The Clare Spark Blog

May 8, 2010

The Free Will-Determinism Debate

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exhibition announcement, Cal State Dominguez Hills

My fight with a Reagan Republican Catholic who hates housework and feminism. 

Two days ago, a Facebook friend who describes herself as a Reagan conservative and as a Catholic, posted on her FB page a protest against housework, which she HATED (she did use caps).  I responded, unwarily, that “after the revolution, men would clean a new dirty house every day.” I was thinking of the day workers (often illegals) whose life did in fact consist of such dreary and repetitive tasks, not pacing their work as a stay-at-home middle-class housewife might (with the potential cooperation of a considerate family), but faced with the accumulation of many days of scum, grease, and other forms of dirt, and dependent on the savvy of the employer with respect to toxic chemicals and allergens. What followed next was a stressful interaction, for this person was in a rage against me, and my supposed cohort, 60s feminists such as Gloria Steinem, who were melded in her mind as disgruntled man-haters. If I had had any painful experiences, I had it coming to me.  Women in general had no grievances: she loved men, period. There was no way to pacify her, but it did give me an insight into how those second-wave feminists might be regarded by a conservative woman age 41. This happened the day of the stock market plunge, and to calm myself I wrote the recent blog on social cohesion and adjustment.

 Some personal history.   Oddly enough, during the late 1960s when I heard the first rumblings of the new feminism, I thought that these must be unnatural women who had abandoned their maternal responsibilities. (I was not that different from the conservative woman who freaked out on May 6.)  Not long afterwards, I began my radio programs on the art world and how artists were faring in powerful arts institutions. That activity took me away from the nest into a wider world of political and social controversy, and the spell of traditional marriage was broken and my political education finally began in fits and starts, but I remained relatively naïve, compared to what I might have been had I been raised in a feminist household. Meanwhile, I had used my Pacifica radio program to publicize the growing movement of feminist art and design, and collected slides of sex and violence in the images of women artists and photographers while I was teaching part-time at Calarts. At some point, during this period of personal transition, I must have read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (a book that was not only pro-woman, but anti-imperialist), for I used passages from that book to illustrate the slide show I presented during the 1970s at numerous public venues. After I had returned to graduate school, I saw that the 60s women’s movement had elevated some feminists to prestigious positions in the postmodern academy where they confined themselves to women’s issues, and with a few exceptions, did not embed the situation of women in a larger social context. And most disturbingly, some of the women I had assisted had bonded either with the Left (even when those Left factions were supporting Third World countries that were barbaric with respect to gender relations) or had gone entirely mystical.

 Am I socially irresponsible?   To return to the subject at hand: my Facebook adversary had resorted to “free will” as her explanation for my failed marriage. It later occurred to me that she, like many other religious conservatives, had rejected any kind of historical, materialist, and structural explanation for the condition of women, including her own: She was a good woman, had chosen a good man (who did the floors for her), and I was very bad and irresponsible, deserving my fate.  Oddly, she, the out-of-control happy/unhappy housewife, was in a fury, while I remained relatively placid (though inwardly churning) as I attempted to explain myself, finally ending the FB friendship as it was clear that our differences were too deep to negotiate.  

Return of the unrepressed.    As prior blogs here should have made clear, it is difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct a personal history that cleanly separates structure from agency, or as Herman Melville constantly reminds us in his stories, to separate “fixed-fate” from “free will.” We are left with uncertainty and ambiguity–a no-no to classicizing politicos of either Left or Right who prefer clean boundaries to messy conjectures and possible contradictions. And here, perhaps, we come to the double-binds I have been relating on this website.

    The law holds us personally responsible for all infractions, and yet many of the television crime shows depend on “profiles” of the criminal to track him or her down. These profiles commonly relate parenting deficits and other family catastrophes that shaped , indeed sculpted the future murderer or rapist. In Richard Wright’s Native Son, Bigger Thomas’s lawyer, a Jew named Max, unsuccessfully uses Bigger’s childhood and adolescence of racial oppression and trauma to argue for Bigger’s acquittal in several murders, one accidental, the other deliberate. Nor could any other type of insanity defense been effective, for the McNaughton Rule (still holding in half the states of the U.S.?) states that the test for insanity is to be incapable of distinguishing right from wrong. And long before that, Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise for eating of the Apple of the Tree of Knowledge—the knowledge of good and evil that elevated them, hubristically, to equality with God. And Eve, distant mother of Pierrot and Lulu,  is the femme fatale in the story. (I am inviting my lawyer friends to explain to me how there is no double bind as described above.)

