Sunday, June 19, 2011

Causation, the future and free will

By Steve Rensberry

 The idea that the future is something which can be predicted or known with certainty, as opposed to a mere hypothesis or likelihood, raises a host of questions.
  There is a very limited sense, of course, in which predicting future events is no more fantastic than knowing that water will boil at a certain temperature or that most humans will fail to live beyond a certain age. One can predict with near certainty that the sun will still be shining 10 years from now and that most people will still be falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning.
   The ability to reason and predict the future with some limited degree of accuracy, based upon simple observation and pattern recognition, would seem to be a basic fact of the human condition. Educated judgments with a scientific basis aimed at predicting future social trends likewise would not seem out of place.
   Everything changes, however, when such predictions become even moderately specific or involve events well into the future. How possible would it be would be, for example, to know exactly what project you will be working on, who the president of the United States will be, and what you will be wearing at 10:05 a.m. on January 15, 2035?
   This may all seem like so much common sense, but the fact is, the belief in prophetic truth and in things like destiny continue to beset the minds of many people, even in this modern day and age and despite the host of philosophical contradictions and conundrums presented by such presuppositions.
   The problems are especially acute for persons professing to know the future in totality, right down to the most minute detail. Admittedly, it is not so much select mortals who claim to have such ability as much as it is their belief that there exists a genuine, bona fide deity who is nothing less than omniscient. But if the future is known, what happens to free will? How can a person know with certainty that a prediction is accurate before it happens? What is the difference between prediction and happenstance? Imagine the complexity of knowing the consequences of all of the accumulated choices made by millions of people decades down the road.
   Surely it is all to convenient to dress one's predictions in allegory or in statements which are generally true for most civilization and cultures throughout most periods in time, as in the prediction that "there will be wars and rumors of wars." What are such statements but rational observations and educated guesses with some possibility of coming true?
   Intelligent beings need a basis and a framework in which to judge and make decisions affecting the course of their lives. While such frameworks need not be eternal and permanent, very often are assumed to be precisely that. Why? Is temporal uncertainty simply too much to bear? Is it all part of the scramble to find meaning and purpose in life? Is it essential for humans to project a known or deterministic future in order to feel as though their lives have value?
   Ironically, prophecy adherents very often embrace the concept of free will at the same time that they assume there is a future that cannot change. May I suggest their error is in assuming, evidence aside, that the human will is an entity unto itself, entirely separate from the body and fully responsible for the choices it makes. But what is life if it is not governed by some measure of reason, cause and effect, the will included? And by what evidence does one conclude that choice itself does not lie within that same eternal stream of connectivity?
   Consider these words from English reformer Robert Blatchford:
   "When a man says his will is free, he means that it is free of all control or interference: that it can over-rule heredity and environment. We reply that the will is ruled by heredity and environment. The cause of all the confusion on this subject may be shown in a  few words. When the free will party say that man has a free will, they mean that he is free to act as he chooses to act. There is no need to deny that. But what causes him to choose? That is the pivot upon which the whole discussion turns." (Blatchford, Robert, Not Guilty, Albert And Charles Boni, Inc., 1913).