Free will

How could free will coexist with an omniscient God?

This section's divided into the following segments:
  1. What is free will?

  2. The dependence of religious doctrines on the concept of free will.

  3. Commonly-held assumptions about free will in the context of religion.

  4. Why do these contradictions exist?

What is free will?
Do human beings possess the ability to make conscious decisions? We debate fiercely about the degree to which we're able influence the course of events in our lives.

We often talk about ‘free will’ as if it’s an all-or-nothing concept- either something has free will and is capable of making its own decisions and determining its own trajectory, or it is governed entirely by external forces and has no influence over its fate.

This is an oversimplification. Free will, like many other qualities, exists in graded amounts- objects can possess high or low levels of free will, or anything in between. We typically think of human beings as having high levels of free will, while other organisms, or systems comprised of organisms, possess it in varying degrees, or not at all.

‘Free will’ is simply a characteristic that we ascribe to any object that is complex enough to convey the appearance of having a certain level of intelligence- it obtains and processes a selection of information, and issues a response based on this information.

Here are some questions asked, when we attempt to gauge how much free will an object has:
  • How complex are the decision-making mechanisms within the object and how can we tell?

  • What kind of information comprises its input, how many and what kind of factors is it able to take into consideration?

  • How wide a range of responses is the object is capable of making, and how flexible and quick is its response?

  • How do we describe the object itself- is it man-made, what’s its chemical makeup, how big is it, and how far-reaching are its actions?

  • How similar is it to other objects that are typically deemed to have or to lack free will?

The dependence of religious doctrines on the concept of free will.
In the context of religion, free will is an issue of vital importance.

Religious followers know that the main distinction between them and the faithless boils down to their beliefs, and whether or not they have made the decision to adopt their religion’s particular set of doctrines.

One either chooses to believe in God and lives in ways that are compatible with one’s faith, or chooses to ignore God and continues living in sin.

Take the former, and you enter heaven and receive God’s rewards. Take the latter, and you are condemned.

Most religions do not declare people believers by default when born (or conceived). Instead, people are expected to make an active decision at some point in their life, and follow a formally recognised procedure to proclaim their faith (whether that procedure is as simple as making a silent promise to God, or involves complex rituals).

This method of receiving salvation sparks off more questions than can be answered, such as:
  • What about people who have never had the chance to learn about a particular religion? What about children and infants who die before they develop the cognitive skills to learn about God?

    Or people who are mentally ill-equipped to understand the concept of religion and thus unable to formally declare their faith?

  • How does God determine exactly whether someone has enough faith? Do people whose faith wavers get into heaven?

    Doesn't this mean that people who are highly credulous and gullible are more liable to become believers and receive salvation, than people who think more critically and are less gullible? Also, the more persuasive your believing friends are, the higher the likelihood that you'll convert.

    What about ex-believers- if they had passed away before renouncing their faith, they would have received salvation, whereas if they pass away now, they wouldn’t qualify anymore, would they?

    Would it make sense to commit suicide right after declaring one’s faith, to ensure salvation, and avoid the possibility of changing one’s mind in the future?

  • What about people who are forced into faith, and are only religious because they would otherwise be ostracised, or physically assaulted, or criticised? Can they be considered genuine believers?

  • What about people who embrace their faith only partially, and subscribe to certain aspects of their faith while rejecting other aspects? Are some tenets of the religion more ‘essential’ than others?

    If certain issues are widely debated and open to several interpretations, is it more acceptable to reject doctrines regarding highly controversial issues than to reject doctrines about less contentious ones?
Believers offer replies to each of these questions, but are unable to give truly satisfactory, convincing responses.

Rreplies tend to raise even more unanswerable questions, and go along the lines of:

‘Well, humans can’t provide adequate explanations because they don’t possess God’s wisdom and never will. So believers just have to place their faith in religious doctrines, accept that they will never have a fully logical and coherent answer, and carry on with life, trusting that God has implemented contingency plans that accommodate every issue and subdue all fallacies.’

