The Power to Define

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So many of the discussions I encounter about religion centre on the power to define and so many of the disagreements revolve around assumed understanding. Let’s take for example the statement “The Bible is the true Word of God”. On the face of it this is a disputable but fairly straight forward claim, which implies a true or false answer. Either the Bible is the true word of God or it isn’t. We should avoid the immediate temptation to engage with a claim on its own terms and take a moment to think about the implied knowledge that is seeking tacit acceptance. This example refers to “the Bible”, but which Bible? There is an assumed understanding that there is only one Bible but this a mental abstraction of all Bibles, which obscures the many variations between versions and translations. The example also refers to “Word of God”, but which god? We might assume Christian but what does that mean? Many groups identify as Christian, include Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and each have a different Bible. Of course Jewish and Islamic holy texts are based on the same sort of source material as well. The embedding of assumed understanding in linguistically simple claims can be used as a means of setting the parameters of a discussion but I think in most cases it happens unintentionally. I think that someone making such a claim may do so from an ingrained perspective that they have difficulty transcending. Clarifying the detail of a simple claim is a useful way to raise consciousness.

I’ve noticed, as I’m sure many will have, a lot of discursive struggle around the word “atheist”. This has particularly to do with how it’s defined, who has the power to define it and the consequences of definitions. It is interesting to note that dictionaries differ in their definitions, ranging from “do not believe in God” to “lack beliefs in gods”. This is interesting because it reflects the embeddedness of certain assumptions in cultures. It can amount to the defining of atheism through monotheism and raises questions over who ought to be defining atheism? Many arguing from a religious perspective represent a view that atheists deny their god(s). Conversely, many atheists represent atheism as a state of having no beliefs that gods exist. I have encountered quite a few posts that either implicitly or explicitly frame atheism as a belief system that claims a Christian god doesn’t exist. Having thus defined atheism the argument will proceed with a declaration of how it is impossible to disprove their god and so atheism is illogical. So you see, the power to define is extremely significant in discussion. If person A is allowed to define person B then they can in essence silence discussion from the outset. I’m sure many will have seen this video clip of an interviewer asking for views about atheists from people in Turkey. Some of the words used to describe atheists are: animals; not human; ignorant; infidel; liars. We should approach any clip with scepticism, especially if it shows a consistent and extreme view from a small sample. The point to take away though is how easily a component of a person’s outlook can be redefined and swollen to be the entirety of their personhood.

“New Atheism” is a phrase I keep seeing and to which any number of beliefs and behaviours seem to be attributed. It’s often used to refer collectively to the works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Never mind that these authors offer quite different perspectives, they are lumped together and associated with charges of racism, hate, fear-mongering and intolerance. Writing in The Guardian, Jeff Sparrow portrayed New Atheism as:

“…a movement too often exemplified by privileged know-it-alls telling the poor that they’re idiots. But that’s only part of it. For, of course, the privileged know-it-alls are usually white and those they lampoon the most are invariably Muslim”.

Notice how Sparrow made New Atheism a socioeconomic issue or the way he introduced race then invited readers to regard “Muslim” as a race. Unfortunately, an accusation of bigotry doesn’t have to be qualified or evidenced for it to do damage to reputations. Consider the course of events following Ben Affleck characterising Sam Harris as racist on the Bill Maher show. All it takes is for a popular celebrity to get the wrong end of the stick and it provides an excuse for people to no longer engage with Sam Harris’ arguments. I wonder if “New Atheist” is just a conveniently ill-defined phrase that facilitates the grouping and dismissal of heterogeneous views that some just don’t want to engage with. In other words, a way to deny people a voice and silence debate. In my view it’s probably more useful and honest to discuss specific behaviours and beliefs than it is to refer to analytically dubious categories of people.

I’m big on discussion and enjoy talking through and challenging people’s ideas. I think critically engaging with each other in an honest way is a useful means by which we can broaden our view of the world. Part of that is appreciating the implications of the power to define and the presence of assumed understanding or knowledge in claims about the world. Being aware of these helps us prevent discussion becoming too narrow and can help us avoid misunderstandings arising from assumption.

