Fated for Free Will? (sermon; 121014)

Fated for Free Will
Service celebrated at the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Indiana, on 14 October 2012


For a few hours each Sunday morning, we set aside a time and space to recall ourselves to our larger values, and to teach them to our children. We make time to heal from the  wounds of the world, to recharge for the week ahead, and to better equip ourselves to care for and encourage our human cousins who suffer, near and far.

If you are grieving this morning, or weary, or frustrated or anxious, or numb; if you rolled in, or ran, or skipped or hobbled or carried another—whatever you are feeling, however you arrived, you are welcome in this house.

For the next sixty minutes, and for the rest of our lives, let us be deeply aware of the Spirit of Life, evolving through and among us. So may we be.


Dawna Markova was born in 1942; she was told that she had cancer, and six months to live, almost thirty years ago.

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.



I invite us into a time of meditation. Please take a second to get comfortable in your seat…
you might sit up straight, or place your feet flat on the floor…
if it helps, you could soften, or close, your eyes…
and let your awareness drift into your body…

notice if there are any aches or pains…
and if there are, touch them lightly with your mind, and may they ease and feel better soon…

notice where you store your stress, perhaps your shoulders, or your forehead, or your gluteus muscles, or in some other place…
allow yourself to rest there, a moment, and consciously soften those muscles…
take a deep breath, and guide that precious oxygen into those tight muscles…

let us loosen all the muscles in our bodies, arms, legs, neck…
and take two deep breaths…
without forcing it,  become aware of the movement of your lungs, and your diaphragm…
notice how your body breathes for you, without any conscious control necessary…

relax into that rhythm, and let us open to our breath,
open to the movement of Life within us…
may we notice that Life, in us and all around us,
as we inhabit a few moments of shared awareness…


We call to consciousness the Fates, Nona, Decima, Morta; and the Norns: Wyrd, Verdandi and Skuld; we think of Destiny of the Endless; we speak of the unfolding Tao, and the wheel of karma; we lift up the Wiccan Rede; we call to the God who has fore-ordained all things and to the God who endowed us  with the right and responsibility to choose; we cry to all the human philosophers and theologians who have debated determinism, and free will;

and from that place in our heart and mind where these concepts burn most fiercely, we sit in awe, and humbly, and passionately express our gratitude that we are alive this day;

we are grateful to be gathered here, among these good people;

we lift up those joys & sorrows just mentioned,
and those which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts;

we desire comfort and support for all those affected by the fungal meningitis outbreak, scores injured and 15 dead; we are grateful to the government agencies which made the connection and have stopped the use of the contaminated medicine;

we lift up the 11th anniversary, last Monday, of the war in Afghanistan, now the longest war ever waged by these United States; we desire a quick and just end to the hostilities there, and sufficient support for those who fought, and their families;

we celebrate that National Coming Out Day was last Wednesday; we offer immense thanks to those who paved the way for others to live openly; we offer love and support to those who are still closeted, and we especially hold in our hearts those who feel unable to come out because of the hatred and violence they would face; we desire acceptance and full equality for all human beings of any sexuality or gender identity;

we desire a sense of meaning, and purpose in our lives; we desire the ability to make choices—in particular, to select between right and wrong; we desire effective and humane ways to teach and reinforce such choices, in our own lives and in society at large;

We desire enough food, and shelter, and peace of mind for all beings this day;
we pledge ourselves in pursuit of this goal.
Praise for living.
So may we be.


… Paul’s grandma gave him a hug, and handed him the milk and cookie, and said, “Let me tell you a story. Sometimes I, too, at times, have felt angry at someone. Once in a while, I even felt hatred, for somebody who took something valuable, and seemed almost happy to be doing it. But hate wears you down, and it does not hurt the other person. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times.” She looked Paul straight in the eye and said, “It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.
Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, with both of them trying to make me live their way.”
Paul looked intently into his Grandmother’s face and asked, “Which wolf wins?”
She smiled and quietly said, “The one I feed.”


Sir Edward Elgar was born in England, in 1857. This anthem celebrates the bounty of nature, through the lens of his native Roman Catholicism
{choir: Fear Not, O Land by Edward Elgar}


Gerald Stern was born in Pittsburgh in 1925.

I remember Galileo describing the mind
as a piece of paper blown around by the wind,
and I loved the sight of it sticking to a tree,
or jumping into the backseat of a car,
and for years I watched paper leap through my cities;
but yesterday I saw the mind was a squirrel caught crossing
Route 80 between the wheels of a giant truck,
dancing back and forth like a thin leaf,
or a frightened string, for only two seconds living
on the white concrete before he got away,
his life shortened by all that terror, his head
jerking, his yellow teeth ground down to dust.

