A word on politics, free will, and God

[Content note: the topic of theism as it relates to free will is something I’m deeply interested in but on which I retired from debating long ago, and I’d much appreciate hearing from someone more knowledgeable.  Much discussion of conservative religion and abortion.]

I. Free will and the political spectrum, revisited

While I’m still on the subject of the whole social conflict between free-will and deterministic explanations for things, I now want to directly readdress one of my earliest posts, where I proposed (in the final section) that the two major sides of the American political spectrum are aligned with the determinst and free-will-ist mindsets.

My main thesis there was that the Left and the Right are generally aligned respectively according to the determinist-leaning and free-will-leaning perspectives, with regard to how they treat each issue.  My experience with holding and voicing this opinion has been interesting.  On the one hand, I feel more certainty and a stronger sense of having properly defined my position in this case than with a lot of the other theses I’ve tried to defend on this blog.  On the other hand, I get the impression that most of the other things I write here are fairly non-controversial — even mundane — once those engaging with me adopt the language I’m using, whereas this idea about the political spectrum has generally been received with dissent when engaged with at all.  I’m evidently in the minority here.  Over years of running into various thinkers’ attempts at characterizing what determines Right versus Left in the political arena, I’ve seen many creative ideas (“progressivism vs. conservatism” would seem to be the most obvious model, but much more unusual ones have been proposed) but none seem that close to my “determinism vs. free will” characterization.

I wrote that other post in early 2016, and little did I know then exactly how dramatically the political situation in America (and even the entire West) would evolve during the coming months.  I do still firmly hold to the model I proposed then, with a couple of caveats.  First of all, I do not consider the recent takeover of the Republican party following the presidential election to represent the Right in America.  Maybe it’s a bit disingenuous of me to say this, given that this may well become the “new Right” or something (I’m hoping not), and besides, I remember people saying back the last time the Republican party was in control of everything in the 00’s that the Republicans had abandoned True Conservatism, What Happened to the Party of Reagan, and so on.  But this new administration seems to espouse some sort of monstrous distortion of the right-wing views I grew up seeing so that they are now semi-unrecognizable.  I would not characterize this platform as being somehow correlated with a libertarian-free-will model of the world; instead, I’m tempted to say that it combines the worst of both sides of the whole free-will vs. determinism battle.  But for now, I’m not interested in discussing it any further.  It’s probably not a good idea to claim anything too confidently until the situation has further stabilized anyway.

Secondly, I think I need to clarify (and maybe subtly modify) what I argued before.  I wouldn’t want to say so much that the individual stances themselves taken by the Left and Right necessarily fall on the determinist or free-will-ist side.  Rather, I claim that the rhetoric most frequently used by the Left and Right in defending them is of a pro-determinism and a pro-free-will flavor respectively (again, at least in America — despite having lived abroad for a little while I haven’t witnessed much discourse on politics in other countries).  There are certain positions that lend themselves more easily to one flavor of rhetoric than the other, and the liberal and conservative positions often do seem to be aligned in that way, but sometimes it’s hard to defend the claim that a political policy stance, stripped of supporting arguments, has a particular flavor.

For instance, I’m not sure that the pro-gun-control position (traditionally held by those further on the Left) on its own really looks that determinism-oriented compared to the pro-gun mentality.  After all, one could argue in favor of allowing freer access to guns by painting a picture of most pro-gun citizens as innocent people who feel weak and vulnerable under the threat of bad guys with guns and deserve the change to defend themselves with maximally lethal weapons; otherwise, there’s nothing they can do to feel safe.  This would sound pretty determinist-goggles flavored: personal weakness in the face of oppressors which can’t be remedied without outside help.  And some on the pro-gun side are talking this way.  But the dominant pro-gun arguments I keep hearing smack of “guns don’t kill people; people do” and “it’s our Second-Amendment right, full stop” and “we shouldn’t be punished just because some people abuse their rights; the only solution is to crack down on those who choose to do evil” with an implied underlying attitude of “remember back when men were men and Americans were encouraged to be tough and self-sufficient instead of whining pansies?”  Meanwhile, the anti-gun folks are going on about feeling vulnerable to the threat of deranged people with guns at the expense of focusing the personal responsibilities of the shooters.  The two main sides of the gun control debate may not inherently be aligned with assumed degrees of agency, but the main arguing voices do seem to be trying to force such an alignment.

