Leaping to the upper story

Cog in the Machine

Image by nickgoesglobal via Flickr

I’m a bit of a podcast junkie and Philosophy Bites is one of my faves. The British accents and philosopher-speak really appeals to my pseudo-intellectual snobbery and my overall nerdiness. One of the more recent episodes about personality disorder and determinism I found interesting. Click here for the episode:

Philosopher Jonathan Glover on Personality Disorder

In summary, Glover found that sociopathic people generally do have some sort of conscience, but not like the rest of us. It’s more of an authoritarian-based conscience. For example, these are people who would likely think someone who runs a red light should get the electric chair. They have respect for authority, but on a superficial level. Unsurprisingly, most of these people had deeply troubled childhoods.

But what I really found fascinating was the last few questions how this applies to determinism. Roughly defined, determinism is the belief that every prior action affects human actions and choices. This means that human behavior is ultimately controlled by genes that control personality, by brain neurochemistry, and interactions with the environment. In its strongest form, determinism completely denies free will. This is a view that’s held by many atheists, for obvious reasons. Matter is all there is, your mind is your brain, we are purely physical things; as opposed to mind-body dualism or a belief in a spirit, and/or a soul.

The host of the show asked Glover if determinism really holds, why we should go on reacting emotionally to moral failures. Glover gave an example of a woman whose husband commits adultery and how it would be insane it would be if she said because she’s been reading her science and philosophy that instead of getting angry, she just shrugs it off to her husband merely “dancing to his DNA”; that is doing what was fixed by physical law for him to do.  Such a world would be crazy. Therefore, while we should lock away sociopaths for the sake of the rest of us, we shouldn’t have retributive punishment. However, we should continue – for at least the most part – to continue handle things the way we have because living out the view that we really have no free will would make life unlivable.

As the host of the podcast brought up, that’s having your cake and eating it.  This is a textbook example of what Francis Schaeffer called an “upper story leap”. What the naturalist does is deduce what he can from history and science – all that we can quantify – and concludes that life is utterly meaningless. We’re stuck in a cause and effect, naturalistic system. We are cogs in a machine created by the “blind watchmaker”.

To quote the famed existentialist atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance”. In an atheistic universe, life is rather absurd, or as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes put it “All is vanity!”.

Because that’s a tough pill to swallow, the atheist makes what Søren Kierkegaard calls “a leap of faith” into the upper story for things like meaning, significance and morality. In a way, the atheist becomes a social christian. Getting back to Glover, it seems he’s saying that we should pretend like we really do have free will. We should continue to praise those who share our moral tastes and be outraged at those who don’t act the way we think they should, albeit perhaps not with retributive punishment.  So while in an atheistic universe this doesn’t seem to comport with reality, we go on affirm these values and virtues anyway as if they have real significance.

But if God exists, and he has stepped into history and given man meaning and significance, then we no longer have to play this irrational, schizophrenic game of dress-up to escape reality. Christianity affirms that free will is not a mere illusion, but rather part the image of God in all of us. Our sense of objective moral values and duties are rooted in God. No leap required; we can continue to hold people responsible for their actions and mean it, and not just chalk it up to causally determined conditions.


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