"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 19, 2020

Naturalism, Determinism, And Free Will–When All Is Said And Done, We’re Not Much To Write Home About

Most people reject the idea of determinism, the theory that suggests that because every action is predicated on an innumerable number of previous actions, no individual action has personal meaning and we insist that we have a God-given, unique soul and the free will to choose between right and wrong. Our actions matter and we matter.

Yet who can deny Tolstoy who in the Epilogue to War and Peace suggested that even the great Emperor Napoleon, man of battlefield genius, strategic insight, and geopolitical genius, was only a product of a long chain of previous events? 

He lost the Battle of Borodino because the day before the fight it was a cold, wet, rainy day and his personal valet forgot to bring his gumboots to camp; and as a result the Emperor caught a cold, and on the day the enemy was to be enjoined, his sinuses were so congested, his head so foggy and dull, and his fever so high, that he couldn’t have maneuvered his way to market let alone to victory of the Russians. 

His valet had forgotten the Emperor’s gumboots because he had been preoccupied with the dalliances of his wife who had, because of a previous tryst with her lover failed to show up for breakfast, forcing the valet to do without.  She had a lover because her husband was always with the Emperor. The chain of deterministic, random events could be traced ad infinitum.

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The idea of free will is nothing new and has been postulated and debated since the days of Sophocles and Plato.  Jesus, in his retorts to the tempting Devil in the desert, provided the foundations for Christian teaching on free will.  “Man cannot live by bread alone “– i.e. his teaching that the life of the spirit, embodied by Him, is far more important than any worldly gains – suggested not only that a celestial salvation awaited the faithful, but that there was a responsibility for accession.  Every Christian after the Temptation in the Desert was obliged to choose between right and wrong, good and evil.

Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov suggested that Christ’s teaching laid the foundation for a Catholic Church which was to set itself up as the arbiter of right and wrong and the Christ-anointed forgiver of sins and acquired fabulous wealth because of this arrogated authority.

The masses don’t want free will, said Ivan, but only miracle, mystery, and authority.  Christ as God could have alleviated the world’s suffering, alleviated pain and poverty, and enriched the lives of all living, but instead offered conditional salvation.  With the free will that my Father has given you, choose properly, and you will gain the Kingdom of Heaven.

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“Tell me how, advise me, help me”, the faithful pleaded to the Church, and the Vatican Empire was underway.

The Naturalists were authors who, inspired by Emile Zola, created characters who had no free will and who acted under the inevitable yoke of heredity, Darwinism, and the pervasive, influence of the environment.  Jack London, Dreiser, and Norris described the downfall of characters of initial will and purpose but who were undone by the inexorable forces of their genes, their parentage, their upbringing, and the environment into which they emerged. 

Gervaise, the heroine of  Zola’s l’Assommoir is a woman of ambition, will, intelligence, and purpose; but despite all, she ends up a homeless slattern.  Hurstwood, a principal character in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is a successful hotel manager, confident, social, and savvy; and yet because of his obsessive love for Carrie turns to crime, flight, and dishonor. he falls to the very bottom of Paris society – a derelict, homeless, and friendless pauper.  McTeague was a self-made man, a hero of the bourgeois, entrepreneurial American Victorian age; but when his fate unraveled, he was unable to adjust, to cope, and he ended up as desperate as Hurstwood.  The trapper in London’s To Build a Fire dies not because of his ignorance and naïve arrogance – setting out in frigid Arctic cold – but because of the absolute power of the North.

Does it matter? Most people go about their business either unaware of the philosophical debate about free will, or caring little for determinism or the randomness which underlies it.  No one cares whether one’s order of whole wheat and not rye is determined by a past of fussy grandmothers, or life in a small town; or whether one’s wife or girlfriend was chosen long before one was out of diapers.  Nor one’s choice of President, vacation spots, or color.

Of course they should, for the idea of free will, predestination, and pre-ordained chance is part and parcel of our Christian heritage.  Martin Luther and the Calvinist Protestant Reformationists insisted that God’s plan for each of us was determined long ago, that our fate was sealed, and that no good works could save us.  Catholics vehemently disagreed.  Good works could sway Our Savior.

Image result for Images Martin Luther

Today’s secular progressives dismiss this debate out of hand.  There is no God, no divinity in Jesus Christ, no Last Judgment, only the living.  The fate of the world is in our hands exclusively and uniquely.  Both randomness and divine determinism are off the table.  The more we invest in social reform, the greater chance of the human race to find Utopia.

Conservatives deride these idealistic notions as nonsense.  Human nature cannot be denied.  If one is not persuaded by philosophical or religious arguments, one only has to look at history.  The course of human events – war, pillage, empire, the poor, the privileged, the powerful, and the weak – is as old as history itself.  We should look no further than history to conclude that there is not such thing as collective free will.  Societies always act in the same self-interested way,

Literary critics of the Naturalists like Dreiser, Zola, Norris, and London suggest that even in their most deterministic mode, have to allow for some individual enterprise.  Is every insight determined?  Is there no room for that particular uniqueness of individual perception?  Why did Carrie succeed when Trina and Gervaise – equally strong and determined women under the same or similar environmental influences – did not?

Image result for images Emile Zola

Which is why the current rush to validate race, gender, and ethnicity as supra-normal, unique, expressions of progressive absolutism seems naïve at best and ignorant at worst.  There may be some historical and religious legitimacy in the claim of a unique individual, God-given soul, but to claim that the color of one’s skin, one’s sexuality, or one’s national origin – temporal, passing, insignificant markers – has anything to do with existential meaning, is questionable at best.

Who am I?  Protoplasm with curiously placed bits of random DNA?  A divine soul? Both? Whatever I am has nothing to do with cultural assortment.  Being black doesn’t matter a cinder in hell – or gay, or a woman, or a thing on a sliding sexual spectrum.

Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich realized almost too late, at the moment of death that existential considerations do not include what one has done but where one is going.

So The passionate advocates for Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, or Global Warming will get on board soon enough.  

Les enfants s’amusent say the French – children will be children.  The great irony of any man is to have figured out too late that nothing matters and to have lost the youth that believes it does,

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