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The Limits Of Free Will


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Question: What are the limits to ‘free will?’

From Ask the Religion experts

Rev. RAY INNEN PARCHELO is a novice Tendai priest and founder of the Red Maple Sangha, the first lay Buddhist community in Eastern Ontario.

That we all can make choices is fundamental to Buddhist practice. Life presents itself and we respond as an expression of what we value. We express our values, intentions and will in action. However, Buddhists don’t describe this capacity for choice-in-action as “free will.” That concept has its origins in the belief that individuals can somehow exist in isolation from each other and the world. It goes along with the parallel concept that personal freedom resides, in some unique way, in that individual. As I understand it, the idea of “free will” emerged theologically to affirm that humans aren’t little puppets dangling on God’s strings. God and his children are separate and humans are free to love God or not.

Buddhism presents a different view. Humans, as are all beings, are part of the vast web of existence, intimately and unavoidably implicated in each other’s lives. It is the urge to define our lives as separate or “ours” which is the cause of our spiritual suffering. For Buddhists, human will is always qualified by two invariable conditions. First, our lives, our very existence, is intertwined with the lives of all other beings. We cannot do anything without it having an impact on others and the world. We act out our lives in this web of countless other lives. Secondly, every action we take has a consequence for us. As the cart follows the oxen, what we choose brings us a result.

So, we are free to choose to lay our hands down on a glowing stove burner, but only the foolish or insane would choose such pain. Buddhists recognize that we can choose whatever action is available to us as humans. We also recognize that choice comes with responsibility and consequence. Actions which aim to establish a separate and eternal life will only result in more of the same spiritual suffering we already experience. Finally, the idea of limits itself is a false one. Any marking off — my will from yours, my freedom from yours — is the very action which brings us the spiritual suffering we all seek to end.

Rev. KEVIN FLYNN is an Anglican priest and director of the Anglican studies program at Saint Paul University.

Faith looks at the great problems of the world — injustice, war, environmental degradation, etc. — and understands their root cause to be a false and distorted relationship with God. Ironically, we lose our freedom when in unbelief we will not accept that God alone gives freedom. Christian faith deals with this root problem in a number of concrete ways.

Christians are free from having to guarantee the meaning of their personal lives. Like everyone, we have to make sense of our lives. But we are free from the deepest anxiety about whether or not it matters at all that we have lived or not. Faith tells us that God has loved us from all eternity.

The next great freedom is freedom from concern about ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have to exercise care or forethought in life.

It does mean that we are free to enter into life, into the events of the world, into relationships with other people, because we can trust that we won’t lose ourselves thereby. God is close to us in every situation, whether it is appalling or beautiful.

Being free from anxiety about ourselves, free from the fear of life, we are freed to love others and to work for justice and peace. Loving others unreservedly includes the freedom to forgive them — not to forget a past wrong, but to be free from letting the past wrongs of others prevent us from accepting them. Faith tells us God forgives us, accepts us as we are. In turn we treat others the same way, setting them free just as God has set us free.

Our freedom is never a once-and-for-all matter. We find it daily as we choose once again to serve God, whom to serve is perfect freedom.

KEVIN SMITH is on the board of directors for the Centre of Inquiry, Canada’s premier venue for humanists, skeptics and freethinkers.

I had seriously considered abstaining from writing this post. My brain is fried. Too many demands from work and family.

I changed my mind. Why? Some of you might say God only knows. Yahweh, the omniscient creator knew I would have a busy week. As clear as He knows when you are going to stub your toe or that someone — at this moment, is going to be brutally murdered; He knew I wouldn’t shirk my writing obligations. It is written.

Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker explains it differently, “there is no ghost in the machine.” Human behaviour is the product of physical processes in the brain. With billions of neurons and trillions of synapses percolating in our grey matter we can never predict our behaviour with absolute certainty. And that includes the bad — stabbing a fellow human to death, to the clumsy — banging our foot into that damn table leg.

Let’s change the concept of free will to choices, many subconscious. Choices based on, and limited by, our genes, environment and experiences.

In religion, free will allows that choices can coexist with our Divinely mandated life journey.

The serious sin of murder illustrates the paradox of this notion. If our life is scripted, are we not actors playing our roles? Explanations abound — it’s beyond our comprehension, the Almighty works in mysterious ways. I think they’re dead wrong. Religious belief and free will do not comply with the laws of the physical world. Just as God is an illusion, so goes free will.

Every deed, good or evil, comes from upstairs — our brain. It too works in mysterious ways but science is filling in the gaps with natural explanations.

You may disagree. You might wish I had stuck to my first inclination of declining this post or hadn’t read it to the end, but as you would have to believe — it was God’s will.

Rev. GEOFFREY KERSLAKE is a priest of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Ottawa.

Free will means we have the ability to choose good and avoid evil. This is a very powerful gift because our choices affect not only our own lives, but the lives of others as well. In society our choices are not limitless — our right to make a choice is contingent on the consequences not interfering with others’ rights. In that sense, yes, our free will is limited.

As well, because the Catholic Church believes that there are moral absolutes, some choices are objectively morally right or morally wrong. In this sense, while we are free to make an immoral choice, the consequences of that choice may be very serious. There is a story about a reporter who was puzzled by the late Pope John Paul II’s popularity with teens and young adults, given his strong stance on objective morality. He asked, for example, if the Pope thought he was limiting the youths’ freedom in his teaching on the immorality of premarital sex.

