The limits of Free Will

The limits of free will - by P.K.Odendaal - July 2013 

If you are still unsure whether you have free will, this is probably not for you, but read on - you just might be surprised. In previous articles I have elaborated on that and the gist of the argument is as follows:
Argument 1
God cannot make a mistake or error. I make mistakes and errors. I therefore do things for which only I am the author.


Argument 2
God created all kinds of creatures, but he created one specific kind of creature with which he could be friends and talk to. To be a friend and have an opinion which we may talk to God about implies that we have independent thoughts, and that we are not robots. The idea of having independent thoughts was framed by Descartes many centuries ago, and is incorporated in his adage: I think, therefore I am.


The problem however lies in the fact that we do not understand what free will means and how it works. Theoretically free will can be said to be infinite - there are no bounds to what I can think of or do. I can influence my destiny. I have free will whether I want it or not, whether I like it or not and whether I exercise it or not. In the words of Paul Sartre: We are condemned into free will. We can at any time take any decision without referring to our previous actions and decisions.
That is mostly true, but it is also a trap for fools. Our free will has limits. It is just the way we are. We are not omnipotent. And if we are not omnipotent, then there are things we cannot do, cannot think of, or cannot influence. That we all know - but what are the boundaries?
We might start at a very basic level. Let us say it is my intention, driven on by my free will, to change the trajectory of the earth around the sun. That I plainly cannot do, unless you believe in your horoscope. Not that it is impossible, or has never been done, but I need a lot of help with that one. So, I realise that I am not fully in control or allowed full control of my destiny and, with that, the destiny of other people. I am limited, although my own feelings are that these limits are not very small - we just do not know what our limits are, how to expand that or how to stretch that envelope. We are said to be able to move mountains - not that I have tried that either, but the Bible says it is possible.
On a more mundane level and an easier task, I might want to move my broken-down car to a place that I have chosen, according to my free will, where it can be fixed. I cannot push my car alone. I will need help.
And finally - to a very easy example - I wish to think about my next holiday. That I can do freely.
In between these we have a grey area. Firstly because we do not know what the limits of our free will or the limits of our own capacity is. And that is what is known as stretching the envelope. I can do more things tomorrow, than I did yesterday, for the simple reason that I tried new things today. But, of course, not too many people try new things today. It is also said that we limit ourselves by the limits of the things we can conceive.
George Bernard Shaw said:
  • You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, "Why not?"
  • Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.

Now let us call in some help.
I have this car to push to a place where it may be fixed. I call my neighbour, because he offered his help previously without thinking of the consequences - a thing you also did - I mean not thinking of the consequences. He says that he has a much better idea than you have - thinking of his second cousin who is unemployed and needs some money, but who has never fixed a car. You cannot refuse this help without dire consequences - so you accept his proposal and you are back at square one. Getting this car to move somewhere is somehow not within the ambit of your abilities at this stage, because your helper has decided otherwise. You have compromised your free will. And now you are a determinist.
Secondly, I have my child's birthday party on day X, and I do not want it to rain on day X. I believe God can help me - so I pray fervently to God to keep away the rain on day X. My neighbour however - no - not the same one fortunately - has planted a large tract of land with corn to feed his family. He needs rain urgently, otherwise they will starve. God sides on the part of the real needy, as He mostly does, and the rain he sends to the poor man's crop, will also cause rain on day X at my child's birthday. It cannot therefore stay dry on day X, even with the help of God.
In a more general sense, we are trapped in a three dimensional realm or domain, with limited abilities even in that realm or domain.
Are we going to say, like the determinists, that free will does not exist; that what will be will be? We will be refuting the very basis of our own quality of life and hope, and we will then have to carry that burden stoically.
It turns out then that I only have free will when I believe in it and when I use it. For other people it does not exist. Of course, I realise that my free will has limits, and I do not buy any book - out of free will - which has the name: 'Living a life without limits'. It is a dead giveaway that that author should not have resorted to writing books to confuse people, being confused himself.
It is no use sneering at a determinist because he does not believe in free will. For him it does not exist - I am what I think - and what I believe in.
I am a proponent of the idea that we live within our own consciousness, but not that we do not exist, like the Buddhists would have us believe - much rather like Descartes would have us believe.
As an example, I take the life of an object living in flatland - where they only have two dimensions. That object can only move forward and sideways. It can never even think of moving up or down - that option does not exist in its consciousness. However, we in three dimensional space, are more advanced and know that there exists a domain somewhere where objects can live in four dimensions, so our free will might have us aspire to enter that domain, however difficult that may be. In fact, I would think a séance is a desire to enter that domain; so is my aspirations to live in the spirit, but guided by the Holy Spirit. I cannot do it by myself like the people in séances try to do. I need help big time.
I find that my free will depends on my natural state as well as my spiritual state. I have serious physical bounds and not so serious spiritual bounds, and that is the reason we have this new notion of people who say they are spiritual but not religious - meaning nothing. We are all spiritual and lower forms of life like birds and trees are not.
Look how man has expanded his physical state in the past century. Previously he could only go to Paris, but now he can go to the moon. He has, however, remained stagnant in his spiritual state, and that is what severely hampered his thoughts on free will.
If I may repeat Shakespeare again (from Hamlet): 'Nothing in itself is bad, but thinking makes it so'. Thinking and faith was supposed to elevate us to the sphere of the gods, but unfortunately we only think about once or twice a year, as I pointed out in my previous article, and we almost never believe. We have become a race of skeptics.
This article is not complete without the dialogue between God and a Mortal (an extract) from 'The Mind's I' by Raymond Smullyan:

