I was raised Catholic. I attended Catholic schools for 10 years. We were taught that we possess free will to choose good or evil, right or wrong. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.”
Virtually all Christian religions believe in free will in some fashion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church, the Mormons) refers to it as free agency. It’s defined as “the privilege of choice which was introduced by God the Eternal Father to all of his spirit children...all individuals have the ability to differentiate between good and evil....”
In Norse mythology, three goddesses called Norns — Urd, Skuld, and Verdandi — “shape the lives of each man from his first day to his last” (Lord of the Gallows). The 13th-century Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson wrote in his Prose Edda that “there are yet more Norns, namely those who come to every man when he is born, to shape his life, and these are known to be of the race of gods.”
The Norse were strongly fatalistic, believing no man could escape his fate. All events are predetermined and therefore inevitable. They did not believe in free will — the ability to shape one’s own life.
The ancient Greeks and Romans hardly believed in free will. They believed the Fates determined everyone’s destiny at birth. Three Greek goddesses — Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos — were personified as three old women who spun and snipped the threads of human destiny. (The Roman versions of these goddesses were named Nona, Decuma, and Morta.)
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle did not believe in free will. He identified four possible causes — material, efficient, formal, and final — as multiple factors responsible for an event.
According to Wikipedia: “The Stoics solidified the idea of natural laws controlling all things, including the mind. Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, saw that every event had a cause, and that cause necessitated the event. Given exactly the same circumstances, exactly the same result will occur.
“The major developer of Stoicism, Chrysippus...argued that some future events that are possible do not occur by necessity from past external factors alone, but might...depend on us. We have a choice to assent or not to assent to an action. Chrysippus said our actions are determined (in part by ourselves as causes) and fated (because of God’s foreknowledge), but he also said that they are not necessitated, i.e., pre-determined from the distant past....”
And so the debate continues to this day. Do we really have free will, or is our ability to choose mostly a myth — an illusion?
In The Guardian (3/27/2021), “The clockwork universe: Is free will an illusion?” Oliver Burkeman writes: “A growing chorus of scientists and philosophers argue that free will does not exist. Could they be right?”
“The difficulty in explaining the enigma of free will to those unfamiliar with the subject isn’t that it’s complex or obscure. It’s that the experience of possessing free will — the feeling that we are the authors of our choices — is so utterly basic to everyone’s existence that it can be hard to get enough mental distance to see what’s going on. Suppose you find yourself feeling moderately hungry one afternoon, so you walk to the fruit bowl in your kitchen, where you see one apple and one banana. As it happens, you choose the banana. But it seems absolutely obvious that you were free to choose the apple — or neither, or both — instead. That’s free will: were you to rewind the tape of world history, to the instant just before you made your decision, with everything in the universe exactly the same, you’d have been able to make a different one.
“Nothing could be more self-evident. And yet according to a growing chorus of philosophers and scientists, who have a variety of different reasons for their view, it also can’t possibly be the case. ‘This sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics,’ says one of the most strident of the free will sceptics, the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne.”
Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has called free will “an inherently flawed and incoherent concept. According to Yuval Noah Harari, “free will is an anachronistic myth — useful in the past, perhaps, as a way of motivating people to fight against tyrants or oppressive ideologies, but rendered obsolete by the power of modern data science to know us better than we know ourselves, and thus to predict and manipulate our choices.”
Neuroimaging allows modern scientists to observe the physical brain activity associated with our decisions. Certain neuroscientific findings indicate our so-called free choices might originate in our brains several milliseconds, or even much longer, before we’re first aware of even thinking about them.
Burkeman explains that in the fruit bowl example, “there are physiological reasons for your feeling hungry in the first place, and there are causes — in your genes, your upbringing, or your current environment — for your choosing to address your hunger with fruit, rather than a box of doughnuts. And your preference for the banana over the apple, at the moment of supposed choice, must have been caused by what went before, presumably including the pattern of neurons firing in your brain, which was itself caused — and so on back in an unbroken chain to your birth, the meeting of your parents, their births and, eventually, the birth of the cosmos.”
Burkeman concludes: “By far the most unsettling implication of the case against free will, for most who encounter it, is what it seems to say about morality: that nobody, ever, truly deserves reward or punishment for what they do, because what they do is the result of blind deterministic forces (plus maybe a little quantum randomness). ‘For the free will sceptic,’ writes Gregg Caruso in his new book Just Deserts, a collection of dialogues with his fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett, ‘it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible.’ Were we to accept the full implications of that idea, the way we treat each other — and especially the way we treat criminals — might change beyond recognition.”
When America abandoned its gold standard in 1971, a US dollar was worth 1/35 of an ounce of gold. Now the value of a dollar is largely determined by exchange rates, Treasury yields, and foreign currency reserves. Ultimately a dollar bill only has value because we agree that it has value. Without that tacit agreement, a dollar would be a worthless piece of paper.
Our belief that we possess free will is somewhat similar. Free will might not exist, but perhaps we as a society need to believe in it regardless.
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