Free Will

What follows is an extract from Part 2 of The Philosophy of a Mad Man by Steven Colborne…

Have you ever wondered about the distinction between the things that you are doing, and the things that are simply ‘happening’?

Let us look at this distinction in terms of our common experience.

As I write this sentence, I would say certain things are ‘just happening’.  My heart is beating, blood is flowing through my veins (I presume) and my nails and hair are growing (albeit rather slowly).  These are all things that I say are happening to me.  On the other hand, I might say that I am typing, I am drinking this cup of tea, I am looking at the clock.  Those are things that I am doing.

So what makes us draw this distinction?  I believe it amounts to an association of ‘I’ with the body that I witness, for instance, when I look down.  When this body is interacting with something, like picking up a pen, or kicking a football, we class this as an activity that I am doing.  Conversely, the things that are ‘happening’ relate either to the inner workings of the body or to things ‘out there’ in the world at large.

But need we draw this distinction?  If we take away for a moment the idea that I am the body, aren’t both processes that I am doing, and those that are happening, similar in their activeness and in the sheer fact that they are going on?

Consider the following questions:

What is causing me to grow?  (internal)
What is causing the tree to grow?  (external)
What is causing the football to be kicked?  (action)

The scientist might answer the above questions in terms of distinct cause and effect processes.  But as we have already seen, there are always an infinite number of causes contributing to the action of what we perceive to be one event.  What really caused the football to be kicked?  Was it the movement of my leg?  Was it an impulse in the brain telling my leg to move?  Was it my arrival at the football pitch?  One could go on to describe an infinite number of causes, but the truth is that it happened quite spontaneously!

The answer to our questions, it would seem clear, is that the same being, the same force, is animating all things simultaneously in this moment.  After all, the tree and the football and I exist within the same consciousness.  The changing agent, the animating force, is God.  Because God is capable of doing an infinite number of things simultaneously, we see that all of the above actions can happen at the same time.

As an interesting aside, our use of language often contains clues to help us understand what is really going on.  We say “I acted wrongly”, or “you’re acting strange”, so even in our everyday language we are aware that we are like characters acting in a play.  This is the way it really is!  Whatever you ‘do’ is what God is doing through you.  He is the cosmic director, intimately involved with your every ‘act’ of free will.

In saying all of this, I am not denying that a sense of free agency does indeed present itself in our human experience.  There is a sense in which I do operate as though I am a free agent, making decisions and going about my business.  An attribute of God’s power is that He can cause us to believe not only that we are individuals in a separate world, but also that we are the ones doing everything!  This is bizarre when you think about it – I can raise my arm or nod my head, but I have absolutely no idea how I do it.  God only knows how – because God is doing it.

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  1. “The answer to our questions, it would seem clear, is that the same being, the same force, is animating all things simultaneously in this moment. After all, the tree and the football and I exist within the same consciousness. The changing agent, the animating force, is God. Because God is capable of doing an infinite number of things simultaneously, we see that all of the above actions can happen at the same time.”

    It is not clear to me that the same being or force is animating all things in this moment. Several, many, or a countless multitude of beings, or impersonal forces, could be animating all things.

    The tree, the football, and I exist within the same consciousness, but that does not preclude different things moving each. And while I am involved with the tree and the football, something else has been animating stuff in the next street, and in different galaxies.

    1. Thanks Simon. But when you take into account the coordinated interaction between things, there seems to be a single force at work. For example, in the case of an apple tree, it depends on the soil, the sunlight, the air, water and countless other contributing factors to make it grow. How is it possible for all of these factors to be coordinated? One could also talk of ecosystems, or of the interaction of human communities, as evidence of a single animating force. I doubt that I will be able to persuade you I am right, but I am convinced about this.

      1. Hi Steven,

        Apologies. I should have begun with a comment saying that this is a very fine site. Looks good, lots of thought-provoking material; a real labour of love and I hope to return for as long as I am welcome!

        I guess I would respond to your point about the coordination by saying that sometimes things look coordinated, and sometimes the reverse. Creatures destroying one another, for example. Whichever way the universe was ordered, it might look like coordination, I suppose, but that is different from there actually being a coordinator.

        Ultimately, I can’t believe what you do, but I respect your conviction. You probably have had insights that I haven’t.

      2. Hi Steven, I found a comment you had made at M&M’s blog and followed it up. Seeing you had a post on “freewill” a favourite hobbyhorse I’ve mine I thought I’d have a read.

        You said to Simon (I think) I doubt that I will be able to persuade you I am right, but I am convinced about this. When I read this I thought of your other post ” A leap too far:” Isn’t what you are saying here just what those at Hillsong were saying? That we are finite, that our knowledge is limited, that we have to make decisions based on that finitude, and given these things most of our decisions are in the final analysis somewhat of a leap? I think this merely illustrates that even with the most careful argumentation and analysis there is always the room for the element of risk in our decision. But there is a world of difference between making a decision without any substantial evidence and making a decision based on the best critical analysis of the evidence we can muster. Atheists argue continually that the Christian “leap of faith” is a blind leap which apologists will strenuously disagree with. I agree with much of what you said based on my own experience of a lot of pentecostal type churches where I have worshipped for many years but I will address that issue in that post.

        1. Hi Kerry. Thanks so much for following up my comment on M&M’s blog, for visiting my blog, and for leaving your thoughts.

          Please forgive me if I am misinterpreting your comment, but you seem to be saying that my belief in God (as expressed in my Free Will post) is a leap of faith. I can only respond by saying that God is as real to me as having a body, if not more so. If you told me to give you evidence that I have a body I would point to it, and so with my discussions about free will I am pointing to God in the same way. It really is obvious to me that God exists, but unfortunately, the most ardent atheists will accept no argument for this. I didn’t used to think there was a God, but my life experience and day to day experience of God has shown me otherwise.

