Posted by: dacalu | 25 June 2016

Making Choices

I am reminded this month that decisions matter. The choices we make and the way we make them change the world. Some have wondered why I study science and religion, why I study metaphysics. This is why. Decisions matter. How we think about people, how we treat them, and how we hold ourselves accountable – those questions occupy me as a scholar and as a pastor. I want to help people make the right choices.

Metaphysics matters because it deals with the fundamental categories by which we organize our world. What makes a person a person? What do I value? How do I decide? Ethics rests on these fundamental issues. It all seems so obvious until we meet someone – or even a culture – that answers them differently than we do. As an American, it’s easy to say that all people have certain inalienable rights, but we’ve spent 200 years arguing and changing who we think qualifies as a person. It’s easy to say people are responsible for their actions, but we have spent 200 years arguing and changing our rules for who is responsible for what.

We have changed our minds about who we are essentially, what we choose, and what choices are forced upon us. Sexual orientation and gender identity are only two recent examples. What control do we have over who we are attracted to and how we see ourselves? How much freedom are we allowed as individuals to define ourselves? It occurs to me that I have not said anywhere concretely how I think about choice in light of science and faith. So, let me do that here.

As a question of knowledge, I do not trust you to know what you have control over and what you don’t. Nor do I trust myself. Cognitive Neuroscience and Behavioral Economics have demonstrated that we are neither rational actors nor aware of our own irrationality.

Kathryn Schulz, in her 2011 book Being Wrong speaks persuasively about our ability to deceive ourselves. We selectively forget being wrong about things and selectively remember being right, making it hard to understand our processes for moving from one to the other. This, incidentally, is completely in line with Christian concepts of fallibility and pride. Science is putting parameters on something long held by faith and, truthfully, known intuitively.

Daniel Kahnemann (Thinking Fast and Slow, 2013) sums up a longer tradition of research exemplified by Robert Cialdini (Influence, 2006) and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (Nudge, 2009). Some of our behaviors are predictably irrational. Here it is not simply pride or ego that gets in our way – as some have held in the past – but systematic errors in how we look at the world.

Historically, I’m fond of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organon (1620). One of the foundational books for modern science, it introduces “idols” or systematic errors that come from our humanity, personal history, language, and worldview. There is now a cottage industry of such analysis for the general public. Some are better than others, so I prefer work like that of Michael Gazzaniga (Who’s in Charge? 2012) in neuroscience and Kahnemann in psychology. Both writers tie their work closely to scientific findings.

Kahnemann’s analysis in Thinking Fast and Slow offers a real benefit in showing a range of decision making behaviors, from unconscious and automatic to intentional and costly. The distinction allows us to speak about how our conscious selves can help our automatic selves to make better decisions. Conversely, it speaks to how unconscious decisions can work quickly, efficiently, and well in many situations.

We are not devoid of free will, as Sam Harris suggests in Free Will (2012). Nor are we completely free to will and do without limit. I cannot, for example, fly simply by willing it so. I don’t even think I am entirely free in my preferences. In the case of addiction, I think many people will to will other than they do. As Paul said so succinctly in his letter to the Romans (7:15), “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Thus, I say we have constrained will.

Here comes the interesting bit. I know you do not have complete free will, but hope that you have some free will. I aspire to some sliver of control over my action and wish the same for you. Therefore, I will encourage and strengthen the freedom we do have. For if there is no control, then no harm can be done. I cannot offend against the truth if I have no free will at all. I cannot offend, or be held accountable, or change the world for the worse, if I have no control. No harm is done by mistaking a mechanical world for one with freedom.

If, on the other hand, I have some freedom – if even the smallest spark of true choice exists – I have a responsibility to kindle that flame. In Kahnemann’s language, I can devote myself to maximizing my use of rational or slow thinking – not to replace automatic decision making, but to assess it and condition myself to the right kind of mechanical action. There is evidence that hearing, thinking, and talking about free will improves our ability to exercise our freer, more rational decision making (Aarts and van den Bos, Psychological Science 22:532). Perhaps I am a robot, but one that can program itself…

I recognize my constraints, then, as the background for my will. They are obstacles to overcome or, perhaps, tools to use, in choosing rightly. They are the walls of the garden, the meter of the poem, the frame of the painting; they are the edges that make what is inside beautiful, meaningful, and whole.

Christians have been arguing over free will for millennia. We emphasize that many things are beyond our complete control and comprehension – God, creation, even self. We emphasize that God orders the universe and that we are limited by our created, animal, fallen condition. But we also emphasize our role in making choices, in changing, and in growing into the people we are called to be.

Compassion and realism calls us to recognize our constraints, but we must never forget that there is something to constrain. When tragedies occur – and they will occur – and when our neighbors seem to make terrible choices – and they will make terrible choices – we must remember this. It was never about perfect understanding. Rather, it was and is and will always be about understanding more tomorrow than we did today. That will require hope and a constant openness to change the things we can – usually ourselves.

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