All that said, there is one element of my thesis which I felt was a bit weak and which I’ve always intended to expand on since first writing about this over a year and a half ago.  It involves those political positions which are generally aligned with religiosity.  Unfortunately, I feel long past my heyday when it comes to debating religion and in particular how theism relates to metaphysical beliefs regarding the free will problem; I probably would have done this better in college.  Still, I’d like to take a crack at addressing exactly these philosophical questions as they relate to politics.

II. My problem with evil

Ever since the 1980’s or so, the Right Wing in America has generally been a haven for those who ascribe very strongly to conservative forms of organized religion (well, at least conservative Christianity).  Accordingly, the Right has added a number of issues to their overall platform which represent the religious beliefs of many of its constituents, such as promoting prayer in schools, restricting access to abortion and birth control, keeping marriage “between one man and one woman”, and opposition to stem cell research and euthanasia.  Near the bottom of that old post about free will and politics, I listed a couple of these issues with a brief explanation of why the liberal side corresponds to determinism and the conservative side corresponds to free-will-ism.  Of course, my writing carried the implication that other issues I didn’t specifically address in that list could be interpreted under a similar framework.

I could already see some problems with this at the time.  First of all, even when the flavors of rhetoric rather than the platform points themselves are considered, the correlation with the high-agency/low-agency split looks to me somewhat weaker on first glance than with the other things on the list.  Secondly, and more crucially, drawing parallels between the motives behind these positions and assumptions regarding the free will question seems to be reading an awful lot into things when a much more obvious mechanism is handy: God.  Okay, by “God” I mean belief in the God of organized Christianity and many of the concepts (of souls, sanctity of life, etc.) that come with it.  That very obviously ties into theism vs. atheism, which is a schism between metaphysical belief systems that rivals the whole free will controversy.  But here, most people do recognize and agree on the fact that some areas of the American political landscape, especially pertaining to social issues, correspond to different philosophical (in this case, theological) belief systems.  So why don’t I just stick with that model instead of trying to cram it into another one?

Well, my short (but inadequate) answer is that I do agree with that model, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also fit it into a broader model that more generally answers the question of how individuals cluster along opposing political ideologies.  My more thorough answer requires a consideration of how traditional theism relates to the question of free will.

One of the main challenges that theists are obliged to answer is the Problem of Evil.  The classic version of the Problem of Evil can be summarized as the following question: How there can possibly exist so much evil in a universe that’s being run by a deity who is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent?  In particular, such a deity should have the power to stop us humans from doing horrendous things and should have a strong desire for those horrendous things not to be done, so why doesn’t He (or She, or They) stop us?

Throughout the past couple of millenia, numerous defenses of theism against this criticism have been proposed by religious apologetics.  Before going any further, I might as well state for the record that I don’t find any of the arguments that I’ve ever heard in this vein to be fully convincing, and therefore, the traditional concept of a theistic God doesn’t make much sense to me.  It seems that there are two main approaches one can take for these arguments: assuming determinism and adopting some strange notion of morality compatible with it; and assuming non-deterministic free will and adopting some strange notion of omnipotence compatible with it.  Both, in my opinion, suffer from the same confusion over just what it means for an act to be “free” that we see everywhere in the free will debate.

A. The deterministic rebuttal

The first approach, which assumes some kind of determinism at the outset, has been taken up by some fairly conservative branches of Christianity going back hundreds of years.  I believe that Calvinism is an example, but I’m afraid my knowledge of the relevant theological history ends pretty much with that.  Anyway, in such a model, God’s omniscience is emphasized — He can certainly see everything that we will do in our lives, including whether or not we will become “saved”.  And what’s more, this determinism has a sort of incompatibilist streak to it: each of us is “predestined” to be saved or to be damned; of course this in turn determines whether we are subject to eternal bliss or to eternal torture after we die.  I guess this is an answer to the Problem of Evil because… even as machines, we still should do the right thing and are somehow still “deserving” of punishment if we fail?