          Thanks again, best wishes, Steven.

  2. I am most grateful for your comments, Simon! Please do keep coming back, you are very welcome.

    I have just been writing about the way that humans experience both highs and lows, bliss and depression, because the range of emotions are a reflection of the way God Himself feels. Can you imagine being eternally alone? Maybe that is something God has to contend with, and so the fear and loneliness humans can feel is a purposeful reflection of God’s own suffering. The way that this relates to your point is that maybe God creates disorder and chaos (and creatures killing one another) to reflect a part of Himself that is disordered and chaotic? Suffering can seem pointless, but it makes more sense that we should suffer if God suffers as well.

    Anyway, we can agree to differ in our views. Thanks again for your thought-provoking contributions.

  3. from your comment replying to Kerry

    If you told me to give you evidence that I have a body I would point to it, and so with my discussions about free will I am pointing to God in the same way

    This is a little bit comparing apples to oranges though isn’t it? If we were in the same room and I wanted proof that you have a body it would be evident. Unless I wanted you to prove that we are not in something like the matrix and you are a computer program or something. But if we are talking about the reality that we are experiencing, you have a body that we can point to as evidence. (although we are talking through the internet so I suppose this could be a Turing test 🙂
    Your discussions about free will pointing to a god seem like a very different thing than pointing to your body as evidence of your body. For example, it seems to me that it is reasonable for someone to challenge your ideas about God, but it is not reasonable to challenge that your body is real.

    From the post

    One could go on to describe an infinite number of causes, but the truth is that it happened quite spontaneously!

    I’m not sure I really understand what you mean here when you say spontaneously. If you are talking about the brain impulse that causes you to kick the ball I think I am on board. Our thoughts do seem to just happen in a way that feels spontaneous. But do you also mean things outside of this? Like for example, suppose the football I kicked hits a tree and bounces off of it. Is there a sense in which the way the ball bounces is spontaneous, or is that just a simple matter of physics?
    I think I am misunderstanding you, I hope my questions make sense

    1. In response to your first point, the point I was trying to make is that God is as real to me as having a body. You say it is evident that I have a body, I say it is evident that there is a God. But if you have had no experience or revelation of this reality then I’m not surprised you’re sceptical about it. Your body feels real to you because you believe strongly in it, and God feels real to me because I believe strongly in Him. You would need to experience God for yourself. My post on free will is intended to help people to realise that God exists by pointing to some things that demonstrate God’s reality, though clearly it isn’t going to work for everyone! There is no persuading some people. All you can do is say “here is some evidence, take a look”. I don’t believe anyone will ever come up with a satisfactory theory about free will that doesn’t include God, because I am quite sure there is a God who acts in the way I describe.

      In relation to your second point, I believe things happen spontaneously because God is doing them. Kicking a ball isn’t the result of a mechanical process, it is the result of God controlling my movements in the same way that a puppeteer controls a puppet. So everything is spontaneous because God has complete free will.

      I hope that makes some kind of sense.

      1. I see what you are saying when you say you God feels real to you, but it is somehow different than having a body. I can (in theory) see your body, we could shake hands and I can literally feel you. When you say you feel the presence of God it means something different than when I say I feel your hand. When you say it is evident that there is a God, it seems to me that it is different than being evident that you have a body. I doubt anyone would seriously doubt you have a body, but people doubt God exists all the time. That alone should demonstrate that they are quite different thing.

        On to the second point, I think I understand but let me restate to see for sure. When I kick the football, it happens spontaneously because God is controlling me. On the other hand, when the ball bounces off of the tree, that is just physics. Once I am out of the equation and it is just a few inanimate objects bouncing around is there any sense that you would say that is also spontaneous? If I’m understanding you correctly the answer to that question will be no 🙂

        1. Thanks for your questions – I am happy to try and answer them.

          Of course experiencing God and experiencing the body are not EXACTLY the same, but I wasn’t saying that, I was merely drawing an analogy. I strongly believe that God is real in the same way that you strongly believe you have a body. Like I said, God is as real to me as my body. But you don’t get that because you don’t experience God. We are now repeating ourselves so I will say no more on this point.

          Regarding the second point, I believe ALL action is God’s action. What appears to be ‘the laws of physics’ is God choosing to act in a certain way. Therefore, it’s not just me kicking the ball, but also what happens to the ball afterwards, that is the result of God’s animating action in the world.

  4. Hi Steven!

    I suppose I look for empirical evidence to guide me on my sense of reality. David Eagleman provided information, including some experiments that showed considerable consistency in the decisions of his subjects, despite their differing and very personal concepts of themselves. Below is just one link:

    I bought an Oximeter to check the Oxygen saturation levels for my mother. When I tried it on myself, I was disappointed by how low my levels were compared to my sister. This automatic breathing process can be altered by conscious thought. I found myself breathing more deeply to raise the readings. Also, free divers have trained themselves to stay under water, without aid, for much longer than most people, which goes against their natural impulses to breath.

    I see the contradictions in the Bible as empirical evidence that God does not have the full capacity of all the attributes we presume Him to have. God seemed to exhibit anger and disappointment to Adam and Eve, according to the Genesis account, when they are purported to have eaten the forbidden fruit. Where was His omniscience then? Also, if we have our being within Him, (Acts 17:28) why was Christ purported to have said of Judas Iscariot,

    English Standard Version –

    “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”?

    This is the link from Matthew:

    It doesn’t stack up and I’m more inclined to look at the empirical evidence than to be an apologist.

    Every blessing to you.


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