32 The Illusion of Free Will: Judgments on God’s Ordinances Must be Embarked Upon with Prudence

It is hard to bring matters divine down to human scales without their being trivialized.

Of all Montaigne’s sayings, this one I find the wisest. As I mentioned in a previous essay, I’m dismayed by the constant need of modern religions to trivialize the great and unknowable. My God is one that I cannot know or comprehend, a God who neither picks winners in wars nor in football games.

In this essay, Montaigne argues that one should never attribute the outcome of a battle to the favors of God:

What I consider wrong is our usual practice of trying to support and confirm our religion by the success or happy outcome of our undertakings. Our belief has enough other foundations without seeking sanction from events: people who have grown accustomed to such plausible arguments well-suited to their taste are in danger of having their faith shaken when the turn comes for events to prove hostile and unfavourable.

The modern instinct is to dismiss the foolishness of a religious war altogether – anyone daft enough to fight one is also foolish enough to believe in outcome provenance. But I don’t think our age has any advantage over Montaigne’s in this matter. Whether we believe that God picked winners in the Super Bowl or determined the landfall of a hurricane or not, many if not most modern humans continue to believe that some sort of destiny guides the outcome of events, from the personal to the international.

There’s another name for this destiny: free will. In his book “The Illusion of Conscious Will,” Daniel Wegner surveys the most recent findings in neuroscience and concludes that free will is little more than a human mood, something we need to hold onto to convince ourselves that we are, David Copperfield like, the heroes of our lives.

One reason why it’s so difficult to prove the existence of free will is that it requires a stable human character at the center of it.  But as William James said so eloquently in his “Pragmatism” essay, even the idea of a main character in the story of your life is an illusion:

If a ‘free act’ be a sheer novelty, that comes not from me, the previous me, but ex nihilo, and simply tacks itself onto me, how can I, the previous I, be responsible? How can I have any permanent character that will stand still long enough for praise or blame to be awarded? The chaplet of my days tumbles onto a case of disconnected beads as soon as the thread of inner necessity is drawn out by the preposterous indeterminist doctrine.

Wegner points out, however, that there’s substantial evidence that the emotion of free will is important to psychological well-being.  Believing that you are responsible for your actions and direction in life is a key ingredient to a happy productive life.  So, for the sake of your happiness, you may be better off ignoring William James and following Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who wrote:

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration; I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.

You can sense in that quote how Goethe himself cannot find rational proof for such a thought – he’d have to suffer from a form of monomania to believe all of it.  But given all that he accomplished in his lifetime, there’s clear value in that brand of heavy personal responsibility.  It’s a personal philosophy that would pick up greater resonance with the existentialists, first with Kierkegaard and later with Jean-Paul Sartre.

But this brings me back to Montaigne’s argument that finding God’s purpose in the events of the day is a fool’s errand.  Montaigne sides with Goethe and the existentialists on the side of responsibility with this thought:

In one Indian tribe they have a laudable custom: when they are worsted in a skirmish or battle they publicly beseech the Sun their god for pardon for having done wrong, attributing their success or failure to the divine mind, to which they submit their own judgement and discourse.

He then added:

God wishes us to learn that the good have other things to hope for and the wicked other things to fear than the chances and mischances of this world, which his hands control according to his hidden purposes: and so he takes from us the means of foolishly exploiting them. Those who desire to draw advantage from them by human reason delude themselves.

I agree with Montaigne to a degree, but I also think that there’s something healthy and perhaps even wise in finding some kind of divine hand in acts cursed and miraculous.  It’s one thing to take responsibility for a failure … quite another to think that everything that happens in your life is the design of personal greatness.

All of us go through life experiencing events that simply cannot be explained by simple responsibility and cause & effect.  Yes, we live in the age of forensic audits and CSI, but there remain mysteries in the world, big and small, and sometimes the wisest course is to see something bigger than ourselves in the outcomes.

I’m reminded of the scene in “Pulp Fiction” … and so I’ll close with this:


I just been sittin’ here thinkin’.

VINCENT (mouthful of food)

About what?


The miracle we witnessed.


The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak occurrence.


Do you know that a miracle is?


An act of God.


What’s an act of God?


I guess it’s when God makes the impossible possible. And I’m sorry Jules, but I don’t think what happened this morning qualifies.


Don’t you see, Vince, that shit don’t matter. You’re judging this thing the wrong way. It’s not about what. It could be God stopped the bullets, he changed Coke into Pepsi, he found my fuckin’ car keys. You don’t judge shit like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God’s touch, God got involved.

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