Twelvetide 18:06 free will

December 30, 2018

It’s very difficult to talk about ethics without at least mentioning the question of free will, and (I would contend) impossible to understand aesthetics without accepting its existence. A few years ago Alicia and I along with the inimitable Max had an extended and regrettably unrecorded conversation about complexity theory and free will in Maryland. I think I started it by suggesting that complexity science, in allowing multiple ontological states to co-exist gave us a new way of looking at traditional philosophical problems; an idea itself stimulated by Alicia doing just that to the question distinguishing between a wink and a blink in her book Dynamics in Action. The question of free will is not just an abstract philosophical debate (although it can be) it has profound implications for decision making and responsibility in any organisation.

Last night when I was starting to make notes for this post, possibly over lubricated by a excellent bottle of Pinotage from my last South African trip, I tweeted “Mapping out tomorrow’s blog post based on the heuristic that anyone condemned by Augustine and Calvin must have something going for them”. Astute observers will have recognised the reference to my third post in this series when I promised to pick up on the un-heresy of Pelagius and there is no better starting point for a discussion on free will than this early Celtic theologian.

Note: You may want to skip the next couple of paragraphs (but read the quote as its just too good to miss) which represent a polemic on theology and its consequences. They are not central to the main theme, but they do explain some of the background to my views.

Now I should make it clear that I have an intense dislike for Augustine of Hippo ever since I waded through The City of God. He always struck me as a hypocrite of the first order who never really got past his early prayer “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet”. Having indulged in one half of the manichaean dualism that he adopted early in life, he sought redemption in the other half imposing neo-platonism and centuries of obsession about sex on Christianity. Manichaean thought is one of the great evils of the modern day, in which everything has to be categorised as of the Devil or of God, it bedevils (sic) much of modern politics. Augustine’s views on Original Sin and Predestination were taken up by the reformed tradition who split from both Catholicism and Lutherism most commonly known as Calvinism. Now I know that Barth and others have moved on and modified some of the original beliefs here but I have always found the idea of unconditional election to be evil. It’s the idea that God has chosen an elect from the whole of history who will receive salvation regardless of how they act in this world. That is compounded by the idea of limited atonement in which Christ died only to deal with the sins of said elect while the rest of humanity are simply subject to total depravity enslaved to sin which they cannot redeem. Now I know a lot of people who trace their spirituality to the reformed tradition who don’t buy into that crudity, but I’ve also known a few of the self-appointed elect who in effect feel they are justified in anything they do as they are assured of salvation. I find the whole thing as absurd as well, Young Earth Creationism, to take a related example. A form of intellectual and moral impoverishment that was wonderfully satirised in Cold Comfort Farm in the sermon of Amos Starkadder to the Church of the Quivering Brethren:

Ye miserable, crawlin’ worms. Are ye here again then? Have ye come like Nimshi, son of Rehoboam, secretly out of your doomed houses, to hear what’s comin’ to ye? Have ye come, old and young, sick and well, matrons and virgins, if there be any virgins amongst you, which is not likely, the world being in the wicked state that it is. Have ye come to hear me tell you of the great, crimson, licking flames of hell fire? Aye! You’ve come, dozens of ye. Like rats to the granary, like field mice when it’s harvest home. And what good will it do ye? You’re all damned! Damned! Do you ever stop to think what that word means? No, you don’t. It means endless, horrifying torment! It means your poor, sinful bodies stretched out on red-hot gridirons, in the nethermost, fiery pit of hell and those demons mocking ye while they waves cooling jellies in front of ye. You know what it’s like when you burn your hand, taking a cake out of the oven, or lighting one of them godless cigarettes? And it stings with a fearful pain, aye? And you run to clap a bit of butter on it to take the pain away, aye? Well, I’ll tell ye, there’ll be no butter in hell!

The problem with considering yourself as one of the elite/elect is that anything goes, everything validates what you do and believe. God (or the Harvard Business School) has made you what you are and the rest of the world had better bloody well accept it …

OK polemic over now back to the main theme

Thanks to his condemnation by the Church (one of Augustines’s initiatives) Pelagius’s works no longer survive. But he did (rightly I think) accuse Augustine of being a Manichaean, elevating evil to the same status as God and in effect making despair or fatalism a Christian doctrine. Pelagius also came from the aesthetic tradition of Celtic Christianity, which is more closely linked to the Orthodox tradition (who also don’t take a very positive view of Augustine). Pelagius did not see humanity as fallen but as capable of choice, that we can avoid sin and choose to obey or disobey the commandments. Choice here is enabled by grace and that is the point I want to pull out for understanding ethical practice and I’ve going to return to the idea that an understanding of the co-existence of apparently contradictory ontological states gives us a way of avoiding both absolutism and relativism.

Now this also links into a derivation of Assemblage theory, which is one of the critical foundations of anthropology-complexity as a field. Assemblages are all out relationships that are formed through (to go back to the original) coding, stratification and territorialisation. I’m using the phrase more in the sense of De Landa’s interpretation of Deleuze than in the purist sense of Deleuze and Guattari and it is my reworking. In effect tropes emerge through multiple telling and retellings of stories with common themes between multiple agents. In an internet age those can can reinforced very quickly by rapid feedback loops – we only find things that reinforce our beliefs and they form stable patterns that are difficult to escape. Now that has consequences for responsibility. As I said earlier in this series is someone grows up in a culture where science has been denigrated in their community in favour or belief then supporting incoherent ideas such as Young Earth Creationism can be understood and possibly excused. So in the US I am more cautious on the subject then I am in Europe where there really is no excuse for such primitivism. In more complex areas such a Female genital mutilation (and I use that phrase rather than cutting or removal) the assemblage structure that supported the barbaric practice is increasingly being challenged, communication and education mean that it has moved from a cultural practice to a choice. Now I may not have expressed that well and I chose a difficult example so I couldn’t run away from some of the implications. But I do think that understanding the dispositional nature of a system (a key complexity concept) is one way to understand what range of choice is practically possible for an individual actor within that system.

One of the reasons for my putting this forward (tentatively and with trepidation) is that ethics involves judgement involves choice involves free will. So when a stable system is approaching a phase shift, then and only then may sustainable choice may become available that, in all honesty, was only possible for saints and martyrs before. That means shifting dispositional states (one way of looking at the idea of grace by the way) is necessary before choice can be advocated ….


Banner picture is Snowdon taken a crampon assisted descent of Y Garn on a day when I wished I had taken the full frame Nikon rather than the more portable Sony

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