Random Thoughts on Free Will and Choices

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I was talking with some friends this weekend about choices. I posted about this subject here about intelligence and choices, and these are some trails my thoughts have taken…

One conversation was with a family with kids and we were talking about teaching babies, and really children in general. The mother was saying she squeezes her baby boy’s hand when he goes to touch something she doesn’t want him to touch. When the baby later goes to touch the same object, he first looks to his mother. He does this, in fact, for other objects he goes to touch. He turns and looks. I am sure if you have kids, you have seen this. ‘Is mommy looking, is she going to do anything if I do this…’ They wait and they watch. It just struck me at how early babies can conceive of what is approved of and what isn’t, and how early they can start to make actual moral choices. I had a mental image suddenly of the child growing up, a speedy time-lapse fast forward movie where year after year a child makes thousands of choices both for and against the will of parents and society, and that under the child-now-adult, all these choices accumulate like pennies filling a jar. They cease to be choices, closing and becoming sort of automatic non-choices. They become biases, or conclusions. Ruts.

In another conversation, I was talking with a friend about nutrition and he was really passionate about the foods we put in our bodies and about all the chemicals and preservatives. For him, he had good reasons. He has struggled with pain in his GI tract and leaky gut syndrome, and he has had to modify his diet in order to just be and feel healthy. He said he grew up on a farm and always ate well there. It wasn’t until he got out on his own that he started to open up to eating other processed “tasty” foods. In the Navy, he was going on sick call every three months or so with severe abdominal pains. He noticed the pattern and asked the doctor about it. During the conversation, the doctor either mentioned or asked him about what he was eating. My friend said it was like getting slapped in the face. It was so clear to him that what he was eating was causing his symptoms. He also said he noticed the same sort of effects on his body after long runs on the submarine, when the fresh foods were gone and the least nutrition foods were served.

 Again, I was struck by the free will we can either make or ignore. I have had an upper level collegiate nutrition class and I know preservatives are extremely bad for you. It is simple—the preservatives keep bacteria from growing in the food, and after you ingest it, it keeps bacteria (the good kind we all have) from growing in our gut. I don’t think about that when I put my dollar in a machine for some tasty poptarts. Or should I qualify that: do I listen to my gut or my energy level (or lack of)? Do consider all aspects of the food and it’s quality? I have been at times extremely fit, but life has gotten so busy that healthy choices just don’t appear on my radar as much. Or, put another way, it may appear I am making a choice (hmm hungry, walk to machine, count money, ching ching ching, munch munch munch), but is there any free will in that choice? Is it any different from the choices animals make (turn this way or that, sniff sniff sniff, go that way, run, catch prey, munch munch munch). Would these be non-free will choices? Or simply our ruts?

On the way out of my neighborhood on mornings, I wave at neighbors. Most are friendly, but some aren’t. I wave anyway and most of the time, I get stared back at. I do wonder why the coolness. I wonder if is a conscious choice, or is simply this accumulated automation. Does he (or she) actually choose to not be friendly? It occurred to me that as a Christian, loving no matter the response, maybe especially because of a negative response, may serve to re-engage a free will choice in the other person. If someone is just a sour-puss and yet I am friendly, at some point he has to become self-conscious and realize, “Wow, I’m a sour-puss.” At that point, he can then decide again to continue or start to look at himself, evaluate his behavior, think about life, right and wrong, etc. If there is no hope, why change? Perhaps that is why God demands persistence on our part as Christians to continue to love no matter the circumstances or persecution. Perhaps it is this that roots out and pulls to the surface again a buried aggregate of bad choices, long-buried, that can changed to a different direction. To love our enemies forces our opponent’s free will back to the surface of consciousness. 

I was trying to think of a conclusion to try to tie these loose ends together. Ironically, I got home last night and the family was watching The Biggest Loser on Netflix. One of the contestants was saying how he felt like he had been asleep for the last fifteen years. Another woman said it was a final miscarriage that forced her to acknowledge what the doctors had told her, that her weight was the major factor. Hearing these stories and more, it all came together for me. We all get up in the morning and make all sorts of choices all day long. Some are minor, some major, but all are accumulative. How many are based on free will? What effects do they have on our health, both physical and spiritual? And if we do not examine ourselves, what does that say about our humanity? In the end, we may just be left to wonder about our lives, asking, “how did I get Here??”

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