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Free Will or Lively Imagination?

A week ago, I attended a conference at Chapman University in Orange, CA, devoted to the topic of free will. The speakers included a physicist, a Sikh spiritual teacher, a rabbi, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and a couple of philosophers. The physicist mused about the possibility, at least at the quantum level, of future events influencing the present in something like the way the present is shaped by the past, thus challenging the idea that past actions entirely control present outcomes. The Sikh pondered that we behave like we believe in free will, even if we deny its existence. Otherwise, how do we hold each other accountable for our actions? The Tibetan monk bluntly declared that if we want to continue suffering, then we ought to maintain the false belief in free will.

Their conversation was inconclusive, to say the least! But it did stimulate me to ponder further this perennial question. Saint Paul wrote in Romans (7:15) that “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Saint Augustine (City of God, 14:17) argued against full free will with a simple proof. (Take a deep breath and prepare yourself for it!) He said that before the “fall” men had free will control of their erections. But after Adam and Eve disobeyed God with their free will, men’s penises developed minds of their own, so to speak! Disobeying God through our free will resulted in a loss of free will. The Calvinists believed in radical predestination, but the Baptists and other Christians hold that accepting salvation is a free choice. Clearly, there is no clear answer to the question in Christian theology.

The longer I live, the less I believe in free will. I have concluded that I should claim a lot less credit for the good results of the choices I’ve made, and put a lot less blame on others for the bad results of their choices. About a year ago, a long-time friend of mine died after a long and mysterious illness. His behavior had exasperated his friends countless times. When his disease was diagnosed, it was revealed that he had suffered from it for his whole life, and it might well have been the cause of the many quirky choices he made. The diagnosis changed his friends’ opinions of him, but should we ever have held those opinions? It’s disturbing to suggest that we don’t have free will, but believing that we do can lead us to inappropriate judgments of ourselves and others.

This little poem of mine came to my mind as I heard the physicist, Yakhir Aharanov of Chapman University, speak at the conference:

look for
leaf causes
not just
root causes

Perhaps the idea of free will could be replaced with the question of imagination. If someone commits a crime, we can then ask if the person was capable of imagining the consequences of his or her actions – and if the person was in a social environment where imagination was nurtured. Perhaps our freedom of choice is really the attractive influence of future possibilities on our present actions, liberating us from imprisonment in the causal nexus of the past. Imagination is the telescope through which we peer into these attractive possibilities. By cultivating our imaginations to conceive vivid scenarios of positive futures, and by infecting our culture with them through art, media, religion, and rhetoric, we increase the likelihood that we’ll make good choices. “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” says Proverbs 29:18. Conversely, where there is vision, the people flourish. By actively envisioning a future society of justice, peace, creativity, and kindness, we make decisions today that will make us more God-like tomorrow.

I doubt I’ve come close to plumbing the mystery behind this classic theological and philosophical problem. But by putting a lot more time and energy into stimulating our imaginations with positive visions, maybe we can exercise the moral equivalent of free will without getting caught in the blame-game that goes with that concept.


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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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