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Are We Puppets on Strings? Science, Scripture, and the Free Will Debate

Ancient Wisdom | Modern Minds

Exploring Psychology in the Bible, Week Three

January 21, 2024

Rev. David Collins

Today we’re talking about free will, whether or not it really exists, and what that means for us psychologically, and spiritually. But first, a joke!

A Calvinist arrived at the Gates of Heaven. He sees that there are two lines going in. One has a sign that reads "predestined," and the other, "free will". He naturally heads to the predestined line.

While waiting, an angel comes and asks him "Why are you in this line?"

He replies, "Because I chose it."

The angel looks surprised, "Well, if you 'chose' it, then you should be in the free will line."

So our Calvinist, now a little miffed, obediently wanders over to the free will line.

Again, after a few minutes, another angel asks him, "Why are you in this line?"

He says, "Someone made me come here.”

Free will isn’t always so easy to parse out, is it? We do some things because we’re told to. We do some because of nature and nurture, how we were raised and what our brains are like because of our DNA. Most of our actions are automatic in one way or another, coming from our  unconscious mind. But still, if one idea is central to psychology and to scripture, it’s that people choose and have at least partial responsibility for their own actions. Our choices set the course of our lives. A big part of our faith is the belief that we will be judged one day for them.

A lot of people have a problem with that! I mean, I’m not super excited about it either. But lots of people think that’s a really unfair thing that we believe. I was listening to one comedian who had a bit about the final judgement and said, “Yeah, I know I did a lot of bad stuff, but YOU MADE ME! Isn’t this on YOU? It would be like if I made a car, and the car didn’t work right, so I said to the car, “I’m gonna burn you for eternity!” No, I would say, Is there gas in your tank? Do you have enough oil?”

And he has a point! And it’s the first side of this debate we’re going to look at today. The term that psychologists and philosophers use for this idea is Determinism. "Determinism" is basically the idea that everything that happens, including all our choices and actions, is already set in stone because of things that happened before. It's like saying every event, big or small, is just the end result of a chain of previous events or situations.

Robert Sapolsky, Stanford University professor of biology, neurology, neurological science, and neurosurgery, in his new book Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, makes the case that free will is an illusion.

He’s not the first to say this, but he backs it up with recent scientific findings. Basically, he believes our brain biology, like hormones and neurotransmitters, drives all our actions, not some inner sense of self.

Sapolsky admits life isn't totally predictable, but he's convinced that biology, not personal choice, shapes our lives. The common sense model of choosing—the brain consciously considers a problem, decides, and directs the body to act—was invalidated long ago. The more likely scenario is that the brain decides intuitively and emotionally and then rationalizes the decision after.

In Christian theology, we call that idea, Total Depravity, and most of the time I can’t help but believe it’s true. Just look at the world! Look at how messed up things are and how hopeless everyone is to change it! Look at our politics and how all anyone seems to care about is the letter next to a candidates name. Or look at yourself, when you’re in the same room as your favorite temptation. You just can’t help it, can you? And sometimes you literally can’t! Like if you have something going on with your thyroid gland, your appetite is not something you can exercise free will over.

The Bible talks about it like this:

Jeremiah 10:23 “I know, O Lord, that the way of human beings is not in their control,    that mortals as they walk cannot direct their steps.”

That’s not a judgement, it’s a fact.

Later in Jeremiah it gets a little judgmental though, in 17:9 it says, “The heart is devious above all else;  it is perverse—  who can understand it?”

And in Romans 3:10-12, it says, as it is written:

‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one;

11  there is no one who has understanding,       

 there is no one who seeks God.

12 All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;    

there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.’

That is true about us, isn’t it? When we choose to do wrong, it feels like we just can’t help it. And even when we choose to do good, sometimes it feels out of our control as well.

But also, maybe we just use that feeling as an excuse? A study at the University of Minnesota seemed to confirm that about us. Prof Kathleen Vohs designed an experiment on her students to see how belief in free will affected their choices. It was a simple experiment, and I think it’s pretty neat. Students answered 15 test questions, then self-scored and took a dollar per right answer. But half of the students, before they took the test, first read statements describing free will as an illusion. Guess which group self-scored themselves higher? The ones who read there was no free will took home 27 percent more money.

The Case for Free Will

I read about another psychological study that demonstrated the nature of free will. In this study, they took 67 students at Case Western Reserve University and had them work alone on the tedious task of tracing geometric figures for as long as they could--while a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies sat nearby.

Students who were allowed to sample the cookies before beginning the work spent an average of 19 minutes tracing before giving up. But those who were told to ignore the cookies altogether spent only eight minutes on the task before quitting. Resisting the snack left them with less self-discipline to continue working.

So maybe it’s not that free will doesn’t exist, but that it’s biological like everything else. It’s a scarce resource, and easily depleted. We tend to think of thoughts, words and feelings as these ephemeral spirits, but they’re all chemicals in the brain. And the brain can get tired. Some of our brains get tired pretty quick!

But saying that free will is biological isn’t a case against it! Instead, we’re just describing what it’s really like. Thought is a biological process. Same with emotion and learning. These processes change the brain. We don’t decide directly via words, thoughts, or feelings. It’s a  biochemical process. If it changes, our choices may change too. Somewhere in all that is how consciousness comes to be.

Consciousness is still in the category of things we don’t fully understand yet. But I don’t think anyone would claim it doesn’t exist. But it is biological. Just like everything else.

What’s difficult is parsing out where free will begins. Some things are so hardwired into us, or become so hardwired because of brain chemicals, that it’s not quite right to describe some choices as free will. For instance, someone who is addicted to drugs may have made a free choice once, but now that they are addicted, they aren’t nearly as free as they once were, if at all. That’s why the 12 step process is so consuming.