I knew someone who was influenced during her childhood by this form of organized religion.  She started out as a theist but by adulthood had become a staunch atheist.  As she explained it to me, this was largely because she eventually came to feel deeply disturbed about religion, at least the kind of religion she had been exposed to.  She felt that she had free will, and didn’t particularly appreciate her actions being predestined and already known by a non-interfering deity.  By the time I knew her, her conception of theism itself was as the basis of a belief system that denied free will to us lowly humans, and that eventually became simply irreconcilable with the reality she experienced.

For my part, I was largely unfamiliar with this variety of religious ideology until she described it to me, and anyway my own compatibilist view allow for a sort of predestination that doesn’t necessarily preclude free will, but I still see obvious problems in it.  If we are all essentially deterministic robots, then why would God program us in such a way that so many of us are doomed to fail at the main objective in our earthy life, which is evidently to be saved?  And how is it fair to damn us to Hell when we pre-programmed robots do fail?  Something doesn’t feel quite morally right about the deity in charge of this rather fatalistic-looking form of existence.

B. The free will rebuttal

The second approach is one which I’m far more familiar with.  It answers the Problem of Evil directly by saying that in order that God might have a more meaningful relationship with His creation, He had to assemble us with a little feature we like to call “free will” (after all, what worth is there in our existence if we are merely robots?).  An unfortunate consequence of endowing us with free will is that we often make the wrong choices.  Or at least, in fundamentalist Judaism and Christianity, the first two humans made a gravely immoral decision in following a talking snake’s suggestion over God’s orders.  The result is not only the “Fall of Man” (which I suppose is usually meant in the sense that from then on our species has been evil-by-default and not deserving of Heaven), which is the root cause of not only all the horrible acts we have been committing since, but also the presence of what we may call “natural evils” (earthquakes, floods, disease, and so forth).  In other words, we, and not our all-knowing, infinitely righteous creator, carry moral responsibility for literally everything bad in the world.

The issues I take with this version of Judeo-Christian theism mainly revolve around what I view as an incoherent notion of free will itself.  I simply cannot comprehend the concept of freedom which is “free” and implies “responsibility” in any meaningful sense that can’t be described in terms of deterministic mechanisms.  Any kind of “free choice” must somehow fall into the category of chemical event that happens in the brain, and therefore the rightness or wrongness of any decision is determined (at least in large part) by the character of the agent (as well as other events and circumstances).  The free-will-ist God programmed us with certain characters, so surely He holds some responsibility over what we are led to do.  Maybe I can allow that God wanted to create some lifeform with the capacity to make a genuine choice to follow Him, but since such the phenomenon of “choice” is still a chemical event, that doesn’t explain why he didn’t arrange our chemistry a little differently so that we would choose to do at least somewhat fewer awful things.  The model just doesn’t hold up.

When all is said and done, my objections to both rebuttals against the atheist “argument from evil” comes down to the same sort of argument in favor of compatibilism.  Perhaps each of the forms of religious apology outlined above could be considered to be the same rough idea viewed through each of the opposing pairs of goggles I discussed at length in my previous two posts.  Then the answer to both is “Take off your blinders for a moment and allow that most decisions are something in-between what may be considered totally determined and totally free.”

III. Christian, conservative, and free-will-ist, in that order

So why do I contend that religious motives, in the context of politics, are aligned with free-will-ism rather than determinism, when the traditional theistic position (with its all-knowing God and morally responsible humans) seems to be bending over backwards to embrace each?  Because, as I implied in my discussion above, one of the aforementioned answers to the Problem of Evil seems a whole lot more prevalent in the present-day West than the other.

