Posted by: dacalu | 29 February 2012

Theoretical Theology II

Yesterday, I introduced the idea of theoretical theology, doctrines that don’t have their own predictive value, but provide a framework within which predictive doctrines may be understood.  I particularly wanted to draw your attention to the philosophical idea that the universe is a giant mechanism made up of only universal forces and particles.  That idea has been called the mechanic philosophy and forms one of the backbones of modern science.  It begs two important questions, however – questions having to do with motivation.

Yesterday I spoke of the motivation for the whole universe.  If the universe is a giant cuckoo clock, how was it wound?  Yes, yes, it could be an atomic clock, but who wound the atoms up?

Today, I want to say a few words about personal motivation.  It’s possible that we are all simply cogs in the giant clockwork.  The 18th century deists were happy with the notion that God wound everything up and all of our actions are nothing more than the product of the springs winding down.  A marriage of the mechanic philosophy and Christian Providence made for an easy doctrine of determinism.  If you are a determinist, there will be no further problem.  If, on the other hand, you believe in free will, the mechanic philosophy presents problems.

For my part, I think I have choices.  In philoso-speak, I would say I have agency:  I do things when I could have done otherwise.  Agency is necessary for a concept of will – I choose, as opposed to a machine that just carries out a program – a concept of civil law – we establish a system to further our aims – punishment and reward – they deserve recompense for their choices.  These concepts, I would argue, make no sense without agency.

Alas, agency is a type of internal motivation, a notion foreign to the mechanic philosophy.  Remember, we’re only supposed to allow particles and universal forces.  No local decision to do this or that, only the working out of the mechanism.  So what are we to do with agency?

Descartes solved this problem by introducing the concept of mind.  For him, the human body is a mechanism and vehicle for a mind.  The mind rides in a body, like the pilot in a ship, or as has become popular, like “a ghost in the machine.”  The latter metaphor reflects our uncertainty.  The pilot is on the bridge of a ship and uses the wheel.  Our minds don’t fall anywhere in particular.  They seem incorporeal and permeate all of the body.

[For the record, Descartes equates human mind with human soul and disavows the Aristotelian/Thomist concept of soul as the active principle and form of all living things.  The Cartesian soul is very little like the soul present in most Christian theology.  Thus I will stick with mind here.]

For Descartes, there were two types of substance – mechanical bodies and motivating souls.  He recognized that the mechanic philosophy left something important out.

In recent years, there has been an empirical imperialism that has tried to extend the mechanic philosophy to all knowledge.  That would have the effect of eliminating the soul – if one applies the rule of simplicity, without paying attention to the phenomena of choice and agency.

Christians, and most other religious thinkers are committed to some notion of agency.  In political philosophy, we find that social contract theory (on which the US constitution is based) requires the consent of the governed.  Consent implies the possibility of non-consent; it requires choice.  In economic philosophy, we find that choice theory (on which capitalism is based) rests on the idea that we choose what we want and communicate priorities through economic decisions. It’s possible to construct this as nothing more than determinism playing itself out, but we most often talk about it as though people are expressing preferences for what they wish to occur, rather than just exposing how they are wired.  And, concepts of sin have rested on notions of humans making the wrong choices for at least a couple hundred years.  So I really don’t see how one could construct a socially useful model of the universe that did not involve agency.

We are, remember, still talking about theoretical theology.  Agency makes no useful predictions.  Indeed it cannot.  There would be no well to tell the difference between a deterministic human (a philosophical or “p-zombie”) and one that genuinely has internal consciousness and motivation.  We can only make that determination for ourselves (and even we might be mistaken).

It is entirely consistent with observation to say that no personal motivation, no agency exists.  I prevents us, however, from doing any useful law, economics, or moral reasoning.

Christianity posits a universal motivator (God) and personal motivators (agents, essentially souls).  They remain in the realm of theoretical theology because, by themselves, they make no useful predictions.  On the other hand, I want to suggest that they remain popular because they fill in unavoidable gaps in the mechanical philosophy.  The mechanical philosophy cannot admit of motivation.  It doesn’t fit, even though we know that practical philosophy – any useful theory of life – won’t work without invoking motivators.  There are non-Christian solutions to the problem, but by definition there must not be scientific solutions (as long as science subscribes to the mechanic philosophy, as I believe it should).

We’ll have to find another thought system to supplement our science.



  1. So here is what bothers me. We have neatly separated agency from mechanistic determinism, that is we have separated mind form “particles and universal forces.” And yet, the mind seems to be built with and rely upon these particles and universal forces. By experimentation – say with that third shot of tequila – one can easily discover that agency can be diminished or even temporal removed. One could argue, of course, about the choice to have a third shot, but a cancerous growth in the brain is an equally effective if far more tragic example.

    If we are to reason about theology from the axiom of a mind distinct from the mechanistic workings of science, and particularly if we are to imbue this mind with the exalted attribute “the image of God,” we must quickly face the question of the interactions between the two.

  2. Agents we are whether we like it or not. The world we each live in is a masterful delusion created by and within the mind. That is why agency can even exist, and as well as, can also be taken from us.

    Within this self contained unvierse within each of us, we live, only to be influenced by the outer mechanistic world. How we put our self agency together is of our own making and yeilds our own individual rewards.

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