Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On Free Will

a contrapuntal essay

"The innermost truth of every epoch-making novel, whether tragic or comic, must always be the wrestling of the individual soul with fate; a wrestling which is bound to become sooner or later some kind of struggle between good and evil, between endurance and misery, between creation and destruction."

--John Cowper Powys, in Dostoievsky

A baby renders any discussion of free will absurd. A baby does not control his own body (he poops, he pees, he jerks, he moves his arm, without will or understanding) or his environment (why is he picked up or set down? Why is he taken to a particular place? Why is something put in front of his face?). Combine our total lack of will at the beginning of life with the inevitability of death, and if free will has any but a spiritual meaning, it is limited to some middle period of life, and thus only partly free.

But maybe that's why, as Dostoevsky's underground man says in Notes from the Underground says, humans have such a driving desire to prove they are not "sprigs on a barrel organ." In that book Dostoevsky suggests that humans will act against reason, even against their own best interests, in order to assert free will. Do we remember being babies? Is the memory of being moved about without will or understanding lodged in our brains, causing some of us to vehemently assert that we have control, that we are independent, that we can do what we want? That may start as toddlers, but as adults we can rationalize it, come up with grand philosophical systems to claim our free will. It may all be psychological resistance to the helplessness we knew as babies.

I've stayed standing by Dostoevsky's underground man even as I've moved away from standing with Sartre. I've stayed standing by Dostoevsky even though John Fowles already convinced me (of what I already knew), that Hazard is the dominant force in our lives. And I still stand with Dostoevsky though I know that as a baby I lacked any control, and any volition I have can only postpone death, and perhaps not even do that (a beautiful line in Philip Larkin's "The Old Fools:" "The peak that stays in view wherever we go/ For them is rising ground.").

My commitment now is to a spiritual free will, one that is always small and often futile. It is influenced by John Howard Yoder's pacifist theology, that in choosing nonresistance one may willfully submit to defeat, that some sort of victory is possible in subordination, failure and death. But then that makes free will an existential matter, so perhaps I haven't left Sartre very far behind at all.

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