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How Much Do I Love Free Will?


Free will was a hot topic this morning. I was sitting in the Springfield, MO airport watching the news accounts of an American soldier’s murderous rampage through an Afghan village when the fellow next to me mutter, “poor bastard.” I glanced over at him and he took it as a rebuke.

“I’m not saying I don’t feel bad for the people he killed and their families, I’m only saying that we should have compassion on the guy: four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the guy just snapped. The system killed those people as much as this sergeant did.”

I was sympathetic to this argument, but a woman sitting to his other side disagreed. He should have gotten help if he was stressed, she said. He had choices other than killing people. Don’t make him a victim; he had free will.

I’m not one who believes over much in free will. Most of our decisions are made subconsciously, and the conscious mind only lays claim to and creates a rationale for doing what the subconscious mind already decided to do. I shared my doubts about free will, and the woman said that it is free will that makes us human; it is free will that allows us to be held accountable for what we do. Without free will, she said, we would be puppets, and life would not be worth living. That is why God gave us free will.

I asked her is she would want to live in a world where murder and war couldn’t happen?

No, she said. I want to live in a world where they don’t happen but could happen, but don’t happen because people choose not to do them.

So if some researcher developed a vaccine that we could erase the urge to kill and make war, you wouldn’t want people to take it?

She wouldn’t. It would rob us of free will, and God needs us to be free. Why? Because if people couldn’t do evil, God couldn’t punish them in hell, and if God couldn’t punish them in hell and we all went to heaven then what is the value of heaven?

In other words, I said, you prefer hell on earth—murder, war, brutality of all kinds—so that some people can enjoy eternity in heaven?

She did.

What do you think? If we could vaccinate humanity against murder and war the way we can vaccinate ourselves against polio, would you vote to use it?

Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. In the print version of our magazine, he has an advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addressing reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art. Rabbi Rami hosts our podcast, “Essential Conversations.”

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