I wasn’t brought up religious, but I had a lot of exposure to religion in the area where I grew up.  As I was becoming an adult, I payed close attention to the cultural war between the secular Left and the “moral values” Right (which was quite powerful in America at the time), and during college I had a habit of debating religion with random people in the free-speech zones of my university.  Throughout all of those experiences involving discussion of religion with religious people, I almost never heard about the “predestination” point of view apart from the one theist-turned-atheist that I described earlier.  Instead, a good 95 percent of the time, I was being exposed to the “God gave us free will” argument, and this seemed to be faithfully reflected in the politics of the religious conservatives that I encountered.  And although the Religious Right is considerably weaker in America today and I’ve had less and less interaction with Religious Rightists as the years have gone by, I see no evidence that their rhetoric has substantially changed.

The very idea of “moral values”, as it pertains to legislative policy, is that God expects us to follow the righteous path; we are each responsible for our own actions; and our laws must reflect the fact that sinful behavior deserves punishment.  Those amoral liberals want to follow a hedonistic path of following their baser impulses and just doing what “feels right”.  By their logic, one can do whatever one wants, and life has no real purpose.  The theory of evolution (which liberals promote at the expense of God’s word) is dangerous in large part because it implies that we are purposeless robots whose actions can’t be assigned moral value.  Sexual behavior is a choice, and things like natural urges (temptation) and sexual orientation (which according to many is a choice as well) are no excuse for going against God’s wishes.  Miscarriage is a tragedy but all part of God’s plan; abortion, however, is a thing you can control and is a sin regardless of circumstances.

The “sanctity of life” thing, which accounts for a lot of specific religious conservative positions, seems at first like a defense of the helpless (which I have consistently coded as pro-determinism in mindset).  After all, pro-life activists are saying all the time that they’re just trying to speak up for those who have no voice.  But peeling back the outer layer of this rhetoric will reveal that the crux of why fetuses (and stem cells) are so deserving of protection boils down to two things.  One, they have something called a “soul”, which came into independent existence the instant the sperm met the egg.  Apparently in traditional Western religion, humans have souls while animals (whose rights are defended mostly by activists on the Left) do not, and the implication appears to be that a “soul”, by definition, is whatever gives us the ability to act freely and make moral decisions.  And two, fetuses and stem cells (unlike death row inmates, whom liberals defend) are innocent in the very absolute sense that they quite literally haven’t done anything.  Claiming their innocence is not a matter of recognizing that circumstances have influenced them to do some questionable things, as liberals make a priority of doing.  There are no questionable choices made by fetuses and stem cells to explain through determinism, for the simple reason that they haven’t had the chance to make any choices at all.  Secular Leftists, meanwhile, are much more concerned on behalf of women who are forced to bear unwanted children, because their focus is on the unfortunate circumstances that typically bring such women to that position.

On a deeper and less concrete level (and I think I’ve at least hinted at this before), in the realm of philosophy of science, I’ve always seen the classic atheistic model of the universe as itself more determinism-oriented than the theistic model.  For atheists, the main way to discover explanations for phenomena is via science, which involves describing everything in terms of natural laws (which are generally deterministic, and no I don’t want to address the implications of quantum mechanics right now).  The theistic approach traditionally involves invoking a God of the Gaps, which as far as I’m concerned is rather analogous to an “Agency of the Gaps” that incompatibilists invoke when defending their notion of free will.  Note that conservative theism in the politics sphere has a history of trying to modify our conception of science so that supernatural explanations rather than only natural ones are allowed.

So as far as I’m concerned, debates between Right and Left over issues where the “sanctity of life” is invoked, as well as the whole general religion/secularism-in-politics, fit quite naturally into the framework of the free-will-ist vs. determinist mentalities that I keep harping on.  I admit that the connection here may be a little weaker than it is for most other areas in the modern political scene, but I hold that at least these social debates relating directly to religion do not provide a counterexample to my general thesis.  And while I don’t know that the political movement from the 80’s to bring evangelical Americans over to the conservative side of the spectrum was consciously devised with all of these ideas in mind, maybe my argument helps it to make a little more sense that the Republican party was so successful in accomplishing this.

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