By Gene Rigelon
Organized religion's concept of free will was conceived as a cop out for God. It is no more than a feeble attempt to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the existence of an all-loving God.
This is a question that many humanists have struggled with. The dilemma is not new. Throughout the history of humanism, the free will versus determinism issue has been key to philosophical discourse because our justice system is based on the proposition that individuals are responsible for their actions. The conclusions of science that the universe, including us humans, operates in accordance with the immutable cause and effect laws of nature seems to cast doubt on that proposition. David Hume argued that in spite of the obvious fact that human behavior like everything else in the natural world is to a large extent predictable. We do have free will to a limited extent.
Hume argued that although each individual act is the effect of the acting person's character and motives and in an indirect sense determined, the person can always choose not to act in any given direction. What then does this mean for the concept of free will? Is it possible to come up with a scientific premise concerning free will that would be compatible with scientific thinking? The role of contingency in human actions may be the answer. We do respond to contingencies. It is that knowledge about the causes and effects of our actions that allows us to achieve freedom to alter our previously conditioned behavior. Reflecting on the consequences of previous actions, we then have the will to act in ways that will engender future consequences.
There is considerable evidence to indicate that, from the moment of birth, each human being begins to forge a character from what genetic potential makes of experience. We also have good reason to conclude that the value system defining that character determines the nature of our choosing. Given the content of my values at the moment of choice - and the precipitating circumstances - it is true that I could have done no other than what I did. That does not translate into determinism, but it means that my choice is unique to me.
For modern scientific thinkers, free will is meaningful only in terms of this capacity of choice. No freedom, however limited, can exist if behavior remains merely habitual or impulsive. We now know that, as living, culture creating organisms, we form an inextricable part of nature's continuous current of cause and effect. None of the findings of science indicate a possibility of altering or re-directing the process from the outside. It seems clear that we can only work from within. The obvious conclusion from all this is that the religious concept of free will is merely the stuff of dreams and wishes. Again, this does not imply determinism. It is precisely because of humanity's involvement in nature's current of cultural evolution that we necessarily effect its direction and velocity.
John Dewey's scientifically supportable concept of free will can be viewed as the potential to re-direct the course of nature's continuum of cause and effect by achieving conscious control of the consequences of our own actions. The positive message of humanism implies that we are not condemned to use that power destructively. As cultural beings we have evolved the potential for reasoned choice, and have been burdened and privileged with the responsibility that such choice endows. This is what free will represents for humankind at the dawning of the new millennium.
Gene Rigelon of Front Royal is coordinator of the Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists, www.sash.wash.org. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org