Soft determinism, or compatibilism, is the belief that while we all have an ability to make choices in life, the choices we make will always ultimately have been determined by genetic and environmental factors that have shaped who we are. It just feels like a kind of personal freedom. As Schopenhauer famously wrote, "Man is free to do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills". As we learn and grow, our sphere of choice, or agency, expands or contracts, depending upon experiences. So, for instance, a self-reflective insight into one’s psychodynamic tendency to allow others to take advantage of oneself because of a history of ill-treatment by family members might enlarge one’s freedom, in the sense that in the future, this new consciousness will allow one to make choices that were before unknown. Or, in an opposite instance, a traumatic experience involving a breaking of trust between close friends might cause one to become overly skeptical of the motives of future acquaintances, and thus reduce one’s sphere of choice.
There are of course countless interpretations of the various religious doctrines. Yet what all religions have in common is their primary concern with the moral behavior of man. That is, they are concerned with right and wrong, good and evil. What they offer, their own unique claim, is a path towards moral righteousness. This assumes, at least, the conscious ability of man to make a moral choice.
This is not necessarily at odds with determinism. In the Eastern religions, where the concept of karma is the basis for reincarnation, one’s soul is on a journey towards ultimate enlightenment. Built into this notion is the idea that the Earthly experience, through which souls continuously cycle, is the plane of consciousness wherein souls will incarnate bodies in order to grow and ultimately transcend them. Implicit in this dynamic process is the idea that no soul should ever be able to go through this journey in a single lifetime, much less any given moment, when a choice is required for action. Because in doing so, there would be no point to the soul’s journey to begin with. The journey is thereby deterministic, in that a process of cause and effect is continuously occurring, such that each choice will have been influenced by the process of having grown and experience prior choices. This process of learning from and being influenced by the past is embodied in the concept of karma. The choices that we make become actions, which then have effects in the world which in turn inform our future choices.
Reincarnation, like any religious framework for morality, is a closed system. It is a natural law, an inescapable reality. One simply cannot step outside its boundaries – wherever that may be, depending on the religion. In the Judeo-Christian universe, the soul has but one incarnation, and one life in which to learn obey the religious teachings, moral and otherwise. This makes the concept of determinism more difficult. Unlike reincarnation, where the soul has in theory an infinite number of lifetimes to “get it right”, so to speak, emphasis is placed on the individual’s moral choices within one lifetime. This makes the logistics of learning and growth much more difficult.
One way that this problem is solved is by foregoing the notion of cause and effect almost entirely, at least in terms of moral justification. Moral questions are framed not in terms of a connection between the soul and an Earthly plane, where actions have real consequences, but between the soul and God himself. One does not necessarily follow moral law in the context of an Earthy cycle in which bad deeds create bad, while good creates good, and thus one’s actions are accountable – maybe integral – to a harmony in the universe. Instead, one’s actions are judged in relation only to whether or not they are morally correct. One does not do good in order to receive good, or so as not to spread evil in the world, but simply to follow the word of God as spoken.
The various Judeo-Christian faiths differ of course in their views on ultimate judgment and eternity. But they are unified in their monotheism, and their conception of the soul as having one lifetime within which to achieve moral righteousness. This has the effect of “upping the ante” on each choice, placing onto it the full weight of eternal consequence. (Having been raised in a quasi-Hindu family, I remember well my mother’s wry response to my expression of skepticism towards the faith, “That’s OK, son. You always have your next life to find the right path.”) So within reincarnation, enlightenment is inevitable. But within Judeo-Christianity, there simply is not the time to “get right with the Lord”, as it were. And in most popular sects, failure to choose correctly directly results in some form of eternal damnation and penance. There would seem to be no stronger opposition to determinism than the idea that one would spend an eternity in hell for a choice made in life. This would seem to preclude all such Judeo-Christian faiths from determinism, compatibilist or not.
So what Judeo-Christian interpretations would be compatible with a determinist view? A good place to start would be as far away from anything like eternal damnation as possible. Likewise, one must also avoid the concept of eternal reward, or heaven. A determined choice would mean that the moral consequences of the religion must not exist as ends unto themselves. For if a soul’s fate has already been determined, then what sense is there in rewarding or punishing it for something it had no choice but to do? If the goal is merely to pass a test of obedience, the idea that the will to choose is not really free would make the test meaningless.
In the Eastern concept of reincarnation, the act of choosing would be compatible with morality because it is process-oriented, not result-oriented. That is, by going through the process of spiritual awakening, lifetime after lifetime, the soul gradually finds itself in something like unity with the spiritual universe. To achieve sudden enlightenment would not only be impossible, but it would defeat the internal logic of reincarnation.
Something like this can be found in Judeo-Christian religions. If the emphasis is placed on the process of living, in that there is learning to be had, then it would not ultimately matter if we were to have been determined. If “getting right with God” does not mean merely following a linear set of rules so as to earn eternal salvation, but instead to open one’s consciousness to a higher reality and experience of the “divine”, then a soul could be entirely determined yet still able to fulfill it religious destiny.
If religion is compatible with determinism, there are still many questions to ask. For instance, why would some souls be destined for such short lives of seeming misery, in which little is learned? Why are other souls allowed to live lives of sheer ignorant bliss? Yet these are questions that must remain within each faith, asked and answered by those who accept that particular universe. From an outside perspective, the question is one of finding common ground, and whether it is possible that the ways in which we are all trying to find our own paths in life might overlap in more ways than we might assume.
Scientific materialism cannot help but find more and more evidence of a determined world. And the study of the human mind will undoubtedly be no different. We know more about the ways in which we are determined, or at least limited and stimulated, than ever before. This will increasingly place science at odds with those for whom the idea of a determined life clashes against ancient traditions, philosophical and religious assumptions. There will no doubt be gaps that remain forever unclosed. But we may find that instead of gulfs between us, they lie only at our side, and our paths point towards the same horizon.