Against free choice

Common sense tells us that we’re morally accountable because we have free will. In reality, the opposite is the case — a free will is attributed to us so that we can be viewed as morally accountable. Put more briefly: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them.

I know that some readers are already objecting, thinking in terms of the intellectually fruitless debate between free will and determinism. I am far from viewing human beings as machine-like — indeed, the only people who seem to believe human beings are machine-like are economists, who assume that the right “inputs” (incentives, information, etc.) will always necessarily lead to the right “outputs.” Humans consistently respond to situations in surprising and unpredictable ways, which do not conform to any algorithm we’re likely to find.

Even if we decide that humans are “free” in the sense of not being fully determined by a saturated field of knowable causal laws, however, it’s still an additional step to claim that “freedom” in that sense carries with it moral responsibility — that I can be justly shamed or punished precisely because I can do something called “making a choice.” The one does not follow from the other. Indeed, we often shame or punish people when nothing like an informed free choice is in play, as when we punish someone for breaking a law they do not know (and virtually none of us knows even a significant percentage of the laws in our jurisdiction). We punish or shame children not because we believe that they have the same ability to “make choices” as adults, but so that they will begin to experience themselves as having free choice.

The concept of free will was most insistently developed in medieval scholasticism, and the really puzzling thing in retrospect was that essentially none of the scholastics doubted that each individual’s fate was completely predestined by God’s eternal inscrutable will. Here above all we can see that free will works as an apparatus to justify punishment, most especially in the various narratives of the fall of the devil. Aquinas settles on the position that the devil cannot be evil from the first moment of his existence, because then God would be to blame for his evil nature — rather, God gives the devil a good will in the first instant, and then in the second instant the devil falls away through an excessive willing that implied the sin of pride. The needle has been threaded: God has been absolved of responsibility, but the devil is also as thoroughly evil as possible. Anselm works similar magic on original sin, making it a heritable defect in the will — yet because it is a matter of will, it is a punishable sin just as much as what we more usually think of as willful sins.

The apparatus of free will in medieval theology allowed for a world not unlike our own. Free choice condemned the vast majority of human beings to a hopeless fate, while a privileged elite gained rewards — in both cases, despite the fact that God had predetermined everything, theologians were confident that everyone had gotten what they deserved. God’s justice was vindicated, and his glory assured. Our version is less grandiose. We want to vindicate something called “the market,” which always makes the right choices if only we allow it to, and in place of the glory of God we have the shifting numbers in various market indices and economic indicators. We are also content to let people waste the one life they have in this world, rather than imagine them suffering beyond death through all eternity.

Yet this deflated vision makes our attachment to the value of freedom all the more puzzling. I can see living and dying for God — but why would anyone devote their lives to making certain numbers go higher? Why would we sacrifice everything — the very livability of this finite world itself — so that the rate of change in those numbers would not decrease?

Here the medieval worldview might be helpful as well, because part of the pleasure of being among the heaven-bound elect was the prospect of watching, with great satisfaction, the punishment of the damned. Human decency leads us to assume that the suffering of the poor, the thwarted hopes of the young, the pending mass death of countless millions through the disasters of climate change are “bugs” in the system — but what if they’re features? What if part of the pleasure of being among the elite is to gaze upon the deserved fate of all those pathetic losers, knowing that the same market justice that redeemed you is vindicated when it punishes them? What if the unprecedented spectacle of global suffering is not an unfortunate side-effect, but the goal?

Phlogiston and You!

In the Natural Sciences class I’m taking, we’ve spent the last couple weeks working through various attempts to understand the nature of heat. As it turns out, Bacon “got it right” early on by proposing that heat was in some sense motion, but it is surprising how tenacious the view of heat as some type of “fire particle” was. The theory of phlogiston (i.e., fire-matter united with other types of matter in chemical compounds) was so stubbornly adhered to that the person who (arguably) discovered what we would now call oxygen thought he had actually produced something called “dephlogisticated air,” and even Lavoisier, who properly discovered and named oxygen as such, maintained a variation on the phlogiston theory with his notion of heat particles called “caloric.”

We started the class the the pre-Socratics, and I was working my way through Being and Time during those weeks, so for me this whole class has been framed by the “question of the meaning of Being.” It seems to me that a lot of these problems could’ve been avoided had the scientists in question thought more attentively about that question. For instance, it seems to me that in all their texts, there’s a latent conceptual distinction between heat-as-substance and heat-as-effect — why should the latter be limited to cases where the former is present? And if it shouldn’t, what work is the notion of a heat-substance really doing? Can’t there “be” heat in some sense even if it’s not a substance?

