Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 5

Metanexus: Views 2002.01.03 2679 words

If we are the products of evolution, can we take positive initiatives, makethe right choices? Or are our choices fixed since days of old, and isfreedom nothing but an illusion? Libraries could be filled with books on'free will'. Here I want to indicate briefly why I hold that a meaningfulnotion of freedom might perhaps be integrated with a scientific view of thereality of which we humans are a part.

Here is today's column, and the I is Willem Drees. And the subject underdiscussion is freedom and its role in both science and religion.

But what is freedom, really? How do we define it? Or, having it, how do weimplement and exercise it? Do we see freedom as a buffet of choices, andthus the greater the range of choices, the greater the experience offreedom? Or do we see freedom as the ability to achieve a goal unencumberedby strictures, as in freedom of movement? One is a very external view of theimpediments to freedom. Historically, this notion has more often than notbeen called liberty, whereas to be free of internal hindrances is adifferent type of freedom altogether. It is the kind of freedom Anwar Sadatachieved in Cell 54 of the Cairo Central Prison and that Victor Frankl wroteabout in his book Man's Search for Meaning. It has to do with takingresponsibility for oneself and one's actions. As Willem Drees observes:

Freedom requires determinism, since responsibility assumes that our actionsare related to their consequences. Otherwise one could not develop plans,anticipating the consequences of one's acts. Meaningful freedom is not theopposite of determination but is some form of self-determination. One mightspeak of freedom when my considerations, my principles, my character partlydetermine what happens.

Willem B. Drees is professor of philosophy of religion and ethics at LeidenUniversity, the Netherlands. He has an advanced degree in theoreticalphysics (Utrecht, 1977) and doctorates in theology (Groningen, 1989) andphilosophy (Amsterdam, 1994). And today's column is the fifth in a six partseries of excerpts from Drees' book Creation: From Nothing Until Now(Paperback or Library Binding; ISBN: 0-4152-5653-4; Routledge; December2001, 128pp.). Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 were posted to Metanexus:Views on(2001.12.17), (2001.12.18), (2001.12.27), and (2001.12.28) respectively.

Good reading! And--to quote a famous intergalactic sage--Fly. Be free!

--Stacey E. Ake


Subject: Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 5From: Willem B. DreesEmail: <>

Scene 10. Responsibility

In us our heritage, matter, information, and a box full of stories.Between hope and fear our neighbors life here on Earth,between hope and fear the great project of thought and compassionon a road of freedom.

Taking stock

We carry with us, or rather, in our bodies, our language and culture, ourheritage. Our heritage is material. The stuff out of which we are made isdust from stars. We inherit also biological information, useful recipes formaking a human, recipes which have emerged in the course of a long history.Nature does not need a recipe to make salt out of sodium and chloride. Butto create hemoglobin, the red oxygen-binding chemical in our blood, the bodyneeds a recipe, instructions which are available in our genes, our DNA. Saltwould form without any history; substances such as chlorophyll (in greenplants) and hemoglobin are products of a history in which our heritage hasbeen tested and expanded. Our bodies, our brains with their potential, ourresponses: everything is a product of history, materialized as biologicalrecipes. Again and again we have to do with our biological heritage. That isnot a burden, but the basis of our existence. Thanks to this biologicalheritage we may feel, think and act.

Our heritage is also cultural. Human languages embody knowledge aboutthe world. Different legal and political systems and etiquette show howpeople may live together. Religious traditions with their rituals andstories are part of our cultural heritage too. We inherited the criticaltraditions, the social one of the prophets and the intellectual andpolitical ones of modernity.

Our bodies and our cultures present well-winnowed wisdom, tested in manygenerations. However, that does not imply that everything that has beenwisdom in the past still is. An unrestricted 'Be fruitful and multiply' isno longer wisdom when six billion humans are filling and subduing the Earth.Wisdom is bound to circumstances, and these can change. Wisdom is alsorelated to a goal; the wisdom physics offers is quite insignificant whenfacing the death of a friend.


In these scenes we considered a long development. New possibilities emerged:heavy elements, life with purposiveness, humans with consciousness, sciencewith explicitly articulated knowledge. Has this made the world a better one?Is this a history of progress?

