The Journey series
I woke up this morning and it was already today, time to post my weekly Mustard Seed. I hadn’t even started writing. I was bluntly reminded of another limitation on free will: time.
Despite recently becoming an officially retired old age pensioner, I still have obligations at Church, at home, with friends, and in my community. I still have to give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Sometimes the things we plan to do take back seat to things that arise.
Many people quote the Latin Phrase Carpe diem, sieze the day. Most are unaware of the accompanying admonishments.
First: Memento vivere, fac vitam incredibilis; remember to live, make an incredible life. This week it seems the days seized me; I’m rushing from task to task, barely having time to breath, and making an incredible table – hopefully. When I look back there will be accomplishments I’ll appreciate, but right now I feel very little free will, no sense of control over my life.
Second: Tempus fugit, memento mori; time flies, remember death. This reminds us that death comes at an unexpected hour. We lay plans with the best of intentions and avoid the uncomfortable but at some point; we will no longer be here to do anything. I surmise things we plan shortly before death will amuse us in our after-life, but things we neglect will torment us. Why did we not make peace with our enemies? Why did we not thank someone, tell them we love them? Why did we not smell more flowers, hear more birds, and wade through more creeks?
It’s approaching time to leave for Church, so I’ll end here and try to seize more days for a better Mustard Seed next week.
Last week we looked at legal and moral rights. This week we’ll examine economics.
In ancient societies, rulers exacted taxes to pay the cost of governing. They conscripted soldiers for their armies and workers for their civil projects. People bartered day to day for business, sons learned from their fathers. Fishermen’s sons became fishermen, farmers’ sons became farmers, and carpenters’ sons became carpenters. Itinerant merchants traded foreign goods for local products as they made their circuit. Transactions were licensed and taxed by local authorities.
In the eleventh century AD, merchants formed guilds to resist excessive demands of feudal lords and to regulate competition. Encouraged by the merchants’ success tradesmen formed their own guilds to bargain more effectively, ensure consistent quality, and regulate the supply of products. Guild leaders, especially merchants, gained political influence. Power shifted from those who owned land to those who produced and traded commodities.
With the advent of machinery, many merchants became entrepreneurs and built factories to replace cottage industry. Their near-total control over production and distribution gained them immense power. Industrialists took control from land barons; capitalism replaced feudalism. Partnerships were formed to finance bigger and bigger businesses. Bigger businesses meant bigger risks and corporations were created to isolate individuals from the total liability of the company.
Just as merchants banded together in guilds to resist the excessive demands of the feudal lords, workers formed unions to bargain against the oppression of the industrialists. Governments also recognized the growing imbalance of power between the industrialists and the general population. Injustices were noted and laws were enacted to limit corporate domination. Governments also formed organizations to provide services which are socially necessary but not readily profitable.
Economic statistics have become the standard measure of success in all endeavours. The economy has become the greatest concern globally, even in decisions such as when to marry or have children. Affordability has become a key determinant even in matters of morality. The almighty dollar has come to challenge our almighty God.
Last week we looked at limits imposed on free will by reality and incompatibility. This week we will view those introduced by social interaction.
It is highly likely that if two people saw a slice of my wife’s coffee cake they would both want to eat it. This is not possible, a compromise must be met.
Every social group, be it family, club, business, nation, or even crime syndicate, builds up moral and legal codes to regulate issues where one party’s will is juxtaposed to another’s. There are two ways to gain adherence: by force or through reason.
All ancient societies imposed rule by conquest. A leader gathered supporters to defend against or attack other leaders. As Darwinian evolution predicates; the strong survived and the weak perished. Rule was by decree; insurrection was the only defense against tyranny.
Democracy arose with the advent of philosophy in Athens near the end of the sixth century BC, but there still remained four distinct social classes. Governance was restricted to adult males of the upper class and, even among them; power was concentrated within a wealthy and articulate few.
It was legal for one human to own another until slavery was abolished, first in Vermont in 1777 and then gradually around the world. Not until 1948 did the United Nations General Assembly adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes an article stating “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Despite this, people are still trafficking today, notably for sexual exploitation.
Women did not gain the right to vote until 1893 in New Zealand and then gradually around the world until, in 2015, Saudi Arabia finally granted women the right to vote.
There still remain a few people who have no right to vote, but even with the near-universal right to vote, various class systems prevent many from even advancing their proposals for consideration.
All members of groups implicitly agree to subordinate their will to those codes. In cases of dispute the first level of resolution is negotiation between the parties involved, the next levels involve appeals to the community, and the final resort is arbitration by tribunal. If a member refuses to abide by the moral and legal codes of the community they are excluded; by emigration, exile, incarceration, or execution.
Many believe rights are granted by the state but Judeo-Christians recognize that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is granted by God and only recognized by the state. The state may interpret particular applications of what God grants, but moral and legal codes are valid only as far as they reflect God’s natural law.
Our will is free only as far as it conforms to the norms of our society. For those of us who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, our will is right only when it conforms to the will of our Lord.
Last week we saw how our senses are poor masters. This week we’ll examine how our mind harnesses our appetites. Our first task is to understand nature and nurture.
Natural traits are bestowed in creation. We can’t decide what our nature is, we can only discern it. Refusing to believe or accept our nature will not change it. Things are what they are.
Nurtured traits develop as we interact with our environment. We remember, rank, and anticipate events. We are aware that we exist and that our actions affect our environment. We are unique among species in our ability to imagine, compare, and pursue many potential futures. This is what we call free will.
Many people today consider free will, without limitation, to be their right. This is an absurd notion. We are free neither to do the impossible nor deny the inevitable. Nothing can be what it’s not. It is, in fact, only possible to have free will when there are limits. It is their inherent limits that define each option and our limits that require us to choose.
Only the creator can determine what something is. Michelangelo chipped away at a block of Carrera marble to reveal his memorial to Christ’s gift and Mary’s sorrow; but it remains 98% calcium carbonate with traces of silica and magnesia. The vision he had before starting may have undergone a few alterations to accommodate a random vein in the rock or a mis-struck chisel blow, but it is that same vision we now see written in stone.
We can push some limits mechanically, but we can’t eliminate them. We can pilot a plane but we are not actually flying; we are in a machine that is flying. One’s appearance can be altered through hormonal treatments and plastic surgery to resemble the opposite sex but they will not be the opposite sex. Despite some people’s claims to know they are trapped in the wrong body, no one can actually experience being the opposite sex. Gender dysphoric people can only compare their mental experience with what they imagine the opposite sex experiences. The most skilled physicians can’t change a person from one sex to the other. Even the brain will still have physical differences peculiar to the patient’s true sex.
There are traits over which we can affect change. I was not overweight when I was twenty, I am now. If I exercise my will sufficiently, I may regain my former trim figure. I can’t, however, do this while still indulging my penchant for crinkle-cut potato chips. Some effects are mutually exclusive.
To prevent this Mustard Seed from becoming overweight, I’ll wait until next week to introduce the effect of introducing other people’s will into the equation.
Peter T Elliott