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Free Will by Sam Harris

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The idea that humans have free will figures quite prominently in philosophical, psychological and religious thought. Free will is sometimes provided as an answer to why people do things that are considered evil or bad. We choose to commit a crime as much as we choose to help someone in need. We understand that one person’s free will can impinge on another’s and that the time and place of your birth has a massive impact on your freedom to exercise your will. Our self-determination, albeit within the constraints of our environment, makes us personally responsible for our actions and their consequences, in the eyes of most people. However, this only seems to be the case once we reach a crucial point in childhood. We aren’t born responsible or with free will. If a young child breaks something in a shop, the parent takes responsibility even if the child intended to break the item and the parent has no direct control over the child’s actions. Is the point at which we become personally responsible the same as when we can control our impulses, understand the consequences of our behaviour and develop an awareness of how others view us? Is it the acquisition of “knowledge of good and evil”, the understanding of what it means to be a good or bad member of society, that imbues us with free will and makes us responsible for ourselves?

A few weeks ago I read a book (pamphlet!) by Sam Harris on the topic of free will. The main claim of the book is that free will is an illusion. People are the product of biology, environment and experiences, none of which are authored by the individual. We don’t choose where or when we will be born.The breadth and variety in the curriculum of our educational system, if we have access to one at all, is essentially beyond our control while we are in it. We have no say over the quality of our upbringing or what is valued by our culture. Harris argues that consciousness furnishes us with an illusion of free will. We feel that we are making decisions, weighing options and acting accordingly but where does our intentionality come from? If I normally drink coffee in the morning but one day decide to have tea because I fancy it, what motivated that decision? Do you decide what you’ll think before you think it? Harris points to processes that operate below the level of consciousness but argues that even if you view the mind and body as separate and believe that your intentionality is motivated by your soul, you still have no insight into that preconscious decision making. If you are making finalised decisions before they reach your consciousness, in what sense are you able to exercise free will?

The book raises some interesting points particularly around the degree to which we are responsible for our actions. If an animal attacks a person we don’t usually blame the animal. It is the intent of a person that warrants blame and the more free they were to choose an alternate course, the more blameworthy they are. Harris argues that in the example of a killer, mitigating factors such as the circumstances, upbringing or wellness mediates how accountable we judge a person to be. If someone who is otherwise a good person commits a crime because a brain tumour has had a personality-altering effect on them, we would probably not blame them, we would want to help them. If, as Harris suggests, our intentionality is not something we consciously control, then are we really responsible for our behaviour? Should transgressors be punished or reformed?

I’m willing to travel quite a long way with the arguments Harris puts forward about free will but I’m still not sold on the idea that free will is an illusion. There are certainly constrains – environmental, biological, psychological, cultural and societal – on our free will and it may be that we feel freer than we really are but could free will really be an illusion? The reason I’m skeptical is that Harris only seems to consider scenarios that support his contention. He appears to suggest that free will should be a purely conscious activity and that intention-oriented behaviour is unidirectional:

unconscious decision > awareness > action

I suspect the reality is more complex. Consider this scenario: I’m watching television and a family member switches it off. Some unconscious processing takes place, my mood changes, I’m angry and I realise that I am going to insult them. I’m aware of my cultural and social norms and have a model for intentionally transgressing in this specific way. I turn to open my mouth and see they are upset. My mood changes, some subconscious processing takes place, I realise that insulting is the wrong action for this context. I might rapidly visualise the consequence of my insult. I manage to snatch back the words before they can leave my mouth and instead ask “what’s wrong?”. There are elements of this scenario that happen fast like shifts in emotion and interpreting facial expressions. Some that might happen a little slower like selecting and retrieving response models and visualisation. There are rapid back and forths between different brain functions, some of which may be available consciously and others not. There’s also a thread of intentionality that is subject to conscious and unconscious influence. My point is that we can recognise that people are not completely free to do as they wish and they may not be fully aware of their limitations but they still have and exercise agency.