Since the Enlightenment days in the 18th century or even earlier, there has been a debate on whether free will actually exists or not. There are educated, scholarly people who do not believe in the existence of free will. There are esoteric, philosophical arguments on both sides that do not feel very practical to day-to-day existence. Based on my rudimentary understanding, one argument against free will seems to be that no one has the free will to chose or even think about unheard of things – you can’t think of a color that doesn’t already exist, or imagine an animal that isn’t already present in nature, or at least a made-up animal derived from parts of others animals in existence. No one has the free will to chose to be invisible, or start flying, or teleport themselves to Mars. It seems the definition at play here is ultimate free will – absolute freedom of choice via any and all conceivable and unconceivable possibilities.
But I would like to argue about the existence of free will within a more functional definition. The definition of free will I would like to discuss is the ability to have free will within the realms of possibility and scientific absolutes. So, I’m not talking about the lack of free will to grow myself wings, or even the ability to make a choice that isn’t psychologically primed in some way, but a more realistic approach to the question.
Do all humans really have free will, or only a favored few with privilege, power and resources? What about the person born enslaved two hundred years ago – they didn’t have the free will to leave, to eat as much as whenever they wanted to eat, to earn and spend money, to marry who they chose, to move, to keep their own children. Does the girl sold into sex trafficking have the choice to get out? Does she have any free will over the course of her life, as she’s fed drugs, moved around, kept disoriented and dependent on her pimp? I supposed you could say they have the will, but by no means the way. Those choices weren’t available to them to make, no matter how much they wanted them.
What about the free person not enslaved, but born into poverty. Do they have free will? Do they really have the choice to simply change their life, to work hard get a better education or a good paying job? If their only option for school is a poorly funded, burnt-out teacher graveyard with little chance for opportunity? If they can’t afford to move into a better district? Do people living in food deserts have the free will to eat healthily and lower their risks for all sorts of disease? Do the people living downwind of chemical pollution have the choice to breath clean air, to drink clean water, to eat from their garden without poisonous chemicals in the soil? Not everyone can afford to move or has connections to get a new job that could take them elsewhere into safer conditions.
Or taking the discussion out of the realms of poverty and enslavement – do I, as a middle class, very privileged white person in America – do I truly have the free will, practically speaking, to shop ethically? I care deeply about the people who make my clothes, and have done the research, and it is nearly impossible to find clothing that I can guarantee is ethically produced. Twenty-two percent of raw cotton used to make clothing worldwide is currently coming from China, where the Uyghur people are being essentially enslaved into the workforce. It is a human rights nightmare, and it touches almost all of our textiles. It is hard to even track that information and figure out where your favorite store gets their textiles from, let alone how they treat and compensate everyone involved in the process. I do not have the knowledge or time available to grow my own cotton, turn it into a usable product and make my own clothes, so I’m essentially dependent on what’s out there. And if the majority of what’s out there is unethically made, where’s my free will to chose otherwise? I do have the option not to buy new and benefit these greedy companies, which is how I’ve handled that particular issue, so I secondhand shop. And there are some companies that produce their goods in the USA only where we have tighter labor laws (but even some of them have been caught using China-made products in their line).
Likewise, do I have the free will to make food choices that aren’t laden with GMOs, additives, fertilizers, or have been artificially ripened? I would barely know how to track down the source of produce in my grocery store, contact the farm or company in charge, and ask them what chemicals, fertilizers and preservatives are used on my food each step of the way before it hits the grocery shelves, LET ALONE how to that for any processed food that comes in a box. And even if I knew how to go about doing that, I certainly don’t have the time to do that for every item I buy. Functionally speaking, I don’t have the time or knowledge to grow and produce all my own food. I can try to shop farmer’s markets and local farms, but the farmers markets don’t run in the winter, and I don’t know how or have time to can and preserve enough food for my whole family for the winter season. My choices are limited to what’s in the grocery store, even the natural ones, and I don’t get to have a say in how those products were grown, raised and treated. I am constantly putting things in my body that I would not chose to consume if given a true choice.
This feels disturbing to me not because it makes me feel like I’m living in the matrix, or am a puppet on a string, but because I used to use the argument of free will to explain suffering in the world. The only way I could conceive of a god who would allow such atrocious and horrific suffering in the world was if that god had decided that free will was an absolute right, and would not interfere in humanity’s free will at any cost, even when that free will caused some humans to chose evil and in doing so, cause enormous pain and suffering to others.
But if free will, practically and functionally speaking, on a day-to-day basis in the actual lives of humans, doesn’t really exist, then what does that mean about god? If what we really have is simply a small minority of people in power who have amassed wealth and influence, therefore getting to play chess with everyone else’s lives – where’s god? Or what is god’s role there?
I’m really asking and truly wonder what Christianity would say to this. I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. It’s one of the large fissures that’s shown up in my faith life recently that I don’t know how to handle. Currently, it’s pointing me away from the concept of an all-knowing, all-loving Being. If such a Being exists, and – according to the Christian Bible – is Love itself – how could that being allow such suffering without the gift of free will to all to explain it? How could that Being design a world knowing that a select few would rush to grab all the power and create misery and suffering for billions of people over the centuries? I would argue that Love couldn’t do that. At least, I know that if I had ultimate power and control over the physical universe, and was watching toddlers, young children, and families fleeing from war-torn countries, targeted and discriminated against, dying and being murdered in droves in attempts to cross deserts and seas toward the dangling promise of hope and safety in a foreign land – I would not be able to stand idly by.
And the scenario with a god who intervenes is equally problematic – if god can stop pain and suffering, then presumably god would do that all the time to the people god loves. So then why do so many good, honest, kind people suffer so deeply? And then we have to wrestle with questions of partiality – would god only help some and not others? Then we would all be striving to live perfect lives to be worthy of god’s help, which goes directly against Christianity’s message of scandalous and free grace for all.
If someone out there has an answer to all this, I would genuinely love to hear it. As it stands, I’m finding the God I grew up believing in very hard to get behind anymore.