Paganism at One with Science
People typically experience a sense of being endowed with free will, that they encounter meaningful choices in their lives and then actively decide among their options. In a way, this is similar to how early humans would have experienced the Earth as being stationary while the sun moved through the heavens from one horizon to another. The latter experience — of a geocentric universe — has been shown by modern scientific investigations to be inadequate for even a rudimentary understanding of celestial mechanics. Those willing to follow truth wherever is leads know that empirical findings need not always conform to our instincts or cherished beliefs.
We can explore the physical basis for a belief in free will. To begin, the best explanatory models in contemporary physics are the General Theory of Relativity and the Quantum Mechanical Theory (including the Standard Model of particle physics). The former is a classical theory which is deterministic — that is, it holds that reality is entirely determined by precise physical laws. The latter theory, on the other hand, is characterized by irreducible uncertainty and random chance. Quantum mechanics itself, or rather the ways of understanding its implications, can be divided into categories. The two most prevalent of these various interpretations are the Copenhagen interpretation and the many-worlds interpretation. The former is complicated with ghost particles and collapsing wave-functions, which would seem to necessitate unprecedented and mysterious kinds of physical processes. Meanwhile, the latter provides a way to avoid those by positing merely one additional spatial dimension of reality, wherein are arrayed a multitude of parallel universes, each slightly different from the next. This ‘multiverse’ includes and integrates within it every physically possible universe. That is, our most advanced theories in physics strongly suggest that anything even remotely possible, no matter how unlikely, is actually physically real somewhere in the cosmos.
Thus, it would seem that determinism and random chance are the two fundamental principles governing the unfolding of reality. These principles are by no means contradictory. Instead, they are complementary, each principle prevailing at a different level of reality. Random chance prevails within any one universe, but the multiverse as a whole is entirely deterministic. Peace may come to our lives when we appreciate that everything that happens, good and bad, here and elsewhere, is what is meant to happen, is what must happen somewhere.
Unfortunately, this arrangement leaves no room for preserving free will. If, according to our best physical theories, every event in cosmic history is governed entirely by strict physical laws and random chance, applying as well to events involving human choice, then there is little physical basis for a belief in any meaningful free will — at least without the addition of a new, heretofore mysterious, and seemingly extraneous physical theory. This is not to say that free will absolutely does not exist, but merely that there is no rational basis for believing in its reality.
Beyond this purely physical critique of free will, biologists provide their own insights. Our behavior and personality, it seems, are determined by the complex interactions between our individual genetic endowment and our formative experiences. This in itself does not preclude individual change, but it does suggest that even such change is itself more or less determined by our genes and our experiences. We may assure ourselves that had we been subjected to the same formative stresses and provocations experienced by some criminal, we would have chosen differently, morally. However, even within a more conventional conception of choice, we cannot choose our genetic endowment and predispositions. Given the same nurture and the same nature, we would all make precisely the same moral choice.
What are the implications of humans evidently having no truly free will? We can still speak of our making decisions, but those decisions, whatever they may be, are in a real sense predestined, at best affected at a local level only randomly. Moral transgressions may still elicit guilt, shame, regret, and remorse from some, and anger from others, but we have the option of seeing the deeper truth that our “choices” and our behaviors are determined solely by our genetic disposition (nature) and our lived experience (nurture). Our choices are not separable from reality; they are apparent only. Everything that we do is the inescapable result of blind physical laws and random chance. Traditional religions have evoked this fundamental insight with such symbols as Indra’s Net, and God’s Plan, but the idea is much the same. Judgment should be left to the gods; ours is but to love each other. Every major faith tradition in the world — from the Buddhist Pratītyasamutpāda to the Christian Sermon on the Mount — teaches oneness, compassion, and mercy.
We may yet choose to imprison a criminal — if “choose” is the correct word — not properly out of revenge or punishment, but rather with humility and compassion and to protect the community. No punishment is required. In Jungian terms, a drive to punish wrongdoers often involves the projection of our own psychological shadow onto others, external to ourselves, where our own forbidden and frustrated impulses may be safely repudiated. Evidence suggests that many criminals have already been abused or neglected when young — that is, essentially punished before ever committing their crimes. Even if not, how can we morally justify exacting revenge upon someone whose actions were governed by immutable laws and random chance? The key to forgiveness, of others and of ourselves, is the understanding that we are all playing our individual, impassioned roles within a great drama written by the gods.
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