    Cherchez la femme as they say, but don’t look for me.  I’m still in hiding. And Happy Mother’s Day.


  1. One last post and I’m done (I promise)….

    I agree that advances identified with the Promethean capacities of our species have provoked conflicts since the seventeenth century — and often it was traditional institutional authority that stood in the way. And I agree that you are not anti-religious. I’m not arguing with you on this.

    I just want to defend myself a little bit, here, by pointing out that it’s rather striking that ((1)) “a materialist way of looking at this world,” ((2)) “an eye to progress,” and ((3)) the “amelioration of suffering” are all ideas that historically originated in Judeo-Christian thought.

    The “rupture” of the Enlightenment was not a tear in the fabric of Christianity’s long-term philosophical influence so much as it was a ripping of local conventional authority and power. There was institutional resistance to change, all right, but my point is that the Enlightenment’s “originality” was not made up out of whole cloth….

    ((1)) Materialism:

    The Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century had its roots in the earlier thoughts of the late Middle Ages (or Early Renaissance) put forward by Christian Scholastics such as Roger Bacon, Thomas Bradwardine, Jean Buridan, Robert Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus, Nicole Oresme, Duns Scotus, and William of Occam. These 12th- to 14th-century scholars were influenced by Christian theology during a period when churches and monasteries built the universities.

    These thinkers began with the monotheistic assumption that nature itself is not identical with God, is not ruled by multiple spirits (or gods), but is a material creation of the one God. God is thus outside his creation (or his creation is outside of him). Since all of nature is God’s handiwork it is thus all of the same substance.

    It logically follows that discovered physical principles will apply everywhere in the universe and at every point in time. Natural laws are universal — a fundamental underlying assumption of modern science. Without this, experiments and observations would only describe local situations and couldn’t be generalized or duplicated; hypotheses devised by one scientist couldn’t be tested by another, and at any rate: they wouldn’t have predictive power. The common scientific language of mathematics and precise measurements that arose in the Scientific Revolution would not communicate anything meaningful if it were not for these earlier notions. Notably, these ideas were all in opposition to the Greco-Roman world’s (or native European barbarian world’s) beliefs in polytheistic local gods with partial power that rule arbitrarily over nature and provoke its “unpredictable” expressions. Contrast the Bible’s view of nature with that found in The Odyssey, for example.

    Aristotle’s conjectures, as well, were criticized by these Early Renaissance thinkers:

    The Aristotelian tradition considered experiments to be artificial contrivances that would not reveal universal facts. If events were observed which seemed to contradict a theoretical model these events were not studied by experiment but instead were to be disregarded as “monsters.” The Scholastic thinkers learned a great deal from Aristotle (especially his ideas concerning logic) but considered him incomplete. Unlike medieval Islamic culture, the Christian Renaissance culture allowed the Scholastics to criticize Aristotle and this led to the view that experimentation could tell us something true and universal about the material world.

    ((2)) Progress:

    Then, another important theological development among Christian Scholastics was their opposition to fatalism. This opposition was a distinct trait of Renaissance humanism — a disagreement with the ancient Greek and Roman worlds’ view of history as cyclic. Instead, they saw progress as following from biblical ideas concerning God’s work in history whereby advancements were possible as carried out by human agents (Moses, David, the prophets, Paul’s missionary journeys, etc.). The Christian humanist poet Petrarch supported the study of human thought and action. Another example can be found in one of the Scholastics mentioned above, Nicole Oresme, who opposed astrology for the same reason.

    The Scholastics believed God was superior to cosmological fate. God was considered omnipotent, therefore we could never know for sure what God’s will is for the material universe IF we begin by arguing from simple (non-experimental) observations or from earlier axioms by using only deductive logic — exercises seen as those of a finite human attempting to limit God’s freedom and power. Rather: we must use inductive logic (arguing from particular facts to a coherent theory) and perform experiments to find out what the material world directly tells us about the natural universe (that is, to see what nature tells us about God’s real action in the history of the material world). Progress then follows; an idea that originated in the Judeo-Christian concept of time. All other ideas concerning time in history — whether ancient European or Eastern — saw the universe as repeating itself. In his opposition to Christianity, Nietzsche tried to bring back the ancient world’s idea of the “eternal recurrence.” The Judeo-Christian contribution to the West’s current secular idea of progress actually began here in the West’s traditional Jerusalem-based religion.

