The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples




One of the arguments which somehow keeps coming up over and over in a very insistent way is the question of free will versus determinism. A Baptist minister in Westport that I was talking to gave human freedom as the reason for the occurrence of evil in the world. It was the main topic in a group of old alums meeting for the first time in thirty years. The arguments on both sides come from philosophers, scientists, religious people. We’ve been talking about it for hundreds — no, thousands — of years. You’d think by now the answer would have been determined.


The question of free will was at first addressed only as a religious question. If there was a god, all-knowing and all-powerful who created the world he must have created it in a certain way, with a certain end in view, and with certain knowledge of how it would be worked out. Whatever happened in the world must be with God’s knowledge and by his will. Therefore our rebellious sense of making our own decisions and our own choices is part of God’s creation. He set it up, he knows what the choices will be. Everything is God’s will. It always makes me sad that it is the terrible things that happen that are most often spoken of as being caused by the will of God. I don’t know why or how people find comfort in the idea that their pain and suffering is God’s plan and God’s idea. I suppose that in a sense the idea that their suffering helps to bring about whatever end God may have in view can redeem it and give it some purpose, but that’s not an idea of God that I can admire or appreciate — much less feel compelled to worship.

The most rigid and consistent of the religious determinist point of view was the Presbyterian doctrine of double predestination. Before you were born God not only knew who and what you would be but whether you would be saved. Nothing you did could alter that foreknowledge. Your virtue or lack of it, your success or failure were simply indication of what had already been previously decided about you at the creation of the world.

The other idea, the religious doctrine that supported free will, was the teaching subscribed to by my Baptist acquaintance that God gave us free will and as a consequence the evil of the world happens not by God’s will but by ours. We necessarily seem to choose only evil. If it is free choice it is bad choice. One wonders why God would have chosen to give us free will if that was the inevitable outcome. Certainly it makes sense that love and service given freely is of far greater value than that which is coerced, but according to this doctrine, that’s not what God would get but rather would have to observe our sin and our pain unless, by divine intervention we were turned toward the right path. Heretics lost their lives for the belief that human free will unmitigated by God’s grace could ever be other than mistaken or intentionally evil. Such a doctrine as an explanation of human evil is at least coherent, but I have never understood how it can be used to explain unmerited suffering. Nevertheless, in the discussion in Westport the Baptist minister assured us that our free will, our gift from God was the source of all evil and of all suffering.

Whatever their doctrine, however, be it predestination, or free will as an evil, or the heretic believers in free will who thought we could make good choices and serve the holy in freedom, all of them continued to feel as if they could make decisions for themselves — or at least that others could. They held people responsible for their actions, and they themselves made decisions daily as if their freedom of will was never in question. Some of them even agonized about their inability to act as they believed — that only God was really in charge. 

Such was the religious argument on determinism and free will, and it continues in the same way, never resolved and neither side convincing the other. Then, of course, there is the secular argument, propped up by science and research, that our sense that we can and do make decisions and choices is just as much an illusion as if we believed in double predestination. All of it is determined by our genetic make-up and the evolutionary forces that have made our life on earth what it is. Everything about us, our talents, our emotions, our sins, are simply a product of our chemistry.

It is certainly true that we are born with a certain temperament that must indeed be a product of our genes or perhaps the environment in the womb. Whether we are placid or nervous, energetic or lazy, good-natured or morose, is pretty much how we are born. I’ve seen it in my own children. All three were born with different temperaments, and all of them, whatever their experiences or learnings, have dealt with them according to that inborn temperament. Other things that we had considered matters of choice have often been shown to be matters of chemistry instead — a tendency toward alcoholism, a balanced world-view, sexual orientation, all are influenced if not caused by the chemical and genetic interactions in our bodies.

They have learned amazing things about the brain. By stimulating it in certain   places they can evoke memories, emotions, smells, that have no outside stimulus. It seems clear that the recreational or torture devices imagined by science fiction writers as machines that can create a full environment including all the senses in the mind alone is not far-fetched at all but instead highly possible. Direct stimulation of the brain in certain areas will do it and there is no reason to think that the technology cannot be achieved.

Memory itself, that we think of as so intensely personal and which creates our persona can be created and implanted in the mind. Memories of something that never happened can feel just as real as authentic ones. They have done experiments in which an incident suggested by the researcher (and invented by the researcher alone) is internalized as a full memory and defended as such even when the subject is told that it never really happened. Our minds can make them feel as if they were the real thing. That feeling is part of the chemistry of the mind, and to doubt those memories would be like doubting one’s own existence.

