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Religious Free Will: A Closer Look

August 28, 2010

About 10 years ago I began to understand why all religions try to put the lid on any form of scientific inquiry into the basis of their belief system. As I mentioned before, questions regarding the causes of our actions, and subsequently the vagueness surrounding “the problem of free will” were the first reasons why I started to notice the vast sea of paradoxes concerning the claims religions make. Here I attempt to explain the simple yet surprisingly lingering problem regarding free will.

Free will, if defined as “the capacity of human beings to choose an option among a range of choices” does exist. After all, we are all observing and doing this very thing every day. However, there are serious incompatibilities between our free will and a “fair” god who rewards and punishes human beings based on the choices they make and holds them responsible for the consequences of their actions; because every conceivable scenario regarding free will presents its own set of inconsistencies with such a judgmental god.

There are only 2 possibilities to explain how free will works. Either our free will (as the cause of our choices) is an uncaused cause, or it is in fact the effect of another cause. (You are invited to leave a third possibility in the comments section if you’ve come across one). The former possibility would immediately be a serious blow to the fundamental assumptions of all religions. It would mean an unpredictable random cause exists that follows no perceivable order at all, including an ethical code. Such a phenomenon has not been observed however; we can always find consistently ethical human beings who don’t seem to be making random decisions. In addition, from a strictly ethical point of view, no moral value can be associated with a random free will because the human being equipped with this “action generator” can’t be held responsible for the consequence of his uncontrollable actions – good or bad – that appear out of the blue. Furthermore, it would mean there can be an uncaused cause besides God, something that God has nothing to do with and just happens by itself. Needless to say, this leads us to believe that things can in fact exist without the need of a cause, i.e. a creator, which means many things – including the universe itself – may exist independent of any kind of cause, let alone an intelligent god. We seem to have no other choice but to rely on an orderly free will that does follow rules and is the effect of other causes.

If we take the second path and decide to go with the version of free will that is caused by something else, we need to follow the long chain of causality back to its source, i.e. God; we can’t suddenly stop at an uncaused cause or we’ll be stuck with the problems of a random free will again. That is to say, we have to accept that God is the one who devised the rules and set things in motion in the first place, indirectly causing all our actions, even what is going on in our heads right now. This path is also incompatible with basic principles behind all major religions. Religions are based on holding individual human beings responsible for everything they do, and giving God the right to punish and reward based on those actions. A dependent free will ultimately leads to a god who punishes human beings because of what he himself did in the first place, at the moment of Creation.

Simplified causality

A simplified schema of causality. A human being and its actions are the effect of other causes, and also the causes of other effects.

Like it or not, our observations support this second view of free will. “Why did you kill him?” is a valid question to ask a murderer. “Why did he kill him?” is valid, even when asked about a murderer who is considered mentally unstable. We have to assume that there is a cause for what every human being does, and that cause is the effect of yet another cause.

I used to think about what God keeps asking in the Quran; questions like “Why do you stray from the path of the righteous?” He supposedly asks such questions to make an ethical point, but since every rhetorical question – regardless of its fragile, implicit point making function – has a legitimate answer, I couldn’t help but try to find a clear, satisfactory answer to this rhetorical question. Why do we stray? Why don’t we believe in him when he has allegedly sent so many prophets to “guide” us? Or when he “sacrificed” his “son” to have an excuse to forgive our sins?

Considering what we discussed, if we take the religious premise of a supreme being to be true, we have no choice but to accept the fact that this being has something to do with whatever we do, including our disobedience. My frequent failed attempts to explain human behavior through such paradoxes made me change the premise and form the basis of what I now call The Satisfaction Hypothesis.

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