    ((3)) Amelioration of suffering:

    The upholding of compassion for those who suffer and are subjects of injustice is a classic Judeo-Christian feature that comes out of the preaching of the Hebrew prophets and from Jesus and the disciples — and has been promulgated over time by the Christian church and its saints, especially by the monasteries in the first Millennium. This has been in opposition to the Greco-Roman world and the culture of the barbarians (earlier native Europeans and immigrant Central Asians) who glorified victory, power, and dominance as primary values. This was exactly why Nietzsche wanted a return to ancient virtues, because he saw Christianity as being a “slave religion” that expressed “weakness” when it preached mercy for the less fortunate and for those who were the victims of injustice.

    In summary, we could say that modern secular society is a shell of unbelief covering an essentially Christian civilization underneath. The creeds have fallen off, of course; and the old beliefs are largely gone since the Enlightenment (especially in Europe since the French Revolution). Some of the old values, as well, are now deteriorating (witness the totalitarianisms of the last century).

    My point is that “a lot of the fight” has NOT to do with “worldliness versus other-worldliness” (or religious inspirations versus secular priorities in themselves) but with a conflict over local conventional authority – which always lags behind progress in thought.

    One can, of course, look at this same phenomenon from an atheist’s perspective such as that of Marcel Gauchet in The Disenchantment of the World (French 1985, English 1997) where he says in his “Introduction”:

    “[T]he modern Western world’s radical originality lies wholly in its reincorporation, into the very heart of human relationships and activities, of the sacral element, which previously shaped the world from outside. […] Christianity proves to have been a religion for departing from religion.

    I don’t depart from religion as Gauchet does, but I wanted to give my explanation, here, for why I feel “comfortable” with religion and at the same time support the material progress of the West — and learn from people such as you, for whom I’m grateful.

    Thanks for reading and putting up with me, here. I’ll stop, now. You make me think and I’m continuing to read your work.

    Comment by Rick Penner — May 14, 2010 @ 6:55 pm | Reply

  2. Rick, I am not anti-religion, unless it is radical Islamic or any other triumphalist theology. I would not have written the books that Hitchens and Dawkins did. But there was a rupture in Europe created by the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. And it generally advanced a materialist way of looking at this world, and with an eye to progress and amelioration of suffering. Such an advance was identified with the Promethean capacities of our species and we are still fighting over it. A lot of the fight has to do with worldliness versus other-worldliness. But at bottom is the prestige of traditional authority. All my blogs are about this.

    Comment by clarespark — May 11, 2010 @ 8:15 pm | Reply

  3. I’m sorry you feel we are at an “impasse.” I wouldn’t put it that strongly.

    I don’t think religion “cuts out history and all the social sciences developed in the modern world.” On the contrary, it’s the Judeo-Christian tradition that created the modern world: we’ve dropped the beliefs (in the urban cultural centers) but so much of modern secular culture is still, at its core, a creation of the religious values of Jerusalem and the best minds of the Greco-Roman world: molded into Christian civilization for two thousand years.

    Modern science, itself, was generated because of the special insights of Christian views of nature, fate, and the creation that allowed new thinking to be brought with, against, and beyond Aristotle — beginning in the early Renaissance and refined through the Protestant Reformation. See, for example, Willis B. Glover’s Biblical Origins of Modern Secular Culture (Mercer University Press, 1984); Peter Harrison’s The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge University Press, 1998); Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason (Random House, 2005).

    What we share is a rejection of reactionary paganism (polytheism and ancient mysticism now in the New Age); Romanticism in philosophy and psychology (Nietzsche, Jung, etc.); and contemporary racist identity politics (German folk blood-and-soil as modern “us vs. them” political righteousness). I think your emphasis on the Enlightenment’s need for evidence and scholarship, for a materialist explanation for social conflict, is bracing. But I don’t know why this necessitates an anti-religious conclusion.

