June 2017: Free Will: True or False?

June 2017 Inter-Belief Conversation Café

Free Will: True or False?

Monday, June 19, 2017
7 – 9 p.m.
Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul
1671 Summit Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55105 (View Map)

Did you really decide when to get up this morning? Wasn’t the alarm clock set to get you to a needed appointment? Could you have canceled the appointment and slept in? How much control do we have over our lives? Do we make independent choices or are they determined for us by past actions, someone else’s agenda, forces of nature, and even a being greater than ourselves? Is it all determinism, all free will, or some combination of both? Is it as Jawaharlal Nehru claimed that life is like a card game; determinism is the cards we are dealt and free will how we play them?

Both theists and atheists can find themselves perhaps uncomfortably in the same camp. Some theists believe in predestination where God may have already decided what happens to us in our lives and whether we are saved or damned. Some atheists claim natural determinism where genes, evolution, and scientific principles mean no real choices. But some atheists are libertarians who say we are what we choose to be. Some believers say God even if all powerful vacated a space in which humans can determine their own destiny—even to reject God and live in Hell.

Does our common sense help us? Are there moments where it seems other people ruled our lives? Being born into wealth or poverty makes a major difference in the choices (if any) we have. Do we have any say in our race, our ethnic background, the country in which we are born and live, our strength, our intelligence, our good or bad looks, our proneness to addiction, or other factors that will impact the most important events of existence? Or do we see the roads taken and not taken, the moments of decision where we said yes or no to destiny, or just whether to have a burger, chicken, or go vegetarian for a meal? If it’s all predetermined, why thank someone for passing the mustard? They were going to do it anyway.

Is science a matter of rigid laws or a bit of chaos? Schrodinger’s cat was apparently both dead and alive. Only when a box was opened did it meow or smell bad. (Be reassured no felines were harmed in the thought experiment). Do Libet’s experiments show we make decisions without thinking or just that some tasks are routine and don’t require any cognitive action? Quantum physics says light and solids are both wave and particle. Chaos theory discourages weather prediction because even a fractional rounding off changes the whole result. What can we rely on?

Fearing death from tuberculosis, poet William Ernest Henley wrote “Invictus” as a statement of his right to decide:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

The lines were used by Winston Churchill during World War II, Nelson Mandela while imprisoned on Robben Island, and as an inspiration by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar-Burma in defying oppression. They were also the last words of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. After all if we have free will, we are the only ones deserving praise or blame for our choices.

On Monday, June 19 from 7-9 PM at Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, 1671 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, Inter-belief Conversation Café will try to decide (or has it been decided already) if free will is real or illusion and hope or menace. Agreements of open-mindedness, acceptance, curiosity, discovery, sincerity, brevity, and confidentiality will constrain us or liberate us. It has been determined that there will be treats!