Delight Springs

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Augustine, free will, & free speech

It's Constitution Day again, and again I look forward to making a small public profession of fealty to academic freedom. (We'll line up in the courtyard of Peck Hall, some of us, and take turns reading lines from the document whose 1st amendment secures our unreserved right to speak our hearts and minds.) Couldn't do this, without that.

Is anyone, from God on down, “pulling our strings”? We’d not be free if they were, would we? If you say we would, what do you mean by “free”? Jesus and Mo have puzzled this one, behind the wheel with with Moses...
..and with "Free Willy." But as usual, the Atheist Barmaid is unpersuaded.

(As I always must say, when referencing this strip: that’s not Jesus of Nazareth, nor is it the Prophet Mohammed, or the sea-parter Moses; and neither I nor Salman Rushdie, the Dutch cartoonists, the anonymous Author, or anyone else commenting on religion in fictional media are blasphemers. We're all just observers exercising our "god-given" right of free speech, which of course extends no further than the end of a fist and the tip of a nose. We'll be celebrating precisely that, and academic freedom, when we line up to take turns reading the Constitution this morning.

No, they’re just a trio of cartoonish guys who often engage in banter relevant to our purposes in CoPhi. It’s just harmless provocation, and fun.  But if it makes us think, it’s useful.)

Augustine proposed a division between the “city of god” and the “earthly city” of humanity, thus excluding many of us from his version of the cosmos. “These two cities of the world, which are doomed to coexist intertwined until the Final Judgment, divide the world’s inhabitants.” SEP

And of course he believed in hell, raising the stakes for heaven and the judicious free will  he thought necessary to get there even higher. If there's no such thing as free will, though, how can you do "whatever the hell you want"?  But, imagine there's no heaven or hell. What then? Some of us think that's when free will becomes most useful to members of a growing, responsible species.

Someone posted the complaint on our class message board that it's not clear what "evil" means, in the context of our Little History discussion of Augustine. But I think this is clear enough: "there is a great deal of suffering in the world," some of it proximally caused by crazy, immoral/amoral, armed and dangerous humans behaving badly, much more of it caused by earthquakes, disease, and other "natural" causes. All of it, on the theistic hypothesis, is part and parcel of divinely-ordered nature.

Whether or not some suffering is ultimately beneficial, character-building, etc., and from whatever causes, "evil" means the suffering that seems gratuitously destructive of innocent lives. Some of us "can't blink the evil out of sight," in William James's words, and thus can't go in for theistic (or other) schemes of "vicarious salvation." We think it's the responsibility of humans to use their free will (or whatever you prefer to call ameliorative volitional action) to reduce the world's evil and suffering. Take a sad song and make it better.

Note the Manichaean strain in Augustine, and the idea that "evil comes from the body." That's straight out of Plato. The world of Form and the world of perfect heavenly salvation thus seem to converge. If you don't think "body" is inherently evil, if in fact you think material existence is pretty cool (especially considering the alternative), this view is probably not for you. Nor if you can't make sense of Original Sin, that most "difficult" contrivance of the theology shop.

"Augustine had felt the hidden corrosive effect of Adam's Fall, like the worm in the apple, firsthand," reminds Arthur Herman. His prayer for personal virtue "but not yet" sounds funny but was a cry of desperation and fear.
Like Aristotle, Augustine believed that the quality of life we lead depends on the choices we make. The tragedy is that left to our own devices - and contrary to Aristotle - most of those choices will be wrong. There can be no true morality without faith and no faith without the presence of God. The Cave and the Light
Bertrand Russell, we know, was not a Christian. But he was a bit of a fan of Augustine the philosopher (as distinct from the theologian), on problems like time.

As for Augustine the theologian and Saint-in-training, Russell's pen drips disdain.
It is strange that the last men of intellectual eminence before the dark ages were concerned, not with saving civilization or expelling the barbarians or reforming the abuses of the administration, but with preaching the merit of virginity and the damnation of unbaptized infants.
Funny, how the preachers of the merit of virginity so often come late - after exhausting their stores of wild oats - to their chaste piety. Not exactly paragons of virtue or character, these Johnnys Come Lately. On the other hand, it's possible to profess a faith you don't understand much too soon. My own early Sunday School advisers pressured and frightened me into "going forward" at age 6, lest I "die before I wake" one night and join the legions of the damned.  

That's an allusive segue to today's additional discussion of Aristotelian virtue ethics, in its turn connected with the contradictions inherent in the quest to bend invariably towards Commandments. "Love your neighbor": must that mean, let your neighbor suffer a debilitating terminal illness you could pull the plug on? Or is the "Christian" course, sometimes, to put an end to it?

We also read today of Hume's Law, Moore's Naturalistic Fallacy, the old fact/value debate. Sam Harris is one of the most recent controversialists to weigh in on the issue, arguing that "good" means supportive of human well-being and flourishing, which are in turn based on solid facts. "The answer to the question, 'What should I believe, and why should I believe it?' is generally a scientific one..."  Brain Science and Human Values

Also: ethical relativism, meta-ethics, and more. And maybe we'll have time to squeeze in consideration of the perennial good-versus-evil trope. Would there be anything "wrong" with a world in which good was already triumphant, happiness for all already secured, kindness and compassion unrivaled by hatred and cruelty? I think it might be just fine. Worth a try, anyway. Where can I vote for that?

1 comment:

  1. Free will is a tricky one. I think if there really is free will then everything will just happen and nothing would be set up. But if God has a will that will be done, then is this really free will or is everything going in a sequence leading up to something?