Free Will?


Or: “Did the Devil Really Make You Do It?”

 One of the (many) things I find very confusing in life is the question of Free Will. I have yet to find a satisfying explanation for how free will works. On what basis does a person make his or her choices? And if one’s choices are determined by those factors, where is the freedom? And yet, we experience this strange freedom that we cannot explain every day. When Samuel Johnson was challenged to defend the existence of free will, his answer was typically pithy yet profound: “I know I have free will, and there’s an end to the matter!”

 On a more practical level, we grapple with free will. In confessions, “I couldn’t help it Abouna,” is a phrase I have grown accustomed to hearing, usually followed by something like; “He forced me to swear at him!”

 “Hmmm” I will answer if I am in a sarcastic frame of mind, “so he reached into your mouth, grabbed your tongue, and forced it to produce a swear word?”

 The most common response I get is a stare that is usually reserved for inmates of mental hospitals. The question of my sanity notwithstanding, personal responsibility is a deeper issue than I once thought. How much of what we do is conscious choice and how much is ‘mechanical’? And if mechanical, then how are we to be held responsible for it?

 Perhaps you will understand my confusion a little better if you consider an example. We have an inbuilt reflex that causes us to pull away sharply if ever we feel a burning pain on our skin; you know, the reflex that makes you pull your hand away immediately you accidentally lean on a glowing hotplate. It would appear that the actual path taken by the signals in your nervous system does not go through the brain at all. Instead, the sensory nerves trigger an automatic response from the nerves that move the muscles by meeting them somewhere in the spinal cord. Your conscious brain only participates afterwards, after the action of pulling away has already been completed.

More confusing still is some research that has shown that our brains may sometimes make decisions some seconds before we are conscious of them. That’s right, your brain might be making decisions on its own. But what does that mean? If I am not my brain, then what am I? Are my mind and my brain two different things? And where does my spirit fit into all this?

The interpretation of these experiments is of course open to question. What the fMRI machine might be picking up is nothing more than the necessary machinary you use to make a conscious decision – a bit like watching the pieces of a car come together on a conveyor belt. It’s not fully a car until it pops out the end (eg it may not have wheels) yet it is recognisable as a ‘pre-car’. In the same way, the fMRI might be picking up ‘pre-decisions’.

 And yet, there are other things we do without really being in control of ourselves. Car drivers know the weird experience of driving on ‘autopilot’ – when you fall into a daydream while driving to the shops after work and come back to reality only to realise that the car seems to have taken you home instead all on its own! What has happened of course is that your brain and mind, in the absence of any conscious instructions to the contrary, just repeated the actions you normally perform every afternoon and drove you straight home. Are you responsible for this action? Should your wife get you in trouble for forgetting to pick up some bread?

 And how far does this unconscious action extend?

 Then again, does ‘unconscious’ really equal ‘not responsible’? The daydreaming autopilot driver did choose to daydream after all. Had he chosen to remain focused he would not have forgotten to pick up the bread.

I am reminded of the story of the monk who couldn’t resist having an egg during Lent fasting. Having smuggled the egg into his bare cell, he was faced with problem of how to cook it without arousing suspicion. So he struck upon the idea of roasting it over his prayer candle. When the abbot happened to pass by his cell and noticed something fishy going on, the startled monk exclaimed, “It wasn’t me, Father; the devil made me do it!” Suddenly, a demon appeared out of nowhere and exclaimed, “Oh no. I’m not to blame for this one. I would never have thought of that candle idea. He came up with it all by himself!”

 So perhaps there really is no excuse for not practicing self control? My suspicion is the matter is still far more complex than we have yet guessed. Thank God that He is the judge of men’s hearts and deeds and not us!

 Fr Ant

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