Further, it seems to me that the advent of modern science in rebellion against Aristotelian scholasticism follows a familiar pattern where surface-level polemic masks a deeper solidarity: in this case, both share the metaphysics of substance. I wonder if a more authentic return to Aristotle and specifically to his theory of potentiality as one of “the ways in which being is said” may have provided a more fruitful conceptual framework.

Hierarchy in proofs of the existence of God

Yesterday was my last class session for Humanities 3: Philosophy and Theology. Our final reading included Locke’s variation (from the Essay) on the proof of the existence of God, which has naturally been a recurring theme in the course. He emphasizes throughout that God must be an intellectual being, because it’s inconceivable that matter could produce intellect — and an intuition struck me: is there a proof of the existence of God that doesn’t rely in some way upon mind-body dualism?

I threw the question out to both sections, and some interesting conclusions emerged. First, in none of the other proofs we discussed — Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes — was mind-body dualism so obviously crucial as in Locke’s. Yet it does seem that belief in some kind of spiritual reality is necessary for infinite-regress-prevention proofs (like some of Aquinas’s Five Ways) to be proving God rather than, for example, the Big Bang. The end of all his proofs is “And this, everyone agrees, is God” — but it’s ultimately mind-body dualism that makes it seem intuitively obvious that the first cause or prime mover can’t be material.

Second, and more essentially, it seems that all the classical proofs depend more broadly on ontological hierarchy, of which mind-body dualism is a decisive piece. God can be purely spiritual and yet produce matter because the spiritual is above the material and can therefore produce it, while the opposite could never be the case. And while Anselm’s proof may seem immune to this, he isn’t sheerly trying to prove the “existence” of that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought — he’s trying to prove that that thing is God, in the familiar and traditional sense. The definition isn’t just a clever move to be able to deduce existence, but to be able to simultaneously deduce everything else we know about God — and that depends on an ontological hierarchy providing “objective” standards for what’s greater.

This reliance on mind-body dualism and ontological hierarchy, more than any logical missteps in the proofs, may account for why they are so unconvincing to most people today.

An observation about the comparative teachability of two major medieval theologians

Thomas Aquinas is light-years more difficult to teach than Anselm, even controlling for the fact that I’m more familiar and comfortable with Anselm. In fact, I would even theorize that the only major body of Western thought that might be more difficult to teach than scholasticism is German Idealism, though I have not yet attempted the latter.

Anti-Aquinas

I’ve read a ton of Aquinas this weekend, and one effect of the incredibly monotonous format for me was that I started to feel pity for the “it seems” positions each article starts with — you know Aquinas is just setting them up for a fall. This led me to a thought: someone needs to take all the positions Aquinas rejects and advocate them as a consistent system of theology.

The biggest challenge is that you’d have to say God doesn’t exist, but surely you could work with that (turning it into a rejection of the analogia entis rather than the common-sense meaning of “God doesn’t exist,” perhaps).

God as Black Hole

In my Medieval Christian Thought class, we’re getting close to the end of a solid two-week block of Aquinas. One of the guiding principles of my pedagogy is that one should read a “whole text” to the extent possible, and I chose to use Book I of Summa Contra Gentiles, meaning that we’re close to knowing all that it is possible for human reason to know about God without the aid of revelation — certainly a good thing to have under one’s belt.

The more I really think through Aquinas’s concept of God, which is a fairly representative account of the traditional monotheistic concept of God, the more I find it to be appalling and even a little terrifying. Read the rest of this entry »

A new proof of the existence of God

Proofs of the existence of God have fallen on hard times. We are far from the days when Anselm could berate the Fool for his failure to see that God’s existence was inherent in the very concept of God, and even from the heyday of Aquinas’s “five ways” to prove the existence of a Creator. Anthony and I have, however, devised a new proof of the existence of God that is not only fully rigorous, but also reflects much of the thinking underlying Christian practice today — a stirring example of faith completing reason. It goes as follows:

  1. We see all around us that the world is awash in sinful and perverse acts.
  2. Now God is the only standard by which we can know these acts as sinful and perverse.
  3. If God did not exist, then the sinful and perverse would be completely acceptable.
  4. But this is absurd — and therefore God must exist.

All we need now is a catchy name like “the teleological argument” or “the argument from design.” Perhaps the “argument from homophobia”?

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