The discourse between whether the world (or human life) is deterministic and hence, there are no such things as human’s free will; against the opposite argument that there are no such things as deterministic world, but rather everything is in-deterministic , and hence human are to make their choices, which are truly of their own free will. This argument, for and against, of free will among philosophers, has been like a pendulum, swinging from the support of a deterministic world (of Kant, and scientifically, the discovery of Newton laws of physics), and later on towards non-deterministic world (of later philosophers, and the Relativity Theory of Einstein).
The short answer by some today’s Muslim is (based on Asha’arite Sunni and Shafie theological arguments): that World is determined by Allah, and we human, are allowed and commended to make some (limited) choices that Allah makes available in front of us. Hence, the World is neither deterministic nor non-deterministic, in the sense of philosophical arguments set above.
The Islamic explanation above seems simple and easy to follow, as a creed, but unfortunately in life, people fall far short from all: from Islamic theological point of view (I meant Ashaarite), as well as from philosophical point of view (both deterministic as well as non-deterministic). These shortfalls are the evident of why we human and Muslims, falter and errs in our life in great many ways.
Let me explain these here in this article.
THE WORLD AS DETERMINISTIC PROCESS
The simplest way to understand a deterministic process is just to look at the pendulum of a (traditional) clock; the movement from left to right are clearly determined, from the past to the future. It will always took a second from one end to the other, and the length as well as the time is “determined”. Everyone knows it, either by direct observation (i.e. empirical tests), or by theory (Newton law of physics), or by accepted knowledge and wisdom (from past experiences, etc.). Nobody will argue against that. It follows the physical laws, which in Islam says, it follows the Sunnatullah (Sunnah or Laws of Allah). There are many phenomenon in life, could observe as such.
The same is extended to human beings, by taking the view that, human intellect are rational, and hence, on aggregate (we don’t look at individuals per se), their actions are also deterministic (hence predictable). For example, all human need food and will predictably eat at some time, with almost a certainty; or given a choice between rich or poor, they will choose rich; between pain and no pain, they will choose no pain, and so on. This is the dominant thought within the economic science, when it relied heavily on the theory of rational choice and rational being (the rational theories, as well as the utility theories).
The so-called, “non-deterministic” matters – i.e. when given choices, is only a question of human ignorance; there seems to be choices in front of us; these choices exists only because we don’t know the full picture (for example, whether something is painful or not). If those knowledge are revealed or be known to us upfront, there is not much issue about choices; it will be obvious. However, in life, there are so much obscurity that make us to be ignorant about the “reality” of things, and thus, we are forced to make choices (due to such ignorance). And it is almost a complete impossibility to “know everything” due to our limitation (i.e. time and data gathering, etc.), therefore, we are seemingly to make choices based on random outcomes, whereas, nothing is actually random, it is just our ignorance, make the choices seems to be random.
And if we take the cue from the Islamic faith on Qadha & Qadar, Allah has already pre-determined everything in this world, as the many verses from Al Quran and Hadith of the Prophet that “the Pen has dried”. So, the world is deterministic, and already being determined even before we exist, and what we do now is only to act out these pre-determined acts; our view of randomness, if ONLY because we are ignorant of the WILL of Allah. These ignorance arises out of the future events, which do not yet happen (to us, due to limitation of time, i.e. the future), but is fully known to Allah (as Allah is not bounded by time). But since we have faith in Allah, we act and do things, and the final outcome, will be His and His alone (the concept of Tawakkal).
THE WORLD AS NON-DETERMINISTIC PROCESS
To understand non-deterministic world, is to look at clouds; it’s shape, movements, and rains that occurs out of it – are far from deterministic, from the laws of physics. Even if we have the most sophisticated data gathering (such as satellites, air balloons, weather stations, reconnaissance planes, etc.), and if we built sophisticated models (mathematical and probabilistic), yet we can’t even have any reliable predictions to be made. There is another element at play, that is called element of chance, and chance is “pure randomness”, elements that are “totally unpredictable”. An example of pure randomness is “Brownian motion” which are observed in gasses and other natural phenomenon. Off course if we talk about movement of electrons and other sub-atomic particle, then we will have lots of “pure randomness” to be present. This is the exact counter argument against the deterministic nature of the world (at least on physical world).
In non-deterministic world, it is not ignorance that matter (since we are definitely ignorant of pure randomness, in any case, or by definition), but the problem is NOTHING can be based on causality; and this presents a massive problem for much of human affairs. That’s why, most scientist abhors non-determinism as it causes massive problems in most of our scientific theories and thoughts. Just imagine that if we throw a ball in the air, and we are not sure whether the ball will behave like a feather (flying away) instead of coming down to earth (as it normally does – i.e. predictably does).
Based on Islamic theology, this non-deterministic world is akin to say that Allah is “random” and “arbitrary” – which is totally rejected.
The problem is: the scientific arguments for a deterministic world, fails on too many counts (and frequently can be falsified and rejected); and the arguments for nondeterministic world is so far, cannot be rejected (i.e. couldn’t be falsified yet).
