By Tristan Vanech
Although a thousand trumpets blast about us,
Who moves you if the senses yield nothing?
A light formed in heaven stirs you by itself,
Or by the will of Him who sends it downward.
—Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio XVII
Where do our thoughts come from? According to Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, angels and demons. God inspires us via his messengers called angels (the Greek angelos means “messenger”), and the devil tempts us through fallen angels, or demons. This is the light that Dante says stirs us. Angels deliver us good thoughts which illuminate (cast light upon) new possibilities in our minds. In Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the eponymous demon writes correspondences to his nephew demon Wormwood instructing him how to tempt and obstruct the clear and distinct thoughts of the human mind. Screwtape urges Wormwood to attack a man’s conscience during prayer, a point of vulnerability, and says whenever God’s love “crosses his mind you ought to encourage him to thrust it away by sheer will power” (42). Wormwood then has the ability to directly influence humans’ decision-making processes. In the novel, demons like Wormwood go to a training college and are punished if they fail to corrupt their “patients.” Indeed, our bad thoughts come from fallen angels, while good thoughts come from the aforementioned good angels. After thoughts enter our minds, however, we have freedom to choose which to accept and which to reject. Judging or discerning between options is the essence of free will. I contend that if our thoughts come from angels and demons, we have a choice between those thoughts which are true and good and those which are false and evil. If we can choose the course of our thoughts and decide, using reason, how to act on them, then we have free will.
Our thoughts, resulting from chemical processes within our material brain, come from immaterial beings. How can something immaterial transform into or transmit information to matter? The answer, I aim to demonstrate, lies in string theory. String theory postulates that sub-subatomic particles are created by immaterial vibrational circles of energy, called strings, that have neither mass nor finite size. Recent observational evidence of gravitational waves dating their existence back to the beginning of this universe point toward the validity of the inflation hypothesis, which a New York Times columnist1 said requires conditions that “appear to be quite delicately tuned and unnatural.” Inflation, then, presupposes a fine-tuner: an infinite, immaterial being outside of nature. In the same spirit, Dante’s light originates from a fine-tiner outside of nature: God in heaven. Thus, it is possible that God can create ideas in our minds, and, by extension, so can the devil. Though at times angels, risen and fallen alike, can subtly sneak their messages into our minds without our being aware of it, often we are faced with a rigid moral division between doing what we know is right and falling into temptation. This dichotomy between temptation and inspiration is commonly fashioned in cartoons as having the devil on one shoulder and an angel on another. At one point in The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape orders Wormwood to impersonate a good angel and argue with the other angel over who actually is the one giving good advice.2 René Descartes says that “our will tends not to pursue or flee anything unless our understanding represents it to the will as either good or bad” (16). Once we receive a thought, we have to discern how to judge it and proceed accordingly.
If it is in fact God who generates ideas, how can we reconcile God’s omniscience with free will? Descartes claims, “God has given each of us some light to distinguish the true from the false” (15), and that light, unlike the light of God’s will in Purgatorio XVII, is reason. Humans rationally come to conclusions by exercising their free will. As we have already defined, rational thought is a result of free will. Lewis satirizes that men “d[o] not pray but [a]re predestined to do so” (43). Indeed, God sees the history of the universe in one stagnant picture because he is outside and above time and space. Yet, he does not cause the course of human events to happen. Consider two cars speeding down a narrow road as they come to a blind spot. A man viewing the situation from the top of a hill sees the rapidly approaching cars and observes that a crash is impending. He views the scene from so high that a warning could not possibly be heard by the drivers. He, like God, knows what is going to happen, yet he does not cause it to happen. Paul Bloom chimes in on the debate by citing 12th-century philosopher Moses Maimonides, who raised the question, “If God already knows what you will do, how could you be free to choose?” Screwtape laments to his nephew that the “creative act leaves room for [humans’] free will” and that fact presents “the problem of problems” for fallen angels like them; “obviously,” he says, “to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it” (43). Messenger-inspired thoughts are nothing more than influences over our actions, not the single deciding factor. It is on us to make a judgment call and determine which way to act.