It was the speed of the squirrel and his lowness to the ground,
his great purpose and the alertness of his dancing,
that showed me the difference between him and paper.
Paper will do in theory, when there is time
to sit back in a metal chair and study shadows;
but for this life I need a squirrel,
his clawed feet spread, his whole soul quivering,
the loud noise shaking him from head to tail.
O philosophical mind, O mind of paper, I need a squirrel
finishing his wild dash across the highway,
rushing up his green ungoverned hillside.


How many of you believe that we have free will? How many believe that our choices are controlled by fate, or karma, or God’s fore-ordained plan? How many believe in *both* fate and free will? How many of you believe something else?

Humans have been debating determinism, and free will, and other related issues, for hundreds and hundreds of years. A twenty-minute sermon is not enough time to even sketch out the various arguments, much less provide an answer to all their subtle complexities.

Instead, what I hope to do is focus on the two general issues that affect our lives, and suggest an approach that will do the most to help us evolve—as individuals, and as a society. Two of the main issues in the “fate or free will” debate are meaningfulness and blameworthiness.

In our second reading, Stern wrote that it was the squirrel’s “great purpose… that showed me the difference between him and paper.” The squirrel has purpose to its movements; the paper does not. Therefore we ascribe more meaning to the squirrel’s existence. If we were robots, unable to make any choice other than the ones we were programmed to make, or if some deity were controlling our every decision—if we were essentially puppets—then it seems there would be little meaning to that kind of life.

Generally speaking, we want to know that we are capable of making free choices, and that those choices *matter* somehow, to make meaning of our lives.

And that brings us to the second aspect, guilt and blameworthiness. In our opening hymn, we sang “a mind that’s free to seek the truth, a mind that’s free in age and youth to choose a path…where conscience leads.” If our choices and our actions matter, then we must be held accountable for them. If people make poor or bad choices, if they hurt other people, or do damage to the public good somehow, they should acknowledge their mistakes, and make restitution somehow, and there should be some kind of lesson involved, so that they—and, ideally, all of us—learn from those poor choices.

Some would say, if we don’t have free will, then we aren’t actually making choices, and if something goes wrong, then it’s not really our fault. We cannot be blamed for the outcomes of our non-free actions.

So: meaningfulness and blameworthiness, purpose and guilt—those are what we’re talking about, this morning.


As for the “meaning” piece, I think it’s basically moot. If God or the Tao or Karma is controlling us,  then there is already meaning inherent in that understanding.

And for those who believe in free will, I agree with the 18th century German scientist, Georg Lichtenberg, who wrote, in the gendered language of his time:  “Man is a masterpiece of creation, if only because no amount of determinism can prevent him from believing that he acts as a free being.” Even if our lives have been pre-scripted, we’re evidently fated to *believe* that we have free will.

And as long as I think I have free will, then I will also think I am leading a purposeful life—that I am more squirrel than paper. As long as nobody *proves* to me that I am being externally controlled, I will continue to believe that I am making free choices, and I will find my life meaningful.

We’ll touch on that again, but for now, let’s turn to the guilt and blame aspects.

How many of you have ever judged someone because of their poor choices, and seeming lack of willpower? How many have judged yourself for the same things? How many believe that we should be able to make logical, rational choices and have the willpower to follow through on those choices?

Unfortunately, the idea that our will is free does not necessarily mean that it is also strong.

We may have the ability to choose which of the wolves inside us we will feed, and most of us still feed that angry wolf sometimes. Does that mean we should be blamed?

Like everything else in life, blameworthiness comes in shades of gray. Imagine, for example, a man who was born of a cocaine-addicted mother, who grew up with a powerful body and an IQ of about 60, who stumbled into the wrong house one night, which frightened the family who lived there, which frightened him, which resulted in three dead human beings, one of them a twelve-year-old girl. If this all happened in Texas, the man would likely be put to death. Most other places in this country, he would be jailed for life. Is that the right place for him?

Or consider a 17 year old girl who shoplifts things to help feed her family and her neighbors. One night, she and her friends get a little drunk and they steal a car. After the accident—no casualties, thank goodness, except for bumps and bruises on the thieves—-they are arrested. How blameworthy is she? How would justice best be served?

Finally, think about a 48-year-old male who has been quitting cigarettes, for about fifteen years, off and on. He first quit with his wife, when she got pregnant, but he started again. Now his son judges him and his wife looks at him funny and he has even begun to despise himself. Now, in addition to the cigarettes, he has begun to overeat and drink too much and his marriage  and his job may be in jeopardy. How should we judge this man? How might we *help* him?

