12 December 2011

Ghost in the Machine?

(from the archives...)


'Hope springs eternal.'


Truer words were never spoken of the inner workings of the Human Mind.


Polite fictions get us through the day.

'I'm still attracted to my spouse.'
'I enjoy my job.'
'I love all my children equally.'
'I'm special.'

We tell polite fictions to our children.

'With hard work, you can be anything you want to be.'
'You'll find true love.  There's someone for everyone.'
'When you die, you go... to a nice place.'


And so forth.


John Calvin was not a man given to polite fictions:

When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things have ever been, and perpetually remain, before His eyes, so that to His knowledge nothing is future or past, but all things are present. […]  And this foreknowledge extends to the whole world and to all the creatures.
Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which He hath determined in Himself what He would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others.

Since the beginning, Christian theologians have been arguing over it.  Free will or predestination?  Do we choose our actions, or are we just pawns on a Great Chessboard, bandied about by the hand of Another?


And Christians aren't the only ones.  Many religions born in India have been forced to think about the same question.  (Some have gone so far as to pin Cambodians' passive submission to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge on their fatalistic Buddhist beliefs.)


Predestination has even wormed its way into science.   Atomism was already old news when Darwin published his masterwork in 1859, and ever since scientists have been chasing down a biological basis to every trait under the sun, from to religious belief to alcoholism to left-handedness.  The 'ghost in the machine' was perhaps never there at all.  It was all machine, no ghost. 


'Hope is a waking dream.' 
                                        --Aristotle

But without hope, I cannot get out of bed in the morning.

If you tell me my group is biologically determined to be unintelligent, or violent, or bad future planners, then you've robbed me of my hope.  I don't get up.  I lay there glued in place, staring at the ceiling, weighing the possibility of throwing myself out the window.

I can't be just my genes.  I've got to have a choice.  Don't I?



'Where there's life, there's hope.'
                                                                                                                      --Cicero


The Calvinist doctrine of 'predestination' has wracked believers' souls for centuries, and continues to do so to this day.  The idea that God has marked out each one of us for eternal joy or eternal torture has driven people to depression, madness and even suicide.

And at the end of the day, is it really any different from 'biological determinism'?  The notion that your every act, every gesture, every desire, is already fated?  Decided, as it were, by the composition of your genes?  Every person is destined to Heaven or to Hell--isn't that just saying that some of us are destined to fruitful, happy lives, and some of us destined to sorrow? 

By our DNA?

Hell or Heaven is, in fact, nothing but our biological destiny?


Either way, it's hopeless.



'True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings;
Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.'
                                                                                                                                                                --Shakespeare                                                                                                                      


At some point, most parents stop telling their children a fat jolly elf in a red fur-trimmed suit leaves them gifts on the carpet once a year.  Why do they stop?

Why did they start in the first place?

I've long suspected there's a little smug joy in that 'Junior, there's no Santa Claus' speech.  Just a touch.  A perverse pleasure in bursting that bubble, of bringing the blissfully innocent into the clubhouse of the knowing.  The knowing and miserable.  But maybe that's Dad's joy more than Mom's.


Today we tell  each other so many polite fictions and Santa Claus stories that we've forgotten what truth looks like.  It was not always so, but somehow Dad's stern buck-up remonstrances have given way to Mom's soothing just-so stories.  On a planetary scale.

   'Everyone's got something equally important to contribute.'
   'With a little effort, you can be anything you want.'
   'Keep trying, you'll be functioning at first-word level soon!'

Mom loves all her children, and is sure they'll go on to do great things, even the little ne'er-do-well who just can't seem to keep up with the others.  And don't try to tell her any differently.


'He that lives upon hope will die fasting.' 
                                                                                                        --Benjamin Franklin


I don't want to be told my group can't cut it on our own.  Don't try to convince me; it'll kill my hope.  How do you expect me to get out of bed in the morning?


How indeed.


If there were a way to reconcile predestination and hope, presumably it would have been found by now.   It has not.  HBD is a fundamentally hopeless idea.   

One is thus presented a choice:  

Do I believe what I know to be true, even though it robs me of my hope?

Or do I continue to tell myself polite fictions, because that's the only way to get through another day on Planet Earth?


No one can answer that question for anyone else.  Don't tell me there's no Santa Claus.  Don't do it.



Not until I'm ready to hear it.

I beg you.

7 comments:

The Reluctant Apostate said...

This certainly is an interesting problem: that is, the question of the social and psychological impact of the knowledge of group differences.

