Wednesday, January 12, 2005

New Year, Free Will and Tsunami Waves

We are now a week or so into a New Year and it is the time to reconsider New Year resolutions. Those who made them ahead of time are considering whether they are living up to them. Those who did not make resolutions are, perhaps, considering whether they ought to have made some. As long as one has life and wits, it is never too late to make a resolution. It is only sceptics or pessimists who claim to believe that resolutions are pointless. I once knew a person who resolved never to make a New Year’s resolution. In sticking to that, resolutely, the person both made and kept a resolution thereby proving the un-workability of his own theory.

Something like this error is at work amongst those who claim to believe that everything is merely the product of genes and “free will” is an illusion. Like so many things, the complete denial of the validity of assertions is itself a denial of the assertion. The most famous of these is to say “there is no such thing as truth” which, if true, must be false. Even most of such people are not so confused as to insist that something can be both false and true at the same time.

There is a name for this kind of assertion in philosophy well known to those who know such things. I shall not dwell upon its exact name here for fear of inflaming those who do not know it amongst whom is the writer of this all too inadequate article.

Suffice it to say that human beings are left with only so many options at any given moment. One of these is to affirm that things are what they are and the other is to deny that things are what they are. But to deny things are what they are is to affirm, whether or not we know it, that one can be incorrect. To deny that one can be wrong is to be wrong otherwise there would be no point in denying it. Things have a way of proving themselves to be what they are despite how we may deny them.

Those who, like me, adore this kind of reasoning, cling to the fact that there are facts. The alternative is to cling to - - well, to cling to the fact that there are no facts, which, apart from being self-contradictory, is to cling to nothing.

One cannot cling to nothing for reasons that are obvious. One can cling to an illusion, but only in the conviction that it is something to cling to. Clinging to nothing is not really clinging at all.

The writer who best dealt with this kind of logic and argument was the English writer G.K. Chesterton (1878 – 1936). He made his reputation in many, many areas, literary criticism, theology, philosophy, fiction and poetry.

Recently I had the pleasure of editing three of his novels for the Collected Edition of his works. This Collected Edition will run to excess of 40 volumes and many of them have been published already, over many years, by Ignatius Press of San Francisco. The volume that I edited, Volume VII, contains three of his pre-first world war novels and each was concerned, in one way or another, with discussing what was true and what was false in the philosophies of the day.

Whirring adventures all, they deal with atheists debating theists, sceptics with those of religious faith and pessimists with those who are not pessimistic. One, The Flying Inn (1914) even discusses the rise of a pseudo-Islam against the free and rollicking life of the common-man in an England that had become, under puritan leadership, teetotal and anti-Christian.

The reason I am thinking of Chesterton at this beginning of a New Year is that he wrote about the need to have resolutions, to make decisions to change things that needed changing. In reading his comments about changing ourselves I was struck about the hopefulness and confidence he had about human nature and the fact that things can change. He believed in free will and doing what is right and spent a great deal of time arguing against the “dark heresy” of a twisted sort of predestination which, in essence, amounted to blaming God for human error and sinfulness.

As erroneous religion gave us a wrong conception of predestination and atonement, a wrong sort of science gave us scientific determinism. Chesterton set himself against both sorts of reductionism.

We are not, according to Chesterton, awash in a sea of changing but ultimately meaningless developments. We are not, in other words, merely genetic units locked in brute competition to further our genes, but people who can, with reason and application, amend ourselves towards a better hope.

The recent events in Southeast Asia in which many thousands perished following the tsunami waves, shows the extent to which human beings can act to help those who are weaker and in need. It strains credulity to say simply that the tens of millions of dollars raised and given charitably in many countries were due to some “generosity gene” working itself out in a kind of blind biological urge.

Yet this is the kind of nonsense that some will say. Others will spout another kind of nonsense. They will say something like this: “presumably those who did not give were doing so due to some other gene - - perhaps a selfish gene.” Perhaps, so the argument will go, overpopulation has led some humans to refuse aid so as to ensure that the population falls to more manageable levels. The “gene theorists” will argue to explain anything. They will argue both that those people who gave of their own money did so to further the human species and that those who did not did not do so for the same reason.

But wait a minute - - what is explained at all if it can be argued that genes lead to opposite results? The “selfish gene” and the “generosity gene” end up being the same and both cannot be true. Here is the interesting point: genes theory used this way cannot be falsified so lacks the necessary basis to have scientific credibility.

Nothing about why we choose what we do is, or can be, explained by this sort of gene theory. The most it can do is show us relationships and likelihoods; it cannot prove our choices. We cannot prove that the person who donates money is “forced” to do it by some kind of sub-conscious biological urge any more than we can prove that the person who refused to donate (or assist) was motivated by some other sub-conscious biologically driven force. Map the human genome all you want but it will never be able to tell you what the biological entity decides or didn’t decide at any particular moment for that piece of information is not information that can be measured, much less measured in advance.

Leszek Kolakowski, the great Polish cultural historian now at Oxford University, in his monumental multi-volume work Main Currents of Marxism (1978), once noted that in some of its manifestations Marxism claimed to be a complete explanation for every human phenomenon and even the rules of soccer could be explained by Marxist class analysis.

This sort of comprehensive explanation was bogus of course and Marxism has lost most of its credibility but that did not mean that the theory did not occupy many people’s lives for great parts of the nineteenth and twentieth century. A certain kind of scientific religion is replacing the passing of a certain kind of Marxist religion - - both are dogmatic and held with religious fervour and both are used in attempts to explain away religion.

Scientism of the determinist social Darwinist sort seems to have taken over from the kind of all encompassing materialist explanations of the Marxism of yesterday. The analysis that “genes” account for human actions and inactions can start and end anywhere. Such reasons fail the test of experience, and theory, however, and we are not slaves to our genes anymore than we were slaves to our class, race, sex or any other “given” characteristic.

The reality is much more important. Like resolutions, we can choose to change, can choose to improve, can choose to ignore the weak and the sick or get off our collective apathies and pitch in to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Of course this “choice matters” approach only makes sense in a world where genes, like Marxist class analysis, do not explain everything because we have free will and can choose to act this way or that. But then, “free will” is an essentially religious concept and more than that, an essentially Christian one. With the loss of confidence in Christianity as a cultural force it is not difficult to see, as Margaret Visser pointed out in her recent Massey Lectures, Beyond Fate (2002), that “fate” takes over again. Fatalism, unlike cleanliness, is not next to godliness but it is the close companion of Marxists and those in thrall to scientism.

In short, we can make New Year’s resolutions or not. One thing is sure; how we choose to live will determine what kind of world we live in despite what today’s scientific or philosophical pessimists wish to assert. Make some resolutions today and prove all the pessimists wrong. It is only those who believe in free will, after all, who can logically make resolutions; the rest must simply live in the chaos of revolutions.

Iain T. Benson ©