Free Thinking About Free Will and Other Things

Featuring a Botanical View of the Universe

by Kathy Vincent

When I was a kid, I developed my own theory about the universe and my place in it. I decided that God kept the universe, in all its inexplicable infinity, in an old brown shoe box on his kitchen table, a table that looked in my imagination suspiciously like the white enamel-finished table in my grandmother's kitchen. I decided that, every once in a while, God lifted the top of the shoe box at one end and peered inside, just to see how things were going.

It wasn't until I got a little older that I thought to ask myself where, exactly, that kitchen table was: What shoe box was it in? I never resolved that question, except to the point of "shoe boxes all the way down." It was troubling to me, but I didn't know the answer and figured it was probably good enough for God to know where his own kitchen was.

I was raised a Presbyterian in a very long line of very serious Presbyterians that included ministers and missionaries and other staunch and active church people. If you're raised in that environment, you confront the question of free will and determinism in one sense at a very early age. The Presbyterians have been around a long time, and, to the best of my knowledge, have never resolved the problem of free will versus determinism, central as those concepts are in Presbyterianism, any better than I resolved my wonderings about God's kitchen table or Isaac Newton resolved the problem of universal gravitation: God knows, and we don't have to worry about it -- even if we do worry about it.

At one point, being curious and being a "why" person, I did try to resolve the question, to my own satisfaction anyway. Even if the church hadn't figured it out, maybe I could. I arrived at what was at the time a more satisfactory answer than none. In this resolution, determinism was a tree, a tree of decision points and possible choices at each one. Each branching node represented a point in my life at which I would be called upon to make some kind of decision or choice. Theoretically, the tree began with my birth and ended with my death, which could happen at the tip of any one of a potentially infinite number of branch tips. In my head, I pictured this tree as being the more finite size of, say, a very large old oak tree. I guess I thought I would have a very short life.

The idea was that this tree represented all the choices and all the possible options open to me during my life, all neatly laid out, all pre-determined by, yes, God before I was born. Obviously, I could not, at least not in this single lifetime, take all the paths to each of the tips of each of the branches of my tree. This is where free will came in to my metaphorical resolution of this ancient problem: I imagined I was personally free to choose any path I wished, unhampered, un-"pushed," if you will. There was a "trick," of course, and the trick was that God had created me and my desires and needs and inclinations, and so knew which path I would take. Still, the choice was always mine. I didn't ask who "I" might be or what it might mean to say that a choice was "mine." At that age, I knew I existed, probably for the same reason Descartes knew that because he cogito'd ergo he sum'd, though I didn't propose my own reason in Latin. I couldn't have until at least the ninth grade.

Here again in my concept of determinism was yet another case of "turtles all the way down," only my "turtles" were trees, a forest of trees of possibilities in an infinite but bounded shoe box universe. Each person, each being, each everything had its own tree of possibilities, just as each of Leibniz's monads had its own equation and, today, each artificially intelligent computer would have its own algorithm.

I considered only people in my resolution at the time, not knowing then about such things as vacuum fluctuations. The personal level was both as micro and as macro as I got in my thinking. But I'm not prejudiced. Now, with my expanded adult mind, I'm perfectly willing to consider free will as extending to an elephant or an ant or a dog or a porpoise or a shrimp or a blade of grass or even a rock or an electron or a vacuum fluctuation. Well, maybe not a rock. Not today. Maybe tomorrow.

As far as I know, I arrived at this whole scheme on my own. The tree certainly. The part about the "trick" less certainly. The combination of the two schemes fairly certainly. Whereas physicists arrived at some point at the idea of everything's being explainable in terms of forces in conflict or quantum fields, I arrived at my own botanical view of the universe in which everything was explainable in terms of trees. And it worked fairly well. Or at least it satisfied for the moment my ponderings about determinism versus free will.

Today, I don't think it would be pushing either me or God (as I "understood" him then) to suppose that, in this scheme, I might not take the path God figured I would, and such mutiny would not be "diminishing" God, nor would it surprise him (the choice would still be one of the ones laid out in my tree). Or, now, with some exposure to quantum mechanics and field theory and the like, I would probably amend my original metaphor to say that God, or that superior active intelligence, knew the probability of my making a certain choice (that probability having been built into the "system") but that didn't mean he knew for certain. Maybe God likes to be surprised, too, and built into his system a certain randomness (its being, after all, his system so he could do whatever he wanted to with it), just so he could find a (sur)prize in his own personal box of Cracker Jacks. And if he didn't like the (sur)prize he found, he could just trash it in his own personal trash can or maybe recycle it.

At this stage of my everyday life, I believe that there is "something" about the Self that cannot be reduced to or explained merely by an algorithm, electromagnetic impulses, chemical reactions, physical properties, the interaction of fields or forces, the peripatetic wanderings of subatomic particles, no matter how sub or sub-sub or further exponentiations thereof they may be found to go. Inherent in that "something" is the capability of independent, random action, which might be referred to as "free will."

At this stage of my existence, I could accept most readily the idea that everything can be explained or understood in terms of mind. Except for using the word "mind" rather than "fields" or "forces," perhaps I'm really not all that far off in philosophical or scientific left field. On the other hand, the mind as I envision it is a fully functioning creative principle, active, continually evolving, seething with possibilities, rumbling and churning through infinity like a thunderhead, heavy with rain and power. I have trouble contemplating the workings of my own mind, humble though it is, and accepting the idea of a universe without some active intelligence at work in it. Cogito ergo id est: I think, therefore "it" is, whatever "it" might be. And I think we are all -- humans, rocks, elephants, stars, and all -- connected somehow with or a part of that intelligence, that mind, perhaps in the sense that Spinoza meant or in the sense of a universal collective consciousness. There may be discoverable universal laws at work, as there seem to be, or we may just think there are such laws at work whereas there really are none, as Hume might suggest. But in the middle of all that, no matter how determined the universe as a whole might be, I believe that the possibility of random activity, "free will" activity, is there, and it's built into the system.

Maybe free will is no more than the possibility of pushing the limits, and in so doing creating new limits.

Or maybe free will is something else entirely. Maybe free will itself exists like an updated version of those "snaky" vortices of Descartes, wriggling unseen and undetectable between and among the other, observable, detectable stuff of the universe, lending its own kind of elusive substance to the rest of life.

Once on CBS Sunday Morning, Charles Kuralt recited a quotation from the English novelist, E.M. Forster. The essence of it was this: Our "destiny is in the stars," said Forster, but we "retain the power to wriggle." I like that. Forster's own resolution of the question of determinism and free will. Our destinies may be determined, but somehow we retain that power to wriggle.


Copyright 1995
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