Free Will is Real

candlesI received the following tragic e-mail from a friend and former co-worker this morning:

My 9 month old nephew just died and it brought up thoughts about destiny versus free will.  So many people have beliefs that Daniel Dennett calls “good tricks”.  My mom died when I was 2 and I was told she was in heaven just as many believe my nephew is in heaven… I like to believe that too.  And a destiny versus free will conversation doesn’t change that “good trick” belief.

People who believe this was all part of God’s plan get to be ignorant of human mistakes.  That can be very alleviating for people.

So I encourage you to share a writing about destiny and free will with this event in mind.  Consider the good tricks – in that a belief can be helpful without being true.

First, the same response I gave him in e-mail: my thoughts and prayers are with the young child and the family. There is no doubt this is a terrible tragedy.

What my friend refers to in the final paragraph is a longstanding debate we’ve had about free will. As a Catholic, I firmly believe in it. My friend’s beliefs lean toward a strange, relaxed sort of Calvinism. In discussions past, he has indicated that he doesn’t believe in it.

One argument in particular that I’ve made to him in the past, however, did strike home. It’s worth repeating here, especially since he requested it.

Even if free will is an illusion, we must act as if it’s real.

The plain and simple reality is that if we begin acting as if we don’t believe in it, society breaks down – and rapidly. When we don’t hold people accountable for their actions – “because they don’t have free will” – then people become unaccountable. Again, whether or not free will is real, we know this to be the way humans respond. Free Will is one of those things we must believe in, or else it all falls apart.

Since my friend also asks for tricks of the mind to help him through this, I leave him with one last bit of thought. If I may be so bold as to brutally summarize William James’ excellent essay, “The Will to Believe” in one sentence, it is this: religion is worth believing in because even if it is wrong, it makes your life measurably better in the here and now. I encourage him, and all of you, to read the whole thing.

I began by a reference to Fitz James Stephen; let me end by a quotation from him. ” What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? . . . These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them. . . . In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark…. If wc decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”

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