Free Will is REal. Deal With it.

I’m a big believer in the reality of free will – and by this, I mean libertarian free will. Any philosophy or theology (and how close these two live!) that tries to tell you that certain aspects of life are simply an ‘illusion’ is suspect. Rather, it seems to me that life is exactly as we experience it.

When my sons were still babies they lived in a very different world to me, but yet they still lived in the same world. That’s because they experienced it differently, yet it was the same world. Just because they experienced it differently (and still do, as young boys) it doesn’t mean that my experiences were an illusion or not a reality – or that anything I tried to teach them was untrue. For them as babies, a million concepts were still not a reality. They can only live in those concepts when their life gets to the point when those concepts are important. My job as a parent is to try and ready them for the next phase of their life – to teach them concepts ahead of time so that when the reality hits, they are at least as prepared as possible for it.

I’ll never forget my son’s first experience at the beach – after we came back that morning, he sat in his chair in the car with the biggest, dreamiest smile on his face. We stopped the car and tried to get him out, but he just sat their smiling, full of contentment. We don’t live in a coastal city, so no matter how much we explained to him about the beach (he was one years old anyway, so what would our explaining even mean?) he had very little reason to believe us until he actually experienced it for himself. Just because he didn’t experience it, though, did it mean that the beach didn’t exist? That all talk of a place with salty water that seems to go on forever and sand in your toes is simply an illusion? Of course not. Likewise, any philosophy that tries to downplay the realities of life as simply an illusion is probably trying to create some sort of illusion.

Free will is something like that. Life is about experiencing it as it is in your particular time and context. When you’re younger, you have less freedom. When you’re older, you have greater autonomy. At least, you should. If you don’t learn personal responsibility when you’re younger, you’ll be hardly prepared for life as an adult. The ability to take personal responsibility is an absolutely imperative skill in life, career, spirituality, and – of course – leadership. Leaders can’t get people moving without actually getting those people to take personal responsibility for their lives. True leadership builds away from itself and is geared towards growing people into becoming leaders themselves. In essence, a leader’s job is to work themselves out of a job. Like parenting – my job there is to work myself out of a job. As a man, I have a natural sense of wanting autonomy, because I was built that way. We grow into more freedom, not less. I think it’s the same with God. And this is both the exciting and scary thing about life.

But you really can’t have personal responsibility without libertarian free will. I didn’t always think this way. I used to subscribe to some form of determinism, but over time I realized how it was slowly paralyzing me from actually living my life. Choices are real, they’re not an illusion. Even if free will really is an illusion, I can’t live my life as if it really is. I’ll second-guess every decision, or I’ll assume that my bad decisions were predetermined anyway – either by God (Calvinist?) or by biology (as the atheists preach). I can’t lie to myself that it’s an illusion but I have to live as if it isn’t – that is a contradiction that is simply unnecessary and just doesn’t work.

The world today is very much in the trouble it is, I think, because the idea of free will has been swapped for a victim mentality where we’re slaves to our biology, or the politics, or whatever else. We don’t want to deal with free will. It’s a scary concept. For all our talk of personal freedom, in reality we’d rather blame someone else or just do as we’re told. Life seems smoother that way. There’s far less existential angst when we just go with the flow. No one wants to fight with you if you toe the party line, and it’s never your fault if it all goes pair-shaped. It’s the collective’s fault or God’s fault or the fault of your biology. You were born this way, so what could you do?

The day I ditched my determinism was a day when I remember something clicked into place, like a puzzle piece that you keep trying to wedge in the wrong space and suddenly find the right one. I was simply sitting in a park, musing over Isaiah 38 (you’ll have to go read it, I don’t have space to paste it here) and God’s words in Deuteronomy 30:19, “I have set life and death, blessing and curse, before you. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live!” (Notice how important my choices are for future generations) and I thought, “What if it was really up to me?” Click. Then I have the power to change things. And so I did, and guess what? Things changed. Interesting how making a change actually makes a change! Sure, I don’t always have the power to change everything – if I make a good decision it doesn’t necessarily mean that the president will, or that my friends will. But I have the power to change what I can change. And I must take personal responsibility for making that change. No one will change it for me.

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