Thursday, October 02, 2008

Free Will, the Fall of Man, and the Nature of Sin
CCD Class Four

Man, male and female, was created in the image of God, who is Love and Truth. Accordingly, as individual human persons, we are meant to exist in love and truth, that is, the meaning of human life is to love and be loved in truth. And love is not truly love unless it is freely given and freely received. Thus, we are also created with a capacity for free choice of the will.

The Question of the Existence of Free Will

Does freedom of choice really exist or is it an illusion? Does an individual have the true ability to determine the course of his thoughts and volitions, to decide which motives shall prevail within his mind, and to modify his own character, or are his thoughts and volitions, his character and external actions, all merely the inevitable outcome of his circumstances? Is everything, including our choices, pre-determined by some prior cause, either some physical cause, or by God controlling everything? Are choices and actions all inexorably predetermined in every detail along rigid lines by events of the past, over which the individual himself has had no sort of control? Or do we have the autonomy to exercise authentic control over our decisions and actions?

Addressing the problem of the existence of free will requires understanding the relation between freedom and causation, and determining whether or not the laws of nature are causally deterministic. The issue of free will is especially important with respect to ethics and morality. Unless man is really free, he cannot be justly held responsible for his actions, any more than for the date of his birth or the color of his eyes.

For those who believe in God, the idea of the existence of free will is rather simple to believe in. We have the evidence of its existence in our daily experiences of making choices in thought and action. But the person who does not believe in God, or who rejects the idea of God altogether -- along with the idea that human persons possess a soul, a spirit from God -- both the agnostic and atheist have a dilemma to overcome with respect to the supposed existence of free will.

Determinism vs. Free Will

Determinism is the philosophical proposition that every event, including human cognition, decision and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences. Determinism may also be defined as the thesis that there is, at any instant, exactly one physically possible future.

If the agnostic or atheist persist in their unbelief, then many necessarily must logically conclude that "free will" and "self-determination" do not really exist, indeed, "thought" does not really exist, they are simply illusions that we think that we are experiencing. That is because the physical world is governed by certain fixed and uniform physical laws, as well as the law of cause and effect, and if God does not exist, that is, if a cause beyond and independent of the physical universe does not exist, then all future events or effects are necessarily caused, or determined, by some prior pre-existing physical event or condition operating under the laws of nature.

If there is no God, then the universe is purely materialistic, and the human being does not have a soul, but is merely a body, a biological entity whose apparent "independent thoughts" are nothing more than electro-chemical impulses interacting with chemical markers that have been laid down in brain tissue, and which we know as memory, with both those impulses and markers being themselves pre-determined by other purely physical causes. Thus, “free will” is merely an illusion, a mere feeling of independent agency. And if our thoughts and actions are all pre-determined and we have no personal power to think and do otherwise, then they are not really our own thoughts and actions, and we cannot justly be held morally responsible for them.

The Soul and Free Choice of the Will

“Free will” is the metaphysical truth of independent agency and elective power, including the ability to exercise autonomous and rational control over one’s decisions, thoughts, and actions. The existence of free will means that the actions of the body, including the brain and the mind, are not wholly determined by physical causality, that one’s thoughts somehow go beyond and transcend the physical body, suggesting the existence of an extra-corporeal aspect to the person, which we call the spirit or soul. It is because we are both body and spirit that we are able to transcend and overcome the mere biological electro-chemical reactions in the brain. It is because we are not purely biological, but have a spirit, that we are able to transcend what pure biology and environment dictate.

The human brain is like a computer. A computer operates strictly according to its software programming and the efficacy of its hardware. So long as there is no physical damage or defect, the computer will only do what its program dictates, without any deviation whatsoever. The actions of the computer are totally pre-determined by its programming. Likewise, the human brain operates according to its own hardware and software, by electro-chemical impulses along synapses, which interact with memory that has been created by certain chemical markers on the brain tissue. However, human persons are possessed with more than a body and computer-like brain.

Faith -- revelation and reason -- informs us that we are also possessed with a soul, and this spiritual component of our being is able to rise above and go beyond the merely physical, including the physical laws of cause and effect. As a result, we are able to make independent decisions with respect to actions taken. We lift our hand and move our fingers because we consciously choose to do so of our own volition, not because of some pre-programmed biological memory and electro-chemical reactions in the brain.

