Exploring the Illusion of Free Will 17
This is the seventeenth of a series of posts where I will be sharing the transcripts of George Ortega’s show which he has so generously made available on his website.
I will share both the link and copy the text as well. This is convenient for those who subscribe to my blog by email. You can read without visiting the site, but I highly encourage you to visit the link and see what else George has on his website.
Episode 17. Revitalizing Religion through Transcending the Illusion of Free Will
Let’s talk about revitalizing religion through transcending the illusion of free will. Before we do that, I just want to go briefly through what we generally mean when we say that we have a free will, why that’s impossible, and why this question of human will matters.
The belief in free will means that we would be free to choose whatever we would want to think, feel, do, and say completely of our own accord, without any kind of influence from any factor that we do not have control over. Naturally, when you consider that we have an unconscious where all of our thoughts, words, concepts and other memories are stored, and that the unconscious is also the part of our brain where the processing of all of that information for decisions occurs, it’s easy to understand how free will must be an illusion. Remember that, by definition, the unconscious is a part of our mind we’re not aware of in real time.
The reason this is so important is that our very civilization is founded on an illusion of free will that creates so many problems. We blame each other and ourselves for things we have no choice but to do. We do what nature, God, or whatever, compels us to do. My hope and prediction is that to the extent we understand that free will is an illusion, and that our human will is really causal and unconscious, we can create a much more intelligent, compassionate, and understanding world based on an accurate understanding of that nature of our human will.
With religion, at least in America and probably throughout the world, as each decade goes by there are fewer and fewer people who gravitate to it – that have it as a part of their everyday life. That’s somewhat unfortunate because while some religions continue to propound certain beliefs that are outdated, divisive or otherwise harmful, there is one aspect of religion that is actually very beneficial to society and to us as individuals. Modern cities, suburbs and metropolitan areas are a relatively new aspect of civilization. Before that, there were mainly small towns, and before that, tribal, or other, small groups, that created a true community. One could see and relate to the same people each day, whereas in many of our cities one can walk for hours seeing no one but strangers.
As our civilization evolved from small towns to the cities and their suburbs, we lost a great part of that cohesion. Television and other media do help bring us together in a different way, but churches and synagogues, and other religious institutions, have traditionally done a good job of creating communities. From that perspective, it’s unfortunate that religion is waning as it has been during recent decades.
The problem is dire for many congregations. For example, the cost of maintaining their property has become so burdensome that many congregations are now forced to share their building with one or more other congregations. That’s a nice idea in a sense, but the salient point here is that because of their dwindling membership, these religious institutions are threatened, and the vehicle for community they create is threatened.
There are various reasons why so many people have moved away from religion. In Christianity, and much less so in Judaism, there is the idea that if you do certain things wrong, you’re going to be punished for the rest of eternity. As we evolve as a species, and become more intelligent and considerate of our world, we think to ourselves “why would an all-loving God do this?” or “if we’re here on Earth for about eighty years, how can one justify being condemned to suffer an eternity – trillions of years, at least – for an act done in a day?”
Sometimes churches are seen as hypocritical in the sense that they profess to champion the rights of the poor, but, when it comes to politics, many churches and other religious institutions will support policies and legislation that oppose the interests of the poor. And it’s not just about poverty. It’s also about children’s rights, women’s rights, and various other kinds of issues.
Another reason for this exodus from religion is that the traditional mythology doesn’t seem to work anymore. It’s actually counter productive in many ways. Consider, for example, the creation story of Adam and Eve. The standard account is that Eve, the first woman, was formed from the rib of Adam, the first man. That account is derogatory to women. Lastly, relatively speaking, very little in religion has changed over the last two thousand years. So much of it does not make sense to people, and that may account, in part, for why so many of us have left religious congregations and communities.
My hope and prediction is that a major change in theology – in what churches and synagogues believe and teach – might actually help bring people back to the flock, and to a religious community that is based on doing good, and being good, and improving the world. That’s, to a great extent, what religion is about.
Before going through how the idea that we don’t have a free will can help congregations bring people back, I just want to go briefly through what this idea of free will means in religion. In Christianity, most people take free will to be a premise, but when you look through the Bible, you’ll find that the issue is far from clear. For example, the first Christian documented to have questioned and challenged free will was Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans, which is dated about 58 A.D. At 7:15, Paul writes, “I don’t understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I can’t. I do what I don’t want to do – what I hate.”
Here Paul is explaining that If he had a free will, if he could exercise his will freely, and be good all of the time. He knows that with a free will he would do the good that he wanted to do, and not do that evil that he doesn’t want to do. Paul had this understanding in 58 A.D.! What many people don’t realize is that the term “free will” is actually not in the Bible.
It doesn’t appear in Christian theology until about 380-90 A.D. when Saint Augustine grappled with the question of human will. It was in relation to God’s qualities. Augustine was trying to reconcile evil and justice with the premise that God is all-good, and wrote a book titled De Libero Arbitrio, which is translated as “on free will.” He actually coined the term free will. He writes, “Evil deeds are punished by the justice of God. They would not be punished justly if they had not been performed voluntarily.”
This conclusion is based on a misunderstanding – or one interpretation – of God. One conception of God is that S/He is omni-benevolent, or all-good. The reality is that God Her/Himself in Isaiah said that he creates both good and evil. From that contradicting evidence, you can see how Saint Augustine’s premise, upon which he based his need for a free will, is actually false, at least according to Isaiah.