Mortal:   Tell me, since we mortals seem to have such erroneous views about your real nature, why don't you enlighten us? Why don't you guide us the right way?

God:      What makes you think I'm not?

Mortal:   I mean, why don't you appear to our very senses and simply tell us that we are wrong?

God:      Are you really so naïve as to believe that I am a sort of being which can appear to your senses. It would be more correct to say that I am your senses.

Mortal;   You are my senses?

God:      Not quite, I am more than that. But it comes closer to the truth than the idea that I am perceivable by the senses. I am not an object; like you, I am a subject, and a subject can perceive, but cannot be perceived. You can no more see me than your own thoughts. You can see an apple, but the event of your seeing an apple is itself not seeable. And I am far more than the seeing of an apple than the apple itself.

Mortal:   If I can't see you, how do I know you exist?

God:      Good question! How in fact do you know that I exist?

Mortal:   Well, I am talking to you, am I not?

God:      How do you know you are talking to me? Suppose you told a psychiatrist, "Yesterday I talked to God." What do you think he would say?

Mortal:   That might depend on the psychiatrist. Since most of them are atheistic, I guess most would tell me I had simply been talking to myself.

God:      And they would be right!

Mortal:   What? You mean you don't exist?

God:      You have the strangest faculty of drawing false conclusions! Just because you are talking to yourself, it follows that I don't exist?


Mortal:   All right, I'll grant your point! But what I really want o know is do you exist?

God:      What a strange question!

Mortal:   Why? Men have been asking if for countless millennia.

God:      I know that! The question itself is not strange; what I mean is that it is a most strange question to ask me!

Mortal:   Why?

God:      Because I am the very one whose existence you doubt! ... how can you possibly expect to obtain reliable information from a being about his very existence when you expect the non-existence of the very same being?

Mortal:   So you won't tell me whether or not you exist?

God:      I am not being willful! I merely wish to point out that no answer I could give you could possibly satisfy you.


Mortal:   Well, if you can't tell me whether or not you exist, then who possibly can?

God:      That is something which no one can tell you. It is something which only you can find out for yourself.

Mortal:   How do I go about finding this out for myself?

God:      That also no one can tell you. This is another thing you will have to find out for yourself.


Mortal:   Why did you say your expression was misleading?

God:      What I said was misleading in two respects. First of all it is inaccurate to speak of my role in the scheme of things. I am the scheme of things. Secondly, it is equally misleading to speak of my aiding the process of sentient beings attaining enlightenment. I am the process. The ancients (Taoists) were quite close when they said of me that I do no do things, yet through me all things get done. I am not the cause of the Cosmic process. I am the Cosmic process itself.


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