Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why Worry about Not Being Able to Do Other than What One Did Do?

So many Lutherans care so desperately about freedom that one would think it is part of our tradition.

Of course, in some sense it clearly is part of our tradition. Did not Luther talk about the freedom of the Christian believer before God? Are we not free before God so that we might become dutiful servants to our neighbors?

The word 'free' can be used in many senses and Lutherans are not immune to confusing them. On the one hand, we say that 'x is free with respect to A' if and only if 'x is not externally compelled to do A.' People marching around with signs proclaiming "Freedom Now!" are mostly concerned with this sense of freedom.

On the other hand, we can mean by 'x is free with respect to A' that x has the inner resources to do A when x has determined that A ought to be done, or that somehow the oughtness of A no longer binds the conscience of x. The freedom of a Christian seems to be freedom of this kind. Accordingly, one is given the gift of A no longer standing over and against x as something that x ought to do without x having the wherewithal to do it.

The sense of freedom that I want to briefly discuss, however, is not freedom in either of these two senses. It is instead a deeply philosophical notion of freedom. I am interested in whether or not each and every human action has sufficient causal conditions for its occurrence. Accordingly, 'x is free with respect to A' if and only if x, in doing A, could nonetheless had done ~A. The question is whether there are causally sufficient conditions which realize rather than ~A. If there are such conditions then A is determined for x by those conditions; if not then A is free for x.

It is interesting to note that most Christians in America these days seem quite interested in having freedom in the sense of the preceding paragraph. People do not want to believe that God disallows freedom in this sense. This has struck me as odd, however, because many of these people do not seem at all concerned that our basic materialist or physicalist worldview precludes such freedom. After all, if all human beings are ultimately comprised of those beings which our fundamental physical theories quantify over, then it seems that the apparent freedom we have as rational and moral agents must be ultimately explained by the motion of those fundamental particles or energies. But if freedom cannot finally be explicated in that way, and if we are confident that these fundamental particles exist, then it follows that our freedom to do other than what we did do is appearance and not reality. This seems true for both reductive and nonreductive physicalist accounts.

The general problem of trying to find a place for free rational and moral agency in a natural world has occupied philosophers for the last four centuries. The good news is that we know much more about our neurophysiology than we did in the past. We know a great deal about what brain functions or states correlate with what mental functions and states, and what changes in brain state are sufficient for bringing about certain changes in mental states. The bad news, however, is that we still don't have any real approach to the most difficult problem of modernity and post-modernity alike: Given that consciousness, intentionality, language, and even rationality can be given a naturalist explanation, how is it that freedom itself can be given such an explanation? How is decision-making realized within the physical structure of the brain? How is freedom possible in a physicalist universe?

What intrigues me theologically about this question is this: How is it that our age more-or-less gives a pass to scientists who reject the possibility of freedom of the will, but attack those who, on religious grounds, assert that the human will is captive, that is, as Luther says, is either ridden by God or the devil? In other words, why is being bound to the will of God so much harder to stomach than being bound to the seemingly capricious movement of neurophysical or microphysical processes? It seems like there is something deep at issue here: Human beings seemingly would rather be "ridden" by their molecules, than by a transcendent God. Why do Christian men and women want to be able freely to "make a decision" for Christ, when they often, in other contexts, wholly deny the freedom to "make a decision" that is not driven by their nuerophysical constitution? Why precisely is it easier to say that our deciding to do A is neuro-state x6542je than a particular volitional state in God?

The answer is easy, I think. Human beings by their nature want to be their own God. They want to own themselves. Somehow, it seems, being owned by their own microphysical processes is to be preferred over being owned by a creator God. Somehow people find it easier to be driven by their own neural events than by a transcendent God. Somehow we think we hold on better to what Kant called "the dear little self" in the former rather than the latter.

Human sin is not wanting God to be God. We run from Him in myriad and sundry ways. We do so as well, seemingly, in the choice of those things to which we ultimately allow ourselves to lose our freedom.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The "Sexuality Issue"

Members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) are confused these days about sexuality. They want to figure out if engaging in homoerotic behavior is consonant with assuming the predigtamt (preaching office) within a congregation. They also are contemplating whether pastors should be blessing same sex relationships.

The problem with talking about this issue is that few care about the arguments actually used to determine the positions adopted. People just want to know who is for and who is against it; they don't want to know why. Thus, it is with some trepidation that I offer the following analysis of the sexuality issue. Those that read this blog will know now that I am against it. I offer this analysis, however, not as an interesting psychological fact about me (e.g., that I am against it), but rather as a justification for being against it. I believe that one's justification for holding something true is much more than a fact about the speaker. It is a public argument offered in logical space, an argument that, in principle, gives others grounds for being against it. While what I say is not terribly original, the succinctness in how I have said it may well be. I offer this argument to people of reason who might want to consider these grounds in arriving at their own well-informed position:

Every human being has two mothers, the one from whose womb they emerged, and the language (mother tongue) they learned early in life, that language through and by which they structured and understood their world. The naming and predicative machinery of the mother tongue determines in large part the objects, kinds of objects, and qualities of objects one can encounter. The "immediacy" of human experience is mediated by that language by and through which it is had.