In the twentieth century humans have massacred humans at anunprecedented scale. In itself killing of others of one's own kind isnothing new. It is part of our history of the last millions of years.Similar behavior has been observed among chimps. However, even if thefrequency of killings has not increased, their efficiency sadly has. Arelatively recent step has been the development of nuclear weapons that candestroy whole cities.

We humans are not only a threat to our fellow humans, but also to otherspecies. This too has been going on for ages. When humans entered a newterritory they first hunted the easiest prey. For the dodo on Mauritius theend came when Dutch ships dropped their sails on its shores in 1507. Most ofthe big mammals of America went extinct some eleven thousand years ago,around the time ancestors of the native Americans crossed the Bering Strait.At Hawaii various birds disappeared when Polynesians discovered the island,1500 years ago. Flightless birds were eaten to extinction by the Maori's ofNew Zealand. Other species then homo sapiens have shown similar behavior.European cats and foxes have eaten in Australia the larger part of the smallmarsupials. Their decline is no threat to the predators themselves, sincethey change prey easily. Humans too are very flexible.

Some animals have finished it for themselves. Reindeer flourished on StMatthew Island in the Bering Sea: 1350 reindeer in 1957, 6000 in 1963. Theyate lichens faster than it could recover. After the harsh winter of1963-1964 there were only forty-one females and one sterile male left. Earlyin the twentieth century rabbits were introduced on Lisianski, an islandwest of Hawaii. Within ten years they had eaten almost all plants on theisland, thus undermining the conditions for their own existence. On theisland Earth we may follow a similar course. We have no natural enemies thatconstrain the population size. Death toll due to contagious diseases hasgone down enormously. We easily change prey, and modern technology hascreated the possibility of accelerated growth. We too can be caught by theecological limitations of our own 'island', just as the reindeer of StMatthews and the rabbits of Lisianski.

An ecological crisis will not hurt all in the same way. Hence,ecological problems may generate conflicts about water, oil, heat and food.Let me give one example. Life in Europe is dependent upon the warm GulfStream that crosses the Atlantic from the Caribbean to north-west Europe. Ifdue to the greenhouse effect there will be more rain in the northernAtlantic Ocean this warm Gulf Stream might fall away. In consequence theclimate in Europe would become similar to that of Canada; New Foundland issouth of the Netherlands. Canada houses and feeds less than thirty millioninhabitants; Europe more than five-hundred million on a similar area. Wouldhundreds of millions set off to warmer regions? A change like this couldhappen fairly abrupt, in the course of a few years. It would have dramaticconsequences for relations between countries. Whether the falling out of theGulf Stream and subsequent lower temperatures in Europe is the rightscenario, is not clear yet. Perhaps some other consequences of the humaninduced greenhouse effect may be more important. Whatever the particularevents, changes in climate and ecology might create geopolitical tensions ofan unprecedented scale.

Science and technology have expanded our capacity to modify our environmentso that it better serves our needs. We can now intentionally modify allthree aspects of our heritage described above. Setting up nuclear powerplants, not to speak of nuclear weapons, reflects our ability to transformmatter; chemistry and material sciences can create stuff with an incrediblerange of properties. Biotechnology is the ability to modify intentionallythe informational heritage as coded in the genes, in humans and in plants,yeasts and animals that we eat. And our cultural heritage is changing due tothe ability to store information in print and electronically, and even moreto the ability to spread information across the globe. In a sense, there isprogress in power, and thus in freedom. But it is progress with a prize; therisks are enormous as well as the surprises due to unanticipatedconsequences.

Consequences are anticipated in utopian and dystopian literature. FrancisBacon's Nova Atlantis, from 1627, is the archetype of a utopia inspired bytechnology and science. Thomas More's Utopia (1516) is a vision of a betterworld, based on a well-designed social organization. Bacon's technologicaloptimism contrasts with the pessimistic view of Aldous Huxley in his BraveNew World (1932). George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) can be seen as acounterpoint to the social utopia of a Thomas More. Social utopias, in thetwentieth century represented by authoritarian regimes such as communism,seek to establish happiness by controlling human behavior. Again and againthey had to limit human freedom. A technological utopia seeks to control ourenvironment.

