Friday, 12 June 2015

gadfly or liberté toujours

Recently, I made the cast-off observation that Erasmus’ nice-making between the Catholics and the Lutherans was unwelcome on both fronts due in part to Erasmus’ reintroduction of free-will. I sort of swallowed that comment and later realised that that subject deserved a bit more attention. Most people would want to believe that they do have free-agency, free-will in at least some form, since the alternative—or at least the only one we can imagine is fate destiny, determinism or a mixture thereof—and leaves nothing praiseworthy, blameworthy, no reason to be thankful or ungracious. If one’s fate was predetermined before one was born—either by God or gods bounded by Necessity (the Fates, Μοῖραι) or in Sir Isaac Newton’s clockwork universe, bound by natural laws with all actions dependent on some antecedent action going all the way back to the beginning of time (which would apply to our own neuro-chemistry as well), it hardly seems right to consign some to eternal damnation and suffering and too to reward others in they had no choice in the matter. In more mundane terms, there is a tendency to not hold people culpable for their wrongdoings or negligence if there is found to be some pre-existing factor, like insanity or trauma or bad parenting, that absolves them of responsibility for their actions.

As best as I understand it, Luther favoured predeterminism not in order to toss out the idea of morality and personal responsibility but rather to promote the idea (called justification in religious contexts) that salvation and forgiveness of sins was a part of the grand, undeviating plan—and that nothing else was needed except for faith even in the most recalcitrant cases. Supposedly when threatened with excommunication, Luther refused to back down, saying “Here I stand and how could I be anyway else.” Justification frees parishioners from the corruptions of the Church itself by allowing institution no further say in the matter. That does sound like a good idea, except that it doesn’t address the choice of having faith or being agnostic or not having the benefit of being born and raised in a Lutheran country—or at least being pestered by missionaries, but mostly, we’re all winners. Hallelujah! Except that free-will and choice, albeit bound to other conventions, lead to the same conclusion and redemption. Prior to doing anything, we feel we have all the choice in the world (and indeed we have moral figments) but often times after the deed is done, we recognise that it really couldn’t have been any other way and yet there’s a lot of notions on ethics, gratitude and accountability that don’t seem just illusory or artificial. It’s a popular idea but surely one even less understood that Luther’s pro-determinism argument that the uncertainties and bald probabilities of quantum-mechanics may suggest that the cosmos isn’t at all governed by a fixed destiny. If, however, microscopic randomness projects fully up to the macroscopic world, that doesn’t allow us our choice either, since we’re just at the mercy of chaos. I don’t know and probably our underlying assumptions are wrong—but I do expect that there’s something in between that won’t emerge as wholly unsatisfying. What do you think? Is it possible to know one way or the other?