Friday, March 10, 2006

Free Will

It's March Break, a time when families head off to warmer climes or barge in on relatives to share some time together. We were supposed to go visit my sister and play with the babies. But my son's medications started pooping out four weeks ago, so instead we are spending the week transitioning him onto a new drug regime. He has ADHD, Asperger's and an anxiety disorder, a heavy load for a 10-year-old to carry. His life is stress, agitation, fear, and insecurity. All we want for him now is some quality of life, some peace and calm in his days.

And maybe, if we're lucky, in ours.

I worry about him and about his future. What will his adult life be like? How much of who he is is this psychological imbalance? Can we separate that imbalance from who he is, or is it all one in the same?

And like him, are we at all separate from our biochemistry, or is our biochemistry who and what human beings ultimately are?

More to the point, how much free will do we really have to be good people, rational people, worthy of heaven and rewards? How much can our will guide our lives? I know we all want to say pip pip old chap chin up I think I can I think I can and all that. Certainly that's the dominant philosophy in the West. The platitude answer would be that everyone lives by choices they make. And twenty years ago, I know I would have said free will all the way. But in those twenty years since, I've seen the complexity of life and wonder if we aren't deluding ourselves.

The number of people I know on hormone replacement therapies, not for health reasons, but for mental sanity reasons. The number I know on antidepressants caused by sudden changes in chemistry (like menopause or surgery). The number I know who have developed anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, autism spectrum disorders. The number who are angry and irritable all the time. The ones who are never angry, even when they should be. The ones who are constant over-achievers, always doing more, spurred by metabolisms that won't stop. Others who can't spare the energy to do more than the minimum. Others who have been damaged by childhood traumas that they never escape throughout their adult lives. Others who have been through hell and seem okay.

My aunt, who had a severely deformed child who was only supposed to live 6 years but ended up dragging on for 12. Her life of suffering, of putting on a brave face, of giving up everything that had been her life before, of losing her health, then succumbing to a slow-growing cancer caused by years of stress that took her life at 58.

Free will? Or were the Calvinists right?

I studied predestination in university religion courses. I thought then that it was kind of nutty, this belief that certain people are destined before their birth to be saved, while others are doomed from the same moment. Of course, Calvinists based this on a notion that since God knows everything, ergo God would know the future (an example of anthropomorphic thinking about God: see prior posts). But perhaps in their pre-scientific-world way, what the Calvinists saw was similar to what I see -- that most (all?) people have minimal control over their lives. The Calvinists put that down to God's will. In our age, we put it down to science. But the result is the same: that free will is limited.

Sure, certain people seem able to make the best of a bad situation, while others make the worst of a decent one. Yet is there something in their chemical makeup that pushes them in these directions? If they have friends that tend to guide them on the better path, is this because there is something in their make-up that prods them to create and maintain these friendships?

If we could find out who we our in our biochemical, DNA/RNA make-up, would we really want to know? Maybe it's better just to believe that we do have free will, even if we don't.

When I was at university, I had the fortune or misfortune of participating in a psychology study (I needed cash). The purpose, as I found out later, was to look at personality groups. In the debriefing session, I was told I was in the personality group called Survivors. It seems that regardless of outward appearances, principles, or motivations, Survivors ultimately and always make decisions in favour of survival. While other groups might lie down and die rather than give up a principle, or others might give up everything to fight against a adversarial situations, Survivors regroup, pull up the ladder, protect the food stores, do whatever they need to.

I cringe inwardly. That doesn't bode well for my Quakerly pacifist principles.

The nineteenth-century Quakers who didn't help out with the Underground Railway, the ones who withdrew, ignored the plight of the slaves, kept their stores running, kept their children fed, worried out their public image -- are these my real spiritual forebears, instead of the Lucretia Motts and John Woolmans whose sermons and journals I read? Were these weak-kneed Quakers just doing what their DNA was programmed to do, living out their biochemistry?

Am I, as a Survivor, only idealistic because the times are good? If times were bad, would my principles flee and Survivor DNA take over?

I want to believe that I believe in my principles. I want to believe that I believe in free will. On so many levels, I do believe. Otherwise, so much of what I have come to believe becomes nonsense.

Ah, but what I see, what I see.


At 6:55 PM, Blogger Larry said...

It's March: time when the pressures of life can easily become overwhelming and reality becomes more and more gray, verging toward black.

But June and July are coming. Things will look better. You'll be impressed with all the great posts you've read, all the wonderful acts of love and kindness that surround us and keep the world on an even keel.

I know moods can be overwhelming; I've been there, too. It will pass. Praise the Lord. You will find much to be thankful for.

At 8:11 AM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Hi Larry

Thanks for the pat on the shoulder. It's very kind.

However, I'm not in any kind of a funk or low mood. I'm examining questions about how we think about ourselves.

Do we really have free will? How much of what we do is really choice? Liberal theology says yes, but science says no.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger earthfreak said...


I think that these are really great questions.

And, of course, none of us know the answers.

I personally believe, right now, that there is a combination of factors. We do make decisions about our own lives, who we are, how important our values are to us, in relation to survival. I don't believe that you could not, for example, make the choice to remain true to your pacifist ideals (especially if you know what they are - do they include not fighting back if someone were trying to kill you or your children? I'm pretty sure that mine don't) even in the face of your tendency to survive at whatever cost.

Times are good for me too - but they are not good everywhere. I am acutely aware that I was not in Iraq with Tom Fox, nor am I packing up to leave any time soon. If I were more true to my ideals, or felt them more passionately, there are many ways my life could be radically different. Sometimes I beat myself up about that, sometimes I ignore it, only very occasionally am I at peace with simply being where I am.

It seems to me that many stories of people who do great things include a moment where they make a choice, or have a revelation, which seems to go against "their nature" - stutterers who become the spokespeople of a people, rich party-boys who give up everything to lead a simple life dedicated to God and/or humanity and/or wisdom.

I wonder if it's just a choice. Could I make an intellectual choice to go to Iraq as a peacemaker? Would my resolve be strong again? Must it be in my nature? Must it be a call from God? Would I be able to tell those apart?



At 11:26 AM, Blogger Amanda said...

Nancy, I haven't got much I can articulate, but this post moves and challenges me deeply. I carry these same doubts.

At 1:08 PM, Blogger Richard said...

Free will is something I am struggling with at the moment (well, past year.

Until then, I had always been a hardcore nondeterminist. The notion of a God who knew my future actions was repugnant (notwithstanding Thomas Aquinas' statement "that God's knowing how I will act does not cause me to act. Anymore than my knowing a thief will rob me tonight actully causes the thief to rob me."

With such an argument, I could say my dropping a ball does not cause it to fall - even hough I know it will.

At the moment I am in Limbo (and even this is may be taken away from me - if my church updates its teaching ;-)

Do the majority of people act and behave in the way the do because they are free to do so, or do I act differently because I have no choice in doing so?

Very hard on one's soul, I must say. You can read about my experience here


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