Large segments of our culture have acquired features of a realized technicalutopia. Quite a few technological developments predicted in Bacon's NovaAtlantis and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World have been realized, withouthowever making our society into the technocratic one they envisaged. Ourtechnology has not been anti-moral, but to some extent become an embodimentof our morality - with speed limits enforced by sleeping policemen andautomatic cameras, et cetera. The great advantage of technological oversocial utopianism has been that it leaves one free to think - though itlimits one's practical options -, and it leaves us free to use the availablemeans in a creative, unanticipated way. In many cases it is often morallymore appropriate to develop technical means to implement certain behaviorthan to seek to influence the mentality of the humans involved. We may callfor more restraint in the use of energy, but more energy efficient heatingsystems and cars may make it actually possible to move in the desirabledirection. We invest our technology with morality - and that may beappreciated.

Can we bear responsibility? What kind of beings are we?

If we are the product of evolution, can we take positive initiatives, makethe right choices? Or are our choices fixed since days of old, and isfreedom nothing but an illusion? Libraries could be filled with books on'free will'. Here I want to indicate briefly why I hold that a meaningfulnotion of freedom might perhaps be integrated with a scientific view of thereality of which we humans are a part.

Freedom requires determinism, since responsibility assumes that ouractions are related to their consequences. Otherwise one could not developplans, anticipating the consequences of one's acts. Meaningful freedom isnot the opposite of determination but is some form of self-determination.One might speak of freedom when my considerations, my principles, mycharacter partly determine what happens. When others determine my acts, Ibear no responsibility. And when the juice I drink at breakfast determinesmy actions, freedom is impaired; we do not consider such drinks the relevantkind of determining factors. However, when my ideals determine my behavior,freedom is not impaired but affirmed. Political freedom can be described bystriking out external factors: freedom is real when one's behavior is notdetermined by the state, nor by the church, nor by my neighbors, nor by myrelatives, and so on. But personal freedom cannot be defined in such a way,as if freedom would consist in not being determined by one's character, norby one's principles, one's life-plan, one's ideals.

Principles and ideals do not float in from nowhere; they too areproducts of nurture and nature. Hence, would one not be free since the pastdetermines who you are and how you choose? This objection to freedom in thecontext of a scientific view of human nature confuses the relation ofcause-and-effect (the influence of the past) with that of control. When aspaceship is sent to other planets, control from the Earth is unpractical.There could be a small piece of rock approaching. When it is discerned itmay already be quite close. The information needs to be transmitted to theEarth. While waiting for instructions from the Earth, the probe would havebeen hit. Those who design a space probe need to delegate; computers in theprobe will have to be programmed so that they can make their own decisionson the basis of the available information, and, if needed, change thecourse. Such a spaceship is granted self-control. Its programmers set up thecomputers in such a way that information about the environment plays a rolein the control of the spaceship.

Parents do not know in what circumstances their children will findthemselves. Raising them to maturity is replacing control by self-control.That this self-control is executed in a way that has been shaped by theparents, does not take away the independence of the children. Thistransition is not an all or nothing affair. First a child may ride her bikenext to me; a few years later she may go by herself to school, and againlater she may determine herself along which route to go to whichdestination. To some extent we can choose the environment, the friends, theschools, the books, the programs by which we want to be influenced. We arenever free in an absolute sense, as if we could start all over. It is aswith reconstructing a ship at see. You cannot take the ship apart, since youwould have no place left to stand on. But bit by bit you can reconstruct theship extensively.

Sometimes a human life derails. Someone becomes addicted; 'I would liketo quit, but I can't'. The choices made day by day - lighting anothercigarette - do not fit the plan that the person would like to choose for hislife. Freedom is diminished; behavior has become compulsive. The more myacts are in line with my life plan, the more my desires for short termpleasures are kept in check by desires about the person I would like to be,the more my acts can be considered as freely chosen.

The last word about 'free will' has not been said. I see human free willnot as indeterminacy but as the remarkable fact that we humans can be guidedby ideals, by a life plan. We can transcend immediate needs, desires andresponses, reflect upon them, consider the circle of others concerned, andcorrect ourselves. Therein lies freedom. This is not unassailable; we canforego the opportunity for reflection, lose ourselves in an addiction.Evolution does not guarantee a 'happy end', not for the reindeer on St.Matthew Island and the rabbits on Lisianski nor for humans on Earth. Thegreat project of thinking and compassion on a road of freedom is a projectthat we have to take on, again and again. A song of praise for creation maybe appropriate but there is no seventh day when the acquired treasures canbe put on display in a glass case, when responsibility can be shelved.

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