"I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road". – Stephen Hawking
Throughout the history of mankind, the nature of free will has been a topic of contention affecting the lives of theologists, philosophers, scientists, and everyday human beings alike. We, as humans, are constantly advised to act a certain way with the free will that has been ever so graciously granted to us in order to fulfill a prophecy that exists beyond our proverbial life. The phenomena lies in the hope of a better situation in an afterlife that we, as a species, are not even sure exists. So why do the world's most influential religions channel all this confidence into what is essentially a 'theory'? (And that is, a theory in the philosophical sense rather than that of scientific significance).
The truth is that the nature of free will is an essential element in an array of religions– particularly Christianity and Hinduism– where the support is alike in numbers, but differs significantly in both belief and practice. These religious interpretations of free will have unconsciously dictated the actions of mankind since the beginning of time, and though contrasting in some senses, these two understandings of free will share in common a dependency on an influence outside of themselves to construct the path that is their life.
In classical Christian belief, the concept of free will is one that is held very close to heart because it is something that has been granted to us by God. In fact, it is believed by most Christians that our free will as humans is a direct result of our creation by an omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (possessing perfect goodness) God who has intentionally sacrificed the existence of a Utopian world in order for us to have the ability to think independently. The famous Christian theologian and Neo-Platonic thinker Saint Augustine was a major proponent of the free will defense, explaining how it is better that we as a species have the capability to act freely, and consequently, the capacity to do both good and evil, than to lack such ability at all. He goes on to explain that God, in his perfect goodness, created humans with the indefinite power of free will– what they chose to do with that free will is up to the individual.
This is the defense that Saint Augustine would use when the question of God's coexistence with evil would arise. In his eyes, it is not God's divine characteristics that should be in question, but our malevolent intentions as humans. His argument made the plea that humans are solely responsible for any and all evil that exists in the world due to the manner in which we decide to exercise our free will. Most Christians would back up Augustine's claim, making statements like "it is not in the hands of God what we choose to do with what He granted us".
Nonetheless, this concept goes both ways; if God chose to exercise his divine omnipotence and stop all evil in the world, then we would not be truly free, and therefore, unable to do good either. This leads him– along with the majority of Christian believers – to conclude that it is better that God grants us free will, even though this freedom can (and has) led to evil. Therefore in the Christian sense, the pros of free will outweigh the costs, and the existence of God can not be disproven by the existence of evil; the two are mutually exclusive and can coexist in Christian theory.
Though these ideas exist, some argue that the extent of evil in the world is much too horrendous for there to be any good that surpasses its influence on humanity. If one wants a real-world illustration of these evils one can think about actions like: mass genocide of our own species – which has been found to be a phenomenon unique to the human genus– crime and violence, unequal distribution of wealth and poverty, selfishness and greed, and other unfortunate yet common occurrences in human history. Due to the finite nature of humans, this exercise of evil on earth is one that is often not dwelled on since Christian belief clearly articulates that at the eschaton (the end of time), God will grant the eternal bliss of heaven to those that commit good, while those that commit evil will be castigated to the depths of hell for having denied God's salvation.
Another way of thinking about free will in the Christian sense is the idea that God allows a world filled with temptations and evil so that humans have the opportunity to choose– through their own will– what is good and what is bad. By doing so, it grants humans the virtues of fortitude, adaptability, patience, generosity, and so on. These "trials" of human experience force one to stand vis-à-vis evil and allow for the growth and maturity of the mortal self in the physical world while alluding to the eventual reward that awaits them in the spiritual world once their time on Earth has come to an end.
Christian theology emphasizes the idea that if one proves their moral excellence throughout their lifetime by following the virtues of Jesus Christ, they will be welcomed with open-arms in heaven after they pass. American philosopher and episcopal priest Marilyn McCord Adams argues that all human beings, even those who have experienced the most horrific evils on earth, will, in the eschaton, be redeemed and thus find ultimate meaning and goodness in their lives (Meister, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). But the question here would be: are all the horrendous evils present in our universe justifiable by God's desire for humans to "grow" or "mature"? Can there exist horrors so detrimental that no goodness can surmount their impact? In response, one could argue that there exists no such thing as "pointless evils"– those of which exist without the purpose or intent of bettering mankind.