Even more tragically, here are some *true* cases where diseases and brain traumas and powerful medicines resulted in bizarre choices and regrettable consequences.

A forty-year-old man developed a previously-unknown taste for child pornography. His wife was appalled, as he watched more and more of it. Fortunately, he also began to have awful headaches. A brain scan revealed a massive tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex. When the tumor was removed, his sexual appetite returned to normal. Six months later, he began looking at child pornography again. His wife took him back to the doctors, where they found part of the tumor they’d missed, and they removed all of it, that time. His sexual preferences were again normal.

Some people with Parkinson’s disease have been helped by a medicine called pramipexole. Unfortunately, some of them also learned that a slight increase in their dosage could lead to uncontrollable urges to gamble. Some lost their entire life savings, before their families knew about it.

We don’t blame these people for their misdeeds because there was something organically wrong. We do not judge them for their “lack of willpower” because their brains were perturbed.

…And we can carry that a step further, because it turns out that our conscious decision-making is not only affected by brain damage, it is also affected by our unconscious emotions. To explain that, I will begin with a story about baseball. (it’ll make sense, eventually—I promise.)

A few nights ago, Carl Wolf and I were watching a baseball game. He has a strict rule to determine which team to root for. He always supports the Cubs, if they are playing, and if it is between two other teams, he roots *against* the team which has won the World Series more recently. So he’s basically cheering for the underdog.

My system is not as simple as his, but I do have a complex set of friendships and loyalties that determine the teams for which I root. And sometimes, even though I *think* that I want a particular team to win, I can find myself jumping out of my chair, or pumping my fist and yelling, when the *other* team makes a good play. My brain told me to cheer for one team, but my emotions had me rooting for the other.

This does not just happen in sports. Our emotions over-rule our rational decisions all the time. We do the things we don’t want to do, and we don’t do the things we ought.

It is like we are monkeys, pretending to steer an elephant. Often times, the elephant goes where we wanted to go, and we congratulate ourselves for our exemplary elephant-handling skills. Other times, the elephant heads off somewhere else, while we frantically explain why we were really headed that direction, all along.

Several years ago, the UU theologian, Thandeka, wrote an article explaining that liberals too often try to win elections by using facts, and appealing to the intellect, while conservatives win elections by appealing to emotions.

Just two months ago, the scientific journal Social Psychological and Personality Science printed an article explaining how people ignore inconvenient facts and create or accept convoluted explanations to reinforce their emotional, moral beliefs. Conservatives do this more often, but *everyone* does it.

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt has postulated what he calls “moral intuitionism.” He claims, when we are faced with moral dilemmas, our gut emotions fire far more rapidly than do our rational thoughts.

Others have used functional MRI scans to see this process in action. Watching those scans, you can see the emotional centers of the brain light up first, and then the “higher thinking” areas. At least some people believe that our emotional centers actually make our decisions for us—and *then* our prefrontal cortex comes up with a rationalization for why it is logical and appropriate for us to make that decision.

As much as we value our rationality, we really may be monkeys pretending to steer elephants. If this is correct—-and I believe it is—-what does it mean for free will, meaning and guilt?

Some would probably say that this is *not* a form of free will, because our rational choices are constrained by our emotions.

I disagree, for two reasons. First, our emotions do not *always* overrule our rational will. Once in a while, at least for a short distance, our monkey *does* steer our elephant.

Second, and more important, I think it is a fundamental misunderstanding of our decision-making process. There never has been a pure, unadulterated will, unconstrained by emotion. They are part of the same thing.

Instead of two wolves fighting inside us, we have a monkey and an elephant. For millennia, we have been feeding the monkey, trying to get it to defeat the elephant. It’s not happening.

What if we stopped treating it as a battle, and used our energy to forge a partnership between them? What if we feed *both* the monkey and the elephant, and we find ways to help them collaborate?

There will be those who insist that only the monkey can have free will. Some people will always insist that human choice, and human nobility, can only come from our rationality. These people will probably not be convinced by my argument.

Others of us *will* accept this metaphor. We note that we *are* still making choices, we’ve just expanded our definition of who “we” are. We no longer identify with only the monkey inside-—we also embrace our inner elephant.

We are still making choices, by explicitly using *both* our intellect and our emotions. That feels free enough, and meaningful enough, for me.

Ah—but what about the guilt piece? What about blameworthiness? What if every person who goes to court simply says, “my elephant made me do it?”

David Eagleman has an answer for this. In his recent bestseller, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, he writes that “explanation does not equal exculpation.” Eagleman suggests that we *still* hold ourselves and each other accountable for our actions and misdeeds—and that we change our understanding of what that accountability entails.

