Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Friday, June 6, 2014

On free will

Dear Hannah,

I know I just recently wrote you an essay about how people who discuss concepts like the freedom of the will are wasting their time; but my advice, as all general advice, is not always as simple as it seems.  The fact that there are some things we can't entirely understand doesn't mean that we shouldn't think about them; it simply means we should be careful we don't base our entire lives upon the speculative when there's a very high likelihood it can be proven false by what's demonstrative.

Our lives are really a mixture between speculation and common sense: our senses tell us all the causes and effects of the world around us, which become knowledge; our minds remember what we've seen and predict the future, and when they do so correctly, it's known as wisdom.  But when our minds apply these patterns to other things we haven't entirely experienced, and then we begin to think about things we haven't ever really seen, this is known as speculation.  You rely on either of these extremes too heavily, and you're a dolt.  Too much common sense means no dreaming; too much speculation means no wisdom.  Too much of the former means we never improve what we know, too much of the latter means we never maintain what we have.   Maybe Farmer Joe will never fall for an egalitarian ponzi scheme or become a practically retarded theologian, but I have a hard time believing he could have ever written The Federalist.  And maybe Einstein will invent all kinds of new things, but I have a hard time believing how this could be a real benefit to him when he let his family go to ruin.  The truth is that we need both kinds of men; but we should never try to be them -- although if I had to be one of the two, I would rather be (and be surrounded by) the simpleton with common sense. 

But anyhow, now that I've given some defense of speculation -- since our thoughts and beliefs determine our behaviors and thus our lives, I thought you should know that I've had difficulty praying, for quite some time now, because I don't understand how praying to God could affect the way other men behave.  It seems to me, at least from common observation, that people will do what people will do: if we could simply pray that our President would always do good things and he would, then by this point we would be living in a perfect country.  The opposite, despite the National Day of Prayer, is obviously true.  But it's also possible that things could be much worse had we not prayed, and we would never know it.

But if I was to advance a theory -- a theory, mind you -- about the sovereignty of God in the lives of men, I would start with the very simple premise that we're not really as sovereign over ourselves as we think we are.  I think it was Hume who proved to me that there was me, and then there was a me beyond me.  Or, to put this another way, think about the fact that you are in charge of what you do, and can be held responsible for it, but that there are parts of you which do things entirely regardless of how you feel about them.  We call these things your cells and organs and such; and even if you want them to keep functioning properly, you really don't have any say in the matter.  They will continue to work whether you're thinking about them or not, and they will quit working when it's their time to quit working -- or maybe they'll turn into cancer: live in anticipation of your mortality, if you want to live any kind of meaningful life whatsoever.  You're not in control of everything, and you only have a limited time to do anything.  Knowing the first will keep you from too much frustration, and knowing the second will keep you from taking too long a vacation. 

Organic autonomy might seem trivial, but the situation only gets worse from here on.  And I say this because the longer I've lived, the more I've realized that my mind is less my possession than I originally thought -- and yours is too.  Think of it this way: if there's ever a time when you can be sure you won't be witty, try being witty around someone you're very strongly attracted to.  Nearly every time -- especially in my case -- the exact opposite has happened.  If something horrible ever happens to you, I'm also certain you will try to forget it, and that the more you're trying to forget it, you less you'll be able to.  To prove my point further, try reading Hume when you're extremely tired; or try being kind when you're in pain or very hungry.  The truth of the matter is, these situations may not rob you of your moral knowledge, but they can make it less easily accessible -- and more difficult to carry out.  And these aren't trivial matters.  These are our reason, our perception, and our good nature; in essence, the things we judge ourselves by.  And if our judgment wasn't so easily affected by other things, then ask yourself why business transactions take place over meals, and players nearly always try to get girls drunk.  The key idea is that if we input enough of one thing, we will be more likely to get another.  You are you -- but you are many versions of you.  In fact, we could say that what we call you is really a conglomeration of many people, just like (as the philosophers say) a river may always be in the same place and always have the same name, but from one second to the next is always filled with different water.  Yesterday, I was a fool; today, I am behaving much more like a saint.  Who knows which I'll be tomorrow?

What I am trying to say is that God doesn't have to override your will to make you do what He wants.  All he has to do is increase one thing, decrease another, give you a cold, tamper with your thyroid, change anything without your even knowing it, and you will go in the direction He wants.  People say that God doesn't manage human affairs because He doesn't show His hand by raining frogs and fire.  Maybe they've ignored the fact that He doesn't have to.  We're nearly entirely malleable.

Your father,

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