The Myth of “Free” Will

When I was 23 years old. I was faced with a daunting decision. After having completed four years in the military, I had resumed my dream of pursuing a degree in theology from Bethel college in St. Paul. My year of studying and classroom experience was very rewarding, and I was beginning to recover my hope of having a life worth living. But then the bottom dropped out. My marriage turned sour, our finances were tapped out, and we were expecting our second child by the end of June. For a few days I toyed with the idea of getting a part-time job to supplement our income from the GI bill so I could stay in college. But the numbers simply did not add up. We were not going to make it unless I found full time work very soon. And for me, full time work and full time college were never going to happen at the same time.

My solution was to turn to the computer industry. It was 1974, and computers were beginning to make their way into the workplace (before the era of the PC). I already had some computer experience by then, and I seemed to have a natural aptitude for software design. Perhaps in a few years I could scale back to a part-time programming job and go back to school again. So I took a 6 week programming course from Control Data Institute, and by October I had a full-time job writing business software. I continued that work for 27 years.

Now it might be tempting to say that I made a choice with my free will to go into the computer industry. Indeed, that was my perspective for many years. But we need to be careful with that word free. To begin with, my mind had been formed in many ways that led me to enjoy software design, not dread it like most people. But perhaps the most important factor in my "decision" was my prior experience of working with a small computer in my Dad's office. He had described for me a problem they were having that caused them a lot of overtime charges (in those days your service contract was based on the hours of computer usage). In my spare time I had pinpointed the cause of the slow software and rewritten the code to dramatically cut their usage time and their cost of operations. After that, my Dad could never say enough good things about me. That was the most powerful validation I ever received from him or any other family member in my entire life.

It was not until years later that I realized how much his approval actually influenced my decision to go into the computer industry. When you add his affirmations to the previous years of longing for his approval, and the pressure I felt to provide for our finances, and the disillusionment I felt regarding school and my marriage, as well as the relative satisfaction I experienced in accomplishing something good in this new technology, my "choice" to enter the computer field was far more emotionally motivated than I ever dreamed. My will was involved, but my evaluation process that led to this "decision" was heavily weighted by my own prior formation and malformation.

I have come to believe that while our will is a crucial instrument in our life, it is by no means autonomous. In fact, we make "choices" all the time without thinking at all! We call it reacting to the situation, instead of carefully responding. These reactions simply come out of us, based on who we are and how we have been shaped by life experience. And while we may be able to list a great many rational reasons for our more careful choices, they are still heavily driven by these same internal forces that we are not even aware of in the moment. What we need to grasp in all this is that our will can never operate outside of who we have become. Much like an iceberg which exists mostly under water, out of sight, the reasons that are visible to us for making a decision make up only a small fraction of the process of making a decision. The truth is that we are totally unaware of most of the forces at work in us that cause us to choose one course of action over another. It may even feel like a "free" will choice. But that does not make it so.

If anything, this truth should give us pause to think about how we are being formed. Because the person we have become (or will become) determines our own future choices far more than any visible, rational explanations we can muster. And if we think that we are free to choose irrespective of our formation, then we are in far more danger than we might imagine. This is why we must become apprentices to Jesus and learn how to be shaped by Him. The more we are formed by engaging with God, the more life-giving our minute-by-minute choices will become. Therein lies our hope of following in His steps.

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