Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A looooong conversation on free will, which mutated into something else

[Note: this Mr. X is not the immigration guy. a different person altogether, just using the name Mr. X to conceal his identity.]


hi Mr. X =)

i was thinking about what you said the other day, about the question of free will being moot... do i correctly understand this as meaning that you believe that free will does not exist?

doesn't this kinda cause some problems for Christianity, e.g. how can God create creatures that have no free will and yet hold them responsible for their actions? how do you get around problems like that?

i guess i could ask the same question to a strict Calvinist, but i wondered what your take on it was. =)

Mr. X:
Yes you understand me correctly, to the effect that free will does not exist in the magical sense that many people believe it to exist in.

No, it seems you have not yet understood that no magic is required for systems to employ/deploy the concepts of guilt, punishment, and responsibility. For example, it's easier to note that 1990s Walkmans have no free will, are guilty of obsolescence, and are systematically punished with extinction and the ridicule of antiquity.

To bridge this with Christianity you only need to understand how Walkmans, cockroaches and people are all governed by fairly deterministic processes.

Here's a reference to the classical solution (see 3.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antinomy

If you and your friends would like to discuss this further, let me know. The classic text referred to above is The Critique of Pure Reason, and it is critically boring, FTW.

hmm, the walkman analogy is a good one. alternatively, slightly closer to the Christian idea of heaven and hell, free-will-less shirts which are guilty of being defective are punished by being sent to reject shops to be sold, whereas those with the merit of meeting standards of quality control are rewarded by being sent to glamorous official distributors.

however, before this i've always thought of this transaction involving a choice, an exercise of free will - whether or not to believe in God, Jesus, and etc. i've also always thought of the Bible as exhorting us to choose to do acts of righteousness and justice. if there's no free will, then what's the point of all that? just empty rhetoric?

i can understand many of the arguments for determinism. however i do not think that they are conclusive. for example, it is possible to imagine 2 men for whom deterministic elements - genes, environment, etc - are considered equal, and yet their lives may have very different ends. would i be wrong in saying that it was their exercise of choice and free will which made the difference?

one more thing - the genesis creation account tells us that man was created in God's image. i'm not sure if this falls into the category of magical thinking, but this is a distinction which cockroaches and walkmans do not share. therefore if i believe that God has free will, it is quite possible that one of the things implied by our being created in His image is that we have free will too.

Mr. X:
Here's the short cut - the choices you make are the result of the information that is made available to you.

hmm, but two people who obtain the same information may make different choices based on it...!

i guess that choice of what to do with the information is influenced by deterministic factors like genetics, environment and etc. but like the example i gave earlier, if there are two men in whom those factors are equal... doesn't their course of action then boil down to their choice?

Mr. X:
You forgot that before they got the same information at T=0, they had different information at T=-1, -2, -3, etc.


this would work if people were rational all the time. but they're not, therefore their choices are not influenced solely by information, right?

Mr. X:
We started with the premise that people are rational (determined within a system which can be described rationally). In order to falsify the premise, you need to be producing evidence/examples that falsify the premise... not simply assuming the opposite :)

ok sorry... can i play the i'm-not-a-philosopher-so-my-thinking-processes-are-rather-fuzzy card? lol

anyway, excuses for sloppy thinking aside, a few more questions...

in your understanding, people go to hell (i'm assuming that you believe in hell... do you?) because they lack information?

also, people lie and steal and generally sin because they lack information?

i need to chew on this abit more... it seems hard to swallow.

Mr. X:
Hell? I don't pretend to know anything about hell,or heaven for that matter. Chew away.

[after an interval of a few weeks for chewing]


hi Mr. X =)

as i was chewing over this, i realised that my main reasons for believing in free will are rooted in the bible... God often seems to exhort people to make choices, which seems farcical if people don't have free will (e.g. "choose this day whom you shall serve..."). but of course, it also has verses that imply determinism (e.g. "predestined before the foundation of the world..."), which leads to the classic predestination vs. free will debate in christian circles.

i don't understand it fully, but as i read my bible i find that it speaks of both free will and predestination... therefore a fully biblical perspective cannot major on one or the other, but must hold both in tension.

what is your take on this? how does the bible affect (if it does) your POV on our apparent lack for free will?