The Holy Father’s reply is very illustrative of the value and reality of free will. He said: “They have true freedom — the freedom to choose what is right. “Too often in society today we equate freedom or free will with a licence to do whatever we want to when in reality that is not real freedom — it is instead being at the mercy of our fleeting desires or the changing fads of society.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in religious and moral matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of man. But the exercise of freedom does not entail the putative right to say or do anything.” (CCC n. 1747) Real freedom is freedom to be responsible for our choices; freedom without responsibility is empty.

Rabbi REUVEN BULKA is head of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa and host of Sunday night with Rabbi Bulka on 580 CFRA.

This is an interesting philosophical question. It all depends on what you mean by free will. If you mean by free will that one has limitless choices, no one has free will.

A poor man cannot choose to buy a Rolls-Royce, a rich man who is only five-foot-six cannot choose to be the starting centre on a professional basketball team. Show me any person, and I can point out things that are beyond their ability or capacity, so that even if they will these things, they could never happen.

Free will must mean something other than limitless choices. We are all limited. But within the limitations, there are choices. At different points in our life, the range of choices changes. Which school to attend, which vocation to pursue, which person to marry, these are all choices we are free to make, but only to a certain extent.

Take marriage, for example. We are all free to decide whom we want to marry, but that does not guarantee it will happen. The other side has to want the same thing. This is true of many of the choices we make in life. The carry-through is not totally in our own hands.

As we grow older, our choices seem to become even more limited. Travel may be more restricted, as are other activities we had taken for granted. Has our free will been compromised? Only if we see free will in a material perspective.

What if we limited the parameters of free will to the human dimension? Are we free to be kind or mean? Are we free to be arrogant or humble? Are we free to be angry or calm? These are the defining questions of life. Can anyone justify their anger by claiming they were born hot-blooded? This is a free-will question. Can a person claim they have no choice in the matter?

A hot-blooded person may have a greater challenge, but still has the freedom to choose. Success or failure is usually related to the strength of the will, to how much the person really wants to cool it. In human matters, the sky is the limit regarding our choices.

Rev. RICK REED is senior pastor at the Metropolitan Bible Church in Ottawa.

For centuries, theologians and philosophers have wrestled with this question with no consensus.

Some have argued for a viewpoint called “determinism.” Determinists who acknowledge God contend our actions are predetermined by divine will. Those who deny God’s existence or involvement see human actions as caused by genetics and environment.

In either case, human freedom is essentially a mirage.

The opposite position can be labelled “self-determinism.” Here the self is seen as autonomous, free to make choices. While God or genetics may influence these choices, in the final analysis human beings are the cause of human doings.

The Bible affirms the reality of both God’s control and human choices. On one hand, many passages in Scripture affirm that God sovereignly determines the outcomes in life — both on the individual and international level. In the story of the Exodus, God promises to control Pharaoh’s choices: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these miraculous signs of mine among them.’” (Exodus 10:1)

At the same time, the Bible contains numerous passages which speak of humans having both the capacity and responsibility to make meaningful choices. For example, Exodus 8:32 holds Pharaoh responsible for refusing to let the Israelites leave: “But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go.”

> While it’s difficult for our finite minds to fully explain, the Bible teaches that God controls the outcomes of life in a way that does not nullify our responsible, legitimate choices. We do not have absolute free will; however, we do have genuine freedom to make meaningful choices. And the most meaningful choice we can make is to trust God with our lives and choose to follow His Son Jesus.

BALPREET SINGH is legal counsel and acting executive director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

The Sikh faith teaches that individuals have the ability to act and make choices but all that happens is subject to God’s will.

Sikhs believe in the system of karma which is the law of action and reaction. Our past actions shaped our present and our present actions will shape our future. Karma acts like a web that binds us to the material world and results in an endless cycle of happiness and sadness and continuous reincarnation.

The Sikh faith teaches that it is only through God’ grace one becomes aware of this cycle and develops the will to be free from it. Through meditation on naam (God’s name), the process of reuniting the soul with God begins and our karma are eliminated. An individual who is spiritually awakened accepts God’s will and acts within that will. In essence, the distinction between the individual’s ‘free will’ and God’s will is erased as they become one.

The Sikh approach to life is proactive as opposed to fatalistic. The Sikh faith teaches that one must not passively allow tragedy or injustice to continue by dismissing it as inevitable or fate. The individual has a duty to act. The kirpan, a Sikh article of faith worn by all initiated Sikhs, is a physical manifestation of the commitment each Sikh makes to serve humanity and to uphold the principles of justice. It’s for this reason that Sikhs actively organize and take part in activities such as blood drives and relief efforts for places affected by disasters. Similarly for human rights issues, the Sikh faith teaches that we must stand up for the rights of all persons, regardless of race, religion or nationality. The World Sikh Organization of Canada, the human rights group I work with has for example lobbied against the prohibition on the Muslim veil (even though veiling is forbidden in the Sikh faith) and even for the right of a Scottish student to wear a kilt to his graduation. Standing up for the rights of others is a religious duty for Sikhs and part of acting in God’s will.

Read more: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/life/R...ts+free+will/4232709/story.html#ixzz1DFRPSvFy



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