If I Only Wanted To

Though I consider my series on universalism essentially completed, I have recently been involved in some discussions that have motivated me to write some addenda on the topic.  In order to look at the issues in which I’m interested, in this regard, I have to preface it with a note on one of the great conundrums of classical philosophy:  free will.

More precisely, I want to look at some logical conundrums arising from it.  I’m not interested in defending free will against determinism in its various flavors.  Rather, there are certain things pertaining to my discussion on universalism which need to be covered more thoroughly in order to set the stage for the addendum I wish to discuss.

Melissa Etheridge’s song makes one think of the kind of thing kids will do, where one claims the ability to do some fabulous, or outright impossible things.  Upon being asked to “prove it!” the kid will respond, “But I don’t want to right now!”  One is also reminded of the episode of Cheers where Cliff claimed to be a blackbelt in karate but refused to be baited to prove it because the philosophy was pacifistic (as it turned out, he later “proved” it by smashing a board with his bare hand, then drifting away from the amazed crowd and whispering to Diane, “I think I need to get to the hospital!”).  Humorous, yes, but this touches on a deep issue.

The simplest, commonsense definition of “free will” is, indeed, “If I only wanted to.”  That is, I have the power to do whatever I choose, within the limits presented; and retrospectively, I could say, “I could have done X instead of Y if I had wanted to do so.”  I think most would intuitively agree with this definition.  Given any choices which are within my ability, I can freely choose any of them.  I can take a walk, go swimming, or stay home and take a nap.  I could not flap my arms and fly; but no one would consider the inability to choose to do impossible things to be relevant to free will as such.

So far so good, and all fairly uncontroversial.  What I’m interested in is a subtly problematic phenomenon that I’m going to call voluntarily irrevocable choices.  I’m not talking about logically or necessarily irrevocable choices.  If I sell my house to a developer and he bulldozes it and builds a parking lot, that house isn’t coming back.  Once I lose my virginity, even if I’m celibate for the rest of my life, I’m never again a virgin.  Most spectacularly, if I choose to kill myself, and succeed, I have made a totally irrevocable choice.  What I’m interested in are choices never to do something where there is nothing exterior holding one back from changing one’s mind.  For example:  I will never, ever eat a broccoli fudge sundae; I will never, ever leave this town; I will never, ever kill another human being.  There is nothing that logically necessitates irrevocability for such decisions–they depend merely on my volition.  Such decisions, are, however, mysterious in unexpected ways.

Consider, after all, the effects of unforeseen events.  I may be on the point of starvation and discover that the only available food is a broccoli fudge sundae.  The town I’ve vowed never to leave may become uninhabitable because of a chemical spill, flooding, or some other event.  I may be forced to use deadly force against someone who attacks me or a loved one.  Thus, it seems that for me to say, “I will never do X,” necessarily is equivalent to one of the following:

1.  I know with 100% certainty that no situation can arise that will force me to change my mind.

2.  I know with 100% certainty that no situation will arise that will force me to change my mind.

Obviously, it is impossible for a finite being with limited knowledge–that is, any human–to have perfect knowledge that either of these is the case.  I’m prepared to say that the chances that I–or anyone else, for that matter–will ever find it necessary to eat a broccoli fudge sundae are very small; but I can’t say they’re zero.  There is another possibility:

3.  I know with 100% certainty that I will not allow any situation that arises to change my mind.

That is, I won’t eat the sundae even if refusing to do so results in my starving to death; even if the town is flooded, I’ll stay in it and drown; I won’t kill anyone even in self-defense or defense of others.  This is better than 1 or 2 above, but still not enough.  Most of us who’ve been around long enough will have done (or failed to do) something we would never, ever have thought we’d do (or fail to do) in our younger days.  Saying I’ll starve before I eat the sundae, drown before I leave town, or be killed before I kill is all fine and good; holding to it if the situation actually arises is a much harder thing.  Despite all this, though, it’s not at all unlikely that in certain cases a person does manage to hold out to the end, since situations that would force a change of plan don’t occur.  I’ve never even heard of a broccoli fudge sundae being made, let alone having to eat one to save my life.  I thus predict with reasonable confidence that I’ll never eat one.  So far, no situation has arisen in which I’ve been forced to kill anyone, so I’ll probably manage that, too.  I leave town to visit relatives and on business, so that’s out; but the first two seem to be likely winners.

Let’s complicate it, though, by now assuming we have an immortal–Vandal Savage, Connor MacLeod, a member of the Tuck family, or whoever.  Connor MacLeod says he’ll never eat a broccoli fudge sundae.  What are we to think now?

