All You Need is Free Will

Ok, so… this is the blog post that I was half way through writing earlier! This time, I’ll try not to lose it …

The first thing is, I’ve been listening to “Love” by the Beatles recently (it arrived on Monday). I’ve been very impressed. The tracks have all been re-worked by George and Giles Martin. Some of them have been done a lot more subtly than others — ‘Yesterday’, for example, sounds almost exactly the same as the original. Some of them I really like what they’ve done though. I have to say, I’ve really been enjoying listening to it! Although I think some Beatles ‘purists’ might not like the messing around with the tracks, I think it’s been done very much in the spirit of the Beatles and they’ve done a really good job.

Check out my new online project:

Anyway. The other thing I wanted to mention is really kind of random, but it’s just something I’ve been thinking about a bit recently… do we really have free will? Scott Adams has mentioned this on the Dilbert Blog quite a few times… he seems to think that we don’t. And, would you believe it, I think he may have a point.

I believe that on a biological level, us humans are basically machines. Highly complicated and intricate, mind, but nevertheless machines* With a machine (such as a computer), if you give it the same input you will receive the same output. Machines are not random. What I’m trying to say is… if (in another life) there was another me with exactly the same DNA, circumstances, experiences (etc) as me — would the new me make exactly the same choices that I have done?

Is our behaviour predictable — just on a highly, highly complex level? It’s an interesting question.

Of course, if people don’t have free will… that leads to all sorts of problems. How can people be held morally accountable if there is no free will? And a whole host of other things… how can God hold people responsible for not worshipping him if all they are doing is what they are ‘programmed’ to do? (How can I even know there is a God, I might just be ‘programmed’ in a certain way!)

I think my answer to that at the moment would have to be something like… even if our responses are ‘pre-programmed’, we don’t know what those pre-programmed responses are. They are far too complex for us to predict, so to all intents and purposes people have at least the illusion of free will. Of course, being highly complex machines, we may even be able to change what our ‘pre-programmed’ responses might be. We are beginning to see advances in the field of computer science where computer programs can actually modify themselves. Of course, it will be a long time before this is actually usable, but still, it’s a possibility.

Also, it might shed some light on a few things in the Bible, for example this passage in Matthew. How did Jesus know that the other cities would have believed had the same miracles been performed in them? Well, aside from the obvious answer (he was God!) — maybe it was something to do with the fact which humans have predictable responses which only God is intelligent enough to be able to comprehend [it should be noted that the Bible does not explicitly mention ‘free will’ – although, of course, it does not explicitly mention the trinity either…]. Of course, that just brings up more questions…

Aaaaanyway. Enough of me. What do you think?

* Of course, as a Christian I also believe that we are more than the sum of our parts. But let’s not get into that now 🙂

P.S. – apologies for the philosophical nature of this post. Normal service will be resumed as soon as we have figured out what is normal anyway.

4 thoughts on “All You Need is Free Will

  1. Ah, the old free-will vs. predesination jobby. Don’t worry about making philosophical or theological statements, Phill, I always enjoy debating that sort of thing! 😉

    In this case, I’m tempted to agree with those who say that actually we have both – that’s not intended as a cop-out, but as a serious suggestion that our future is predestined to a certain degree, but we have control over it as well.

    If, as you suggest, we are just incredibly complex biological machines, then by inference God would have been able to see the entirity of history in an instant, as soon as he had made Adam and Eve (like running a simulation program on a supercomputer to determine the outcome of something). If that was the case, God’s actions would also be predestined, and he’d be locked into a series of events too, as he would know people’s reactions to anything he did to intervene.

    However, I believe that is not the end of the story, because that theory seems to fall down when we get into the realms of ‘divine intervention’. By this I don’t just mean God striking people down with bolts of lightning – what sets us apart as humans is that we have souls, a spiritual body within a physical body. This is what links us with God, and it is this part of us that God speaks to. This is not just a machine, this does not follow any kind of pattern or programming, and it can potentially redirect our entire lives.

    For the more technically-minded, think about it like a computer program, for the sake of argument. If you have a large and complex program and you set it running, that programming would naturally dictate that given a set of inputs a predetermined set of outputs will be given, however complex those inputs and outputs might actually be. Now imagine that in the middle of running that program, someone comes along and changes the code. Now any prediction made at the beginning becomes null and void because the processing of the inputs has changed. Not only that, but the result changes depending on how much of the code you change, which part of the program you change, and at what point in the running process you change it.

    Bringing that back into context, we can quite confidently say that God is not a machine, and is not tied to us as a servant. He is beyond our understanding, beyond time, and we answer to him, not the other way round. As such, God can choose how and when to change our code, whether that be through signs, messages, prophesy, visions, teaching, music…

    Choices we make on our own we could argue are simply biological reflexes. Choices we make with God on the other hand are those where we allow God to make changes in us. The more we allow God to change us, the more free-will we end up having.

  2. I think you’re right to question the idea of “free will”. The Bible seems to present two states of man – either enslaved to sin and controlled by the sinful nature or belonging to Christ and ‘controlled’ by the Holy Spirit. (See Ephesians 2 / Romans 7). Paul makes some pretty bold claims that without the Holy Spirit we are completely unable to please and obey God and acknowledge him as Lord – we cannot even choose to do right.

    What makes things really tricky is that throughout the Bible it is clear that God is ultimately in control of everything – he hardens Pharaoh’s heart, he uses the Assyrians as agents of judgement against Israel, he pre-destines Judas to betray Christ. And yet each of these are held completely responsible for their actions – Jesus himself comments on how terrible Judas’ judgement will be for his act of betrayal.

    It seems like a logical contradiction – God in charge, seeming to direct the thoughts, the hearts and actions of humans and yet holding humans responsible for those same actions.

    The trouble with all human philosophy is that we are desperately trying to understand the mind and operations of God, the supreme being. Sometimes a healthy dose of realism is needed. One suggestion I’ve heard is that God brings about the circumstances (like the 10 plagues in Egypt), knowing exactly how the person will react and yet that person still chooses to react that way. I’m not entirely convinced by that explanation but it’s one of the better explanations I’ve come across …

    The only escape from what does seem a hopeless situation is for people to willingly submit to the Lord as God, to trust in Christ for their forgiveness and to be renewed by the Holy Spirit to be more like the people God wants us to be. As the Spirit works in us, we become more in tune with what God wants, we grow in wanting to do what God wants and to please him. Of course, it’s going to be a battle throughout our lives as Christians but as followers of Christ we now have the Spirit doing battle against our sinful nature. Before we just went along with our sinful nature seeking only to please ourselves but the fact that we have this conflict shows that the Spirit is working in us because there is part of us at least wanting to do good. The Spirit helps us to choose to do what God wants. We are being freed to do God’s good and perfect will.

  3. Hi Phil

    Just wanted to comment on the passage (Matthew 11:20-23) you refer to in your blog. Not sure that Jesus is making a statement of fact: “If I had done the miracles there they would definitely have repented” (Sodom didn’t even exist at this point in history). I think He’s referring to three cities noted in the OT for their evil & that suffered God’s judgement upon them, and saying that the people of His time are actually more hard-hearted and more deserving of God’s judgement than even those reprobates coz they’re seeing and hearing the Messiah (not just an OT prophet) and not responding. Just a thought…

  4. Hi Berkeley,

    Good point… it was just an idea 🙂

    I’m sure I read that particular interpretation of the passage in one of the books which I have somewhere, I’ll have to try and look up exactly what it does say!

    – Phill

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