In the supermarket, free will is a crock. Standing at the sushi counter, I would be happy with any of the choices, but I have to mill over the options for ten minutes creating no small embarrassment to myself as the person who has never tried anything other than the California roll reaches around me to grab her one and only. I am milling the options while this woman only wants her true love. Truth is it would be easier if the choice was made for me.
Life was not always so complex. There was a time the choices were made. Point in case is toothpaste. Growing up, my family was a Crest family. I knew there was a brand called Colgate and I knew it was a fine product, but its not what we did. The same went for peanut butter and soft drinks. In George Nolfi’s film The Adjustment Bureau, a case is made that no matter which side you come down on in the free will versus fate debate, you at least get to choose your toothpaste. In my childhood that would have been heresy.
When in my adult life I was able to try brands other than Crest, the world did not end. Nor did the world end with all those other choices I made, some good and others not so much. It begged the question as to how fine tuned the world must be.
It is no small question. Free will vs determinism is fodder in everything from classroom debate to popular movies. Most falter with the answer. This is especially true of religious systems. In these systems there are well thought out arguments for both sides of the issue, but the rank and file believer operates under their life experiences rather than the tightly organized arguments of intellectuals.
“Everything happens for a reason.” How often a parent or a friend tells us this. We don’t even think of that phrase as being a philosophical stance as it is usually a conciliatory comment following something like a death, breakup, or lost opportunity. But philosophical it is as it is a way of saying there are things in you get no control over. The colder phrase, “you play the hand you’ve been dealt” is equally apt.
For most there is a contentment in every place but the murky middle. We are content to let God own the big actions in history, especially true in Christianity where God has decisively entered history. We are also quick to say I can order whatever sandwich I like at lunch. The later really only being the case in some of the world when you think about it. What baffles us is when our choice comes up against the actions of the murky middle of moral agency that originates within us and the lives of those we interact with and it does not matter how deterministic you are, you do not escape moral agency in any system of thought.
It is our lot in life to question in what matters we are given the freedom of decision. No one questions tooth paste if you have the money to purchase a tube. What does Providence care? And at the other extreme, most of us are too consigned to believing the world is just the way it is to try to change it. That ignores history, but it is where most of us stand. To be fair we do try for change with every sign we carry at a protest or ten dollar donation to the World Wildlife Fund, but we leave ourselves confined to thinking these are baby steps and the effect must be marginal, a sad thought if God is in the details of these finer things. Still even if we have resolved ourselves about being able to decide on the small, but not the big things, there is still the murky middle.
And what of the murky middle? When a family sets out in the early spring to think of whether they should spend a week in July at the beach or in the mountains is the choice theirs. If there is a difference of opinion, does Providence take a side? If you are nesting in a deep woods cabin and turn on the news to hear of a tsunami wiping out an ocean side resort, the quick answer is yes. It usually doesn’t work that way though. Usually you are swatting mosquitoes and your wife is thinking she could have been next to the pool with a Corona. In such matters Providence seems to let our decision making be ours even when it comes up against a differences of opinion held by at least two moral agents.
Then there is the question of what if our decision making acts against the divine? This was the question posed in the Nolfi film and the topic he picks is the one that is more in the murky middle than any other. It is the often played, tiring but never tiresome, argument for true romance. On the surface, it has quite a bit of humor, though really more on the cosmic level. With everything going on in the world, why would God care who I choose to spend my time with? And perhaps He doesn’t. That is the answer that makes the most sense. Then again…..maybe the kid will develop the cure for cancer.
In the end asking if we have free will is the wrong question. We know we have to make choices. We would do well to be discerning in the process, but if the plan is that fined tuned does it make a difference?” If we say to ourselves what will be will be, we become complacent to those things that hurt, but consoled with the “it was not meant to be” argument. If we barrel ahead with the “I am totally free argument” we may dispel discernment altogether and be left with a lot of bad choices, though there will be good ones too. Neither side of the argument escapes the muck or joy of life.