THE QUESTION OF HUMAN FREE WILL
All the above arguments leads us to the main question at heart: do we human have free will (under either case of deterministic or non-deterministic world)? The question of human free will is of utmost importance despite whichever side of argument that we want to hold on to (scientifically and/or religiously). Why this issue is important to us, because we are faced continuously on making choices and decisions, and we can’t wait for the debate to be settled (which might never be settled, in any case). So do we have free will? Are we really free to choose and decide (at least on matters that we are given choices)? To understand this, we need to go through various arguments as presented below.
First Level of Choices: the basic choices, which we have little determination is about our own self – such as our genetic make-up; whether we have hereditary disease such as diabetics or cancer, etc. Whatever the condition is – it is already there in us (if it is there). And we can know this to some degree (i.e. removing ignorance) by medical check-up, study of our parents and lineage, and could in general determine our conditions. Those are “pre-determined” and we can’t change it; but what we can do is to make choices such as our habits and lifestyle to suit a certain pattern in order to “avoid” or “reduce” the potential future event (of diabetes or cancer). We do have “free will” either to eat to our content, or to be careful in our diet. These are examples of simple and easy “level” of choices that we could make, on our own “free will”. The reason for this free will is, since we are dealing with “natural matters” and we could have a good “feel” of dealing with it, either by study, education, knowledge, experience, and others. It is based on our “senses” and “intellects”.
Second Level of Choices: these choices relates to choice that we make, that have relation to choices made by other people. A simple example would be: I choose to turn my car right, and the driver in the opposite of me can either brake (give way to me) or go straight. If he go straight (not braking) then we might have a collision, otherwise, I will turn right safely. Or I can wait for him to pass, and turn safely after that. My action (and choices) depends so much on the other person’s choices and action, and vice versa. Despite this simple example, it can be extended into a much larger example of millions people against another millions of people, and so on. The point is – how deterministic is such situation? Clearly none. But then are we exercising our own “free will”? The answer is yes, we are, but our free will is severely limited to the choices and actions made by others. An example would be that we want a party to win election and rule the country. Therefore, we exercise our free will by voting the party. But the result is not determined by us alone, by the total voters and the voting system at work. So we can say that our free will is also at best “our wishes”, rather than free will. Because despite the choice and action, the outcome is totally non-deterministic. This domain of choices relies not on our senses and intellects, but also our “wisdom”.
Third Level of Choices: these choices is related to the matter of “faith”. Would you believe that Allah exists, and the After-world exists, and there is Hell and Heaven; there are rewards and punishments, and so on. Of course, based on our free will – we can choose to believe or not to believe (and on the Second Level – to act or not to act on those beliefs). But the problem is how could we have faith “blindly”? Without relying on our senses, intellects, as well as wisdoms? This is where the so-called “free will” is truly FREE. Because the consequence are yet truly UNKNOWN, and could be purely “RANDOM” (as Pascal’s wager tried to solve). However, despite the so called free will to choose, the consequence could be extremely large and it is in the infinitum – the eternity. Therefore, the weight of choice, is no longer trivial, and the result could be devastating.
THE ISLAMIC VIEW
(The point that I am going to put forth here is purely from my understanding of Islam and Islamic faith).
The question of faith – if we look carefully, matters less, whether the World is deterministic or non-deterministic – since it is irrelevant whether God created this world in either form. The question of free will also, if we look carefully, can really be an illusion (Ghuruur). Yes, at the very fundamental physical level, determinism could be observed and accepted, since God has created the Universe (the physical world) in such manner. We can study them, observe them, and accept His Greatness in such creations. At the same time, we can also appreciate non-deterministic matters, such as the weather, other human behaviours, and alike – with clear view that, whatever it is, it is all within the Knowledge (‘Ilm), Will (Iradah), Power (Qudrah) of Allah, and all His infinite attributes.
In fact, if we study and contemplate very carefully, Allah has created “orders” in the Universe. Some orders we have discovered, and too many other “unknown orders” we may have not yet discovered, or some, may not even be within our humanly reach. Whether we want to label these unknowns as random, or Sunnatullah, it is really up to our own imagination; because truly that’s the exact condition that Allah want us to be in – to be limited. We will be limited in our intellect, knowledge, physical properties, and so on. And we for sure can’t conquer time (and hence the knowledge of the future), except those that Allah has given him some limited power to overcome that (such as some Sufi’s, saints, etc.). Hence, in this case, we also accept that some parts of the World and Life, is nondeterministic (from our own point of view), but NOT from Allah (hence this is the epistemic position that we must take).
Because, truly, our absolute test is not on those deterministic versus non-deterministic matters – but on our faith (Al-Aqidah) and beliefs (Al-Iman). Because, while we exist in this “human form”, we are bounded to the World that we live in, and unless our spirits are “free” from this World, then the question of “free will” is illusory. The only real choice that we have is whether to have faith in Allah or not. That is the absolute choice that we must make. For that we are truly FREE TO CHOOSE, but the choice here is not for our Physical form, it is for our SPIRITUAL FREEDOM.
If we choose not to believe, then we will be BOUNDED to this World till our death; but if we choose to believe, we have chosen the process of liberating ourselves from this temporary World.