wholepeace

God, Biology and Choice: Perhaps I Simply Had to Write This

In No Particular Path on November 13, 2018 at 12:04 pm

It is possible that every choice we make is freely made at the moment we make it. This isn’t to say that our choices aren’t influenced by our biological make-up and our present physical conditions, our past experiences and knowledge, our perceptions, our psychological and emotional states, our beliefs and our relationships with others who are involved in the choice; but all those things are simply data we use in making a determination about our choices, not the choices themselves. And the degree of influence any one factor may exert at any moment will certainly vary. In the end, though, we choose, and the choice is ours to make.
Another possibility is that our choices aren’t choices at all, but are predetermined by the path set for us by a deity or deities. In that case, we are simply puppets of the divine, who is working out some plan beyond our influence or understanding. All the influences that may affect a free will choice would be part of the overall experience, but wouldn’t change the choice itself. We may ask ourselves why we chose as we did and what plan the divine is using us for, or why the divine has directed others to behave as they do; but the responsibility for the choice itself isn’t ours or anyone else’s. We also have to consider whether everything is predetermined: every triumph, every tragedy, every disaster and every celebration.
The third possibility is that our choices are biologically predetermined; we are genetically pre-programmed to behave in certain ways. In this case, there may be a certain randomness in the universe itself; the movements of the cosmos, for example, are events which may affect us, as are all the influences under free will, but our specific response to those influences at any one moment is predetermined by our biology and the biology of all our evolutionary and ancestral history. As with divine predestination, we have no personal responsibility for our choices, nor does anyone else; we are simply leaves tossed on the wind, vulnerable to the forces of nature, but unable to make a deliberate choice about what is happening to us. We can, if our biological make-up predisposes us to it, question how those forces led us to this place, but the questions and any answers we arrive at would simply be an extension of our biological predetermination.
It is also possible that we have some free choice, but it is limited. Either the divine or our biological nature gives us the ability to make choices, but only with regard to the details of the trajectory, not the trajectory itself. We have freedom to choose, but only within predetermined limits set for us according to our biological make-up or our assigned place in god’s plan.
In any event, the larger question, for me anyway, is “so what?” Does it really matter whether all this is “real” or not? If I walk out the door and decide to turn left rather than right, does it really matter in any practical way whether that choice was an event in the moment or a predestined action. I will, in any case, experience the action according to what I believe to be the reality. If I believe I am making the choice I will experience the process of consideration, weighing the relevant influences, thinking about the possible consequences, deciding on my course of action and acting. And while the discussion of the possibilities makes for a wonderful philosophical exercise, and is certainly useful as a way to try to understand what it means to be human, unless I am able to separate myself from my perceptions, it makes no difference.
In other words, there is really no practical sense in which the reality of free will or predestination changes my responsibility in this life for my actions.
Suppose I believe that everything I choose is predetermined. Then that belief would also be predetermined. If I then use that belief as a reason to leave my life to whatever happens, without trying to deliberately choose a course of action, telling myself that nothing I do is in my control, then I have a dilemma. The rest of the world may still assign credit or blame to me for my actions, and generate consequences based on that. I may not like the consequences, but really have no complaint, because all of this would have to be part of the same predetermined reality that I claim to believe in. If I believe that I have a choice, on the other hand, then I can certainly examine my choices to see if they fit some standard of ethics, morals, or logic; and use that to argue for their rightness.
In the same way, debate about god’s existence can make for an interesting exercise in trying to understand the nature of the universe and the place of humans in that universe, but my beliefs will be part of what creates my experience, and they will help to shape my choices, the consequences of those choices, and the direction of my path. I cannot, of course, no matter how devoutly I might wish it, impose my belief wholly onto anyone else and make them see the world as I see it, or expect them to act in the world according to my perceptions.
In other words, either god exists or does not. There are no other possibilities. The differences between beliefs are only in how we define god. Our beliefs are in our definitions and vice-versa. There are a great many ideas of god in which I do not believe; and I suspect that a great many people would not believe in my ideas of god. So what? We are all human beings, limited by our humanness to flawed perceptions of any god that might exist. And since our definitions and perceptions are limited and flawed, so are the choices we might make based on those perceptions. We can use our idea of god to explain our actions, but we cannot expect others to see things our way just because our beliefs are sincere.
If my actions lead to consequences that are harmful to others, it is unreasonable to assume that my religious beliefs and convictions are exculpatory. I am still responsible for my own actions in any practical interpretation of what that responsibility is. To come to any other conclusion would be to treat my religious beliefs as a form of mental illness (a conclusion to which far too many evangelical atheists are willing to leap), in which I would claim that I am not responsible for my actions because my god made it impossible for me to understand them, to make rational choices about them, to understand their consequences, and to choose to act any differently.
A belief in free will, the ability of humans to make choices as independent individuals, is necessary for any sense of morality, personal responsibility, ethics, and judgment. It is also, of course, the foundation of guilt, blame, shame, and regret. But it can be used, as well, for conscious change, for correction, for discipline, for redemption. Absent free will apology is just a mindless exercise, an illusion. Without free will, punishment is simply cruel and pointless. Without free will, we do not affect our existence, it affects us.
It doesn’t matter at all whether all of this is an illusion. It is within the illusion that we must live, by the very nature of the illusion itself and our limited ability as humans to perceive it (as opposed to theorize about it) or to act outside of it.

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