In a recent post, I mentioned the concept of free will, which prompted an astute reader to question whether we really have that or not – the reader had recently heard an “expert” (psychologist or psychiatrist) say that we don’t really make any choices in life, that everything people desire, feel, or do (crime included) is a product of neurochemistry, of our bodies interacting with our environments, prenatally and throughout our lifetimes. It’s called determinism. It goes hand in hand with monism, the idea that there’s no separate body and soul – only a body, which ends at death, meaning we end at death – and generally also with atheism. I believe it’s wrong.
It’s an age-old paradox: If we’re nothing more than physical bodies, then what is there of us to continue on after we die, but if we’re essentially souls that inhabit bodies, then how do our souls and bodies interact, i.e. how do our souls “drive” our bodies around during our lives on Earth? “Compatibilist” philosophers and psychologists have proposed a number of theories to resolve the paradox, among them multiple variations on “dualism,” the simultaneous existence of both a body and soul (e.g. the idea that the soul drives the body in some supernatural way that’s no more implausible than the existence of the soul in the first place). Here’s what I believe:
I believe there’s a creator, and not because any particular religion tells me to – no matter how far back in the history of the universe science can ever explain creation, I’ll always be able to ask, “What came before that?” Ultimately, “what came before that,” I believe, is the creator. I believe that the creator initiated the process, billions of years long in our time, instantaneous in “eternity” time, which has led to each of us being here in order to have something capable of relating to it. I’ve written here before about what I believe is the specific two-part purpose of each of our lives on Earth, briefly: 1) to create (things, ideas, even other people, i.e. children), and 2) to care (for others). I believe that those two things allow us to relate to the creator.
Like all animals, we humans have strong physical survival instincts that motivate many of our behaviors, particularly behaviors that don’t involve right or wrong, e.g. what we order off of a restaurant menu, whom we’re attracted to, etc. I believe that each human being also has a brain capacity that sets him/her apart from the rest of the animal kingdom and makes him/her more like the creator – an intellect, the primary function of which is to differentiate creative from destructive and caring from antisocial, i.e. right from wrong. I believe that the intellect allows us to overrule our physical survival instincts in favor of another kind of survival that other animals cannot even contemplate – eternal survival (more on that in a moment) – in matters of right and wrong.
I believe that the intellect determines right from wrong based on the information available to it. That’s why I believe that some people, due to underdevelopment or impairment, are unable to differentiate right from wrong and are therefore not accountable for their behavior (it’s not that they don’t have intellects, but rather that their intellects are either underdeveloped, as in young children, or that the information available to their intellects is distorted, such that differentiating right from wrong is like trying to drive a car with a stained-glass windshield – there may be nothing wrong with your brain in that situation, but the information available to it would be lacking such that driving would be dangerous).
I believe that even minimally-functional human beings have a fundamental choice, however, as to whether to use their intellects, i.e. to think or not to think (to the fullest extent that they’re able). The 9/11 terrorists provide a good example. I believe their senses were working fine, i.e. the information available to their intellects was intact, and I believe that they were fully capable of differentiating right from wrong, i.e. figuring out that it’s wrong to fly planes into buildings full of innocent people. I believe that those men chose, however, not to figure that out. I believe that they chose to act based on emotion (e.g. hatred of the United States) rather than intellect. (Even Ayn Rand believed in this type of free will, and she was an atheist.)
I believe that as we go through our lives, we’re constantly choosing to think or not to think. I believe that if we think, the vast majority of us are able to discern the right thing (Rand went as far as to say that this essentially amounts to a form of determinism, i.e. that if one chooses to think, there’s really only one course of action possible) in any given situation. I believe that in choosing to think or not to think, we essentially get to choose to be human or to reject our humanity and be animals, which is why, by the way, both Rand and I discourage(d) intoxication – it shuts down intellect and makes one more like an animal. If we consistently choose not to think, i.e. if we consistently reject our humanity, then I believe, at the end of our lives, we may simply be allowed to die as we chose to live, as animals, with no life beyond this.*
If, on the other hand, we consistently choose to think, i.e. if we consistently embrace our humanity, then I believe we may essentially be participating in the greatest creative act possible for us as humans, the creation of a soul – an essence of the sum-total of what we’ve created, of what we’ve cared about, of good – that may continue on beyond this life. In other words, I believe that we may essentially make our souls as we live this life by using our intellects and doing the right things to the extents that we are able (someone who dies in infancy, for example, may never really have been able to choose to think or not to think, and I don’t believe that such a person would be penalized for that). I believe that the souls we receive may then reflect our intellects, free of any impairments such as underdevelopment (including youth) or illness (mental or physical). (And by the way, this really wouldn’t conflict much with the belief that we each have a fully-formed soul from the moment of conception because, in “eternity time,” an entire human lifetime, from conception to death, would seem to take place in the same instant).
* My late father had a belief about animals and the afterlife that I like: He believed that if a good human loves an animal so much that the human couldn’t enjoy the afterlife without that animal present, i.e. that Heaven couldn’t be Heaven without that animal there, then the creator may allow an essence or “soul” of that animal to accompany the human’s soul there, i.e. that a human may have the power to make an animal immortal.