Commonly-held assumptions about free will in the context of religion.
The standard religious definition of ‘free will’ is a rather narrow and restrictive one, and is based on several assumptions:
  1. Within a religious context, free will is often thought to somehow exist independently of physical reality- it arises from ‘the soul,’ which belongs to the spiritual realm, and thus, like God, it is not embodied in the particles that make up matter in the physical environment.

  2. Since free will is set apart from the ordinary, measurable stuff of matter, it cannot be explained satisfactorily using scientific principles and human language.

    Components that go into the making of a decision, and the steps that take place, from the initial information gathering to the final generation of a decision, will always remain hidden from our understanding and impenetrable.

  3. Some believers think that the soul is a God-given entity, which is distinctly human, and ends up going to heaven, hell, or purgatory after the death of the body.

    Many also believe that non-human organisms do not have souls. Since free will is thought to originate from the soul, these people tend to believe that other organisms do not possess free will because they lack a soul.

  4. People who been exposed to religious teachings, or who have had the opportunity to acquaint themselves with religion, have a certain responsibility to learn more about God and join the ranks of the faithful. God has opened a door, and so now the onus is on them.

    What follows is a test to see whether they heed God’s advice and sensibly proceed to nurture a spiritual relationship, or stubbornly reject God’s teachings and ultimately end up in hell.

    In a religious context, the choice made by an individual is the key factor that determines the fate of that person’s soul for the rest of eternity. To believers, the ability to make that choice is the most central, critical definition of free will.
Each of these assumptions is flawed.
  1. ‘Free will’ does not exist in a separate realm from physical reality.

    Each decision that a human being makes is based on a complex interaction of factors within the brain. Certain brain regions retrieve information based on previous experience and knowledge, and new information about the particular situation or question at hand is fed into the decision-making neuronal machinery. After weighing the inputs and brainstorming, a decision emerges.

  2. The process of thought and decision-making is extremely complicated and thus hard to understand and describe in detail, but enough progress has been made in the field of neuroscience to yield a basic understanding of how it happens.

    There's nothing mystical about it. Every stage is implemented in physical neuronal circuits, and all this circuitry is embodied within the brain. What we think of as one’s ‘soul’ and ‘free will’ do not exist apart from the body. The idea that the mechanisms behind our thoughts and beliefs can’t be unravelled is utterly mistaken- scientific studies have been examining exactly these phenomena for many decades, and will continue to reveal these mechanisms in finer and finer detail, as time goes on.

  3. The ‘soul’ is a term we use to describe our imaginary concept of something that exists outside the body. It allegedly persists after we die, and ends up in heaven or hell. No such entity actually exists.

  4. Religious doctrines do not originate from a perfect deity, who inhabits a spiritual world that’s separate from our physical reality. They're generated and perpetuated by people, over long periods of time, to fill in voids in understanding, until science catches up and people are given the opportunity to learn how the world really works.

    The tenets of religion, the rituals and teachings about how one achieves salvation, the moral codes of conduct- these have all been invented by people over the years, and are inevitably full of glaring contradictions and gaps in logic.

The real answer to all those knotty questions regarding salvation and free will?
Simply put, there is no such thing as an external, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God. No one has a soul that persists after death- no religious believer, no child, no infant, no mentally-challenged individual.

We are all free to imagine and believe that such a thing exists, but in reality, it doesn’t.

There is no such thing as heaven, or hell, or the afterlife. We will not stand before God on judgment day with a description of our life history, and be declared either fit or unfit to enter heaven.

Our self-awareness and consciousness emerges gradually as our bodies develop and our brains mature. When we die, our biological machinery breaks down and our consciousness as we knew it no longer exists.

Our perceptions, thoughts, emotions, intuitions, goals- everything we experience mentally will disappear, in the same way that, as most people believe, the mental life of an insect disappears when the organism dies. There is no ‘spirit’ that lingers on and resettles in heaven or hell. (Read the section on Non-Believers for more on the beliefs held by atheists.)
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