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Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Free will" redux :oD

Thank you all for your fabulous, thoughtful responses regarding the question of "free will". I loved reading each of your thoughts and stories on the subject!

It appears we are mostly leaning in the direction of yes: yes, there is such a thing as free will. At the same time, we all suspect there are times when we make decisions in a state of mind that is less than completely "free". Case in point: the schizophrenic man who is off his meds and  acting in a manner that he wouldn't if her were taking them...

Perhaps the "free" part is sometimes buried in so many layers of choices that we have trouble finding it in retrospect? There is a song by Casting Crowns called "Slow Fade" that speaks to this a bit. You can check it out here:

I have a follow-up question, however. As a mom, I have long lamented the fact that our children may make immature, even childish decisions (an exercise of will) of which that, due to their immaturity, they may be incapable of grasping the significance/potential consequences.

Is it appropriate, then, to say that they have "free" will? Is decision-making truly free when one is unable to truly evaluate the potential outcome?

I don't know. Perhaps you have some thoughts?

One last thing I'd like to share as you ponder your response to this question:

The Casting Crowns song (above) incorporates the lyrics of an old children's hymn that kind of bothered me when I heard it. It goes something like this: "Be careful little eyes what you see (repeat). For the father up above is looking down with love; be careful little eyes what you see."

I confess that this song always seemed a bit, well, confusing to me. At once a warning (be careful what you see), simultaneously a promise of God's love (for the father up above is looking down with love).  I was never sure what the lyricist meant by the juxtaposition of those two statements.

Recently I read a book in which the author talked about an experience he had with this song that he felt put it in to perspective. He was being driven through an extremely impoverished area by a missionary friend, assailed by the incredible challenges being faced by the people whom they passed on the road. Lack of permanent housing, food instability, poor health amid filthy conditions...

Then from the back seat of the car, the missionary's daughters, who had been singing children's songs to pass the time, started singing "Be careful little eyes what you see...Be careful little feet where you go...".  And it struck the author then that this lyric was not so much a threat or admonition, but a plea to pay attention. A reminder to really SEE those who surround us and to remember that (1) God loves each of them, too, and (2) God wants us to act as conduits: to SEE and to ACT.

But back to children and free will: is it "informed" enough to be "free" will to those unable to grasp the consequences?

Inquiring minds want to know ;o)


  1. Trish, on the subject of children, I don't really see that it is that different for them to have free will as opposed to adults. With the exception of the limitations parents and other adults in authority put on them.
    We make our decisions and actions based on a combination of our desires and the knowledge we have about the outcomes of various behaviors. We have been conditioned by many things, so our "free" will isn't all that free in many instances. For every bit of info we have that is correct, there is so much we don't know. Yet we keep on making decisions and experiencing the consequences.
    Children definitely have wills. They do have limited life experience, and that is why the adults in their lives have to correspondingly limit the actions they can take. It is not that they are not informed enough for their will to be free. It is that it would be dangerous for them if parents and others allowed complete expression of that will.
    But I submit that it is not all that different for adults. We often make decisions, even very important ones, and really have not fully understood the consequences. As a person of faith, this is why I believe we need guidance from our creator. But even without that aspect of it, from a purely secular point of view, we humans make decisions based on what we know at the time, and it often turns out that we did not understand enough. IE: technologies that were lauded as beneficial, that turned out to pollute our earth, or medicines that ended up doing more harm than good. A Doctor may say :"I have a wonderful new medicine for you". We have free will and adult reasoning ability, but our chances of knowing if the meds will be good or bad for us in the long term are pretty chancy.
    A child may be told they can play outside or inside. They may be informed of the health benefits of active play in the fresh air. But if there is a new WII game in the house, their free will may well choose the game. And their Mom may decide after a half hour that a nice walk through the neighborhood is in order. But I would say the only thing that made the child's will less free was the limitation the parent put on her exercising it.

  2. Like Matt, I'm a pretty firm atheist. Problem for me in it, I guess, is that I don't think any of us ever have a clear view of consequences to much of anything. We make our decisions based on what we understand from the past, based on current feelings, and based on an overall narrative we've constructed of how things should go with a limited number of variables that we think we control. Frankly, our entire "seeing" is a fictional narrative that we write from our singular points of view, so observation, while it's necessary, isn't any kind of guide to how things might go. As far as I'm concerned, the whole thing is sort of a stumbling in the dark, making assumptions about the best paths and hoping they pan out ok, not that you ever know what would have happened otherwise.

    I think the difference between being 13 and being 30 is just attention span, better awareness that stuff can hurt, and having seen a few more of the likely variables play out. But I think we're only slightly less likely to make faulty assumptions when we're 80 -- a decision that looked wise in the context of the past may be downright stupid given present context. You're never faced with the same world twice.

    It's been interesting for me, dealing with obvious neurological stuff -- it really does start to shake your whole idea, if you ever had one, of there being any self in there that isn't made of some proteins and some complex conditioned responses.

    I think I thread the needle, though, honestly. I think our biology gives us the illusion of free will, but we're better at observing past and present than we are at acting on future. I simultaneously think our brains are plastic enough, and our social selves are (biologically!) important enough, that while we aren't blank slates writing ourselves by acting out our own wills, we are free to make relatively unique observations, create language to describe them, and offer them up as part of the narrative of other hairless apes who will translate them into something meaningful for other hairless apes. Or not.

    My pet rats are smart, but they're not handing down any observations to other rats they'll never meet, whether those ideas are flawed or no. Which is just as well for me, since their observations would probably consist of complaints that I don't feed them as many yogurt chips as I did in the glorious past (even though I do).

  3. @ Ms. "Spit" -- so good to hear from you! I don't know how to contact you directly, so I'll say "Hi" to you and yours from here.
    Got Thanksgiving plans? I believe we will be at my Dad's and I'll be cooking (with Joseph's help). Or Joe will be cooking and I'll be his sous chef. Either way, we'd love to have you join us. We can talk some more about free will. Or we can just stuff ourselves silly and belch a lot :o) This is certain to be a safe venue for narcoleptics and those who love them. And there will probably be beer. And wine. :oD


Thank you for stopping by and for sharing your response to this discussion!