A central tenet at the heart of many philosophies and religions is the notion of free will and how much it guides our daily existence. Are we free to choose our own course in life, or have our lives been written ahead of time by some unseen heavenly entity and we are merely following a script created before we were born? We must also question the idea of free will within the context of human behavior and the extent to which it is guided by our instincts rather than our intellect. The survival instinct, common to all creatures on earth, has two imperatives, survive and procreate, neither of which is dependent upon the higher brain functions necessary for the exercise of free will. Earthworms, for example, don’t appear to contemplate the existence of a higher being, yet have managed to survive, largely unchanged, for several million years.
One aspect of free will arises from the struggle between our instincts and our intellect, and the instincts have several billion years head start on the intellect. The instincts are like our autopilot, telling us, among other things, to eat, to sleep, to run away when there’s trouble, and to seek a suitable mate when the time is right. In most cases, when one finds himself or herself acting in a manner which can’t be explained logically, the instincts are often the culprit. Humans choose to view themselves as rational beings, guided by logical reasoning when, in reality, we’re driven by an instinct to survive just like every other creature on earth; find shelter, find food, eliminate the competition, and insure the survival of our genetic heritage at all costs. The effect humans are having on the environment and other species demonstrates how adept we’ve become at following this script.
At the same time, humans have built a civilization based on laws which attempt to curtail the animal instincts and insure all people have the opportunity to benefit from the earth’s resources. Such laws often rely on compromise, and, in many cases, coercion to keep people in check. While these laws are founded upon the belief humans are essentially moral beings, it’s been my observation that humans are not huge fans of artificially imposed rules and regulations, and what stops many people from acting badly is the threat of legal retribution from society or moral retribution from a higher power.
When the established order is overthrown, even temporarily, people are capable of hideous atrocities. We see evidence of this in riots following sporting victories when fans take to the streets for the flimsiest of provocations and create significant chaos and loss of property. When the stakes are higher, such as when people are fighting against social injustices, the reaction is even more violent, yet even when the cause of the initial conflict is justifiable, individuals still use the resulting chaos as a cover for crimes unrelated to the cause of the initial violence. Humans are opportunistic beings and look for every opportunity to turn off their higher reasoning even for a few hours. If one were to ask these people afterward why they behaved as they did, they most likely would not be able to offer a logical explanation.
For Christianity and its predecessor Judaism, Genesis, chapter three, tells of the fall of man which led to the acquisition of free will. In this account, the god YHWH has created a paradise in the form of a garden, in which the man and woman, sometimes identified as Adam and Eve, live happy lives, totally devoid of all the frustrations that accompany higher consciousness. They are given just one rule, don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. YHWH is so adamant about this rule that the stated punishment for disobedience is death. A serpent tricks the woman into sampling the fruit and she convinces the man to try it. Both immediately gain awareness, signaled by the fact they realize they’re naked.
From the account in Genesis, it is clear that YHWH does not know that the man and woman have eaten of the tree before observing their behavior and questioning them. It is also obvious that YHWH had no foreknowledge of what the man and woman were about to do and simply relied on the threat of retribution to keep them away from the tree. This portrayal of God brings up a crucial factor in whether or not humans are free in cosmic terms to chart their own course in life, that is, whether or not our destinies are known or determined by a higher power.
It would appear that the notion of free will is at odds with a belief in an all-knowing and all-seeing God. Such an entity is said to know us better than we know ourselves, which presupposes that this entity already knows the decisions we will make. If so, the concept of free will is simply not feasible. For those who will attempt to refute this argument, the question is, can God be surprised by our actions? If not, this implies our actions are pre-determined by God and we do not have free will. If God can be surprised, then God cannot be all-knowing and all-seeing.
If everything is predetermined by God, as many religions and philosophies hold, then we can conclude from this that everything is already working the way God designed it. All the debates about God’s will are irrelevant because we’re already living according to God’s plan. The outcome is already programmed into the equation and nothing we do will change it. If, as I believe, the outcome is not predetermined, then God is neither all-seeing, nor all-knowing, and humans have the free will to determine their own course in the universe. The entity we call God is just as uncertain of how it will end as we are.
I believe the future is being written as we live it and no force in the universe knows the outcome. We are, therefore free to choose our own course, but only if we’re able to come to terms with how much our lives are still guided by our instincts. It has been shown that humans do have the capacity to overcome our basic biological needs when necessary. We can choose if and when we eat, and, when given the proper guidance and resources, whether or not to procreate, and the fact that humans are at times willing to sacrifice their lives on behalf of others demonstrates we can even overcome the ultimate biological imperative when circumstances dictate. Still, much of our behavior is controlled by forces often unnoticed or not acknowledged by us and this is the chief argument against free will. We need to come to a better understanding of how our biology affects us and fortunately, we have the capacity to do just that. If we can become more conscious of the forces influencing our behavior, then perhaps we can, at last, truly take control of our destinies.