philosophy, religion

Free Will, Science and God

I’m sure I’ll be repeating this theme a number of times over the years, but there’s a problem with the way that humanistic, atheistic, or science-minded people often act.

It’s a specific argument: “Religion is coercive. It explains the universe as being at the whims of a capricious god”.

That’s a fair argument for a lot of faiths. It’s not the imagination of any religious person worthy of the name, though. Imagining a benevolence to the universe doesn’t mean imagining that that benevolence is restrictive and coercive. In fact, it means the opposite.

See, many religions have one exception for the whims of the gods: Free will.

It’s actually one of the cultures we have most closely emulated in the West, the Greeks, that advanced a fatalism that binded the universe, even their gods. The Greeks believed that Fate was a power even Zeus had to bend to. The masters of the sea, the sky, and the afterlife still were controlled by fate.

So too did the Nordic peoples believe that Ragnarok or Gotterdammerung (the death of the gods) was inevitable. Even Thor and Odin would die against their nemeses.

When we’re talking about “God”, what we’re often talking about is the nature of the cosmos. And this is one of those easy areas of overlap between science and religion.

So in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the ability of people to choose, to venerate God or not to, to follow their own path that might go against the preferences of the creator, is a crucial piece of doctrine. It’s an important philosophical idea that runs throughout nature.

Of course, it’s scientifically quite likely (and seems in fact almost certain) that there’s more things in the universe that are not deterministic than the human will, derived from the human brain. And it’s even possible that human beings are more deterministic than we’d like to believe.

But the point here is that many scientific understandings are exactly as ideologically coercive as religious ones.

It’s easy for smart people with a mathematical or engineering mindset to think of the world as a nice, clean, neat machine. Everything fits in its place. There’s rules that govern it.

The only problem is that that mentality rarely works well with people.

So both religion and science have the ability to advance a notion of the universe as a whole where the parts don’t matter. Both religion and science can end in the conclusion that people are just machines puttering along, no different from a wind-up toy.

And it’s possible to believe in a God that loves freedom. After all, any good parent wants their child to be free, happy and to grow on their own merits. In fact, a truly great God (and one that would be uncomfortably compassionate for many Christians) would want Its children to exceed and succeed it.

Maybe the biggest problem is when we reduce incredibly complex belief systems to singular ideas. From Newtonian mechanics and the Enlightenment worldview on the side of secularism to the ideas of the Dreamtime or various Christian conceptions of the universe such as the gnostic idea of the universe being a locus of corruption, they’re big paradigms with lots of moving parts.

So maybe we should try to let people have the mix of ideas that work for them instead of pretending that there’s some simple one-to-one correlation between a complicated belief system and simplistic outcomes.

Certainly, let’s embrace the idea that human beings can be greater than the sum of their parts, and try to expand the amount of freedom we have to choose and to create.

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6 thoughts on “Free Will, Science and God

    • arekexcelsior says:

      I agree, but I’m not. I’m making a neutral assertion. “Engineer” isn’t a pejorative term. But to say, “Engineers often are introverts who struggle to empathize with people and thus often try to force people into a restrictive mold”, that is making an assessment, true or not, that is fair.

      Science is absolutely the way for us to honestly explore the universe and understand the cosmos. But fetishizing it as the only mechanism for comprehending our lives is the resort of people who want to shield their emotions using rationality.

      • arekexcelsior says:

        I would hope that a careful view not only of this piece but all of my extensive backlog where I try repeatedly to be a very careful social scientist and scholar would suggest that 🙂 . These next two months, I am trying for the brief and the accessible. “Science-minded” was a category that I didn’t want to use pejoratively but I felt captured some people who may not literally be atheistic or agnostic but let their desire to dissolve the universe down to equations or predictable mechanisms lead them to dismiss the humanity of people. The point of the piece was to emphasize that both science and religion, improperly applied through bad ideas, can lead to nightmarish outcomes. That doesn’t exonerate religion or science, it just indicates that the problem is having a bad paradigm of thought.

  1. Very even handed. Extremely open. If the liminal realm exists with a being with unlimited abilities and knowledge, then we have no standard with which we can test His existence. It is like measuring infinity with a yardstick.

    • arekexcelsior says:

      Thank you! I try to be even-handed to all sides on issues like this. My goal as a Buddhist with beliefs in a Spinozan/Einsteinian spirit of the universe that is the sum of the system of things is to promote cross-faith dialog. I think that the issue routinely gets so heated that the issue of everyone’s humanity is forgotten.

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