    There is the debate between Romanticism and the Enlightenment; but another one is between Enlightenment factions: the radical Enlightenment can at times embrace reductionism and narrow all concerns to those of logical positivism — erasing the soul or the “person” from consideration. This was the point of my post. At least Alvin Plantinga is a corrective now in analytic philosophy; see Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000).

    But we may just have to agree to disagree. I’ll certainly look up Melville’s “Confidence-Man.” Thanks for the reference; and thanks for all your writings. I always learn from you.

    Comment by Rick J. Penner — May 11, 2010 @ 7:49 pm | Reply

  4. Thanks for your interesting comment, Rick, and for hanging in there, although we have different core opinions. I don’t think I turned my opponent into a materialist. She believes in free will, and I remain uncertain about where my free will begins, given that my choices are conditioned by both my historical moment, all the double-talking institutions that have tried to shape me, and by a particular family history. As for Eve, there are those who follow what they think Milton was saying in Paradise Lost, describing the Fortunate Fall, but she is the leading sinner for misogynists and is considered by them to be the original narcissist, deaf to the claims of community.
    As I have said numerous times here, I am entirely secular and a creature of the radical Enlightenment. Also a continuing critic of what Melville called “the moderate man” who may think himself to be virtuous, but who may be “understrapping the wrong.” (See his The Confidence-Man: the conversation between Pitch and the herb-doctor) Whereas you seem to be more comfortable in a religious framework. But that cuts out history and all the social sciences developed in the modern world. We are at an impasse.

    Comment by clarespark — May 10, 2010 @ 11:30 pm | Reply

  5. Clare Spark,

    I’m not a lawyer, but I want to say something. I love your writings. I use to listen to you on KPFK and attended a day-long seminar you gave in the early 1990s entitled “How Do We Know When We’re Not Fascists?” I was quite excited when your book about Melville finally came out. I recently discovered your blog and made a comment on an earlier post

    I was a radical leftist for 30 years and turned into a philosophical moderate conservative since the mid-1990s because of the failure of communism/socialism, the adaptability of capitalism, and the persistence of creepy identity politics on the Left (which generates more alienation in the end than loyalty).

    I’m wondering if your use of the term femme fatale as applied to Eve is meant to criticize the biblical writer(s) for committing a “sexist” act in making Eve the “bad girl” who is “blamed” in the story. This is the double-bind? Hardly.

    I would think the scriptural author was advocating the importance of the woman, here: Eve opens the act, moves the action forward and brings impetus and energy onto the stage. She makes the first move that humans would have to make to justify their presence in the play: to disobey God and bring humankind into the spiral of history. This gives the writer the “frame” for beginning the story: evil exists and humans are not puppets but actual actors in the tale. God is outside the system he’s created, giving the moral tone and the whole a purpose, and yet, what Eve has done is so important that God responds by entering into human reality by honoring both Adam and Eve with a judgment.

    This kind of beginning does not inflate human nature but tells us realistically what human nature is, and, yet, it ennobles the pair at the same time. They now must pay their dues. (There is no free lunch.) The truth shall make you free.

    What does freedom mean?

    “Freedom” is not freedom from consequences but the ability to see what binds us and what does not. We now have the knowledge of good and evil and this includes the knowledge that Satan lied when he said knowing good and evil would make us “just like” God. We are not all-powerful and we are not innocent.

    The curtain goes up. We enter from stage left and our mere appearance means that something has broken. We sit down at a table and must take the cards as they’re dealt. We’re in a grown-up game, now. This is no fairy-tale.

    Like the former convict used to say in the old movies: “Yeah, I broke th’ law — but I paid my debt to society. Got a problem wit’ dat?”

    It’s clear from the rest of the account that when Adam blamed Eve for his actions and Eve blamed Satan, God did not accept this: they would both be held accountable. This is, in a sense, an honoring of the free will of both. The rest of nature, children, animals, may suffer as well — because ideas have consequences, acts lead to complications and suffering — but the rest of nature was not addressed by the creator in the same way. There were only four at the table.

    The Enlightenment started out by carrying out God’s commandment to engage the natural world and flourish within it — because it was his creation and thus everything moved along logical lines that were tied to God’s universal-wide purpose that could only be discovered materially by examining his actions with the materialist method — and this led to the discovery that the Earth was at the periphery.

