Free will or predestined


Reasons people act as they do are difficult to determine and judge. Are actions due to personal decision, or predetermined by forces beyond one’s control? Or, the parallel scientific question, does heredity or environment determine a person’s freedom, ability and actions?

Perhaps individuals have free will to act. Each person acts to reach specific, private goals. The poem Invictus states, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” For some, like Nelson Mandela, that encourages sustained struggle against evil. Others make prideful claims that success, wealth, health, intellectual attainments result from their own efforts. Unfortunately, many make harsh judgments that those lacking such benefits do not deserve assistance. They get what they deserve.

Predestination explains that outside forces or fate determine what happens to individuals and groups. Somerset Maugham’s Appointment in Samarra recounts a Babylonian parable: A Baghdad merchant sends his servant to the market where he is terrified by the angry face of Death. He flees on the merchant’s horse to Samarra. The merchant confronts Death at the market and asks why Death had threatened the servant. Death replies: “I did not threaten him! I was surprised to see him here because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

Other hypotheses are possible. The universe is random and indifferent without rhyme or reason. Little meaning exists in human events beyond transitory pleasure. So, “eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow you die!” Or, not a dichotomy of  “either/or,” but “this/and … and … and ...” Or, what happens to an individual in this life and endless future lives results from actions in previous lives (karma). It is wise to examine carefully the foundation stones on which one builds.

Worldviews structure our experiences, sometimes expressed in religious terms. C.S. Lewis suggested one option: “If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata — of creatures that worked like machines — would hardly be worth creating.”

Free will implies two abilities: first, to think and reason; second, to make decisions about what is true to believe and what is good to do. Humans are instinctually deprived, so must have these two abilities more advanced than other creatures to survive and thrive. Those craft us as responsible moral creatures. Perhaps this is what being made “in the image of God” means.

Humans are imperfect, not divine; nor is any created thing. We are all finite and live in a finite world, caught always in a moral quandary between good and evil. We are free to embrace worldviews that promote flourishing, or those that harm ourselves and others.

Many powers might limit individual freedom, but never eradicate it. Whatever one’s rational and moral ability, three revised Warren Buffett guidelines are prudent. (1) Inner directedness, or what some call a healthy ego, based on a positive worldview enables one to withstand outside pressures that produce unhealthy and unproductive attitudes and actions. (2) Select good mentors exhibiting character, wisdom and good sense, and associate with people better than oneself — pathways toward life, not death. (3) Integrity and protecting one’s good reputation inspire good people to trust and collaborate. Then, together we might do more good than evil.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.


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