Me, I usually come down in a pretty deterministic place. There is really the hand you have been dealt. Your family, the type of person to whom you are attracted, maybe even your preference in beverages is not really up to you. Propinquity places and removes people from your life and your socio-economic status determines much of what you are able to do. Even if all the choices are not made for us, they are without a doubt limited. Genetics, upbringing, and circumstance are very good arguments for determinism, but they are also a good argument for discernment which necessarily argues that we have choices.
Fate is indeed a harsh word. Put up against free will, we hope our will always wins. Put it another way, destiny versus freedom, and the argument is more nuanced. The too often maligned Stoics had a way of looking at it. Fate is what you were handed. Destiny is what you do with it. Filtered through Greek thought and the Reformation, the idea of destiny has come down to us in the guise of liberty. It is no accident that liberty is a word used by very deterministic people no matter how odd that must seem on the surface.
Liberty is the place of discernment, but it is a word that has to be taken with caution. How often it has been abused in history. One look no farther than the Manifest Destiny or the Boer treks across South Africa to realize this. True enough Providence can, in the march of history, correct our idiocy and bad decisions, but that seems to take up a lot a time and comes at a great price. Though the struggle is still there, the United States is today a paradigm of a multicultural society and who knows, South Africa may one day be a model for racial harmony. In instances like these one can argue that God had a definite opinion and chose a side in spite of our human efforts to see it otherwise.
To see that is the easy part. Looking back on things, at least the big things, we can make out a bit of the plan. We can see where the decisions have been good and where they have demanded correction. Do we see it in our individual lives, though? Is there a plan for our lives? Could it be Providence is content to let our decisions stand, though our choices are limited? And once a particular situation is introduced to us, is it fair game for our decision making and allowed to alter “the plan?” (That was one of the questions posed in The Adjustment Bureau, though the film punted when it came time for an answer.)
Truth is most of us are not making geo-political decisions. Rather, we are deciding what to have for lunch or in the more tumultuous moments of our lives deciding where we should study, what should we be when we grow up, or who should be our one and only. It is at these times our liberty meets the design.
I am not always fond of the term soul mate, though it is not the concept but the abuse of the phrase that bothers me. But I did find an explanation of the term that gives a wonderful argument on how to look at the free will versus determinism debate. It doesn’t really get at the whole of the answer, but that is something we are not allowed to have in this life anyway. What it does is speak loudly for living in a world with a plan while deciding on the paths to take. It comes from Beliefnet, which has something called the Soul Mate Project, a little goofy, but as Joe Jackson said, “love is proof that God has a sense of humor.” Here a contributor to the project writes she has a universal Soul Mate in God who has given her a dance card with names she can not see. These are those who are suited for her and unless a name is on the card, she will not be permitted to dance and therefore will not be a soul mate. Still she cannot know the names until it is time to dance and the dances may be many.
To expound God has given us a dance card filled with names and put on the music, which is really our life situations. The names on the card are family, friends, intimates, or any other type of relationship. You get to dance to the music, but only if your name is on another’s card. During the course of the cosmic soiree, you meet good dancers, poor dancers and along the way maybe even the most remarkable person in your life (probably not the best dancer.) What you do with that is your business, but if you are open, you do get the experience and from that you are to discern. Seems like a good enough analogy to me and one that can play itself out in many situations.
To be sure the dance card cannot be very full and the music is what God, not us, decides to play….it is a plan with limited options, but options nonetheless. I can live with that, as if I had a choice. It does not mean that my liberty is not preserved and certainly does not mean discernment is to be put on hold. The beauty of life is that we don’t get the answers, but we are led on the journey. The particular paths are choices, but the destination; well that speaks for itself considering the root word. (Latin destinationem for purpose, design.)
What am I do to with this? I don’t entirely know, but I won’t make a habit of analyzing if something is meant to be in every decision I make. That would be preposterous. I also won’t give up the belief that “the arc of history is long and bends toward justice” (Martin Luther King Junior.) I will just be content to know there is always going to be a murky middle and that this is a place of discernment and decision. And the next time I am in the supermarket and a guy is chatting up some woman in front of the Crest, I wont reach around them and break up what may be the cure for cancer. I will just grab the Colgate and make my way back over to the sushi counter.
Note: photo by Holly Clark, Creative Commons license