Free Will As Faith

Many people who criticize the idea of free will, will say that it implies randomness or chance as the phenomenon of choice.  William James embraced this in his essay on the dilemma of determinism.  Now, as I am embarking on my own personal leap of faith (which for me seems like a head first dive into the unknown), I find my thoughts wanting to return to this idea.  And I think I see some converging parallels between faith and my sense of what free will might be.

I have suggested before that free will may be the desire to take action in spite of a lack of an objective evaluation of what course is best.  If we objectively know what was best, we would surely do it.  Yet, how often do we really know what action is objectively best?  Ever?  Even deciding on what criteria to use in our evaluation seems difficult, and then to accurately measure all alternatives seems speculative if not impossible.  Yet, we desire to act anyway.  So, perhaps we arbitrarily pick some criteria, assume some measures, assign some weights, fake analysis, and act.  This may not be much better than randomness or chance, but it appears to be what we do most of the time.  We act on partial information based on arbitrary criteria.

Is faith so different?  Faith is somewhat subjective.  If faith were fully objective it would no longer be faith.  A desire to act based on partial information seems like a possible definition for either faith or free will.  Are the two so different?

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15 Responses to “Free Will As Faith”


  1. 1 Blake February 6, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Eric: “If we objectively know what was best, we would surely do it.”

    Eric, it would be nice if this is true, but I don’t believe that it is. We are free to be irrational. Indeed, that is often the essence of sins — We do something even though we know it is wrong.

  2. 2 J. Max Wilson February 6, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    My father has sometimes defined Faith as the ability to make correct decisions with insufficient information. That seems to be somewhat similar to what you are saying.

  3. 3 Eric Nielson February 6, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Blake:

    You may well be right, but when we sin, do we not feel like we might gain from it? The great secret – that one can kill and get gain. Is being irrational different from a lack of objectivity?

    But I think I do agree with you. More knowledge will not necessarily remove sin from our lives.

    J: Thanks. I do think there is a connection here, I am just not ready to articulate it well.

  4. 4 Sean Peterson February 6, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    Eric: I think you are on to something. Perhaps everyone lives by faith to one degree or another, whether they realize it or not. Most people base their decisions on their “best judgment.” I believe that faith plays at least a small role where there is any degree of uncertainty.

  5. 5 Eric Nielson February 6, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Right Sean. And I wonder if this willingness and desire to act on faith (or partial information) is what free will is. And how we justify our action might be the phenomenon of choice.

    Also, did you read my career change posts? I thought you might like those.

    • 6 Sean Peterson February 11, 2012 at 4:27 pm

      You were correct. I enjoyed it immensely. It brought back many memories of my own career change. I was especially pleased to hear of your new position, and I would love to hear more of how that works out for you.

  6. 7 Jeff G February 7, 2012 at 12:14 am

    Blake,

    I’m curious what your thoughts are on the difference between choosing irrationally and simply behaving irrationally. It seems to me that when we make a decision, whatever reasons we had for deciding as we did were by our lights the best reasons. In other words, I’m not sure that we can really “choose” to be irrational. No doubt, we occasionally behave irrationally in many cases where we didnt really make a reasoned choice. Or might it be that at this point we are really just using the word “rational” differently?

  7. 8 Jamie Turner February 10, 2012 at 12:31 am

    I don’t think it’s irrational / random, I think it’s character/personality that decides. Take skiing – there’s a chance you’ll get hurt / die, a chance you’ll be fine, you don’t know how it will go until you do it, the choice to ski or not isn’t random though, it would be based on personality – how adventurous you are etc. etc. If everything is known, then the choice is based on external data. If it is uncertain, the choice is based on internal personality. The greater the unknown, the more your personality comes into play. (jmo)

  8. 9 Eric Nielson February 10, 2012 at 7:20 am

    So if the personality is a given, and determines choice, are we really free? Are we simply a given personality that is reacting in the only way it can to a given circumstance?

  9. 10 Jamie Turner February 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    We’re trapped by our personality… but then it is “our” own personality I guess. We are who we are, were, and always will be perhaps – God knows who we are and what we will do, we’re the ones who don’t yet know ourselves. I’m a determinist – I think the future is set in stone, that God knows how everything will turn out. I’m also in the free-will camp – to me free will is a separate entity from determinism, the difference between knowing and causing. I can know what will be on TV tonight – but that does not mean I’m in any way responsible for FOX news or anything – I didn’t take anyone’s free will away through reading the TV guide… so God knows, but does not cause – the point of free will is who causes it I think. We’re our own cause…

    Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be… Behold, here is the agency of man.. (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 93:29 – 31)

    the giant cause/effect web is at the root of free will, chicken or the egg, what is the original cause that is responsible for it all? “not created or made” – self-causal… our free will is evidence of our eternal nature I think… there’s more than just nature/nurture, we leave our neighborhoods, and disagree with our parents – we act, no just acted upon…. we’re more than just matter and energy following the laws of physics, we make our own laws…

    trapped by personality? thinking of the nature of God, that He is unchanging, but was once like man is, that there is no end to glory / love/ what eternal progression means… perhaps part of our personality includes the personality to learn and grow, the atonement means we don’t have to be trapped by ourselves….

    sorry for the long rant! I’ll stop now. Fun stuff to think about tho.

  10. 11 Eric Nielson February 11, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    Jaime:

    I think there must be more to free will than a simple lack of coercion. An absolutely known future would seem like sure evidence of a lack of any real free will.

  11. 12 Jamie Turner February 12, 2012 at 12:33 am

    You don’t think God knows everything? I think time is an illusion…

    …all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men. Alma 40:8

    that future/past/present are just different ways of looking at the same thing.

  12. 13 Jamie Turner February 12, 2012 at 12:48 am

    how do you define free will (if not the ability to act independently of coercion?) act vs. react… I always thought free will was the ability to act vs. being acted upon – a determinate matter of who determines the motion of the puppet strings… if our motions were indeterminate, then we would not be in control of our actions – indeterminate doesn’t seem like free will to me, seems like random chaos / no-will scenario… I could be misunderstanding it though.

  13. 14 Eric Nielson February 12, 2012 at 12:59 am

    If the future is absolutely known, then we can only behave in the way we are behaving. No other outcome is possible. We then only think we are free. We then are not much different from a rock, or a tree. Just because you are not coerced, does not mean you have libertarian free will. Nobody is forcing the rock to be a rock, but it is not capable of doing anything else. It is difficult to say how we can be held accountable for anything if we were not capable of doing anything else.

    Free will must have open options. It must contains something of the phenomenon of choice which is above our physiology and circumstances. If God knows the future absolutely, then it would be sure evidence that we have no free will. Because we could not choose otherwise.

  14. 15 Jamie Turner February 12, 2012 at 10:49 am

    I think I see your point, and I don’t want to be a Calvanist, but if God doesn’t know everything, then perhaps there is a better plan than the plan of salvation, perhaps He won’t win the final war, perhaps it will all turn out for vain… The future of rocks and people both set in stone, but rocks still don’t act for themselves – they are acted upon by eroding water, cracking ice… I think it’s ok to be deterministic if the root cause lies within… we are only trapped without the atonement…

    … I was once told about a future event in my life that came true… I know that some prophecies come true, while others don’t – the conditional nature of it all, but even that could be argued against (at least I sometimes use idle threats with my kids)…I’ll have to think about it some more…


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