Study, work and life have been keeping me from blogging much, but I had a ‘free will’ thought to scribble down, so here goes.
I just moved my finger back & forth from pointing straight up and straight ahead. This was caused at one level by the muscles in my fingers. Why did my muscles do what they did? Well, at one level, because of another muscle, my brain and the tasks it was performing – namely, thinking about free will and bodily function. What made me think about this? Well, lots of things, including things I’ve heard, read, or thought about previously. Does any of this mean I did not, in a very real sense, freely choose to move my finger? Of course not.
I’m something of a ‘both/and’ thinker. This makes me, perhaps predisposed to think of free will as involving a tension between dual realities. On the one hand, restrictions on our abilities and ‘freedom’ to act result in behaviour that is quite predictable. I don’t have the freedom (naturally!) to make my finger change length or composition. On the other hand, I deny that we are slavishly bound to genetic or neurological factors, such that we remain free acting agents, meaningfully responsible for our actions. No judge worth her salt would be too persuaded to find someone innocent if they explained shooting someone in terms of the neuro-chemical causality behind the movement of their trigger finger.
Yes, it is a bit more complicated than this simple outline. But to be honest, all of this debate I find rather silly. (And in my research this year on human nature and sin, I interviewed two non-religious university level neurologists who agreed!) I’m becoming less interested in exacting philosophical speculation about how to describe (or defend) human ‘free will’. I’m more and more interested in the transformation of our will.
Whatever state human ‘will’ naturally comes to us, however much our wills are shaped by nurture/culture, it remains simply true that to greater or lesser degrees, we can grow, train and retrain, exercise, shape and reshape, guide, bend, manipulate, coerce, force, coax, form, reform and otherwise transform our wills. Just as steel can be formed for various purposes, so also our wills are malleable and can be shaped to help us achieve a goal.
Some goals will be unrealistic for human nature – such as to fly, spin webs like spiders or what have you. But others are not only realistic, but also freeing. For example, we have all kinds of genetic and cultural pressures constantly and quite ‘naturally’ pushing us toward certain kinds and amounts of uses of substances (food, sex, drink, language, etc.). But rather than be a slave to these natural inclinations, we can train and retrain our wills and plan in advance how and how much we will use them.
To change the metaphor away from the metallurgical one of hammering steel to the athletic one of swimming in a stream, take a young adult who ‘going with the flow’ of his or her peers who are also ‘going with the flow’ of cultural trends reflected in music videos and a thousand other expressions of the abuse of alcohol. Hook them up to whatever kind of device it is that measures their choices. Send them to a party with their mates. Have someone offer them their favourite beer. Hooray! You were able to predict their choice by observing this or that neurological activity. Yay for technology! Humans are so predictable! But you didn’t need that device to predict their choice at all, did you? Now take someone who is deliberately and intentionally oriented to stand apart from a culture of binge-drinking. They will exist in that same situation in a very different way – or indeed, they may likely freely choose to not go. Indeed, they may not find that particular kind of space as fun. And you know what? If we hook them up to the machine, we could just as equally (if not more easily!) predict their choice as well. The point is not whether or not we can predict their choice, but what choice they will make. One that takes them toward slavery to alcohol (under the cultural disguise of being ‘free’ from any rules on how much they can drink!); or one that is a participation in a personal trajectory that is being built toward a different kind of freedom (and yes, one which may indeed involve a very different kind of ‘slavery’!).
So again, I’m becoming less and less interested in philosophical noodle-wrestling over what ‘free will’ means. Rather, I think we all should be interested in what kinds of goals are good for us and others, and what kind of practices and networks help shape us (and our wills) to make progress toward those goals. It all reminds me of some dusty old quote: “…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” A verse that is followed by a breathtaking consideration of just that kind of transformed living: humility, community, service, teaching, leading, care-giving, un-hypocritical love, wise judgment, affectionate love, walking a mile in one another’s shoes, etc.