I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church, the Salvation Army. My parents were SA ministers (captains) . I imagined I would grow up to be a minister. But my father had a problem. Although he was a good parent and preacher, he became inappropriately involved with another woman. Events escalated over time, and he was jailed for threatening to kill her. In the end he did kill her and then killed himself.
I began to question many things. My church taught the doctrine of everlasting torture in Hell for anyone who died a sinner. Now that this was all too real for a father I loved, I examined that penalty closely. I concluded that such a penalty could not be justified. There was nothing a person could do in a finite lifetime that could justify being tortured for eternity. Such a penalty was inconsistent with the Christian values that I was raised on, and a god that would do that could not, must not exist.
Still, there was much of value that I learned growing up in my church. There was both virtue and compassion in all the sermons and stories. A song “Dare to Be a Daniel” taught about speaking truth to power. And I did not want to throw out what was good along with the bad. My conclusion was that the ‘God’ concept was useful because it represented the idea of perfect Good. Those who followed God, especially those who followed Jesus, were striving to make the world a better place, not just for themselves, but for everyone. Those values were still valid even if the theology was not.
Today I call myself a “Humanist”. A Humanist is basically “an atheist with Christian values”. These days I go to a Unitarian Universalist church. The Unitarians were originally Christians who did not believe in the Trinity. Jesus was a great moral philosopher, but he was not a god. Thomas Jefferson held this view, and wrote his own new testament, with the message, but without the miracles. The Universalists were also Christians, but they did not believe in Hell. They believed in universal salvation for everyone. Today’s UUA is open to everyone who is willing to be open to everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof.
After my father died, I spent time in the public library, browsing the philosophy section. I think I was reading something by Baruch Spinoza that introduced the issue of determinism as a threat to free will. I found this troublesome until I had this thought experiment (whether I read it in one of the books or just came up with it myself, I can’t recall).
The idea that my choices were inevitable bothered me, so I considered how I might escape what seemed like an external control. It struck me that all I needed to do was to wait till I had a decision to make, between A and B, and if I felt myself leaning heavily toward A, I would simply choose B instead. So easy! But then it occurred to me that my desire to thwart inevitability had caused B to become the inevitable choice, so I would have to switch back to A again, but then … it was an infinite loop!
No matter which I chose, inevitability would continue to switch to match my choice! Hmm. So, who was controlling the choice, me or inevitability?
Well, the concern that was driving my thought process was my own. Inevitability was not some entity driving this process for its own reasons. And I imagined that if inevitability were such an entity, it would be sitting there in the library laughing at me, because it made me go through these gyrations without doing anything at all, except for me thinking about it.
My choice may be a deterministic event, but it was an event where I was actually the one doing the choosing. And that is what free will is really about: is it me or is someone or something else making the decision. It was always really me.
And since the solution was so simple, I no longer gave it any thought. Then much later, just a few years ago, I ran into some on-line discussions about it, and I wondered why it was still a problem for everyone else, since I had seen through the paradox more than fifty years ago.
I was a Psychology major at Richmond Professional Institute, which later became Virginia Commonwealth University. Unlike most colleges, it had a top-notch psych department and offered a Bachelor of Science in psych rather than a BA. I took a variety of psych courses (general, educational, tests and measurements, existential phenomenological, group dynamics, social psych, ed psych, etc.), as well as courses in sociology, philosophy (ethics), and a few other typically required undergraduate courses.
I joined the Radio Club (WJRB) and became its Student Government Association representative. I later served on the Honor Court, which handled cases of lying, cheating, and theft. Then I ran for SGA president, coming in 3rd out of four candidates. My platform was to address the high rate of cheating reported by William Bowers in his landmark study “Student Dishonesty and its Control in College”. It was a survey of 5000 students in 99 colleges. The surprising result was that half of the students admitted to having cheated at least once while in college. After losing the race for president, I was appointed Chairman of the Honor Court.
Over the summer, I had to figure out how to explain the Honor Court to new freshmen in a speech at orientation. I encountered Jefferson’s remarks in the Declaration of Independence which transformed my view of what we were doing:
“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted…”
The proper purpose of the Court, of any court, is to protect rights that we have agreed to respect and protect for each other through law. Our business was not to impose honor, or gain honor for the student body by taking a hard stance on cheating, but rather to handle behavior that violated the right of teachers to fairly evaluate student achievement. You see, we expect teachers to respect our rights as students to a fair grade and fair tests. We must reciprocate by respecting their right not to be cheated by us.
And, just like the issue of eternal torment in Hell, Honor Court cases had only one penalty, expulsion. In the Bowers study, many of the students who cheated had only cheated once. They had apparently stopped on their own, without any penalty imposed by any court other than their own conscience. But while it was an “Honor” court, it could have only a single sanction, justified by the notion that the student who cheated did not deserve to associate with the rest of us. So, we needed to change it into a court of Justice.
We renamed it a “Student Court”, and passed student laws against lying, stealing, and academic fraud. Now we could choose more appropriate penalties, other than expelling the student on the first offense.
Unfortunately, this change took my full attention, and I neglected my coursework. Because we were near the end of the add-drop period, where you could still drop a course without it appearing as an “F” on your records, I dropped out of college to avoid flunking out.
I did return to take other courses later, but never enrolled as a full-time student and never earned a degree.
After I left college I worked many jobs. I was an “oiler” on a crane, a factory worker, and worked at a Community Action agency in Cumberland county. I even sold vacuum cleaners door to door for a month. While working as a clerical supervisor at the University hospital, I taught myself to program in Basic and then COBOL. I applied for a programming position and was hired at two steps below a trainee. But I had a talent for it, and worked there for most of my life as a programmer and then as computer systems analyst. I’m retired now.
There are several issues where my experience and thinking might offer useful insights: Religion, Morality, Ethics, Justice, Rights, and Free Will. They are grouped under categories that can be selected from the drop-down menu or can be located using the search tool. I hope you find them useful and perhaps even enlightening.