I have for years been convinced that the experience of déjà vu which is so powerful is simply a chemical glitch in the brain. It has been used to argue for reincarnation, mental telepathy or other forms of thought transference, but my own experience suggests that it is simply a feeling caused by a little extra chemical or tiny unprovoked electric connection in the brain. I had the feeling once when I was washing the dishes. I have, of course, washed dishes many times before, but the experience was hardly worth the power of that emotional response.

I think that is also to some degree true of what we call mystical experience. It can be evoked by the chemistry created in the body by physical stress. That’s why Sufis dance, Hindus do yoga and Plains Indians sent their young men into the wilderness to meet their spirit guides. My route to it has mainly been sleep deprivation, but the experience is a powerful one. I would argue that the fact that an experience is chemically caused does not necessarily invalidate the experience, but it does give one furiously to think, especially with the recent mass media stories on the brain research that suggests we are hard-wired for spiritual experience, if not for God.

With all that, with my understanding that much of what we are is because of genes, environment, chemical and electrical make-up, with my deep conviction of the truth of evolutionary theory, I do not think that determinism is proved or even particularly tenable. I will admit that my bias is necessarily on the side of free will. If I believed in determinism I would have to re-convince myself every time I made a decision — even one of whether I really had to get up in the morning — that it had been determined eons before that I would do so. I can’t do it. Everything in me tells me that I am free to choose and that I am accountable for my decisions, that I can change if I am sufficiently motivated to do so, that confronted with a decision, no matter what the influences outside of me or inside over which I have no control, it is still my decision and I must take responsibility for it. If I believed in determinism there would be no point in my standing here preaching to you, calling you to the service of something greater than ourselves, if neither you nor I were able to decide to answer that call. There would certainly be no point in your listening to me. All that to me is sacred — not the least of it our freedom and thus our responsibility to live our lives in service to our highest values — would be simply a rearrangement of our natural chemicals.

It’s a good thing I don’t have to believe in determinism, that the arguments for it do not compel me to belief, because to do so would make my whole life’s dedication worthless. One of the things that I hold sacred is the commitment to truth, no matter how unpleasant or even instrumentally damaging it may be. If I can be convinced that something is true I must believe it even if I hate it. I am grateful, therefore, that however convincing the arguments for determinism may seem, however many brain cells light up under certain stimuli, my belief in free will is unshaken.

One of the consequences of the evolution of the human mind was its ability to reason. With that ability comes free will. I can’t prove that scientifically either, but neither can I prove the existence of love, of justice, of compassion, of beauty, but I experience them as real. They can be neither proved nor disproved — they are not subject to such kinds of investigation, though certainly thinking about them I’m sure lights up different brain cells than thinking about what you are going to have for supper or whether you should have taken that right turn you just passed. I think the experience of having free will is equally transrational. You can argue against it all you will, you can pile evidence on evidence, but you will still make decisions and you will still hold others accountable for the decisions that they make.

There is, actually, some scientific thought that justifies the idea of free will. Chaos theory, which nowadays is called something else that is really more descriptive but so much less evocative that I can never remember it, tells us that ours is not really a universe of cause and effect, but of statistics and probability. For a single cause there can be a range of possible effects. Although for any decision you make you can, if you wish, trace its causes back as far as your fainting spirit can take you, but in the final crisis, it is still your choice for which you are accountable. This, of course is the essence of freedom. If you are not free you are not accountable for your actions. We do not hold animals or children accountable in the same way we hold thinking adults because they are not free in the same way. They do not have the capacity for reason or the experience, in the case of children, to make good decisions. The sense we have of our possession of free will and therefore accountability for what we think and do is the essence of our humanness and in our case even our religion.

Unitarian Universalism is the institutionalization of free religion. The heresy that human beings can know the true and the good without divine intervention though evidence, through reason, and through its testing in the beloved community is the founding understanding of our faith. Without the freedom to seek and discover truth, to recognize for ourselves the purpose of our lives, to choose our own religious path there would be no point to our existence. Free will is known a priori as goodness is known, as beauty is known, as justice is known. There is even no point in argument, in proving or disproving its existence, if it does not exist. Even to dismiss it as untrue seems to me evidence that it is true. We can think, we can reason, and we are therefore free to think and reason and to decide. Though the influences on a single decision may be as varied as chemically created emotions and rational thought and may stretch back to the dawn of time, yet today, now, your decisions are your own. It is in the context of freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of conscience, that our religion exists. It is in that context that we attain full humanity.