We are made in the image of God, and therefore possess to a certain degree that same power of the Logos, that is, we have a certain power of creative reason, which transcends and overrides the physical brain and permits independent thought and agency.

Now, because humans do have free will, and their thoughts and actions are the result of their own willful choices, they can justly be held morally responsible for them.

The Fall and Sin (Gen. 3:1-24) (CCC 385-421)

The man and the woman of Creation were free to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, even though God had warned them not to, "the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die." The man and the woman thought that they could be like gods themselves, that they could then choose their own truth, their own reality, their own concepts of right and wrong. They thought that they could be self-fulfilling and self-sufficient, not needing God or other people. Even today, there are many people who still believe this. Indeed, we could easily say that we are, ourselves, both Adam and Eve, that the story of the Fall of Man is one that repeats itself on a daily basis.

However, the man and woman were wrong. In eating the fruit, in freely choosing to oppose God, believing that they did not need the one true God, but could be gods themselves, Adam and Eve did not become gods, but instead fell from truth into error. And error necessarily leads to more error, until ultimately you are so removed from Truth and Love, i.e. Life, that you are "doomed to die," and not merely bodily death, but eternal death, that is, Hell.

By opposing and severing their relationship with God, who is Love and Truth, they corrupted human nature, so that our ability to love and to reason and discern good from evil is impaired. Before this, man could see – truly see. He could see God, truth, and love.

But after sin, which is an offense against truth and genuine love for God and neighbor, man’s sight is impaired, his hearing is distorted. While hiding in the bushes, instead of being able to see God clearly, the man now saw only leaves and branches. His ability to see God, to know God, to know love and truth, was grievously impaired.

Thus, we see that, as with this first “original sin,” our own individual sin, which is done by our own free choice of the will, carries its own intrinsic “punishment” - error leads to more error, until, in your ignorance of the truth, you are in slavery to error and sin and death. By choosing to sin, choosing to set aside the Light and Truth of God, you are necessarily left to fend for yourself in ignorance and darkness, and you will find yourself inadequate to the challenge. And it is that first, original sin that is the root of every other sin.

By sin entering into the world, our entire human nature is wounded, corrupted, and compromised, our souls are tainted. Our judgment is clouded, our ability to reason is impaired, and the influences and temptations of the world overwhelm us, plunging us into darkness and error and slavery to further sin.

Some sin is so grave and deliberate that it destroys love in the heart and turns one away from God, thereby resulting in eternal death if forgiveness is not sought. We call these “mortal sins.” But what is such a serious and grave sin may not be so apparent to us, especially in our fallen state. For example, we might not think that merely eating a piece of fruit after being told not to is all that bad, but that seemingly innocuous act was the most mortal of all sins because by it, eternal death resulted. There are also those sins that wound love in the heart and weaken grace, but are not so serious as to break the covenant with God, thereby still allowing for eternal life after the stain of such sin is purged from us. We call these “venial sins.” While such venial offenses may not result in eternal death, they do warrant temporal punishment, and they also impede us in the exercise of virtue and the pursuit of moral good, as well as the in the ability to fully love and discern truth. Ultimately, Jesus Christ is the judge who determines whether we are in a state of grace or whether the sins we may commit are mortal or merely venial.

The account of the Fall in Genesis not only shows how sin affects the sinner, it demonstrates how sin is intensely social. Indeed, this Original Sin did not affect merely Adam and Eve, but has affected and infected us all, it has left a stain on our being. All sin, both original and individual, affects and injures not only the sinner, but all of us. Sin severs and poisons all relations. After eating the fruit of the Tree, Adam not only foolishly tries to hide from God, but the first thing he does when confronted is to blame Eve. What directly follows is Cain’s murder of Abel.

Thus, we see that proper relationships between mankind and God were and are severed by this sin of believing that you are equal to or above God, of believing that you can create your own truth, your own idea of right and wrong, good and evil. A wide gulf of separation between God and humanity was created, a separation between man and love, truth, and life. It is a gulf of separation that is so great that man is incapable of crossing it on his own.

Moreover, as we see with Adam turning against Eve, and Cain killing Abel, proper relationships between human beings themselves were severed, and instead of living a life of love and truth toward others, mankind has lived a life of selfish self-gratification and exploitation of others; instead of harmony, there is discord.

This stain left on us by Original Sin cannot be washed away by mere human means. Only God can wash us clean, only He can redeem us, only He can reconcile us to Himself -- He who is Love and Truth and Life.

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