when I was still a Christian, on Calvinism and predestination. For a long time, I actually considered myself a Calvinist.
One usually can’t discuss Calvinism without also talking about destiny and free will, as any Calvinist will tell you. It wasn’t long before one of those present, slightly drunk and high (it’s college), shook his head, sunk in his chair, and said, “Maaann… free will is some deep-ass shit.”
For those who don’t know, Calvinism is a perfectly legitimate theological approach to Christianity (one of many), founded by Jean Calvin in the 16th century. Long story short, most Calvinists believe that free will is merely an illusion; that God has already written the whole of human history from “the beginning to the end,” including who will be in heaven with him (known as “the elect”) and who will be in hell. We may feel like we have a choice in the matter, but God, being all-knowing, would not have been foolish enough to allow random human variables to fuck up his plan.
Think about it as a book. The author creates the characters and determines exactly what will happen to them. If the characters were real, they might think that they’re making their own choices and decisions, but really they’re making the very choice they were created to make.
This was a common analogy among Calvinists. Personally, I used to think of life as more like one of God’s impromptu jokes come alive.
Anyway, my point is, I’m not a Christian anymore. But, surprisingly, I still don’t believe in “free will.” Or at least, not in the way most people mean it.
This topic stems from a question someone asked me on facebook, which went a little something like this:
So marc, do you feel we have free will or we don’t? do you think we choose the paths that we are on, as in when i made a left instead of a right on that last light i ended up hitting a guy on the street that was neither his nor my fault? I want to know who controls these everyday tragedies and sucesses we go through daily. And when one has a burden in their heart who do they cry out to or where do they turn to? Who judges the man who tried to live his whole life as a man(or so he thought) and when he developed in his life further, realized he was a woman with a family and his wife leaves him, he confronts his inner feelings to want to live as a woman. What is the purpose of all of this in life, why aren’t we just robots that learn to live and love eachother without pain and hate or desires and wants that PEOPLE may say is not according to “God’s plan”. Where does all that lie?
It’s a good question. A damn good question.
Here’s the thing. I’m a man of science. And science deals with questions of the knowable or foreseeable truth. Take physics as an example. The universe happens to operate a certain way, and the science of physics represents our attempt to understand the way it operates.
For instance, an object in free fall will accelerate toward the ground at a rate of about 9.81 m/s^2. A lot of experimentation was involved in arriving at this answer. Furthermore, it’s repeatable. We can actually set up an experiment wherein we measure the distance from a ball to the ground and calculate how long it will take to hit the ground when we let it go. And the answer will be dead accurate. Every time.
If we know anything from physics (as well as the rest of science), it’s that if you’re given all the variables, you can always, always, always arrive at the right answer. So, theoretically, if we had knowledge of every single variable and every single premise, constant, and initial condition, we could successfully foresee the future. A math equation can only have one right answer.
The problem is, the number of variables is nothing short of infinite.
When you decide to make a left turn instead of a right, you think you’re doing so of your own accord (if you happen to drive a Honda Accord, that would be an intentional pun). But the reality is that you act according to an infinite number of contributing factors from your past, and everything leading up to the moment you were born as well.
It’s completely random, and yet it’s not. When all the variables are laid out, there’s really only one possible outcome.
So, to answer the question, no, I do not think free will really exists; that is, if we define “free will” as the idea that our choices determine the future. In the grand scheme of things, there’s only one “future” that will occur, and everything we decide to say or do has no effect on it.
For all intents and purposes though, we do have free will. Just because your past experiences, environmental conditions, and historical context are leading you to make one inevitable choice doesn’t make it not a “decision” in any useful sense of the word.
But don’t misunderstand me. Just because I think free will is an illusion doesn’t mean that I somehow believe that there’s an invisible man in space who’s decided how things are going to play out. Number one, because that conclusion doesn’t at all follow from this premise, and number two, because that conclusion makes far less sense than its atheistic alternatives.
2 + 2 = 4, not because someone designed it that way. 2 + 2 = 4 because… well, that’s just the way it is.