I’d like you picture this --- It’s 11:30 on a Saturday night and Jane has a tiff with her boyfriend and decides to leave the party early and hitchhike home; two weeks later police find her body dumped in a ditch. Jonathon, who was also at the same party, leaves drunk, chooses to speed to the freeway via the off-ramp instead of the on-ramp and breaks his back in the ensuing head-on collision. Picture also George who, despite his mother’s drunken rampages, is determined to graduate from college and spends that Saturday evening pouring over his chemistry text. He will pass the exam and get an A in the class. Each of these people chose certain actions that had semi-predictable results.. Each exercised volition, free will.
Granted, Jane might have made it home in one piece, so might have Jon. George might have passed the chemistry exam without studying, but he greatly increased his odds by hitting the books. It was really bad luck that Jane crossed paths that night with a homicidal maniac, but her free will put her on that path. (Her choice, of course, does not exonerate the nut case; it just put her on his radar.) It was a nasty coincidence that a tractor-trailer rig loaded with concrete blocks was headed down the on-ramp that night, true, but had Jon not chosen to get drunk, to drive, to drive down that road at that speed, it wouldn’t have mattered. Each person used free will, which we like to claim when convenient, but which has taken quite a beating in the last half-century. The further we move away from personal responsibility, and we are traveling at warp speed in that direction, the further we are from truth, from choice, from God.
Several years ago I enjoyed occasional philosophical discussions with an unusually bright student of mine – I’ll call him Ernest. Ernest, who was very adamantly an atheist, had an interesting fixation on the concept of free will. I found it somewhat odd that an atheist could find that concept so captivating. “Free from what?” I would ask him. I failed miserably to convince him that if existence is only material and we’re all just so much protoplasm, then we are hopelessly controlled by our biology and free will is meaningless. If, however, we are created by an omnipotent, sovereign God (who in spite of His sovereignty has allowed us volition -- even to choose against Him), then free will is an interesting construct. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing here. Having one last go at Ernest.
First let’s look at the denotative definition of free will. Contrary to popular, psychiatric thinking, free will is not hampered by anything but natural law. (i. e. I can’t choose to inhabit two places at once. I can’t decide to vanish into thin air.) But it is, after all, free will. “Free” as in untrammeled, unfettered, un-impeded. “Will” as in I will, I won’t, I decide. Free will is not frozen because of a bad childhood (We are screwed up because our families are screwed up). Free will is not fettered because someone has provoked us (He makes me so mad. No – he’s a jerk, but we make ourselves mad. ) Free will isn’t even abrogated by our bad habits – the negative exercise of that free will is what gives us bad habits. Free will chooses – it chooses whether to give in to peer pressure and drink. It chooses whether to be mad or understanding, whether to be punctual or late, whether to believe or doubt, whether to work or play. Free will chooses our emotions, our behaviors, our friends, our attitudes, our relationship with God. Free will even chooses, to a certain extent, our mental and physical health.
The outgrowth of popular, Freudian thinking and its theories about the origins of psychoses, neuroses, and general bad judgment is just an end run around the personal responsibility that is the other side of the free will coin. Pop-psychologists have us blaming our parents, our siblings, our weird Uncle Bob, our first grade teacher, the weather, our previous lives, and hormonal upheavals for every rotten choice we ever make. This creates two problems: 1) It lets us wiggle out of things we’d be better off facing up to, and 2) It robs us of our free will. If I’m a mess because my dad was an alcoholic, then I’m just stuck. I have to be a mess. There is no way out -- except expensive, neurotic therapists and exotic pharmaceuticals, and if either of those worked, they’d no longer be necessary.
But if free will is just that – free, in every sense of the word, we can choose not to slog through meaningless lives completely at the mercy of all that had come before -- & before -- & before -- & before. If I’m like I am because of my manic-depressive alcoholic father, then he was a bipolar drinker because of his overworked father’s early death and the poverty of the Depression, and his father ended up in that position because of his father’s restless need to come the new world, and, and, and, until the weight of it all is hopeless. If we have free will, we make choices of our own – all our own and we are not doomed to follow the dictates of our ancestors’ experiences.
As I think back on those conversations with Ernest, I realize that it is no wonder that so many 21st century Americans place little value on freedom – for anyone who sees people as nothing but agglutinative masses of molecules, the concept is empty. Empty-ish, anyway – regardless of our philosophies we all seem to know what we ourselves want, what we’d will to happen. However, if we are at the core, clear Lucite units of volition, if we are born with the capacity to choose, to be at least partners in the formation of our own ultimate destinies, then freedom matters, really matters. Is there God? Choose. What think ye of Christ? Choose. Will you take this man/woman to be your lawfully wedded ….? Choose. I’m not willing to turn those choices over to either my DNA or another human being. I don’t think Ernest is either.
As is usual with teachers, we rarely find out what becomes of our ex-students. Ernest marched off to Stanford, an institution his free will chose. He came back to visit once, but I was in the middle of teaching a class, so I have no idea if he ever satisfactorily resolved his Lucite issue. All I can do is hope his chemistry has been making the right decisions.