He writes, “As recently as a century ago, the prevailing attitude was to get psychiatric patients to ‘toughen up,’ [often] by deprivation [or] torture…[prior to that,]  epileptic…seizure were understood as demonic possessions—perhaps in direct retribution for earlier behavior.”

We no longer blame persons with epilepsy for their “weakness,” but some *do* blame people with other psychological issues. Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky asks, “Is a loved one, sunk in a depression so severe that she cannot function, a case of a disease whose biochemical basis is as ‘real’ as is the biochemistry of, say, diabetes, or is she merely indulging herself? Is a child doing poorly at school because he is unmotivated and slow, or because there is a neurobiologically based learning disability? Is a friend, edging toward a serious problem with substance abuse, displaying a simple lack of discipline, or suffering from problems with the neurochemistry of reward?”

Eagleman suggests that we focus less on assigning blame and guilt, and more on understanding and helping.

Of course, in cases of violence, where a person has hurt or killed others, then the perpetrators do need to be segregated from the larger society—but even then,  it is not about punishment so much as public safety and a chance to rehabilitate and teach and *heal* the violent offenders.

Ideally, Eagleman thinks that some people may learn to handle their emotions, and control their impulses and again take up productive roles in society. He cites the work of Stephen LaConte, who is pioneering the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery as a real-time biofeedback mechanism; and Pearl Chiu, who is using such fMRI feedback to cure cigarette smokers of their addictions.

Eagleman even agrees that sometimes there *may* be a legitimate use of punishment. For people whose brains are still young enough, and undamaged or unperturbed enough, some punishment can be an effective tool for training the brain and the body to learn better habits.

And even then, the punishment should be accompanied by the same techniques that the rest of us can use, like biofeedback, meditation, psychiatric medications, and psychological work such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Instead of just punishing and blaming, we can work at healing, and evolving. Just as it is natural, for the pastures of the wilderness to spring, and the trees to beareth fruit, so is it natural for humans to grow in understanding.

It is what we do. And if we do it with more intention, we can evolve more efficiently. If we really pay attention, and allow our living to open us, to make us less afraid and more accessible, then we *will* enhance our evolution.

We’ll talk about this a little more during the service on Obesity, on December 2nd. For now, let us return to the test cases I mentioned earlier.

In my opinion,  the brain-damaged murderer should have been getting more help all along. Perhaps he could have learned how to better control his own impulses. It is never too late to start such learning, at an appropriate facility somewhere. I don’t think capital  punishment is useful in most cases, and certainly not in this one. Nor should he simply be punished  or warehoused with other violent and more-cunning criminals. A well-run mental institution might truly help him.

Unlike that man, the young thief has not caused any lasting damage. Helping her learn to get her inner monkey and elephant to work together, helping her find better ways to live with herself, in society, should be possible. And, she is still young and healthy enough that her brain is still developing. Some form of mild punishment, making her earn the opportunity to do some of her favorite activities might speed and deepen her learning.

And for the man who has been trying to quit smoking, trying desperately to get away from the most addictive substance we know on earth, nicotine, Pearl Chiu’s fMRI  biofeedback process may restore his own confidence and rehabilitate his image in his family’s eyes. It might even save  his job.


How many of you have ever thought to yourself that you wished you had better willpower? I want you to take a moment and think about the thing that you most judge yourself for. Picture the thing or activity that often leads to you criticizing yourself for your lack of willpower…
notice how you feel about this…

It – is – not – your – fault! Your willpower is only *part* of who you are. The human will is not all powerful; our monkey is not more powerful than our elephant. We *can* learn to get our monkeys and elephants working together. We CAN learn to manage our impulses and desires. Instead of flogging ourselves for our seeming lack of willpower, instead of blaming the monkey and disapproving of the elephant, let us make friends with both of these aspects, and learn to manage them that way.

And now hold in your mind somebody whom you judge for *their* lack of willpower…
Their monkey is not more powerful than their elephant, either. Try to feel a little more compassion for the path they are traveling.
Compassion is the first step in human-elephant training.
So may we be.


TV and movies sometimes show a decision-making process with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Well, our monkey is not always the angel, and our elephant is not always the devil.

And when the same thoughts and desires come up, over and over again, let us not repress them—which only makes them stronger, and less predictable, in the long run—but rather let us learn better techniques for how to handle them appropriately. Because when the spirit says do, you’re gonna do. Oh my.

Please rise, in body or spirit, for our closing hymn, #1024, When the Spirit Says Do
{singing: do  sing  laugh  cry  think  feel}


I am not talking about “letting ourselves off the hook.” I am suggesting that there is a whole tackle box of other lures, and many, many other techniques to help us reel in and manage (and appreciate!) the unruly creatures in our depths.
So may we be.


Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.