Sunday, December 20, 2009

Free Will and the Religious Tradition of Forgiveness

I'm often struck by how the disbelief in contra-causal free will seems to square up nicely with the sentiment of so many religious moral traditions. That is, "I am an agent of God, thus through Him I do my good work (while through the Devil I do evil). Your choices are simply the activations of (preordained?) Divine agency"

Of course this is an interpretation - but many for many pre-Cartesian traditions this is indeed the emphasis. You are an agent of the Almighty.

Now, say for a minute we simply substitute God for scientific materialism... Voila! "You are an agent of nature. Both your Good and Bad are manifestations of genetic and cultural evolution. Your choices are simply the activation of (determined?) natural agency".

I think religions evolved this construct as an insight into human behavior. We are silly animals. We do silly things. There is right and wrong: we desire what is "right", not what is "wrong". Yet we are HUMAN. We are frail and subject to forces beyond our control.

This tradition of religious interpretation is one of forgiveness, and a central narrative. In Hinduism it embodies the notion of Karma and reincarnation. In Christianity it embodies the redemption of Jesus' crucifixion. You are "free" to make any choice: but whatever you do will be ultimately determined by a grand play of Good vs. Evil.

And thus, if we simply replace the religious narrative with that of scientific materialism - nondogmatic and evidence-based as it is - we get the same ultimate insight: we are helpless to the greater forces at work; we are agents to its design. Fortunately for us, we are fancy humans with amazing brains that can do algebra and write poetry - nay, isn't our REAL luxury the ability to cure disease and defend against predators?

So our forefathers were on to something. They sensed it intuitively. They saw it when they played with their children; when they welcomed the grumpy neighbor in for tea; when they experienced the transcendent bliss of "letting bygones be bygones"; when they found humility. They just lacked a scientific means to place it in its true context. They were forced to invent a primitive scaffolding.

My naturalist outlook reminds me to be kind and patient, selfless and brave. It reminds me that I am merely a human caught up in a fantastic swirl of causal events. My choices and actions are nothing but manifestations of all that has come before. I do good because I was meant to do good.

If I were to choose differently it would be a lie - and yet one that I was meant to tell myself! But I do not. Nor do I stab myself with a knife. Why would I, as I do not desire pain. And as I am able to perform the mental geometry required to create a model of myself in others, neither do I stab them. I was created to seek out symmetry and harmony. And so I yearn for truth and justice. I vote accordingly. I speak accordingly. I think accordingly. I was determined to.

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