Needless to say, Christians will plead that even in the epicenter of adversity, there will be some good that arises; whether that be the compassion that radiates from the seemingly unwarranted hardship at hand, or the unification of mankind following a certain disastrous event, these occurrences can only materialize after evils have manifested themselves in our world. Paul Weiss explains in his article "Good and Evil" that pain and suffering are actually necessary, and that an absence of such would have stumped the evolution of humankind. Weiss illustrates this by stating that "sometimes they [pain, suffering, death, and illness] stimulate, provoke, induce, sustain the search for and the attainment of goods not possible otherwise. They prompt men to appreciate, invent, reform and re-affirm" (Weiss 1949, 82).
In his eyes, the anticipation of death adds value to life; just as the presence of disease adds value to one's health. Thus– in the Christian sense– God created everything in the world as inherently good, and it is through the exercise of free will that humans have chosen evil and commissioned that which is paradoxical to the goodness of God. Quite a bit of what is intrinsically good has become tainted, and this defilement comes from humans as free agents, not from God.
An underlying theme within Hinduism and many other polytheistic religions is that of Karma and reincarnation. These concepts are often the main point of distinction between Eastern polytheistic belief and Western monotheism. Karma in Hinduism is often misinterpreted as being interchangeable with the more common Western interpretation of Karma which holds that what goes around comes around; essentially implying that the actions that one performs in this lifetime will generate befitting consequences within the same lifetime. This differs from the conception of Karma in Hinduism which views Karma, in actuality, as the possibility that one attracts the great and awful consequences of his or her activities, either right now– or more often– in another life.
Most commonly, free will in Hinduism is the expression of moral agency within one's life. This is also vital to the karma/resurrection solution which states that our ethical choices determine our future encounters– making us answerable for our own fate. This concept can be observed in a simple thought experiment: imagine a man decides to assault a lady walking on the street. At that point on the karmic account the lady was not totally blameless; she is taking care of her previous malice activities in lives that came before this one. All things considered, the attacker isn't really allowed to go about as he does, for he is essentially following mechanically the impacts of karmic due process. He is simply the instrumental methods for delivering the equity essential for this current lady's past wrongdoing.
Assuming though that the lady does not deserve such moral requittal, at that point karmic equity will guarantee that she does not get it. Thus, the attacker will not be able to participate in the assault. This is fundamentally how free will is interpreted in Hinduism and is a major driving force in the lives of many believers to this day. In other words, "[it is] our own past karmas which are responsible for our birth and all consequent suffering" (Kalita 54, 1970). Regardless of whether God be taken as the maker of this world, God can not be considered liable for our misery, since He makes this world in compliance with the karmas done by individuals in their past lives.
In both the Christian and Hindu interpretations of free will, there exists an external determinant of fate that remains beyond mortal capacity. But with this conception comes the question of why humans–granted with free will– have chosen, over and over again, evil above good. Neither of these religions argue that humans are inherently evil beings or are born with any trace of animosity, but logic seems to point at this as a plausible explanation for the dark side of humanity.
Personally, I consider humans as creators of their own destiny; born as a blank canvas and painted by the experiences that they encounter throughout their lives. The pure potentiality that is present within us is the electric force that directs our actions, and ultimately, determines both our individual fate and that of humanity through the footprint that we leave on the collective human consciousness. Everything that we seek is already present within each of us, and we are – for the most part– in control of the environment that envelopes us. As author Sam Harries put it– "You are not controlling the storm, and you are not lost in it. You are the storm."
Kalita, and Tripty Devi. "A Study of the Problem of Evil with Special Reference to the Contemporary Indian Thought." Shodhganga@INFLIBNET: A study of the problem of evil with special reference to the contemporary indian thought. Guwahati, January 1, 1970. http://hdl.handle.net/10603/69676.
Weiss, Paul. "Good and Evil." The Review of Metaphysics 3, no. 1 (1949): 81-94. Accessed
March 4, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/20123154.