The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. - Richard Dawkins

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Illusion of "Free Will"

My mother expressed this idea in a very simple way to me.  She said, “At every given moment, every human being is doing the BEST they possibly can, at that moment in their lives.”  She meant that to include even those who had committed or were committing the most heinous, evil acts imaginable.  I don’t think anybody else really completely understood where she was coming from.  But I did.  Because I had already had the same thoughts myself, for years.  At one point or another, I asked myself, “If a person does “evil”, or acts in an “evil” way, WHY do they do so?  That is, there must be some REASON why some people do “good” and others do “evil”.  It is no explanation to simply say that someone is an “evil person, or that they are a “good” person.  That simply begs the question, “WHY are they evil” or WHY are they good?  What made them that way in the first place?  It is so tempting to posit a little man at the controls, a “ghost in the machine”, upon whom we can place ultimate “blame” or ultimate credit, without recourse to any prior cause.  It satisfies a deep seated human need for "revenge" and "justice" and "karma".  But even if we concede the existence of a “soul”, then WHY are some souls “good” and others “evil”?  It’s just an infinite regress.   Every time you attempt to explain the character of one being by positing a second internal being, you are then faced with the problem of explaining the character of the second being. The very concepts of “blameworthiness” or “deserving punishment” or “revenge” are intrinsically flawed and nonsensical, as there is no entity at which the buck stops, no ghost upon which we can heap blame or guilt, no personality who "deserves" revenge or punishment, or even rewards.  Human behavior and psychology are emergent phenomena which cannot be pinned on any single point of origin.

It is even more ridiculous when religious people use "free will" as a justification for Hell.  They say that God is justified in punishing his creations for eternity,  because they committed evil out of their "free will", and therefore they "deserve" it.  If indeed there is a God (who is the ONLY truly causeless being in the universe, and who has complete control over the entire universe, and who created all human beings), then ultimately, if the buck stops anywhere, if anyone could be said to be "blameworthy" for human evil, it would be that God!  It is just ludicrous to me that religions like Christianity, who posit an all-powerful God, nonetheless feel justified in assigning blame for all the evils of the world to human beings who were the CREATIONS of that God; who had no control whatsoever in how they were created.  Religious people derive great satisfaction from the idea that God will  one day wreak eternal revenge upon all the “evil” souls who “deserve” to be punished.   This is an utterly senseless reason to punish someone.   Punishment for the sake of revenge, or to obtain satisfaction for acts committed in the past, serves no purpose other than to feed the ego of the punisher.  It does not repair the harm done in the past.  It does not rehabilitate the offender.  It does not protect society from the offender.  It does not even serve as a deterrent, since it continues long after there are no remaining potential offenders. At that point, it becomes nothing but egotistical cruelty. It seems to me that beings who are truly spiritually evolved would be able to let go of the egoic need to have a target for their hatred and revenge.

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