Saturday, May 07, 2011

Freedom and Mankind

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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. But 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. That is, it is right and just that we should experience the consequences of our choices.

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