Thursday, January 31, 2013

the question of free will pt.2

In the last post, which I did not finish because I was too sleepy at the moment, I briefly mentioned on how free will seemed to be an illusion and that how life itself was sort of deterministic since the start because a lot of our life chances are to a large part determined by our genes that was given to us since birth and how that's the one thing that will influence our life to a large extent. It's also the one thing that we cannot change no matter how hard we try. 

So I thought I would end the topic off by saying how I actually feel, and what I actually want to believe and leave it up to you guys to decide. And by guys I mean the three people (Joshua, Danial and Vincent) that commented in my previous post, I never thought I would garner such long comments but thank you anyway for sharing your thoughts. Appreciate it much.

using the same picture again to give it a continuity feel :p

Anyways, when I first heard my professor actually arguing against the existence of free will in class, I have to admit that I was quite taken aback. After all, I have lived my entire life believing that we control our destiny, that we can be whoever we want and that free will is a God given gift to us humans. Yes, God. Having been raised in a religious family my entire life, having the existence of free will wiped out is like having my beliefs in God wiped out altogether too. Having no free will means that we are no different than animals, subjected to our instincts and urges which are all determined by our biological workings. It's a very scary thought indeed.

But then again, I looked back into the Bible and discovered some pretty amazing stuff that actually sort of confirms to this notion that my professor proposed. Remember how God commanded Moses to confront the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go? For the first 9 times, God said something about hardening the heart of the Pharaoh even though there would be disasters that will befall Egypt.

Growing up, I used to think that there's some mind control going on and as I began to delve deeper into religious studies, I realized that the act of hardening one's heart, even the Pharaoh, is a contradiction that goes against the basic principle that God will never mess with our free will or our decision to make choices. The free will part is one fundamental principle in Christian ideology (or even in other religions, if I'm not mistaken) that underlies a lot of belief in the faith. If taken away, you'll have just one evil God who likes to mind control people to do his bidding.

I tried searching Google but the answers out there are just too numerous and confusing. Everyone seems to think differently on how or why God chose to harden the Pharaoh's heart with no clear consensus. There's an attempt to play around the words, saying that the Hebrew word meant an entirely different thing in that context while there's another attempt that states that God may in fact meant an entirely a different thing when He talked to Moses. In both cases, there's no manipulation of free will. However what we cannot deny is that the fact God knew or predicted that the Pharaoh would harden his heart, meaning that to a large extent, the Pharaoh does not have a choice and is merely following what was expected of him.

I think that sometimes things cannot be explained just with the current knowledge that we have, which is in the Pharaoh case for example, and any attempts to do so without sufficient knowledge would only come off as weak or desperate at most.

Perhaps the most insightful answer came unintentionally from my professor when he was attempting to debunk the idea of free will. An example that he gave was as us humans, when we are pushed to our limits for example, will naturally fall back to our default state of behavior and thoughts. Say for example, I am a very short tempered person. I may choose not to throw my tantrum often in public, which is an exercise of free will if you must say but if I were to pushed to my limits, say if someone annoys me or whatsoever, there's a higher chance for me to rage and be angry, just like how I am programmed as compared to someone without the short tempered genes. Just like how the Pharaoh is pushed to his limits, I think that God knows that the Pharaoh would naturally react in such a way if pushed to his limits. Could there be a probability, an alternative ending where the Pharaoh could have acted in another way? Probably.

I remember reading it somewhere, Donald Miller's book if I'm not mistaken that we tend to tend that the story must be in that particular was as was mentioned in the Bible. However, we tend to forget that the book is often written after the story, not the other way around and that on that particular day in Egypt, where Moses stood before the Pharaoh, I could imagine every cell inside the Pharaoh's body is screaming murder and not wanting to let Moses go. It's a struggle of power there, considering that the Pharaoh and Moses was once "brothers" and if the Pharaoh gave in to Moses demands, it would hurt his ego and pride greatly. Just as how we know how our best friends would act in different situations, I think so does God knows too, how we are prone to act in different situations.

But just like the mum who for once decided to not scream at her child and put down her rage, I believe that free will was not altered that day. I think that the Pharaoh, in all his capabilities, could have chosen instead to let the Israelites go at an early stage if he wanted to. The problem is that when it is very hard to do it, most of us will revert back to the default way we do things. Choosing another alternative, or stepping out of the comfort zone is never easy, and most would choose not to do it, and God knew it.

I think when it comes to the topic of free will, like Joshua said, I believe more in propensity rather than in a pure deterministic way. Our genes may influence us in many ways that we cannot control, for example our height, but as research as shown, it is not a pure deterministic value. Genes set a range for us, for example 150 to 160cm for our height but within that range, we are free to vary. If we eat good food for example, our height may be closer to the 160cm mark than if we do not. You can say that we have free will to a certain extent, and by extent I mean the genes that are given to us. For example I may really want to be a good singer, but the fact that no matter how hard I try, there's just some notes that I can't reach and in that way I am constrained to my set range of singing and my choices have to take into account of what I can or cannot do. A half-free will, if I might say.

Of course, one fundamental problem that has to do with this is the concept of fairness. How could God be fair if he limits our free will differently across people depending on our genes? After all, we used to say that everyone can achieve success if we try hard enough but if the said notion of a half-free will is true, then wouldn't it be the case where some are handicapped from birth and some are not? How do we resolve this issue? Maybe in the next post. But in the meantime would love to hear your thoughts.


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