Will the Real Skeptic Please Speak Up? Another Ramble

In college, many years ago, I once read a little pamphlet that contained some exchanges between Martin Luther and Erasmus, occasioned by Luther’s publishing of a paper called ‘On the Bondage of the Will’. It was a fascinating read on several levels, but one item in particular has stuck in my mind all this time. Erasmus makes the point that, if Luther truly believes that the human will is not free, why in the world would he bother talking about it? Learning about the abject slavery of the human will isn’t needed by those Christians who by the sole grace of God and through no merit of their own have gained freedom, and it won’t do any good for those other poor souls, who are utterly enslaved by sin and are incapable of doing anything at all to change that situation.

It seemed like a pretty good point to me at the time, and still does. However, history shows that Luther did not, in fact, stop talking about it. Score 1 for passion, 0 for logical consistency.

But then again, those who think consistency is some sort of hobgoblin must take some comfort in how few people are afflicted with it. For example, I’ve always been a little baffled by passionate communists. I mean, if I truly believed that the vast gears of history are grinding inexorably towards a worker’s utopia, I might reasonably choose to lay low, at least until the bullets stop flying – it’s going to happen whether I play or not. On the other hand, if I thought my actions were desperately needed in order to bring about this paradise, I’m conceding that the final synthesis is NOT the inevitable work of capital H History, but is rather the result of human beings’ choices, in which case, again, I could hardly blame anyone else for wanting to sit it out and see what happens. I could hardly blame anyone else for having some other idea of how the future should look, and acting accordingly.

Logically, either way, the whole revolution of the proletariat should be a rather dispassionate affair – what’s to get upset about?

About now, if a real communist got this far reading this, they might be apoplectic: what about the unendurable and infuriating INJUSTICE of the current state? Who could not be inflamed by the smug, brutal winners and compassionate toward the masses they have trodden down?  But the idea of justice has no more place in Marxist thinking than free will has in Lutheran theology. When push comes to shove, or slightly before, a communist can’t logically appeal to any coherent idea of Justice that amounts to anything more than ‘the way I prefer things’. As soon as they try, they have entered the world of mysticism that Marx expressly rejected, because it should be pretty clear that, in the observable, natural world, Justice is a myth backed up by no evidence whatsoever.

Or is it not completely clear? Now I’ll call on the so far silent skeptic to pull the two threads of Luther and Marx together and make it clear. I call this particular skeptic ‘silent’ because he is most certainly not among those self-proclaimed skeptics we seem to hear from all too often. The noisy skeptics are those who apply what they think of as hard-headed critical thinking only to those positions they have already decided to reject, and not, as a true skeptic would, first and foremost to the beliefs they personally hold most dear. We find the self-proclaimed skeptic moving directly to passionate attacks on, for example, religious beliefs, without first questioning why, for example, a true skeptic would passionately attack anything.

Here’s a short list of ideas that a true skeptic should challenge first: free will, the mind, the self. To sum up, using the standard formula: Science Has Shown that 1) There’s no evidence at all for free will – all human decisions can be adequately explained within a stimulus/response environment. Studies reveal that what we thing of as reaching a reasonable conclusion is nothing more than our brains backfilling on decisions made mechanistically by our brains before we’re even aware we’ve made them; 2) We have a brain, which follows chemical and mechanical laws like the brain of a fly or a clock. It’s just muddled thinking to believe there is a conscious manager overseeing and maybe even overriding the operations of the brain – it’s an illusion, there’s no evidence that anything of the sort happens; and 3) What we think of as a ‘self’ is really a blend of many different organisms in various states of symbiotic merger. For example, the organelle in our cells are almost completely merged, having contributed their DNA to ‘our’ DNA, the mitochondria less so in that, while they live only in our own cells, they still maintain their own DNA, and the bacteria in our guts that we consider separate organisms but without whom we cannot survive. Each of ‘us’ is a little traveling circus of organisms, for which it is unsupportable to claim some one aspect is ‘us’ – say, our brains – and the rest of ‘us’ is just along for the ride. We are Legion.

To sum up, we are each of us a blend of many mechanisms whose behaviors can be adequately explained by evolutionary programming acting within a stimulus/response environment without any reference to choice or consciousness. Free will, and all the assumptions of self and consciousness that support it, is, in a memorable phrase, “a persistent illusion”.

Let’s make one last little outcome of our skepticism explicit: if there is no choice, if we can only do what we have been programmed to do, then it should be clear that concepts such as morality and justice are also persistent illusions.

But, if you knew this, why would you tell anyone? And thus, our true skeptic, the only skeptic worthy of the name, is silent. All those who claim to be skeptics (and their philosophical kin: empiricists, pragmatists, materialists and so on – Marxists, too!) are wildly inconsistent in their beliefs and actions if they even suppose they ‘act’ or ‘believe’ at all.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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