• Christopher Tanner

Free Will and the Fiction of Abraham

It is possible that I hold a wildly eccentric view of the Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible. I see it as primarily a tool of manipulation hammered out and re-shaped repeatedly throughout its long and tortuous history, including its many translations, right down to those that are being published this very day. That manipulation is accomplished through the propagation of some rather dodgy ideas, which unfortunately have great staying power and have whelped an unjust, grotesque and omnicidal culture. I want to address one of those ideas in this essay.

Even though I do so regularly myself, it’s a kind of category error to refer to “the creation stories in the Book of Genesis” – by which one usually means the first two chapters – for this reason: the entire Book of Genesis is a creation story. It’s the story of the creation of the Hebrew people. The first eleven chapters are a prologue to “the call of Abraham,” upon which the (fictional) platform the Exodus story’s scaffolding is gradually erected. Genesis is a story of origins, and the import of its title extends through its final chapter.

The story of “the call of Abraham” is damned interesting. Of course it’s as fictional as all the rest of Genesis (and most of the rest of the Bible as well), but it does encapsulate a notion that has sullied the human experience and had philosophers tearing their hair for centuries. It’s the notion of free will. I want to examine that story along with related biblical passages, and pay a brief visit to the question of whether or not “free will” actually exists in any degree.


God Speaks

The narrative begins in an almost disconcertingly matter-of-fact way:

“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” (all quotations from the NRSV)

The celebrated “faith” chapter, Hebrews 11, makes it clear that Abraham’s obedience to Yahweh’s call was an act of faith – faith being a notion that is subjected to a kind of analysis in that chapter:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval….

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going….”

From the author’s analysis, one might liken faith to a kind of “swimming against the current” – or, less kindly, “believing in things without evidence or despite evidence to the contrary.” And what seems obvious to me is that such an intellectual leap must be – or at least must seem to be – an act of will.

This is going to seem like a digression, but bear with me. I wonder how many devout Jews, Christians and Muslims, all of whom embrace at least a part of this story, have tried in earnest to “get inside Abraham’s head.” What, exactly, does it mean that Yahweh gave this Babylonian shepherd specific instructions ordering him to get moving, and in which direction? Did Yahweh speak audibly, in the language Abram happened to speak? Did anyone else hear that voice? Was it a voice inside Abram’s head? If Yahweh were to speak to you “inside your own head,” would you recognize the speaker? Would you by faith “choose” to follow the instructions given by that voice? Even if, say, that voice were to order you to murder your child or blow yourself up in a crowded marketplace?

It could probably be said that the questions I just raised are only trivially interesting, since the entire story is a fiction. And the point of examining a fictional story is neither to embrace it as true nor dismiss it as false, but to read it with interest and try to discern the lessons (if any) that the author wished to teach, or the problems that he intended to raise.

To me, the most interesting aspect of this story is the notion of Abraham’s “free choice.” This is no doubt a deeply meaningful concept; the rabbis who first taught it must have understood it as having everything to do with what it means to be “Jewish.” That is to say, the notion of having free minds that can make certain decisions (whether to obey God or not, for instance) has everything to do with the culture and legacy of Judaism. And this notion has been adopted by Christianity and Islam as well. (One hears it bandied about a great deal, often as a charge delivered in condemnatory terms and couched in threats: “You have chosen to reject God and WILL PAY THE CONSEQUENCES.” And of course the always charming “you have chosen to be gay.”)

That’s why the various “Sacred Scriptures” took the form they gradually did. Like various other literary strands borrowed from this or that ancient culture, Genesis 3 was tacked onto that growing narrative in order to raise the question of volition and set its origin right at the beginning of the world. Let’s take a quick look at that very interesting story, in which the idea of free will is developed on two levels, which increases its potency considerably:


“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”

On the foreground level Eve succumbs to temptation, choosing to eat a forbidden fruit. She could presumably have chosen not to. She could have chosen to obey God’s commands instead of listening to the talking snake. That makes this a story about volition. It makes a claim, in fact: free will is a real thing, and you had best exercise yours by choosing to obey. The worst religious manipulators and tub-thumpers use this story to draw an equivalency between the exercise of volition and rebellion.

On the background level, there is the matter of what is forbidden about that fruit in the first place. It’s the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “Good” and “evil” are notions that have meaning only to free agents who can discriminate – that is, choose – between them. The idea of free will is deeply reinforced at this level.

The serpent’s enticement (or is it a warning?) is this: you will become like gods, knowing good and evil. What does that verb “to know” mean here, I wonder. To discriminate between them, surely. To be able to choose wisely between them, surely. Conversely, the ability to choose unwisely – to embrace evil and be held culpable. Does it mean more (considering some of the other biblical uses to which it’s put)? Does it suggest that by such “knowing,” i.e. by becoming a moral agent, one lays hold to the status of an individual, able to think for oneself?

Of course, the aristocracy can’t have that. That’s why this story is included in the Bible. Let’s not forget that monotheistic religion was devised as a means of control. That’s why its narratives read as they do. The Kingdom of Heaven is an exact parallel to the powerful, authoritarian kingdom whose priests invented it: an absolute monarch at the top, whose prerogatives are not to be questioned (he is “good by definition”), with his minions arrayed beneath him in a grand pyramid of duty and privilege, with humans placed “a little lower than the angels.” (Psalm 8:5) The message of Genesis 3 could not be plainer: Don’t question authority. Do as you are told. Let your betters do your thinking for you.