When we talk about free will from a Biblical perspective, it’s a little different from what it means in our culture. When we talk about freedom in the public sphere, we mean the freedom to literally do whatever you want, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. But when the Bible talks about freedom, it means our freedom to do what’s right, our freedom to love. Which can feel like the opposite of what freedom means in general parlance. In American, freedom means the freedom to be a jerk. But in the Church, it means the freedom to love like Jesus. Which when you feel like you want to be a jerk, doesn’t feel like freedom so much as it feels like an obligation.

We don’t classify every choice as a free choice.

In Genesis 2:16-17,

16 …the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

Notice which action is called “free” here. Since we’ve been so conditioned to associate the word freedom with the freedom to be bad, this doesn’t sound right to our ears does it? But from a Biblical perspective, when we sin, we aren’t acting freely. We are acting like slaves to sin.

This is what the Apostle Paul was talking about in Galatians 5, where he wrote:

Galatians 5:1 “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Without our faith, it’s much more difficult to delineate when we are acting freely and when we are just living as slaves to our passions, to our unconscious, to our nature and our nurture. It’s an incredible paradox and that’s how we can know that it’s true. God gives us true freedom, but it makes us slaves to righteousness.

It's not about just doing whatever pops into your head. It's about begin able to choose a path that aligns with something bigger and better – like the teachings of Jesus. It's about living life with a purpose, guided by love, kindness, and doing the right thing.

The paradox in all this is that eventually it stops feeling like a choice. It feels like a compulsion, like you DON’T have a choice, and that’s a more genuine kind of freedom. Sure, from the outside it might seem like we're giving up the freedom to do as we please, but what we gain is more valuable. We're not just reacting to things anymore; we're making choices that have real meaning and goodness to them.

Faith gives us the ability to choose a life that's about more than just our momentary wishes or what's easy, or what everyone else seems to want. And that, we believe is what free will really is. Free will doesn’t make us our own gods. It gives us the desire to love and serve the one who actually is God.

Further down in Galatians, it says,

Galatians 5:13 “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

In other words, you have been given freedom. You have been given a truly free will, quite unlike the one you used to think you had, which in practice wasn’t really free at all. So take this actually free will and use it to become a slave to one another, use it to be a servant of love.

Sometimes free will feels like determinism and sometimes being a slave to sin feels like free will. The feeling while making the choice isn’t what determines if the choice was freely made. The choice itself does. Our faith says that the choice to do good, to love, is the one made with a free will, and the choice to be selfish, to sin, was made without it.

This does’t just describe our nature. It describes God’s nature, and what the image of God that we are made in really means.

Frederick Buechner puts it like this, in a sermon that is printed in his book, ‘The Magnificent Defeat”. He writes.

“Because God's love is uncoercive and treasures our freedom - if above all he wants us to love him, then we must be left free not to love him - we are free to resist it, deny it, crucify it finally, which we do again and again. This is our terrible freedom, which love refuses to overpower so that, in this, the greatest of all powers, God's power, is itself powerless.”
― Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

If God’s power in this world is powerless, and isn’t that what we see on the cross, there must be a very good reason for it. And there is.

It’s because

God wants us to do it.

God wants us to stop waiting around for inspiration and just get to work because we can. God doesn’t want us to be puppets on a string, but to have a truly free will. To be the ones who choose to love, who choose to care. This is an identity issue. This is about who you are…who you really are.

Are you the one waiting to feel it? Or are you the one who chooses?

What if you're faced with a difficult decision at work, one that challenges your integrity? Perhaps you're tempted to cut corners for the sake of convenience or pressure. If you don’t believe in free will, if you think you’re just a victim and that it’s all been determined already, you might just shrug and think, it’s not my choice. I’m just doing as I’m told.

This is where your faith steps in. It gives you the strength to choose the path of righteousness, not because it's easy, but because it’s right. Your choice, influenced by faith, transforms you from a puppet of convenience to a servant of integrity.

You are the one who chooses.

Or maybe in your personal life there’s a strained relationship that needs forgiveness. If there’s no free will, you’ll probably just do what feels right to the fiercest part of you and hold the grudge or seek revenge. But if you believe in free will, then your faith can nudge you towards forgiveness and reconciliation. This act of will, powered by faith, doesn't just change your relationship dynamics; it changes you, and frees you from the bondage of bitterness.

You are the one who chooses.

Or maybe here at church, or in your kid’s school, you’ve heard about a project that needs volunteers. You might feel indifferent, thinking someone else will step up. But if everyone feels that way, no one will. It takes free will to get past that inertia and realize that when “they” say we need people, that “Hey, I’m a person!” And sign up and show up. This choice, a blend of free will and divine inspiration, turns you from an observer to an active participant in our community.

Don’t wait to “feel like it”. Be the one who chooses. That’s who you really are.

Imagine the kind of community we could be if we all really leaned into this idea of free will.

Believing in free will, it's like saying we're not just going to float along with whatever's happening around us. We're not going to be like leaves blown around by the wind. Instead, we're going to be the ones who choose. Choose how we treat each other, choose what we stand for, choose the kind of community we want to be.

We're not just going to react to stuff. We're going to make things happen.

What if we were a community where everyone's actively choosing to look out for each other, to lift each other up, to be there in the tough times and celebrate in the good times. That's the power of believing in free will. It turns us from passive residents in a neighborhood to active creators of a community.

It's not about going with the flow. It's about being the flow. It's about being the ones who choose – choose to make a difference, choose to care, choose to connect. When we all start making these conscious choices, that's when our community transforms into something truly special. It becomes a place where everyone feels valued, everyone has a voice, and everyone belongs.

So, let's choose to be that kind of community. Let's choose to believe in our power to make choices – good choices, kind choices, loving choices.

In the words of Isaac Singer, "We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”

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