Clearly, human beings possess genetic characteristics that strongly affect their dispositions to behave. There is general agreement that early experience (and thus language) greatly influences these dispositional characteristics. However, later experience and reflection within a language also strongly influence dispositional development. The mother language in which one lives “breaks” and “orders” the world for the speaker; its conceptual machinery forms the a priori basis for the possibility of particular objects, and for general categories of objects. Consequently, one cannot be a person of a particular psychological type without first being able to conceive and order the world as a place where such types are possible. Property determination is logically prior to property instantiation.

Within oue native language there are certain communal narratives that operate to grant meaning, identity, and purpose. Some of the statements within these narratives are constative; they claim that something obtains. Further reflection and experiment can falsify or provisionally countenance the truth of these statements. However, all such statements presuppose the particularity of the conceptual equipment historically transmitted by language. The “metanarrative” of the providence of God is one in which there are putatively factual statements making claims of truth. Given our conceptual grid, statements about God can be either true or false.

In their pre-linguistic state, the behavior of human beings, like all animals, is understandable as satisfying a complex set of stimulus-response conditionals. Some humans, due to genetic and early imprinting conditions, respond to greater or lesser degrees to same-sex sexual stimulation. However, humans always need narratives in order to have meaning and identity. We humans are creatures of time in ways different from the rest of the animal world. We humans know the passing of time, and thus understand what is against the backdrop of what is not. We shall not always be, and this deep sense of not always being sends us hunting after meaning, purpose and identity.

In the late nineteenth century a narrative began to develop about homosexuality that was amplified, adjusted, and codified throughout the twentieth century, such that in the last days of the twentieth-century, people could talk confidently about the state of “being homosexual” versus “acting in homosexual ways,” and about “discovering” this homosexuality. The narrative supposed homosexuality to be a general disposition, not unlike fragility. Just as fragile things are fragile even when they don’t always break, so too, it was thought that homosexuals are homosexual even when they do not act in homosexual ways. The messiness of history was pretty much forgotten in the chase to get clear on this issue. For instance, ancient Greek culture countenanced and sometimes encouraged homosexucal behavior seemingly without regard to genetic dispositions and without having the category of "the homosexual'.

As the century developed, the myth took a new twist. The disposition of homosexuality was understood to be a primary identity of the person, and thus civil rights were brought into play. Just as minorities and women must be protected by the law, so too must homosexual people. The disanalogy between the two was not noticed. After all, homosexuality is, prima facie, nothing at all like skin color, or gender. There are no “natural boundaries” to it. What was overlooked is that doing a similar exploration and thematization of the psychological character of people could issue in the same type of narratives for different psychological features - - if there were interest to do such. For instance, one might well have isolated the dispositions to steal of certain people, made that an identity issue, and then make the possession of that disposition a natural rights issue. One could have done it with dispositions toward shyness, dispositions toward sexual promiscuity, dispositions toward niggardliness, dispositions towards prolixity, etc. That one would never do so displays the difference in meaning of these various dispositions. It is difficult to see how possessing the disposition of prolixity can grant existential identity, meaning, and destiny.

Given the socially constructed “identity” of the homosexual, the interpretive framework of that identity was used to interpret the multivariagatedness of human experience into certain patterns of sexual response, such that experience itself - -antifoundational because of language and narrative - - was misused as a foundational source for theological reflection. Thus contemporary pseudo-intellectuals could declare that “some people are just made that way” and that “the Bible does not know anything about the homosexual.” The biblical text was thus read by those occupying a hermeneutical horizon openly antipodal to the hermeneutical cradle from which the text emerged. This antithetical horizon could only judge the “immediacy of human experience” - - anything but immediate as I have argued - - as something trumping the mediated historical horizon of an alien text.

If we could see the problem clearly, we could see that the "sexuality issue" has emerged from our contemporary mythology. The “discovery of my homosexuality” is an Enlightenment-inspired myth that fills life with identity, meaning and purpose; it is a myth grounded in the fundamentality of "my experience." Theologically, of course, the problem goes back to the primitive, “did God really say that?” Are there dispositions that are not my dispositions that ought to be my dispositions? Does this question make sense for us apart from obvious utilitarian concerns? Theologically, one might claim that Luther is right. We are either ridden by God or Satan. Understanding that, however, takes a depth that most no longer have.

Perhaps the primary sin of our times is that we have sold our birthright as beings of reason. We have forgotten that reason is involved in every activity of faith. Perhaps what makes the faith of our day so underdeveloped is that our reason is so underdeveloped. There is considerable irony in this. But what is better for the Evil One than to have beings who are asleep at the wheel while they “entertain themselves to death?"