Descartes discerns between good and evil, between true and false, by contemplation. When a thought comes to him very clearly and distinctly, he realizes the thought came from a benevolent being and thus must be true and good. Simone Weil calls contemplation the method by which we “discriminat[e] between the real and the illusory” (215). Weil writes that in the process of discernment “We should be indifferent to good and evil but, when we are indifferent, that is to say when we project the light of our attention equally on both, the good gains the day” (213). Moreover, Descartes’ third maxim states that we cannot control the vicissitudes of life but can control how we perceive and form judgments about them. Diversity of human opinion does not arise from the fact that men are more or less reasonable, according to Descartes, but that we “lead our thoughts along different paths” (1). If we were not able to lead our thoughts along different paths, we would all believe in the same God, vote for the same politicians, and probably live in an Orwellian world.
Descartes’ method claims that while we are not able to control the amorphous, chaotic world around us, we can exert free will by forming a new opinion about the world and act according to this change of heart. He suggests that we perhaps cannot evade “fortune” or fate, but we can, like “earlier” philosophers, stave off the external forces of the world in order to make an uninfluenced decision (15). These philosophers operated within nature’s limits, and thus “persuaded themselves that nothing was in their power but their thoughts” (15). Being able to control their thoughts “so absolutely” made them “freer…than any other men who, not having this philosophy, never thus controlled everything they wished to control, however favored by nature and fortune they might be” (15). Like the ancient philosophers he admires, Descartes himself exercises complete control over his thoughts. He says that he can “freely undertake to rid [him]self” of any opinions which he rejects (16). His method directs him to change his opinion of the ever-changing world rather than try to control it. He attempts to “cast aside the shifting earth and sand in order to find rock and clay” (16). Once he lands on solid ground, a certitude which comes to him clearly and distinctly—that is, one from God—he can choose how he will direct his thoughts. Descartes illustrates this concept with an analogy on page 16:
In tearing down an old house, one usually saves the wreckage for use in building a new one, similarly, in destroying all those opinions of mine that I judged to be poorly founded, I made various observations and acquired many experiences that have since served me in establishing more certain opinions.
When we reroute our thoughts, we save some of the wreckage to learn from the choice we have made.
Although Descartes thinks we have complete control of our thoughts, in my view, we control their course, not their entering into our brains. Descartes posits that “there is nothing that is completely within our power except our thoughts” (15). But as Bok argues, “the claim that a person chose her action does not conflict with the claim that some neural processes or states caused it; it simply redescribes it.” In other words, we do not form ideas; we reform them. Whatever or whoever causes our thoughts, be it God or neurons, releases the hold on them as soon as we become conscious of them. We can then steer the path of those brain waves willfully and assign value to them by affirming or rejecting them. Though the fundamental mental processes of our being force an idea to the forefront of our consciousness, we fortunately wield the power to cast away what our brain has delivered to us. These ideas are genuinely given to us by a higher power and not merely part of the deterministic neural process.
Therefore, even if determinism is true, it “does not relieve us of the need to make decisions,” as Bok remarks. God may know exactly what our choice will be, because to him it is not a “will be” but an “is”—an eternal present and static perception of time. But that fact does not preclude God’s gift of free will to humankind. We shine the light of reason upon good and bad thoughts and decide which to accept and which to reject. How prescient that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart ran a segment pointing at cable news networks that all ask the same question: “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Stewart pokes fun at the recurrence of the question in several news stories that seem to be immediately categorizing a current event into a false dichotomy in lieu of actually analyzing the nuances of it. That we often categorize things as good or bad is a reflection of the fact that all thought ultimately comes from a source of benevolence or one of maleficence. It is imbedded in human nature to form bias on ideas and make a moral evaluation of them, because those ideas come from a very biased source. Luckily, or perhaps providentially, we are free to choose a side.
1. Carroll, Sean. “When Nature Looks Unnatural.” Opinionator. The New York Times, 23 Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Nov. 2014.