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Thinking Out Loud

There is No Free Will

by Michael Jinkins | Jul 19, 2016


Robert ReedEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog post is guest-written by Robert Reed (pictured), a Louisville Seminary Honorary Life Trustee.

Thomas was waiting for me at the corner of President and Biltmore. Thomas is a single twenty-year-old father living in subsidized housing about two blocks from a bustling drug trade corner in Cincinnati. He does construction in season. Right now he is out of work but going to concrete finishing trade school. How did Thomas miss becoming enmeshed in the drug scene within two blocks away and the easy ticket to fast money? Rodney Christian, the director of Christian education at Third Presbyterian Church, which is located about 10 blocks away, suggested I meet with Thomas. He may be one of the youth of the East Westwood neighborhood that might be helped. “Mr. Rodney” has been saving young men for 25 years.

Wendy's would be our lunch place, and over the next 90 minutes I would listen. Thomas’ parents separated when he was young, and he lived with a very rigid, alcoholic, disciplinarian father who became physical when he drank. Thomas left home at 15 to live with his mother. She was not the strict disciplinarian, so Thomas dropped out of school and became a father; he has a son. Family life was good for this teenage couple, at least while the construction work lasted. When Thomas’ job ended at the last construction site, his girlfriend found the greener grass, and the relationship ended. "I never felt lower than that time of my life," said Thomas. Surely this would be a good time for him to go for the easy money. He did not.

What kept Thomas from taking the easy road just two blocks down the street? He faced a difficult decision, and this time he chose wisely. Once per month, about 40 young men meet for breakfast and discussion at Third Pres. Thomas and Mr. Rodney worship here. One recent Saturday morning, Mr. Rodney posed this question from the Cain and Able story. “Am I my brother's keeper?” Willie, one of the older, wiser counselors and father of three boys, responded, “One always has the freedom to make a decision.” Willie was a staunch defender of the old free will school.

On the way home that day, I puzzled over this answer. I kept returning to Thomas. Did he really have freedom to choose? Stephen Cave, a philosopher and author of Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization, wrote in the June issue of The Atlantic that there is no such thing as free will (“There is No Such Thing as Free Will”, June 2016). Some of us still believe we make choices independently. Today it may be naïve to believe in this old Church School dictum. But Cave (and, in my reading beyond Cave, he is not alone here) declares that free choice is an illusion. Our choices are determined by external forces. According to Cave, Libertarianism is dead and determinism reigns, but there are many opinions in between. But what happens when we jettison this concept? We are taught that our decisions have consequences and carry with them responsibility. If choice carries no responsibility, do we choose differently?

According to Cave, psychologists (and he cites several interesting studies)  have proven that people are more prone to cheating and stealing when they no longer believe in free will. It would seem that with choice there is responsibility to make the morally correct choice. When I hear moral, I still think of God. When relieved of this oversight that is implied by choosing carefully (God is watching), one is now free to do just whatever seems most self-serving. The illusion of free will carries with it the illusion that someone really cares what happens. If we can just ignore God, as this seems to be the popular/secular thing to do today, why not just dial back the moral responsibility as well? In fact, we probably are not shocked when we read in that same June issue of The Atlantic, that only 2% of Donald Trump’s claims are true, according to PolitiFact. No one seems to care either.

So, back to Thomas. He faces very difficult decisions. He is alone in the world. He still has respect for his strict father, but he is no longer in his life. What is implied is this: Mr. Rodney listens to me and cares about what happens. And what If Thomas fails to complete the concrete finishing course; what next? It would seem his choice is not free. There certainly are determinants here. The drug scene still beckons. Maybe all his decisions (and ours) are determined even before we leave the womb. I would agree, Mr. Cave, there are no free choices.

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