    But the extension of science via supposition and speculation into the philosophy of naturalism ended up deflating humanity by choosing to see the Earth’s “dislocation” as a demotion, interpreting Darwin as saying we are all “made up” at root by just our lowest common denominator — the ape — no; per Freud we are only our “reptile” desires; no, we are just like the insect, the amoeba, the chemical interaction, the meaningless chance interaction of sub-atomic particles and energy fields. Perhaps not even that, only a dream. Not even a dream: our “consciousness” is just an illusion; there is no self; no mind, no person. No choices. No subject. There is no good or evil, not even any measuring. Even the discourse of language I’m using can be deconstructed into the self-rationalization of a predatory organism manipulating for the sake of dominance.

    So, now, the great modern Enlightenment has led us to this wonderful new world of enhanced self-respect and meaning, has it?

    You say that:

    “[I]t is difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct a personal history that cleanly separates structure from agency, or as Herman Melville constantly reminds us in his stories, to separate ‘fixed-fate’ from ‘free will.’ We are left with uncertainty and ambiguity–a no-no to classicizing politicos of either Left or Right who prefer clean boundaries to messy conjectures and possible contradictions.”

    A person-hood capable of moral choice and of at least engaging the question of what is an honorable life and of asking “what is truth?” is not the same as the dissection of an objective specimen under the microscope, is it? Or is it “enlightened” to insist that other people’s lives (but not ours) are only sheer debilitations that sustain cruelty and pain because we can examine them critically?

    I agree with you on the presence of confusion and ambiguity, but the double-bind is only a double-bind because there’s something to compare it to. You seem to want to have your cake and to eat it too: to be beholden to the Enlightenment and its search for materialist evidence and knowledge — but also to turn your opponent into a materialist particle: she cannot be allowed the “free will” defense. Her exercise is a determined path of dependence and ignorance.

    The double-bind pops out of existence like a virtual particle pair into the Dirac sea. Do you bring it back when it’s convenient?

    Here are two quotes that may be relevant to this — by Marilynne Robinson from her recent book of essays Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010), pages 22-23:

    From her essay “On Human Nature,” pages 22-23:

    “I propose that the core assumption that remains unchallenged and unquestioned through all the variations within the diverse traditions of ‘modern’ thought is that the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away, excluded from consideration when any rational account is made of the nature of human being and of being altogether. In its place we have the grand projects of generalization, solemn efforts to tell our species what we are and what we are not, that were early salients of modern thought. Sociology and anthropology are two examples.

    “The great new truth into which modernity has delivered us is generally assumed to be that the given world is the creature of accident, that it has climbed Mount Improbable incrementally and over time through a logic of development, refinement, and elaboration internal to itself and sufficient to account exhaustively for all the complexity and variety of which reality and experience are composed. Once it was asserted, and now it is taken to have been proved, that the God of traditional Western religion does not exist, or exists at the remotest margins of time and causality. In either case, an emptiness is thought to have entered human experience with the recognition that an understanding of the physical world can develop and accelerate through disciplines of reasoning for which God is not a given.”


    From her essay “The Strange History of Altruism,” pages 74-75:

    “The word ‘modern’ is itself a problem, since it implies a Promethean rescue from whatever it was that went before, a rupture so complete as to make context irrelevant. Yet if one were to imagine a row of schoolroom modernists hanging beside the schoolroom poets, Marx, Nietzsche, and Wellhausen beside Bryant, Longfellow, and Whittier, one would notice a marked similarity among them of pince-nez and cravat. The modern has been modern for a very long time. As a consequence of its iconic status, the contemporary remains very much in its shadow. Little that is contemporary is not also modern, and little that is modern departs as cleanly from its precursors as myth would have us believe. In one important particular, however, there seems to have been an authentic modern schism whose consequences are persistent and profound. Our conception of the significance of humankind in and for the universe has shrunk to the point that the very idea we ever imagined we might be significant on this scale now seems preposterous. These assumptions about what we are and are not preclude not only religion but also the whole enterprise of metaphysical thought. That the debate about the nature of the mind has tended to center on religion is a distraction which has nevertheless exerted a profound influence on the more central issue. While it may not have been true necessarily, it has been true in fact that the renunciation of religion in the name of reason and progress has been strongly associated with a curtailment of the assumed capacities of the mind.”

    Comment by Rick J. Penner — May 10, 2010 @ 9:03 pm | Reply

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