Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Misc Thoughts: On Life & Faith, Part One: Free Will

The rather feeble attempts by characters in Dexter Season 6's inaugural episode to explain religious beliefs to the titular homicidal sociopath (who is understandably mystified by the largely incoherent ramblings yet earnestly curious about the subject) have made me reflect on my own views on faith and religiosity.  This reflection was also tempered by the sad announcement of Steve Job's passing last week, and subsequently flecked with thoughts on life, death, and the legacy a person leaves behind.

My perspectives on these subjects have been hard-won.  They are the products of years of uncertainty, introspection, and a deep and abiding fear of nonexistence that honestly kept me up at night.  While it will inevitably result in a very lengthy post, I thought I'd take the opportunity presented in this week's Nexus of Misc update to share my viewpoint in the hope that its presence on the internet might prove helpful.

For life to have any meaning, free will is a necessary predicate.

This tenet reflects the notion that all things derive their meaning from the actions that can be performed on or through them.  Those actions, in turn, acquire meaning only if they are undertaken from the context of a choice.  And a choice can only be a choice if the individual making it is actually able to select between two or more actions - that is, if that individual possesses the faculty of free will.  If we concede that there is no free will - that the "choice" of actions is illusory and any given person "chooses" to undertake an action because he or she is, in truth, only capable of perform that particular action in the given context - then we can derive no meaning from that action . . . or the individuals or objects that it may involve.

Take, for example, our notions of criminal responsibility.  Implicit within our justice system is the notion that individuals can - and should - be held responsible for the consequences of their actions.  A convicted murder is punishable for taking another person's life because he or she intended to do so, and accordingly structured his or her actions with the purpose of killing of another human being.  While it is the act of murder that society finds abhorrent and which brings about the deplorable consequence of a dead individual, the law traces causality - and responsibility - for that death back to the murderer's choice to undertake the murder.

If the act of murder occurred because the murderer considered at least two options - to kill, or not to kill - and choose the former, then it was the murderer's decision that brought about the murder, and it is that decision for which the murderer can be held accountable.  If, on the other hand, the choice was illusory and the murderer could not "choose" to do anything but kill, then culpability for the death falls to factors beyond the murderer's control.  If there is no free will, the murderer is reduced to a mere object: just as the gun is not morally culpable for firing the deadly bullet because the murderer pulled its trigger, the murderer him or herself is not culpable for pulling the trigger because that action was determined by outside factors; in effect, his or her own "trigger" was pulled, and he or she, like the gun, could not help but perform the action he or she was designed to do.

Simply put, without free will, an action cannot be assigned a value like "bad" or "good," because no choice could ever be made, and therefore no other action could have been taken in its place.  The badness or goodness of any given action is determined by its relationship with alternative actions; if there are no alternatives, and the action is the only thing that could possibly happen, then there is no frame of reference by which it could be described as "bad" - or more precisely, "worse than" - or "good" - or "better than."

This tenet does not prove that we actually possess free will - arguably, like God Himself, free will is an abstraction that defies quantifiable proof - but it paints a very bleak picture of what reality is like if free will does not, in truth, exist.  This makes the notion of free will extremely attractive, a notion that we may assume to be true simply because we're better off if we do.  Ultimately, we are in no worse position to assume free will exists and be proven wrong than to assume that there is no free will, and be proven right.  As a result, there is no risk in accepting the notion of free will as an article of faith.

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