Debating Free Will and Sin
A highlight from our podcast with Rachel Rizzo on career ambition, making choices, and grappling with "everything happens for a reason."
In a recent episode,and had guest and friend of the pod on to talk about her terrific essay at Wisdom of Crowds, “Do Liberals Have A God Problem?”. That set off a conversation about fate, free will, and the role of moral agency.
Rachel shares the story of her personal evolution, which involved physically removing herself from Washington during the pandemic, spending time in Salt Lake City with family, and reevaluating her priorities and professional aspirations.
She expresses her belief in predestination, finding comfort in the idea that her path has already been laid out — though she acknowledges the importance of making mistakes and learning from them. Provoked by this, Shadi provides his perspective on the relationship between God's knowledge of our actions and our free will, emphasizing the role of moral agency and the concept of sin. Damir explores the seeming divide between Rachel and Shadi and questions Rachel's stance on sin.
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A transcript excerpt lightly edited for clarity is available below, for those of you who love reading.
RACHEL RIZZO: I just inherently found myself coping with those things that were outside of my control by deeply believing in that none of those jobs were part of my path. They were not what was meant to happen to me. They were not meant to be for me. And I realized that's how I think of a lot of aspects of my life. The way that I make decisions, if I'm not sure about something I'm trying to decide for or against or whatever, I sort of find comfort in the fact that whatever path has been laid for me is there. And therefore, whatever I choose to do is inherently the right decision, even if it's the wrong decision. Does that make sense? The way that I think about it is that, I sort of talk about this in the essay, is that I see this idea of predestination and free will as complimentary instead of contradictory. Like us as humans we are meant to — we're meant to struggle, we're meant to be faced with difficulty, we're meant to make decisions every day. Some of them are very easy, some of them are difficult; they're not always super difficult. Most decisions that we make are pretty mundane, if you think about it. But when dealing with the really tough questions of life and when dealing with things that are outside of our control, I find comfort in the fact that it's part of a larger path that I am following and that brings me comfort, I guess.
DAMIR MARUSIC: I just, I wanna ask you specifically, like on this, react obviously however you want, but I wanna know how you think about free will. We've kicked this around a bit before on episodes. I think you've talked about how this stuff functions in Islam but I'm also just curious how much Rachel's approach resonates with your approach on this sort of stuff and in general. Because I think this is one of those most interesting and provocative things about how to think about life. So I'm just curious specifically how you do it before you even pivot into different questions.
SHADI HAMID: Yeah, yeah. Okay, so my basic view — and I'm going to oversimplify things here — is that God knows what we will do before we do it. So in some sense, our lives and our fates are written. But I think that's a difficult thing for people to get their heads around because they think, well, if something is written, that means I may not have as much choice or agency in certain matters as I might think because after all it's known, it's written, and so forth. So I diverge a little bit on that point and I see it more as we have agency and choice. God is not necessarily making us do one thing or another, he only knows it. So it's more a question of knowledge of what we do, rather than causing what we do in a very basic sense. Now, I struggle with the idea that everything is meant to be. And, you know, I want to unpack this a little bit with with Rachel. What does it mean for something to be meant to be? Or, you know, obviously if things are outside of our control then we can say that the rest is up to God or fate or the universe, or whatever we want to use for that. But I think it becomes more complicated when our pain or suffering is a direct result of choices we make or choices we didn't make. Because then how can we really say it was meant to be that way? It could have been otherwise. And we either experienced a lapse of judgment or we committed a moral error — especially when it comes to moral error because God gives us free will in order to judge us ultimately. There can't be sin without the free choice of committing sins. Because if God prevented us or made it much more difficult for us as humans to commit sins, then what's the point? Judgment requires failure and sin, so on and so forth. Like, if I made a mistake and if I made a series of mistakes over a certain time period, then how is that meant to be? That is my responsibility at some level. I made those choices. I could have chose differently, and I might even be able to remember like certain divergent paths in the road, so to speak. So how do you view that, Rachel?
DAMIR MARUSIC: Also, Rachel, I mean, it's notable just what Shadi was saying. The word sin doesn't appear in your essay.
RACHEL RIZZO: No, it doesn't. I mean, look, Shadi, I don't think that we're saying anything that's contradictory. I guess maybe you sort of described what I was trying to say in a little bit better way, where God already knows what we are. Choosing and in that sense like the path has almost already been laid for us. But don't you think that life is also about making mistakes? It's about making the wrong decision sometimes because if you never make the wrong decision you don't learn anything [and] sort of just coast through and everything is easy. You're not supposed to always do the right thing; you're supposed to do things [that] are supposed to be difficult sometimes. You're supposed to flounder. You're supposed to make mistakes so that it gets you back on the right path maybe. I mean, I've had experiences, as we all have, that I look back and I think that was wrong. Like, what I chose to do in that moment was wrong. But I am where I am now partially because I made those decisions. And I can't go back and change that. The only thing that I can change, or the only thing that I have control over, are the decisions that I make now and going forward.
DAMIR MARUSIC: Rachel, I think that's the main divergence between what you wrote and what you're saying now and Shadi because Shadi's putting a lot of weight on moral agency. There's that tension with free will and knowledge of the universal, the universe, God, whatever, and our ability to choose. Shadi weighs in heavily on the responsibility to choose and to choose right versus wrong, or to make the right decision, which he said the word sin in there. Now, I don't really believe in sin so this is not complicated for me, but it's interesting, and in many ways I get where you're coming from but without really recourse to the universe or God. Like, I get your predestination thing, I just express it even differently from the two of you. But let me press you a little bit more on sin and what Shadi is getting at there. How does that figure?
RACHEL RIZZO: Yeah, I mean, I think that exists because you know the difference between right and wrong in your own mind. Like, even if you don't believe in God, Damir — even if there's not the end of the path that you're trying to get to or heaven, you in your mind know when you have done something or are going to do something where you have to choose between right and wrong. And you probably actively choose more often than not to do the right thing, I would say. So doesn't that suggest that you believe in some sort of sin? Even if you decide to define it differently?
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