Saturday, September 7, 2013

Thanks for the Mustard!

Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality, I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it. In the first case the road is open and I can go as far as I like; in the second the road is shut…

It is the charge against the main deductions of the materialist that, right or wrong, they gradually destroy his humanity; I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative, all that is human. For instance, when materialism leads men to complete fatalism (as it generally does), it is quite idle to pretend that it is in any sense a liberating force. It is absurd to say that you are especially advancing freedom when you only use free thought to destroy free will… you may say, if you like that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not [then] free to praise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants, or even to say ‘thank you’ for the mustard.
GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Reflection – I don’t know if too many ordinary people outside of academic really subscribe to hard-nosed philosophical determinism, the flat denial of the existence of free will. As has often been said, there are some ideas some stupid only an intellectual can believe in them, and hard determinism is one of them.

But there is a soft determinism that pervades our culture like an invisible gas, and it is corrosive in a way that hard foolish determinism is not. We can all see that the outright denial of free will makes life a nonsense, makes it impossible, as GKC puts it so well, to say ‘thank you’ for the mustard. Philosophical theories that necessarily terminate in ludicrous behavior are thereby disqualified from serious consideration in my view.

But ‘soft’ determinism is something much more insidious. It is less of a denial, and more of a continual chipping away of our freedom, a constant ascribing of our actions to forces greater than our free rational will to which we are subject.

In an earlier Freudian age it was fashionable to chalk all actions up to repressed childhood traumas and sublimated desires. In our Darwinian age, we blame the genes for everything. More and more, as the cybernetic model of reality becomes dominant in our culture, we tend to think of ourselves as hardware running software, whether the software is built in from the manufacturer (genes) or was installed later (Hi, Mom!). We are simply robots with flesh and blood instead of gears and oil. I’m not critiquing here the actual theories of Freud and Darwin, but their wholly non-scientific appropriation in popular thought.

There are subtle variations on all that, of course. But GKC’s point is well taken: the more freedom of will and intellect is undermined, the less free we actually are. If I am just some stew of genetic predisposition and childhood conditioning, then why bother trying to persuade me of the errors of my ways? If you are the same, why would I try to persuade you of anything? For that matter, if none of us is really free, if we’re all just robots to some degree or other, then why praise, admonish, persuade, thank, forgive, urge, etc.? I don’t forgive my computer when it crashes or praise it when it does what I want – why should I do that for you, O cyber-reader?

This soft determinism is rampant in our culture today. I say it diminishes freedom, and I stand by that. But I realize that for those who latch onto it, they do so in the name of a certain species of freedom, one I consider very low and limited and ultimately self-destructive, but a kind of freedom nonetheless. That is the freedom of license. If I am a mass of DNA and psycho-drama, if my actual scope for choice and change is drastically limited, then I can basically do whatever I want without any guilt or check. After all, I’m just doing what my programming entails.

It is this freedom of license, freedom to do just whatever I bloody well please that is served by soft determinism. And I maintain this is a pathetic and ultimately self-destroying model of freedom. It is freedom which in fact is slavery to one’s own drives and desires. And desire, drive, hunger is a cruel and unyielding taskmaster. If I simply must do what my raw desires command me to do, then I am the most pitiful and careworn of slaves in this world.

As it is, I am free, and so are you. We may want ‘x’, but we are free to say to that desire, ‘now hold on. Is ‘x’ truly good? Is it good for me? Is it good for me now? Do I want ‘x’ for a good reason?’ The whole rational process of moral thought and decision making is there for us. We are free, if we wish, to ignore it and just do what we want, and this may not always be wrong—a father swooping his child into his arms for a hug doesn’t need to analyze this primitive desire for its moral probity! But that same man swooping his neighbor’s wife into his arms may wish to stop and think about it first. And that’s our freedom, and that’s what is being eroded in a subtle way in our popular culture now.


  1. Well I have never really read Chesterton- only what others have written about him..including, now you, Father Denis. I am not sure I am really getting the point.
    I agree, hard determinism is well- hard. All events are determined. They may have been different if the antecedent was different, but because they are never different, the outcome is strictly determined.
    Soft determinism at least tries to bring in some moral reasoning. Most events are determined by antecedent causes but some events are not. These are not predetermined by causes antecedent to them because of free will (or conscious?). Free will(?real conscience)is the power by which new or undetermined events enter into the world and change its progress. Free will is a power given only to persons.
    Because persons can do other than goodin making a free choice they can be help accountable for their choices. With determinism only one choice is possible- only free will can be compatible with moral responsibility.
    But then there is our argument- soft determinism can become so soft that there is no criteria at all for moral responsibility.
    So, maybe what you are saying is determinists are right about determinism. Soft determinists are right about moral responsibility. Determinism and moral responsibility are not compatible.
    So, as I see it- it sort of brings us back to the question of free will and conscience...learning to love and be loved...
    Is that your point?

    1. Well, not quite - although if I understand you rightly, I agree with what you are saying. My concern (admittedly not quite where GKC is heading, but hey, it's my blog!) is the reduction of our humanity to essentially mechanistic models, whether the driving force is compulsions arising from childhood trauma or genetic coding (which I believe is a reasonable reading of Dawkins' The Selfish Gene).
      I call it soft determinism (although I believe I did not invent the term) because it does not flatly deny human freedom, but undermines it to the point of near denial. I do believe that the motivation underlying all that is, in fact, a desire to do whatever our desires tell us without moral responsibility. Perhaps I didn't argue the point as clearly as I should - as always, I'm cranking these blog posts out early in the morning with minimal time.

    2. Oh, Dawkins.
      Perhaps, he is a good scientist. But, I do not understand his popularity. His arguments about God and religion make so little sense to me. Wasted words...seems like he is always defending a point that real persons seldom think he has somehow missed the real food and focuses on the preparations...
      Anyway, Taylor Swift is in St Paul tonight....and life is sort of sparkling red around here...gotta go.
      Bless you.


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