In probability, the likelihood of something occurring is between zero (it cannot occur) and one (it must occur).  Things that must occur (bachelors must be single, two plus two must be four, a finite whole must be larger than any of its parts) are necessary truths; things that cannot occur (a bachelor being married, two plus two equalling 85, a finite part being bigger than its associated whole) are logical contradictions.  Everything else is a possibility of greater or lesser likelihood (high likelihood of the sun rising tomorrow; low likelihood of Klingon invasion).  It’s important to note that a probability higher than zero, no matter how small, is still a possibility.  For example, it is impossible for me to roll a standard set of dice and get a seventeen, since there’s no combination of faces that can give that count.  On the other hand, to roll the same number fifty thousand times in a row is very, very unlikely–very loosely (and the size of the number is so big that it doesn’t matter much), it’s so unlikely that in order to have it occur, assuming that you rolled dice once per second 24/7, never stopping, it would take you a trillion trillion trillion trillion (add about 3800 more “trillions”) times the lifespan of the whole universe before you got that to happen.  A very, very small chance indeed; but not zero.  Hypothetically, it could happen; whereas I’ll never roll a seventeen!

In general, anything that is not a necessary truth or a logical contradiction is not strictly impossible, no matter how unlikely it might be.  The chances of finding a unicorn or a flying horse, or of every atom of air bounding into a single corner, or of the stars rearranging themselves into words, are all vanishingly small.  Nevertheless, the chances are not zero.  Another implication:  assuming one had an infinite amount of time and an infinite number of combinations of events, then everything that conceivably could happen (that is, anything that’s not a logical contradiction) would happen, sooner or later.  No matter how small the odds, given enough time the fifty thousand same rolls will occur, just as the typewriting chimps of the old cliche would write all of Shakespeare’s plays.

How does this tie in with free will and irrevocable choices?  Consider:  When we left him, Connor MacLeod had vowed never to eat a broccoli fudge sundae.  Incidentally, the universe itself may not be eternal, but for the purposes of the discussion we’ll assume it is, and that Connor has the means to planet hop in case Earth ever becomes uninhabitable.  Thus he will truly live forever, not just until the universe’s heat death.  Now since Connor is an immortal, “never” for him means never through all eternity.  In short, the probability that he eats said sundae is zero.  This, is indeed puzzling, though.  How can even an immortal say with one hundred percent certainty that he will never, never, ever eat such a sundae?  One can imagine (especially if you’re a scriptwriter for Highlander) hypotheticals that might tie the hands of even an immortal and force a change of mind.

Even more perplexing is this:  Suppose that Connor is as good as his word and never, in fact, does eat the broccoli fudge sundae throughout all eternity.  This means the probability of his doing so–let’s call it P(B), where B means “Connor does eat the broccoli fudge sundae”, and P(B) means the probability that he does so–is indeed zero.  Now, if Connor has free will, then by our commonsense definition, this is equivalent to saying “It is at least possible that Connor will choose to eat the sundae.”  To phrase this differently, P(B)>0–there is a finite, though perhaps small, chance that Connor will give in and eat the sundae regardless of what he said.  After all, if he’s really free, he’s free to contradict himself, change his mind, or lie about the whole thing.  However, if Connor really does go all eternity without eating the sundae, then P(B)=0.  This is tantamount to saying that not only does he not eat the sundae, but that this cannot happen–it’s impossible (recall what a probability of zero means).  But if it can’t happen, then it is impossible that Connor choose to do it anyway.  But this would seem to mean that Connor does not, in fact, have free will after all–which seems to be a contradiction.

To encapsulate what we’ve considered so far, it would appear that one of two things is the case:

A.  An immortal being that truly has free will cannot definitively choose never to do something–that is, cannot decide never to change its mind about something–since in infinite time, sooner or later, something will arise to make it change its mind.

B.  An immortal being that can make an irrevocable choice that is not based on a logical contradiction or a necessary truth must not have free will.

This is of theological interest–after all, it is said that Heaven and Hell are permanent states.  This implies that the angels and the saved humans will never change their minds about being in Heaven and serving God, and that Satan and his minions will never repent of their decision to rebel.  However, since all these beings are immortal, we have a problem.  It seems that either they must lack free will–and traditional theology says that even the blessed and the damned retain free will–or that they could change their minds–Satan might return to Heaven, and Gabriel might leave (the latter of which the movie The Prophecy actually postulated).  Some of Origen’s followers got branded as heretics for supposedly teaching such a system of eternal falling and rising.

What are we to do, then?  I’ve touched on this very briefly, but I want to go more in depth.  In the next post I want to start chewing on some ideas arising from the issues we’ve discussed here.

Part of the series “You Pays Your Money and Takes Your Chances: Free Will

Posted on 21/07/2013, in Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

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