What a paradox! The very chapter that first sets forth the idea of “free will” ends up daring us to exercise it to any end other than abject servitude! It seems to me that the entirety of monotheistic religion is riddled with this paradox, which has generated tensions that threaten to tear the world apart (largely along sectarian lines, between warring tribes whose opponents have “chosen” the wrong god).

It is mostly because these creation stories of the Hebrew people have been adopted by the monotheistic religions and spread like a contagion among vast populations that the question of free will persists in the conversation throughout the Western world and over much of the East. It is of course a powerful notion: we’ve been indoctrinated in the idea all our lives, in some cases by people who should have known better (the non-believing parents of those who were reared without a god, say). And it does after all seem to us that we make decisions: habits incurred during childhood persist on various neural levels that we seldom even notice (which is what it means to have a “worldview”). And those habits are themselves reinforced by convenient fictions that our frontal lobes concoct for us (such as the hiding of the retinal blind spot by “filling in” from the adjacent visual field).

The notion of free will is what enables us to hold certain people accountable for their behavior. It lies at the base of our criminal justice system. If it were to be demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction that free will is an illusion, we would have to rethink our criminal justice system. There are compelling reasons for discouraging people from understanding the truth about themselves – and hence about others. A lot of money and power are at stake. It’s in the interest of those who hold that money and power to keep people from thinking about this interesting philosophical problem.

But if the Law of Universal Causation means anything it all, there’s no room in it for either “free will” or a meddling deity. The kind of person each of us turns out to be has everything to do with our circumstances at the moment we were launched from the birth canal. Those circumstances – including timing (it is a different thing to be born in the ‘80s than born in the ‘40s) – determine the kinds of contacts one will make in later life, and the kinds of events one will experience. If I had not been born where and when I was, to precisely that particular set of parents whose own lives had been determined by the myriad impacts and inputs that had shaped them in turn, and grew up precisely where and when I did, with precisely the teachers, classmates, friends and enemies, loves and rejections I experienced and endured, I would not now be the person I am for better or worse. I do what I do because of how I am. My story runs parallel in that sense to your own: all of these things together, plus an infinity I have not named, have molded the person that each of us is now and determines everything we do.

Aged Counsel

Aged Counsel

We have received wise counsel from our elders, to make “good decisions.” We give that counsel in turn to those who are younger (thus perpetuating a grand illusion). This is such deeply held conventional wisdom that hardly anyone ever bothers to question whether the notion is actually true or whether it makes any kind of sense in principle (and if you do raise those questions aloud, you are apt to be labeled as somehow “special”). But it is after all just a notion – an illusion created for us by the circuitry in our brains. It’s a notion available especially to animals of our big-brained species, although it’s not at all out of the question that it also plays a role in the experience of chimps, dolphins, and others.

The illusion is cleverly disguised by language. Case in point: ask someone why s/he chose the profession s/he’s pursued. You’ll get a list of “reasons.” But “reasons” has a pretty strong whiff of teleology about it, doesn’t it? Let’s expunge that and for “reasons” substitute “causes.” The aptness of this switch of terms is surely self-evident: ask anyone why s/he did the thing s/he did, and you’ll get an answer that begins with the word “because.” And by removing the teleology, we see immediately that “choice” and “causation” don’t belong together in the same sentence. One of those words represents something that exists only in the imagination – like “Abraham.”

Volition is a fiction, as fictional as Eve, the talking snake, and Abraham. If we can recognize this truly grand illusion – this illusion of Ego, really – for what it is, we become able at least to glimpse the deepest reality of our lives. That is, things could not have turned out other than the way they did: we are what we are on account of an endless chain of causes stretching all the way back to the Big Bang. There’s no room in the Law of Universal Causation for anything called “free will.” That includes both the notion of a meddlesome, volitional god pulling all the strings of the universe according to his whims, and the godlike “moral agency” of those who (in the image of said god) tamed fire, invented agriculture, built empires, devised internal combustion engines, split the atom, overran the world and burnt their home planet to the ground, wondering at each step of the way whether things might have turned out differently if only we’d made better “choices.”

I think Therefore I Am

I think Therefore I Am

Earlier I said I do what I do because of how I am. That applies to you as well: it is only secondarily true that you are how you are because of what you do. It is secondarily true in that both how you are and what you do exist in a kind of dance, each informing the other. Indulging a habit does of course reinforce and perpetuate it: there is a dialectic involved. But the perpetuation of a habit does not account fully for its origins. Its origins lie in circumstances and experiences in which you were immersed and that originated, in turn, outside you. You had no say in them.

I wish I could share this insight with everyone who labors under the awful burden of anxiety over looming decisions, or of regret for having done things as they did or remorse for having behaved as they did, (or for that matter, holds smoldering grudges against others who have wronged them), not recognizing that things could not have been otherwise – the sense of “responsibility” that leads us to judge both ourselves and others and that has led to so much needless hatred, opportunism, brutality, bloodshed, heartbreak, mental illness and suicide. Most of all, I wish I could fully embrace it myself. At the very least it must constitute a kind of absolution.

Of all wicked things that the Abrahamic religions promote, the notion of “volition” has got to be the wickedest. But please don’t think I’m arguing that the Bible is the only fountainhead of this ruinous notion. It’s just that, where I live, most people are far more likely to quote the Bible than Aristotle.


If there’s any kind of “enlightenment” available to us humans – any “peace that passes understanding” – the way to it must surely lie in an always-growing awareness of the insight I’ve flailed about to put words to. Surely the condition of total awareness that our “freedom” is not a freedom to but a freedom from, is satori.


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