Mr. X:
Do you even understand the process of reading? What happens to dots on paper that are captured by the iris of your eye? That's a good place to begin the dissection of text.

err, the eye creates signals which are sent to the brain, which recognises the symbols that the dots are arranged in.

the symbols (letters, words, phrases... whole pages, for speed-readers) have meanings associated with them, and (if it's not a nonsensical piece of writing) these are combined into a meaningful message.

have i gotten it right so far?

Mr. X:
What are meanings?

well, letters are associated with sounds... strung together in the right sequence, they become sounds associated with certain ideas... like 'b', 'a' and 'g' combined makes the sound 'bag' which brings to mind a pouch-like thingy that you can keep stuff in, with straps that you can sling around your body parts for ease of carriage.

Mr. X:
Righto - but at some point they have to refer to sensations right?

erm yeah, sounds are sensations. and we know what a bag is primarily by sight, which is also a sensation.

how does this connect with my original question again? lol

Mr. X:
Ok. Now we need to begin to map out in terms of sensations, what you mean by every word in your original question.

original question: "how does the bible affect (if it does) your POV on our apparent lack for free will?"

i'm not sure how to do this. what sensation, for example, corresponds with "how"?

does it really have to be this complicated?

Mr. X:
Yes. Let me know when you have thought about it, and have something to say :)

[after another interval of a few weeks, for thinking]

hi Mr. X. i encountered two problems when thinking about this.

firstly, i don't know how to translate concepts and ideas into sensations.

example 1: "how" at the beginning of a sentence tells me that it's an enquiry as to method, process, etc... but i have no idea what sensation that is.

example 2: "bible" brings to mind a thick, leather-bound book embossed with the words "Holy Bible" on the cover, with thin pages and words interspersed with big numbers denoting chapters and small numbers denoting verses. those are the sensations that are associated with the word, primarily through touch and sight (i don't often smell or taste my bible). however, the word "bible" is also associated with the concept of God's Word, which Christians believe is eternal, authoritative, and true. how do you translate that concept into sensations?

secondly, what does it mean to map out the sentence in terms of sensations? no matter how i explain the sentence, i'll still be using words. those words then would have to be further explained or mapped out, ad infinitum. therefore, i need to know what are the irreducible sensations to use - words which do not need further explaining and mapping out. i also need to know what to do if there are words or phrases that can't be mapped out in those irreducible sensations.

some help?

Mr. X:
Good questions, I'll get back to you when I have more time to read. I must warn you however, that it is more time effective to sit down and work through this stuff in conversation. Anyway. Whatever works.

[after a few days...]

Mr. X:
re: firstly - well then all there is left for you to do, is to learn how. Keep thinking about it. If you want a tutorial, we should meet up for 30 minutes to an hour. More value-for-time if you have other interested parties so that we can do a group training, btw.

re: secondly - see above.

[so... what do you think of this conversation? feel free to comment on free will, predestination, or the strange turn the conversation took into linguistics and sensations. anyone interested to meet up with Mr. X to learn how to map sentences in terms of irreducible sensations? i doubt there'll be much response, but no harm asking. the meeting would have to be in kl/pj, though. =)]


siehyean_angel said...

LOL. I think i see where he is going. He's a thinker, isn't he? not that fussed about either free will or predestination, but breaks everything down into tiny tiny bits. there's a point when it all starts getting ridiculous though. tell him if he wants an online tutorial on how those sensations are linked to perceptions and the signalling and neuronal pathways behind it, i'll be happy to oblige. XD not that i think it'll help advance either side of the argument much further... XDDD

siehyean_angel said...

ps: why not use a different letter? Mr Y or Z, or maybe Mr. χ (as in the Greek letter "chi"... it seems to fit somehow. XD)

siehyean_angel said...

PPS: he's really smart though, in the way he twists the argument to make him come off as the one in control of the discussion. maybe i should pick up some of his techniques...

tan-ce said...

I'll admit I read the conversation in a slight bit of a hurry, but one thing immediately comes to my mind. Even disregarding what God or the Bible has to say about free will, the determinism Mr. X seems to be talking about seems to be based on classical mechanics and/or physics. ie. Given a complete snapshot of the universe (which would include information that a person would have encoded as memory engrams at T= -1, -2, -3,...) It is possible to completely predict what is going to happen based on rational laws of nature.

However, quantum physics seems to now tell us that is impossible. Not only is it impossible to to take such a snapshot, but such a snapshot does not exist. ie. there are many quantities which are non-deterministic and exist as fuzzy states.

