Thursday, 13 July 2017

Without Free Will, Nothing is Possible

By Jim Ashley

Many people who question the existence of free will--volition--have some concern that if a person strongly believes that free will exists he or she will be unduly and harshly judgmental of others. So to ensure that they themselves will not be, they want to be sure that the existence of free will is doubtful, unproven, illusory or certain not to exist.

I don't know where this concern comes from, though I suspect with some people it comes from a fear that they themselves will be morally judged by a believer in free will or will be found out to have done something wrong; their motto might be: "Judge not, lest ye also be judged!" But in this post, I will argue that a belief in the existence of free will is not only necessary for one's spiritual health and for achieving one's values, but also that the existence of free will is a certainty.

I dispute the idea that a person can be free to escape the physiology or physics of the brain. In fact, I hold that it is metaphysically impossible. But "free will" does not mean being free of one's biology. It is BECAUSE of Man's physical nature that he has free will. His physical--and metaphysical--nature give him the ability to make choices, which is what free will simply is. It is as if he was born with a "free will mechanism"; it is a mechanism only he can engage--by choice--but which does not make him a robot or, as Anthony Burgess would have put it, a "clockwork orange". (As a character put it in an old OUTER LIMITS episode: "Maybe that's what the soul is: choice.")

Without the possession of free will, life would be bleak and hopeless. One would have no measure of control over one's own destiny.

Yet some people fear people who they know might have a strong belief in free will. They see such people as morally self-righteous, so if they themselves have done something that might be seen as sinful, immoral or cowardly, they fear being judged and condemned for their weaknesses. Whatever their motivations might be, they may have something to fear from their own conscience perhaps, but there is nothing to fear from others who happen to believe in free will, not if one is independently-minded, and certainly not if one has forgiven him- or herself.

In order to be forgiving of oneself for past mistakes or even misdeeds (up to a point) while accepting the idea of free will, one must recognize and acknowledge the fact of one's own mental CONTEXT.

Moral relativism and what I would call "moral contextualism" are two different things. The former upholds the idea that moral values are relative to a situation or to what a person has experienced ("situational ethics"); the latter upholds the idea that moral values spring from a person's knowledge and ideas up to the present moment.

Free will does not make people moral super-humans, but it does mean that a person can correct his or her mistaken ideas and build new awareness from the corrections. Thus, over time a person can change their mental context. If someone has made a mistake which they regret, they can either keep punishing themselves or they can resolve to change the thinking that was responsible for the mistake. But the only way they will feel they have the right to do that is if they first forgive themselves, and the only way to do that is to acknowledge to themselves that at any moment of their life, their context is their context. A is A.

All you have to work with in life is your mental context; that's it. People must recognize that so they can understand themselves, see themselves objectively and achieve perspective. Then they can make any ideational changes that may be necessary. I would even argue that once a person has accepted the fact of their prior context--and thus accepted themselves--they will be more willing to atone for any wrongdoings toward others and to strive to be a better person; their renewed self-esteem and the awareness that it would be in their own rational self-interest make it possible.

Moral contextualism is the only way to achieve a "God's-eye view" of oneself. By a "God's-eye view" I mean the ability to look at yourself and at your whole life from its beginning to its potential conclusion the same way a literal God would look at them--with complete detachment and a sort of cosmic objectivity, giving appropriate weight to both your moral flaws and your virtues.

But just as important as learning to accept oneself and perhaps even to forgive oneself is to hold oneself as being responsible for oneself. The day one can say to him- or herself "I and only I am responsible for everything I have ever thought, said, done or failed to do" is the day one has become fundamentally free. Once an individual has taken responsibility for his or her past, they can then direct the course of their life from then on. Barring accidents, they can achieve their most important goals and values. But such responsibility-taking is not possible without free will.

Free will is fundamental to human life. And to ask "What causes a person to make a certain choice?" is equivalent to asking "Who or what created the universe?" Both are invalid questions. Just as the universe never was created or began--it simply exists, and always has--so a person simply has the ability to focus his or her mind and make a concrete choice, and always has. Just as existence itself is the cause of metaphysical events in the universe, volition itself is the reason human choices exist.

In every minute of every day of our lives, we make choices--choices of what to think, say and do. It is as if through the course of our lives we always have a highway intersection or the beginning of a river's tributary before us, and though we can evade a particular choice out of fear, we cannot evade the fact that a choice must be made. Free will does not exist in a vacuum; it exists in a surrounding context consisting of time and place. Within that context, we travel in a certain direction, meet new opportunities in work, in potential relationships, in ways to enjoy our lives. The film CAST AWAY, starring Tom Hanks, concretized this fact very well. It tells the story of Chuck Nolan, a systems engineer for FedEx who, after the company plane he is on crashes, killing the pilot, is stranded on an uninhabited island for four years. When he returns home, he finds that he was assumed to be dead. Everything is changed; in a way, he feels more lost than when he was out in the middle of the ocean for four years.

He resumes his work, despite being extremely dispirited. But in the process of making ground deliveries, he learns while being out in the middle of nowhere again that there are still choices before him that present possibilities. His spirit is renewed simply by the awareness of the fact that he still DOES have choices. The final image of the film is of Nolan standing on the corner of a rural intersection, contemplating what direction he will drive in now--depending on a single long-range choice he makes.

A highway intersection is a perfect metaphor for choice. Since we will always have an "intersection" before us, we need to know that we have free will.

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