The notion of free will is not central to the Bible. It’s something that is not even mentioned as a term, and is alluded to very infrequently. Many religious congregations could very realistically and authoritatively look at the question of human will, and reach a new conclusion. Many congregations now understand that the world was not created about 6,000 years ago, as the Bible would have us believe. Most congregations, I would imagine, accept the standard scientific understanding that the universe is, as far as we know, about 13.7 billion years old.
It’s not uncommon for churches, denominations and congregations to look at the world through the eyes of modern science, and amend or change certain beliefs that seemed reasonable back when they were created, but no longer seem justifiable. Let’s say churches began to promote the idea that free will is an illusion. They would begin to say that the truth is that we human beings do not have a free will, and free will is nothing more than an illusion. But at the same time they would say, very rightly, that knowing this does not give us license to do as we please.
Just because we’re not the authors of our acts – of our thoughts and decisions – doesn’t mean that we can shirk responsibility. What we do has consequences and we have to maintain order and civilization. When we are judging others and ourselves, we should remember that we were all born with faults, and that we all sin. Sin, incidentally, in the original Aramaic, literally and simply means “missing the mark,” as when one is shooting an arrow at a target.
Religions very rightly teach that because we’re all flawed in various ways, it is wise to forgive each other and ourselves for the invariable mistakes that we will make. But to the extent that we understand that we are not the authors of our thoughts, what churches and synagogues could say is that we’re instruments of God. That would certainly fit within their theology. Because we are not the authors of what we do, we now have every rationale to be more understanding toward each other and ourselves, and hold each other and ourselves innocent. That’s major.
If we’re innocent, what we do is not really up to us. If we’re just basically manifesting the will of God or fate, then when we do wrong there is not even a need to “forgive” others or ourselves. We might want to forgive God, or the universe, for compelling us to do wrong. That’s certainly a question to be explored. But, there is no longer any justification or rationale for blaming others or ourselves, and wanting us to be punished retributively.
A new causal will perspective would be epochal for religion. It would revitalize religion for many who long ago left the flock. When Jesus came around about 2,000 years ago, that was a major change from the very legalistic tradition of the Jewish Pharisees. Christianity was supposed to be more about acts of compassion and mercy than scrupulous adherence to a multitude of laws. Since that time, there was Mohammad with Islam, and others with other religions changing regions of the world. But within the Judeo-Christian context, nothing as major as our collectively overcoming the illusion of free will has happened over the last two thousand years, or perhaps ever.
Overcoming the illusion of free will would represent that sea change people need, and want, if they are to return to religion. Many have moved away from conventional religion because, in too many ways, it doesn’t make sense to their lives any more. It’s unfortunate. Much of religion is ennobling; it helps people to understand the difference between right and wrong. Much of religion is very good, and very useful.
The communities that religions create through the world are an invaluable service to humanity. It’s a shame that congregations are dwindling, and it’s a shame that some very important ideas that these congregations hold are so out-dated. Considering that the notion of free will is not central – remember that a term for free will is not even found in the Bible – to any biblical teaching, and it was simply Saint Augustine’s answer to his conclusion that God can’t be blamed for anything, it is something we all could perhaps fare much better without. Often in religion, when we humans do something that is really good, we’re taught to be modest, and humble, and thank God. We’re taught that we could not have done the good we did without God’s allowing us to do it. We praise God for the good that we do, and feel gratitude for his help.
But, when it comes to our doing wrong, we’re taught by religions that we shouldn’t blame God; it has to be our fault. You’ll, of course, notice the inconsistent logic in praising God when things go right, but blaming humans when they don’t. Religions teach us to blame each other and ourselves. It’s not just religion. Our legal system and our educational system – actually our whole civilization — is based on this myth, this illusion, of free will.
To overcome the free will illusion would be a complete paradigm shift in what churches, synagogues, mosques and temples teach. This could be a global movement. It no longer makes sense to believe that human beings have a free will. The belief in free will leads to so much unnecessary conflict and aggression. If overcoming this belief and adopting a new understanding of our causal will – that we are basically instruments of God – would help revitalize religion, and help bring people back to congregations so that we can restore our lost sense of community, that would be wonderful.
Challenging the notion of free will is an essential challenge to a belief we’ve held for as long as we can remember, such a challenge could not but attract a huge amount of attention among congregations and people who have left churches and synagogues, and may now wish to come back, if for no other reason but to explore this brand new perspective on reality – to see how their lives could change as a result of their not blaming the people in it for what they do wrong, and not feeling the pain of guilt for what we do wrong.
This certainly does not mean that we will abandon morality, because we are hard-wired to seek what we believe is good, and we’re hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We’re not going to abandon these values and our morality. But, we no longer have to blame people, and when we no longer blame people for what they do wrong, we feel closer to them. When we don’t blame ourselves for what we do wrong, we feel better about ourselves, and self-esteem is one of the four personality traits most closely correlated with happiness.
Considering how science, logic, and experience so completely refute it, the notion of free will is ripe for overcoming and transcending. As religious institutions recognize that they can overcome the illusion of free will, and still promote morality, the existence of God, and the rest of their theology, religions can help create a new world.
Our world has a lot of problems. Climate change, the global economic crisis, overpopulation and much more is going on, and we need new answers. The answers that have been coming out of politics and religion for centuries are just not suited to the reality we now face. With climate change, for example, as the world becomes very challenged in various ways, the last thing we want to do is be at odds with each other, not doing what we need to do because we are so busy blaming ourselves and each other for what went wrong.
I hope that ministers, pastors, rabbis and other clerics throughout the various religions and denominations will understand the importance of this issue of human will, and how rightly addressing it can bring people back to their congregations.
Every episode of George’s show is also available on youtube at:
Additionally, I have a playlist specifically of the shows George and I both take part in.