Of course, there is a problem with what I said - I didn't reintroduced free will, I more likely replaced it with a dice, as it were. But basically, what I'm saying is given two identical persons who has exactly the same experiences and genetic material, they could make different decisions if quantum processes are involved anywhere in the decision making process.


One thing that makes it hard for me to give a definitive answer on this question of free will is because of time. Free will only makes sense (to me, anyway) within a flow of time. That is, there exists this thing called the future which no one has "access" to and which changes based on our free will decisions. However, God exists outside of time, so there is no time flow for Him. Whatever decisions we make He already knows the outcome because He isn't limited by the flow of time.

I'm not sure whether this affects "free will", but it's something that's.... interesting.

tan-ce said...

hey, I've finally returned a super long comment!

siehjin said...

@siehyean: yeah he's smart all right. i feel outclassed and outgunned, lol. =P

and yes, he is in control of the conversation because i gave him that control... i don't want to preach to him, which might alienate and offend him; i want to ask him questions, to understand his point of view, to build bridges. sadly, he's so smart that sometimes i feel like i'm dealing with an alien intelligence, lol =P

@tance: thanks for your input from a physics/mechanics POV. =)

yes, God is outside of time and already knows the outcome of our decisions. however, knowing the outcome and controlling the outcome are two different things...=)

Eunice said...

lol. I liked ur last reply. its so funny to try and "learn" how to turn every word u say into sensations.
I wonder how he will unfold the mystery of tis skill (he calls the right way of reading..?)if you arrange to meet up with him. He sounds like one of those philosophers in the old times, where they ask their students questions that make their minds go boncus! haha

..predestination sounds abit scary, and freewill sounds abit messed up. but I think there should be a balance between both. I think our God is a God of wisdom and balance. whn readin the convo, i rmbered smthin in eccles. (Eccles 7:15-18)

I think ....God is always drawing us (saved or unsaved to Him)-our destiny is to be saved. But it is our freewill that opens the doors for us to gain further wisdom and udnerstanding about God and develop a personal knowledge of who He is.don't tink he wants us to focus so mch on who shd go to heaven or hell.He may give us deeper insights on this issue, bt i guess his primary focus will b the cross. Jesus had a choice. but he chose to love and focus on His fathers will.

Humans are so confused. (I am so confused) We are living our lives and setting stndrds accrding to the ever-changing-opinionated-confused-society instead of Jesus...which hv a tndncy to..hahaha.

anyways, it ws interesting to read your post. Just finished my exams and am so free! wee...

siehjin said...

@eunice: thanks for commenting! =)

i agree with you that there should be a balance between both predestination and free will. or not so much a balance, but more so that both of them are true at the same time - even if our human minds can't see how this is possible. to us who believe that the Bible is the Word of God, it must be so, because that is how the Bible seems to portray it.

yes, God is always drawing us to Him. and yes, our free will opens the door - but also remember that we would not be able to exercise that free will in the first place, if not for God's grace. apart from His work in our hearts, we would never be able to choose Him.

and the whole point of Jesus choosing the cross was to bring us to heaven and save us from hell - so i guess there's no running away from the issue, although we do have to acknowledge that ultimately God is the only one with the prerogative to decide who goes where.

haha, so fun to finish exams and be free ah. have fun! =)

Charis said...

I think I have a good idea of who Mr. X is, assuming I know him.

First, the cynical remark. It looks like Mr. X has been pre-destined not to believe in free will whereas you have.

Secondly, there are a lot of things we don't know. In any academic or theological discussion it's good to say 'this is what we think we know' and 'this is what we think we don't know'. It helps to clear the air a bit.

Thirdly, it would be easier for you and Mr. X to read a text together and talk about it rather than have a discussion in a vacuum. If I think of anything good I'll let you know, but I'm not very well-read on the subject.

Maybe more later...

Darren said...

I have to admit......my brains are not as smart to tackle people like this. I might lose out flat.


siehjin said...

@charis: haha @ the cynical comment =)... yeah i think i will meet up face-to face with him... not sure when though.

@darren: well, different people have different gifts... you may not be able to connect with these thinking-thinking kinda ppl, but u can connect with bikers far better than i can. =)

Darren said...

Lol....true. XD

saun said...

I saw the name Mr. X and thought of X-Men, but came juz to see a conversation which confused me. Then when I looked at the comments, I was still confused. But I do believe in free will and pre-destination. That's all. I still got SPM, can't be confused by you guys haha.