Dissecting Destiny

Can free will can exist within a world created by a God who knows everything that will happen?

Before delving in, it should be stated that this it is not my aim to defend particular religious beliefs, but rather to entertain romantic metaphysical notions. What it means to you and your beliefs is your decision.

So let us address the wording of the question before addressing its content.

First, few have observed that free will is a loaded term.

Will, as may be reasonably understood, concerns agency, the ability to make choices based on individual preference. But free, means untainted, devoid of constraint or limitation. In that sense, is anything really free?

It has been easy for philosophers to reject free will—but if we view the term in this light, such is no difficult concept to denounce. Free will, as it is known here, does not exist: there are a myriad of external and internal constraints upon the expression of will.

External limitations include physical properties such as the weight of gravity and the scorch of flame. They can also be anatomical: just try to flap your arms and take flight. Furthermore, a man being held down by another can hardly be described as having full free will.

There are also internal or mental constraints upon the will: Consider psychological addictions, genetic predispositions, and involuntary physiological processes such as the beating heart.

So the will is hardly free—but fret not: my aim is to show that humans nevertheless possess a practical freedom.

The second important element of the above question is in assuming God exists. This is, again, an assumption. We start with the argument that some transcendent entity is aware of everything that will occur throughout time.

Now we can get to answering the question. I do so primarily in response to a comment the man in the following clip from Waking Life makes, one which many people appear to find also difficult to reconcile:

St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, these guys all worried about how we can be free if God already knows in advance everything you’re gonna do.

[You might want to mute the sound, as there are no YouTube clips with audio other than the director’s version]

These two concepts are not mutually exclusive. That God knows what will happen does not negate the possibility for free will.

When most people consider free will, they really are concerned about whether we possess any freedom at all. Certainly we do.

Although existing within a bounded system of constraints, predispositions, and an inevitable death, humans nevertheless possess a reasonable amount of liberty.

Just because chess has rules and a certain amount of squares within which to move, it does not follow that there is no freedom to make one or another move at one’s whim. Furthermore, my being aware that a chess teacher will beat his fledgling opponent in a game does not mean the student was incapable of being free to move her pieces as she so desired.

Life is a game, too, replete with boundaries and rules of movement. But just because we exist within such a restrictive system, it does not follow that we are not free to move as we wish within that system. And just because some higher entity might be aware of our moves, it does not follow that we are not at liberty to choose.

So yes, we possess not “free” will, and if we assume God exists, we can see that its prior knowledge of our actions does not condemn us to a life of mere automation.

All this has implications for fate, or destiny.

I have written about this peculiarity in a song:

It’s always too late to escape one’s fate
But it’s never too late to embrace some change
That will in tern lead to a better fate in the first place

imageWe are both observer and participant in our individual lives, watching as we act, acting as we watch. When it comes to the matter of predestination, perhaps that’s what is meant in Matthew 18 by, “blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear.”

Whatever we choose to do within our bounded lives will ultimately have had been our destiny. Because God (existing outside, past, prior to, beyond time) was able to see what we have already done, it does not mean we are not the director of our lives. We were living our destiny as we create it. [The careful reader will note a play on tenses here]

It’s all perfectly paradoxical, or paradoxically perfect. But it works.

I think.

[I wonder what it means that I used a picture drawn when I was an atheist. Coincidence? In case the poem is ineligible, it reads as follows:

I am
A renegade of faith
Free am I to choose my path in life
Never again to be bound by the limits of Christianity
Such freedom
I welcome you
To break free and close the door
Of faith
And open a door
To reality