Who’s Afraid of a Deterministic Universe?

My quarter ended two weeks ago with the usual 20,000-word crunch, which should suffice to explain why I haven’t been motivated to blog much in the past month. I haven’t received final grades yet, which is fine; my relationship to grades is what Mark Twain described as “the serene confidence which a Christian feels in four aces.” By this, of course, I mean that it’s easy to not care what grade one gets in “Christianity & the Classical Tradition” when one has already decided that the whole kit-and-caboodle is superstitious nonsense. It’s nice to have A’s on the transcript but I’m not going to sweat it.

But there is one zit from the quarter which is still bugging the living bejeezus out of me — specifically, the topic of my final paper in the aforementioned class. We were asked to write something that put early Christian apologists into conversation with the Greco-Roman “classical tradition.” I objected to the premise of the assignment because early Christian apologists put themselves into conversation with philosophers, et al. Asking me to to find a new angle, and to pretend it was interesting, was a waste of everyone’s time.

The only potential subject for a paper that struck me as even remotely interesting was free will. This was certainly not because of anything the Greco-Roman philosophers said or anything written by the Christian apologists. What caught my attention was far outside the scope of the class: The Protestant Reformation and its emphasis on predestination is tantalizingly close to what the Homeric tradition would name “Fate,” whereas the early apologists were all “free will to choose salvation blah blah blah!” Interesting how history goes in cycles, no? So, although I was not allowed to examine the politics of the Reformation, I picked the topic of free will, under the assumption that I could at least learn about an intellectual tradition that created interesting political upheaval down the line.

What a mistake.

As an atheist, my approach to free will is very straight forward: Who cares? Sure, there are atheists who are staunch believers in free will, and there are other atheists who are hard-nosed determinists. My scholarly opinion is, “Wev.”

As a humanist, I leverage a serious critique of free will. Free will isn’t a valuable type of freedom. Autonomy is a valuable type of freedom. Agency is a valuable type of freedom. Economic opportunity, the democratic process, the preferential option, knowledge, and the absence of coercion — these freedoms make life worth living. I know for a fact that we can increase these freedom even within a rigidly deterministic system.

I believe we should act as if we have free will, because whether or not we have it, such an act is all we’ve really got. “As if” is the only thing which is going to allow us to embrace all other possible freedoms. And yes, we live in a deterministic universe, kinda, but maybe we should also consider the many orders of magnitude involved in the physical universe before we reduce ourselves to inevitable products of the Big Bang or to mere meaty vessels acting out the whims of rampant quarks.

What I proposed in my paper — exactly what I’m proposing here, as a matter of fact — is a very humanistic approach. Let’s be human. Let’s do what we can. Let’s live our short, precious lives as if our choices are real and really matter. Let’s be wildly, fantastically, beautifully human. I could go on and on, as this makes me very happy.

The upshot here is that you really can’t talk about spitting in the face of a deterministic universe to a buncha Christians.

Perhaps that isn’t quite fair. I’m sure there are some Christians who are compatibilists, who perhaps reject predestination but also are unwilling to reduce a human life to the single choice of whether or not to embrace Jesus Christ. (I think that would be the Christian version of compatibilism. For the rest of us, compatibilism normally means the existence of free will in a deterministic universe.) But I’m not in the business of locating the “We’re Not All Like That” Christians, and I’m not in the business of giving credence to any god-of-the-gaps nonsense.

I see myself as a student of an intellectual tradition that is trying to create a meaningful space for free will — free of the shackles of either capitulation or damnation. I strenuously disagree what what I’ve done here is to “present my own superstitions as fact,” as was alleged in the context of my coursework. And I have no clue why anyone would resent the suggestion that she behave as if she’s behind the wheel.

Maybe it doesn’t matter how a man falls down. Or maybe it matters a great deal. Which as if do you prefer?