Thursday, 24 November 2022

Causation versus Free Agency

It is an implicit assumption of modern culture and life that everything is caused - except what is random. 

Because everything is caused, it is assumed that these causes (if known) are like the 'laws of science' and entail exactly what happens. 


But there is also 'randomness', chance, the undetermined... Which is (somehow, in an unprincipled way) also incorporated into the 'everything is caused' determinism by means of statistical properties. 

If reality really is caused, then this fundamental incorporation of of randomness doesn't make any coherent sense (as Einstein clearly saw) - nonetheless, it has happened, randomness is incorporated into a deterministic world-view; and is justified on the basis that 'it works' to predict things... 

...Or rather, attributed randomness sometimes seems to work; because whether something 'works' depends on (essentially arbitrary) prior decisions about what counts as having worked, or alternatively failed to work.

(And this becomes even less precise when what counts as having worked gets defined retrospectively to include - or indeed be entirely - what has already happened; as with climate change 'predictions...) 


Yet, there is no such thing as randomness 'in real life' and therefore no 'probability'- these are actually just mathematical tools, that may be useful in particular situations; although the nature of scope of the situations in which it is valid cannot be known. In practice the validity of particular instances of statistical reasoning is a matter of 'common sense' - or more likely the exercise of power to control discourse.   


But what of free agency, free will - or what-you-call-it? I mean the thinking of Beings (especially Men); at those times when they are thinking with their real and divine 'selves'? 

(Accepting that Men may - often do - behave 'automatically; and are not 'free' at all times, but only potentially and some-times.)

Free agency cannot be either caused/determined, or random/statistical. Free agency must be something other, which is expressive of a Being itself, arises wholly from that Being - and not, therefore, a product of causes acting-upon that Being.  


To cut the argument short: I believe that genuine Free Agency is either an incomprehensible Mystery and gift from God (which is the mainstream/ classical Christian view); or else (as I believe) Free Agency is a property of Beingness, to be found to a greater or lesser extent in all Beings

Which means that all Beings have a divine aspect.

Which means that while there is one God who is creator of this creation we inhabit; creation itself consists of Beings who are all 'gods' in this vital sense of having some potential degree of Free Agency.   

In other words, reality is alive and conscious and consists of Beings/ gods that are in relationships with one another  (in some real way, but varied between Beings). 

If so, then what is the role of causation?  

My understanding is that causation is a series of hypotheses that are useful in inverse proportion to the exercise of free agency. 


In a world where free agency is seldom exercised; then causation is highly predictive. 

Here in mortal life upon earth; things are different according to different times and places, and among different individuals. But the more that agency is active, the less causality is operative

Bu, in a world where free agency is ignored or denied, and its effects are suppressed: causal thinking (and its bastard offspring 'randomness') appears to operate as a complete explanation of reality.

(Hence the common idea that - in principle - science can explain everything that is real.) 

In other words; Western Man has (for some generations) been living at, or near-to, an extreme where free agency is hardly a factor in life; and where, because of this exclusion, causal and determinative thinking seems to work very well as an explanation, for prediction, and to manipulate the world (including people). 


Conversely, in a world where free agency is highly frequent and determines thought; there is very little for causal thinking to explain. 

At the extreme - in Heaven - I assume that almost-everything is a consequence of free agency in the context of relationships between Beings; things happen because they are willed to happen. 

Therefore: in Heaven there is essentially no causation; but only free agency and relationships


There is a further aspect governing the operations of free agency; which is the extent to which it is groupish or individual. 

If we focus on Men, then in the past free agency seems to have been much more active than now. Hence prediction was 'anthropomorphic'; in terms of personal factors such as motivations, desires and relationships. 

But this ancient agency was not individualistic - it operated at a groupish level such as the clan, tribe, village, guild, or even (later) the nation. Thus, understanding and prediction treated groups as we might regard individuals, and focused on their attitudes to each other, strengths and weaknesses etc. 


Modern agency has, however, become very individualistic; and insofar as free agency genuinely exists and is deployed (which is apparently not much, very seldom), it operates at the personal level rather than in groups. 

What appears superficially to be group agency, is actually a product of causal and determinative thinking; manipulating individuals (eg. via laws, rules and propaganda) to conform behaviour to external will. 