However, I'm going to deal with two secondary points. First is the question of free will and determinism. In the absence of an omnipotent, omniscient, interventionist God (which admittedly many people, a majority here in the U.S., claim to believe in), I don't think that a well-formed notion of free will theoretically conflicts with physical determinism. I think that it's important to understand the theoretical impact, but it's also worth noting that in light of quantum mechanics, classical determinism probably doesn't exist, though the Many Worlds Interpretation does offer a form of determinism for the Universe as a whole, even if it does not seem so to creatures like us living in it.

This leads to the second point which is the term "biological determinism" (and its close cousin "genetic determinism"), which is a general annoyance of mine because its name would seem to suggest in the words of the post that it means:

The notion that your every act, every gesture, every desire, is already fated[, d]ecided, as it were, by the composition of your genes

Even though those who are accused of being biological (or genetic) determinists rarely are of the type that would accept such a proposition. For even someone like me who supposes far more impact of one's biology in his life trajectory than is the median in polite society, it is pretty clear that there are many more factors than the ordering of nucleotides in the 92 strands of DNA in every cell nucleus and 2 strands in every mitochondrion that influence the trajectory of one's life. The fact that the uncanny similarity of identical twins is far short of true identity is testament to that.

Of course, the nuances of reality are not easy to communicate in an intuitive manner that is pleasing to the masses, which leaves us at the original conundrum.

M.G. said...

Even though those who are accused of being biological (or genetic) determinists rarely are of the type that would accept such a proposition.

Indeed, but even those who admit environmental effects exist are often loathe to accept that genes play a hefty role at all. Any mathematizing of ourselves, any notion that we could be even partly reducible to our brain broth, to our chromosomes, or to a pile of positive and negative charges, is overwhelmingly depressing for such people.

the Many Worlds Interpretation does offer a form of determinism for the Universe as a whole

I wish quantum physicists (or science journalists?) would do a better job vulgarizing such ideas. I may be alone, but I think physicists are best-suited to fill the priest-shaped hole in our lives today. But to the average joe, quantum theory is as still as obscure as antinomianism.

I don't think that a well-formed notion of free will theoretically conflicts with physical determinism.

I think the average blank-slatist would disagree. They appear to feel an instinctive revulsion for even basic HBD-type thinking. It seems to trigger the same emotional fears as the old predestination-free will debate, and that makes HBD a tough sell, including for those who need to hear it most-- policy-makers. As you say: "an intuitive manner that is pleasing to the masses"-- does it exist?

Anonymous said...

"HBD is a fundamentally hopeless idea."

I think the opposite. Race is a collection of trait frequencies determined by genes. You could take a collection of the nastiest black gangbangers and the nerdiest Chinese geeks to two separate islands and (over generations) turn them into each other through selective breeding.

Audacious Epigone said...

"I love all my children equally."

Is this not generally the case, at least among mothers? I confess I've never really given it much thought, so I may be missing some obvious insight, but it's my vague impression that women--being the more egalitarian sex--actually tend to invest more in their struggling (socially, academically, etc) children than in the ones who excel on their own (though I suppose that even if this is accurate, it doesn't show equal-handed treatment, but instead a greater 'love' for the offspring that need it most). Among men, on the other hand, the opposite occurs, with fathers secretly (or not so secretly) favoring the children with the greatest prospects (especially among sons).

M.G. said...

it's my vague impression that women--being the more egalitarian sex--actually tend to invest more in their struggling (socially, academically, etc) children than in the ones who excel on their own

I agree. However, I admit I was thinking of 'love' in the sense of 'feeling very strong affection for.' I have heard of mothers confessing to not experiencing this affection for each of their children in the same amount, and feeling guilt about it.

jewamongyou said...

We should all base our hopes on realistic expectations. Ideally, even if my I.Q. were 85, I could still find my own niche in society and find happiness.

When we entertain unrealistic expectations, it leads to frustration and crime.

Anonymous said...

Knowing one's general destiny enables one to exercise free will to much greater effect, and to truly see which group of people fit the call of "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

A white man's most important duty is not to uplift another race to the white standard, but to improve the race he already has. Don't volunteer in housing projects to feel good; do your best to turn SWPLs into Those Who Can See.

"For the poor you will always have with you"(a very 'determinist' quote by Jesus, but it demanded neither hate, nor tons of money lavished to solve the problem, nor a patronizing attitude, the three most common pitfalls of those Christians drawn in by liberal churches. By acknowledging a general determinism, He freed the will of the saved from the three harridans of error and human tradition that shackle the faithful and studious.)