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Is God a Taoist? July 13, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Flights of Fancy, Saving the World.
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…And therefore, O God, I pray thee, if thou hast one ounce of mercy for this thy suffering creature, absolve me of having to have free will!

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A couple of days ago I was debating with a friend online (one from a contrasting religious background to my own) about free will and whether the existence of evil serves any constructive purpose in our world. Much of what we said reminded me of a delightfully quirky dialogue by one of my favorite philosophy writers, Raymond Smullyan (available online and highly recommended.) Entitled “Is God a Taoist”?, it takes place between just two characters: God and a Mortal demanding an explanation for free will.

Mortal: And therefore, O God, I pray thee, if thou hast one ounce of mercy for this thy suffering creature, absolve me of having to have free will!

God:You reject the greatest gift I have given thee?

Mortal: How can you call that which was forced on me a gift? I have free will, but not of my own choice. I have never freely chosen to have free will. I have to have free will, whether I like it or not!

This is one of my favorite pieces of religious philosophical writing and I find its playful and (at times) tongue-in-cheek approach quite refreshing. (It reminds me of the various times in the Old Testament when Abraham or Moses would argue with God and God would very obligingly argue back, just like another person and not at all like the Creator of the Universe…)

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I love the conclusion that Smullyan draws about two-thirds of the way through the dialogue:

God: The only difference between the so-called saint and the so-called sinner is that the former is vastly older than the latter. Unfortunately it takes countless life cycles to learn what is perhaps the most important fact of the universe — evil is simply painful. All the arguments of the moralists — all the alleged reasons why people shouldn’t commit evil acts — simply pale into insignificance in light of the one basic truth that evil is suffering. No, my dear friend, I am not a moralist. I am wholly a utilitarian….My role in the scheme of things…is neither to punish nor reward, but to aid the process by which all sentient beings achieve ultimate perfection.

To me this is one of the best explanations for “Why does evil exist?” and echoes Julian of Norwich’s approach as well: “Sin was necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.” It may be simply an unfortunate truth that, in order to beings to become capable of freely choosing good, they have to make a large number of bad choices first and experience the unpleasant consequences. (This is, after all, the way in which children learn math or writing or music or a sport: by making mistakes until they learn what “works” and what doesn’t.) Yes, this may result – for a while – in a vastly imperfect world like our own, but would a universe full of mindless automata without will or freedom be any better?

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Towards the end, Smullyan makes an interesting assertion:

Mortal: You said a short while ago that our whole discussion was based on a monstrous fallacy. You still have not told me what this fallacy is.

God: Why, the idea that I could possibly have created you without free will! You acted as if this were a genuine possibility, and wondered why I did not choose it!…Can you honestly even imagine a conscious being without free will? What on earth could it be like? I think that one thing in your life that has so misled you is your having been told that I gave man the gift of free will. As if I first created man, and then as an afterthought endowed him with the extra property of free will. Maybe you think I have some sort of “paint brush” with which I daub some creatures with free will and not others. No, free will is not an “extra”; it is part and parcel of the very essence of consciousness. A conscious being without free will is simply a metaphysical absurdity.

This sounds compelling, but when I think about it I begin to wonder. I am quite sure my tabby cat Rumi is conscious – I think any pet-owner will agree with me on this one – but would stop short of stating categorically (pun not intended!) that he has “free will”. Might consciousness be a prerequisite for (rather than consequence of) free will? Or perhaps neither is binary but rather lies somewhere on a continuum. Rocks presumably have no consciousness or free will, fish and birds and reptiles may have some vague traces of both, certain mammals such as dogs or dolphins or chimpanzees may have significantly more, and humans most of all…Which leads to a very interesting question: perhaps there is an even higher level yet to reach above the human level?

…But that’s a topic for another essay.😉

The Contrapuntal Platypus

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