Part of this manipulation is to encourage individuals to believe they are already living by free agency; when in fact they have 'switched-off' their own agency; and are thinking almost-entirely in terms of automatic, mundane, externally-inculcated and -imposed concepts and information.  


To conclude; the destiny which God wishes from Men is to live by free agency, individually exercised; and voluntarily to choose to align this free agency with God's desires for His creation. 

But this is a choice. Some choose not to use free agency, and even to deny its reality; while others use this agency to reject the divine hopes and plans - and instead to serve the adversaries of God. 

In other words such Men choose Not to be free. And probably this applies to most Men, at least in The West. 

At the most basic level, service to the Adversary entails opening one's own soul to thinking hostile to God; and this often takes the form of dishonestly pretending to an individual agency which is, in fact, being denied and suppressed. 


Thinking therefore (i.e. here-and-now, in this world that has rejected God) becomes a thing very much causally determined. 

Men's behaviours become understandable by reduction to to causal reasoning and statistics. 

Men become predictable and controllable.


4 comments:

Jack said...

Karl Barth was the greatest Protestant and Calvinist theologian of the 20th century. Many say the greatest Christian theologian fullstop. The Calvinist tradition is very much what you call an "omnitheology", perhaps the most thoroughly omnitheological form of Christianity and the most ruthlessly systematic in asserting Divine Causation and denying freewill. Barth was something of a radical in the Calvinist tradition however. He clearly wanted to separate Calvinist theology and the Calvinist spirit from its huge omnitheological baggage (after all there's a lot more to the Calvinist tradition than the most systematic parts of Jean Calvin's 'Institutes'). In this connexion I once came across a startling reference to Barth saying that the divine causation theory (which results in absolute determinism and the denial of freewill) is, quote, "due to a godless notion of causation." I found this phrase enlightening. I'd previously thought that the "stronger" account of causation it is, the more divine it is. That certainly seems to have been Calvin's tendency. It never truly dawned on me that this idea that raw determinative power is divine—is a brutal misunderstanding, so much so that it deserves to be called 'godless'.

Causation itself is a very profound mystery, and our mathematical, mechanical, blunt understanding of it is extremely inadequate.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jack - I read a thick book by Barth when I was in my mid twenties (some quarter century before I became a Christian, but exploring in that direction) - I don't remember which one - and I recall that it struck me as very rigorously reasoned (from its assumptions).

But it seemed to offer no positive reason to become a Christian, not least because I could not share its assumptions and did not believe its threats. After all; Calvinism has been very thoroughly tried, and seems very comprehensively to have failed, except in a negative and behavioural sense.

I am very sure that Calvinism is deeply wrong, however; missing the point in a Big Way, and thereby horribly distorting the true nature of Christ's truth. Predestination is as anti-Christian an assumption as could be devised.

Of course, many individual self-described Calvinists are themselves very good, very real Christians; but only by rising-above (and in practice ignoring) their own horrible assumptions - and Not because they think of themselves as Calvinists!

Calvinism strikes me as one of those extreme double-negative types of Christianity; and (I believe) one whose public characteristics betray a covert yearning for the monotheistic clarity of Islam (not least, because they do not have a coherent or compelling explanation for the necessity of Jesus).

lgude said...

The causation versus free will dichotomy is very helpful to me because it explains the mysterious way in which I have over the past few years learned to actually exercise free will and become less determined, less the causal product, of manipulation and propaganda. I can see evil taking over the world like many people, but by the Grace of God I am becoming less fascinated by it. Still, I am often still caught, like Lott's wife, by the spectacle, but not as much as in the past. Still in purgatory, to use the Dante's theology, but cheerful because I can feel the sweet breezes of heaven through the stench of brimstone.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Igude - It strikes me that the sense of 'inevitability' we so often experience about events, is true because of Men's corrupt agency, their (whether unconscious or conscious) abrogation of freedom - so that mere causality is allowed to determine the future.

By contrast, insofar as there is real agency, and responsibility; then there is much more possibility - and less determinism - about the future. And this applies to nations and other groups - as well as to individuals.

My experience, however, is that there are few things less likely to succeed, than trying to get somebody else to take responsibility for his or her choices - and to make these choices from agency.

Most people are over-masteringly keen to argue that their choices are compelled, that they had No choice, that there was No Alternative (especially when these are bad choices).