Oedipus the King: The Cost of Free Will

Oedipus the King: The Cost of Free Will

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The Cost of “Free” Will in Oedipus Rex (the King)        


Perhaps the Greek playwright Sophocles never had the concept of “free will” in mind when writing Oedipus Rex, but the play does allow for that interesting paradox we know today as free will.  The paradox is: if Oedipus is told by the gods' oracles that he will kill his father and marry his mother, does he have any power to avoid this fate? That's a basic free will question. If Oedipus manages to avoid killing his father and marrying his mother, he will prove the gods wrong, and the oracle prediction turns out to be no prediction at all.

How free can we truly be if created by an all knowing being? If God knows, even at the moment before our births, that we are already destined to ascend to Heaven or burn in Hell, can we move through life making truly free decisions? Or are we always to be viewed as puppets of destiny?  Was Adam to be blamed for the fall? Or was that actually God's plan? So what is this idea of "original sin?" Shouldn't we celebrate Adam as a hero for freeing man from the state of unawareness that he lived in until he consumed the sacred pomegranate? Recall that the very first line following Adam and Eve's sin is "And they saw that they were naked." This nakedness is not so much of the body (though early Christians loved to view it that way), but rather a sense of viewing, as Joseph Campbell puts it, "duality," the basic difference between man and woman, right and wrong, and, ultimately, man and god. What Adam and Eve finally see is themselves, and they see they are not gods, and they see mortality. So their eyes have been awakened. When they had eyes in Eden they were blind, and now that they are blinded to God they can see. This same idea pops up in Oedipus Rex, which might be read as the Greek version of the Hebrew story.

But should God have made Adam out of sterner stuff? Whose fault is the fall? And did Adam truly have free will? Could he have said "No" when Eve offered him the fruit?  Most free will arguments stem from the observation of vision in perspective. In other words, it depends upon the fact that we cannot see what is destined, so it is said that we do have choice.

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But this argument is fundamentally weak, because all choices we make, even those made in ignorance, must by necessity in a god-created universe lead to the pre-known conclusion. So the choice is merely an illusion ... though it may seem real from the human perspective. Free will is a paradox.

Yet, I refuse to see Oedipus as a puppet, even as I thank Adam for delivering unto us the glory of man. Had Adam never sinned (and I'm speaking only metaphorically here, not as a fundamentalist, which I am not), we would conceivably never be, since Adam could have lived his complacent life naming animals in Eden ... unconscious and unaware. He couldn't see that he was naked. He couldn't see anything at all ... except those animals, and God.

So how do we see God again? How do we get back to the Garden? Dante would probably have insisted that we certainly do have free will ... but the Medievalists believed that such will was only good when relegated to the will of God. So, to have free will was to choose to do the will of God -- to choose, in some sense, not to have free will ... which some may argue is not free will at all. A paradox. Dante's Hell is filled with people who used their free wills for their own good, not God's.

I do not believe we will very soon solve the problem of free will ... at least by attempting to solve it in a god-based or fate-based universe. But there is some hope, perhaps, if we view it in a god-less universe ... which brings up a new paradox. If we do have absolute freedom to choose since there is no God knowing the future and there is no future (till it is created), what is it we are choosing for? In a universe of finiteness, where nothing intrinsically matters, and all will someday disappear into a black hole ... why choose at all?

Some contemporary physicists, interestingly enough, argue that the future is known ... that everything has already occured, and that our present day "experience" of the world is just that ... the experience of the moment. There are some strange occurances on the level of quantum mechanics that seem to bear this out ... especially since Einstein came along with , to paraphrase D.H. Lawrence about Plato, his "damned ideas."

But what is the present moment of experience anyhow? Is it a half a second long, a quarter of a second long ... a millionth or a second, a billionth, a trillionth? Or can that time be divided up infinitely ... so that "now" can never be a "moment" at all? Is "now" actually only the dividing line between "what has happened (the past)" which no longer exists, and "what will happen (the future)" which doesn't exist either? And if that is what "now" is, can "now" even exist, since it marks the border between two non-existences? All this is paradoxical, too.

So ... do we have free will?
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