Free Will and Determinism
A common thread running through my life is that I am able to see all points of view in ways that others cannot. My father and a friend of his used to argue for hours every time they visited over the role of free will in sin and salvation. His friend was a solid Calvinist and would cite scriptures that seemed to suggest God elected ahead of time only a few for salvation, but on closer reading were actually compatible with either Calvinism or Arminianism. My father, while not officially claiming a position, would cite other scriptures that he claimed proved beyond all doubt that God was not willing that any perish.
Calvinism and Arminianism: Simply put, Calvinism is the belief that God decided ahead of time who would be rescued from sin and who would be destined for Hell. Free will has no role. Those damned can do nothing to receive God’s favor, and those saved can do nothing to resist their spiritual growth. Simply put, Arminianism is the belief that each individual chooses whether to sin and whether to accept salvation. God is powerless to interfere. Those going to Hell willingly embrace it. Both Calvinism and Arminianism have been used as excuses not to reach out to sinners.
Proximate and Distal Causes: It all seemed so silly to me. It was obvious that my actions were the results of choices I made myself, yet I understood that I had reasons for making these choices, meaning those reasons were deterministic. Every event has proximate and distal causes. When Harry kills Scott, what is it that actually kills Scott? The bullet? The gun that sent the bullet? Harry, who pulled the trigger? Sam, who told Harry that Scott was sleeping with his wife and planned on killing him first? Scott, for divulging his plans to Sam? The gun manufacturer, without which there would have been no gun in Harry’s hand? The inventor of gunpowder? Or is it God, without which the chemistry of gunpowder would not exist, Harry would not exist, Scott would not exist, life would not exist, and therefore death itself would not exist? Every one of these explanations is equally valid, depending on the context and the behavior you want changed. If Scott realizes that every time he tells Sam a secret, somebody comes gunning for him, he may legitimately see telling Sam secrets as the cause of his problems.
It is equally correct to say that Sally buys a new car and that Julie sold Sally a new car. This way, Sally’s husband can give Sally credit for buying him the best birthday present ever, and Julie’s boss can give Julie credit for selling more cars than any other employee. Both are right. In the same way, we sin by choice and accept salvation by choice, but in a way that God arranged for ahead of time like a master salesman. Calvinism and Arminianism are equally true and not incompatible with each other at all!
Mental Parasites: Every time I explain this, people look at me as if I have five heads. They cannot understand what is painfully simple and obvious to me. The same thing happens with talk of memetics. People balk at the idea that our actions are controlled by sets of ideas that are passed from one person to another like viruses or parasites. They say that it leaves no room for free will. Horsefeathers! Is it us or our memes that are responsible for our actions? The answer, of course, is both. Consider the conversation between two chess players below:
Doug: So is it me or my memes that are responsible for my behavior?
Rich: You are responsible for what your behavior is, but your memes are responsible for what you are.
Doug: What does that mean? I am the way I am because of me. If I stand up or sit down or move my rook to put you in check at this moment, it is because I choose to, not because I’ve been programmed to.
Rich: Oh absolutely, I agree one hundred percent that you have chosen to put me in check, but why? You must have some reason.
Doug: Of course I have a reason! I want to win.
Rich: So would you say you have a belief that using your rook to put me in check is one way to win? My knight just blocked you by the way.
Doug: Look, I put a lot of hard work into studying different chess strategies; I saw this one used last year. Your knight is gone now.
Rich: So you got the strategy idea from someone else? You mean there was an idea that passed from one person to another by imitation or communication? You mean that the reason you moved your rook was because of a meme?
Doug: Fine, I have a strategy-meme in my mind, so what? It doesn’t control me; I do what I want, not my memes, as if they can even have any desires of their own. I could just as easily have chosen to do otherwise.
Rich: Yes you could have, but then you would have been acting on different beliefs, goals, and strategies. Those are all memes, ideas that are passed from one person to another.
Doug: I could have just as easily done something random.
Rich: Sure, but why? To prove that you are in control because you have the belief-meme that you must convince me you are?
Doug: That’s not why…
Rich: Why then? You must have some reason, and whatever reason it is, it is based on your goals and beliefs. Of course you still have free will; you are free to choose anything – except that which you do not want to do (meaning that which is against your goals), and that which you do not realize is possible (meaning that which is not contained in your beliefs).
Doug: Fine, I do things because of my ideas – but I have many ideas. I must choose between them.
Rich: Of course, but why do you choose some over others? It is because of all the other ideas in your mind. Memes all interact in complex ways and we are still learning just how they do that. The concepts of personal choice and memetic natural selection are not incompatible; they are merely different perspectives to help us gain insights that we could not by sticking with only one model.
Doug: Alright, you win; I am controlled by my ideas, but they are my ideas, nobody else’s. They are still my ideas! Some ideas I might get from others, but most of them I come up with on my own. For example, I know of no chess strategy that applies to the configuration our pieces are now in, so I will make up my own and move my queen … here.
Rich: That’s not a bad move; my bishop is now trapped. Still, whenever one creates new ideas, or invents new things, they are simply combining ideas they already have in new ways. You must have combined your knowledge of how the queen functions in chess with your desire to win and several other ideas to have created your strategy.
Doug: Well, I suppose so, but those aren’t memes. Those are new ideas. Check.
Rich: Those ideas came out of memes, and if you pass them to another they will become memes too. Memes spawn new memes all the time either through mutation or through interaction with other memes. It’s called memetic evolution.
Doug: Isn’t this a dangerous way to think, though? If people were told that they are simply acting on their memes, wouldn’t society break down as people lost the concept of personal accountability?
Rich: Some might misunderstand I suppose, which is why studying how ideas spread to prevent that is so important. For the most part though, people will still behave decently. They may do so because they have a meme that makes them fear reprisal, or they may do so because they have a meme that makes them genuinely care for others. I fail to see why knowing where one’s actions truly come from would make any difference. Like I said before, you are responsible for your behavior, but your memes are responsible for you. Checkmate.
Hopefully that clears up some unnecessary debate. Free will and determinism are not enemies!
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My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.