Do human beings have free will?

It is a very old question. Are we free to choose what we want? Or are my choices actually determined by my brain or my hormones? If there is a God, how can we interpret the will of God and relate it our own will? And what place does free will have in God’s creation and plan? The question of free will lead to many further questions, the answers of which have been discussed for thousands of years in religious and philosophical contexts. On a wintry Saturday in February, a Martinus seminar on this exciting topic took place in Stockholm, with the lecturer Tryggvi Gudmundsson from Iceland.

Tryggvi has a master’s degree in the history of religion from the University of Copenhagen and he started his seminar by giving a brief overview of different religious perspectives on the question of free will.

According to Christian traditions, human beings were created in God’s image with free will. They have the opportunity to choose between good and evil, but they will also have to live with eternal positive or negative consequences of their choices. We know from Paul’s letters, for example, how human beings have struggled with the anguish of wanting to do the right thing, but actually doing quite the opposite instead. The consequences of our actions are of central importance, and the Greek scholar and theologian Origen of Alexandria firmly believed that all “rational creatures” are free and that the question of free will is central in order to understand God’s judgement.

But considering that God is said to be almighty, the existence of free will is not unproblematic. If God is almighty and all-knowing, how can it be possible to say that human beings can go against God’s will? And what role does the fall from Paradise or the so-called original sin by the first humans Adam and Eve play for the free will of future generations? Are we predestined to be saved or not? Many centuries after the early Church Fathers, Luther rejected the notion of free will and proposed that God’s pardon for guilty sinners is received through faith alone. The meaning of “free” and the interpretation of Biblical verses and other scriptures on this matter have been debated by Christian theologians throughout centuries – and the question is no less central in other cultures and religions.

Later on, the Age of Enlightenment and the development of natural science lead to people rejecting the idea of free will altogether, adopting a mechanistic view that regarded the human organism as determined by a number of physical factors. This deterministic view is still prevalent in many areas in science today, even though the development of quantum physics has questioned the idea of predictability and determinism in nature and our physical world.

Actually, people have never been able to agree on a common definition of “free will”, let alone on whether we have one or not. So what does Martinus say about free will? Do we get any clear answers here? As Tryggvi illustrated with a number of quotes from Martinus’ writings, Martinus states that all living beings have a free will, as a general condition, but that we need to understand how our moral development affects the area in which we can manifest our free will. In Martinus’ article Does the Terrestrial Human Being have Free Will? we learn that we need a free will in order to do what we want to do:

In order to be able to do what one wants to do, one must have a one hundred per cent free will. By a one hundred percent free will is here to be understood a total surmounting of the obstacles to the satisfaction of one’s normal desire. 

But in order to manifest our free will, we must work with our ability to use the energies in the right way:

When the living beings evolve from low, primitive forms of life to high, developed ones, it in reality means merely that they gain the ability to use increasingly superior energies for the promoting of their will, by which means the obstacles to a corresponding degree become reduced, in order ultimately to cease entirely. And the individual has then a one hundred percent free will. Gaining a free will thus consists in subduing the energies or forces.

The question of free will in Martinus’ writings must be seen against the background of the overall evolution of the living being from primitive beings to higher states of existence. This means that the plant being, for example, is able to manifest only a latent will or a very primitive will. Similarly, the will of animals is also driven by instinct to a high extent, whereas we as terrestrial human beings find ourselves in a transitional phase between two kingdoms. We master the energies of the physical world but we still do not understand that, as long as we hinder the freedom of others, we will also, through the law of karma, experience our own freedom as being restricted or nonexistent. If we steal from others or restrict the living space of others, we may find our own freedom restricted by living in prison or similar conditions.

Consequently, we cannot be free as long as we lack knowledge of the forces of nature and the universe, according to Martinus. If we interact with the basic energies and the forces of nature in a disharmonious way – and we certainly have the freedom to do so – we will have to experience the consequences manifested as sickness or other unhappy fates. But in accordance with older religious beliefs, this development is part of the development of the human being in “God’s image”, albeit without any primitive notions of eternal punishments for actions that were basically manifested out of pure ignorance.

The question of free will may seem clear enough when viewed from an overall perspective. In our daily life, however, there are still interesting issues to discuss. Do I have the free will to decide whether I will move to the right or to the left right now? Tryggvi asked at the beginning of his lecture, and afterwards this led to an interesting discussion among the participants. To what extent are our actions steered by our will at all? Is every detail of existence determined and known in advance to God or Providence?

To illuminate this intriguing question, another lecturer (Olav Johansson) quoted from a passage in Livets Bog, vol. 4, where Martinus describes how, through the faculty of intuition, a being with cosmic consciousness will be able to see the whole existence, in the plane of eternity, in all its past and future details:

And since here in the plane of eternity (existence beyond time and space) we see the whole structure of the principle of cycles, the end of created things (indeed, even before their beginning existed on the physical plane) and thus all localities within the past and the future in the now, we could see the entire world plan: the localities that do not yet exist in time and space as well as those that existed long ago in a now-forgotten past. Before our very eyes the veils or curtains of the past and the future are thus drawn aside, and we see what lies hidden from the ordinary terrestrial human being in this past and future. Livets Bog, vol. 4, sect. 1475

Determined or not, the participants concluded that such a cosmic point of view lies in the future for most of us, something that is difficult to imagine properly without the faculty of intuition mentioned above. And perhaps seeing the details of the future is not be the same as actually experiencing them, similar to the difference between looking at pictures from another country and actually getting there.

After Tryggvi’s inspiring seminar on the question of our free will, I walked back home in the winter lights of Stockholm, watching people moving around everywhere, prepared to enjoy a Saturday evening. Most of them would probably not be interested in our reflections on free will, I thought, at least not for the moment. But we all experience life, and according to Martinus, we are all crossing the same ocean of eternity, full of hardships, joys and surprises. Everything is very good.

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