Beware toxic fatalism, in its atheist and theist forms

This week I met a charming young man who had recently dropped out of university. He was writing an undergraduate dissertation on free will, read Sam Harris’ book on the subject, and came to the conclusion that free will does not exist, therefore there was no point finishing his dissertation. So his university gave him a ‘pass’ and he’s now wondering what to do next (not that he has any choice in the matter).

Talking to him, I was struck, paradoxically, by the power of ideas and beliefs to alter people’s lives, and to harm them. This smart young chap - call him Eric - happened to go to university now, in the high point of Scientistic Materialism, which meant he happened to have read Sam Harris, and to accept the hardcore materialist line that free will is an illusion. He accepted that idea, absorbed it into his organism, and it led to real-world consequences for him - he now can’t do an MA in anthropology, as he planned, and is stuck in something of an existential crisis.

Eric might say to me that what his situation really proves is that he had no choice. As I’ve just said, he happened to be at university during the high-point of Scientistic Materialism, he happened to be exposed to Sam Harris, and hence this situation. Yet I - like the good Stoic I am - would say that he did have a choice, whether to accept the hardcore materialist theory or not. He swallowed it, then he chose to act on it. And here’s where he ended up.

Nonetheless, his story does illustrate the power of culture - by which I mean the amniotic fluid of ideas that we find ourselves absorbing and feeding off. We may have some choice what we believe, but our range of choice is limited by the ideas we find in our culture at any one moment. And that is what worries me about the popularity of hardcore materialism in our culture - I think the theory that we have no free will is a toxic idea, which has serious real world implications for those unfortunate enough to swallow it, because it attacks and dissolves their sense of meaning, purpose and autonomy.

I don’t think the main battle line in our culture is between theists and atheists. The main dividing line, for me, is between those who believe in free will, and those who don’t. It’s between those who think we can use our conscious reason - however weak it is - to choose new beliefs and new directions in our life; and those who think we are entirely automatic machines, without the capacity to choose.

Hardcore materialists insist we don’t have free will, we don’t have the capacity to choose a path in life, because free will seems too ‘spooky’ and doesn’t fit with their strict material determinism. Where I see a universe brimming with consciousness, they see just a mass of matter, like a vast rubbish dump, a tiny portion of which suffers from the delusion of choice.

I think this is bad science, ignoring our everyday experience of being conscious and making choices. It’s bad psychology, ignoring humans’ capacity to change themselves and get out of even chronic problems like alcoholism or depression (without medication...not that there’s anything wrong with medication). And it’s bad ethics, because it empties our lives of meaning and autonomy, and leads to people like Eric wondering what’s the point of doing anything.

The hardcore materialist position also leads to the rise and rise of pharmaceutical solutions to life’s problems - people think their emotions have no meaning or connection to their own beliefs and choices, they are simply malfunctioning machines, so the only solution is to put chemicals into the machine (despite the fact that 90% or so of the effect of anti-depressants is placebo, ie it comes from our own beliefs and expectations).

This is not strictly an argument against atheism, only one variant of it. It’s also an argument against a particular variant of religion. There are religious believers who seem to have little or no belief in free will or our power to make conscious, reasonable choices in our life. We are entirely at the mercy of God’s will, and our only option is to beg God to intervene in our lives.

In Christianity, for example, there is a strong tradition going back through Calvinism and Augustine all the way to St Paul, which suggests humans have no real choice or control over whether they are ‘saved’ or not. It’s all down to God’s choice, and that choice was made before we were born.

This is why ecstatic experiences for, say, Methodists were quite so ecstatic - they felt the Holy Spirit and thought I’m saved! God had chosen me! I’m not going to Hell for eternity! Thank fuck for that!  It’s like suddenly winning the lottery for eternity. As for the other 90% of humanity who aren’t chosen by God, well, sucks to be you, we’re off to Vegas, I mean, heaven!

The hardcore Calvinist belief in predestination isn’t that ubiquitous anymore, thankfully, but I still meet a lot of charismatic Christians who seem to think God has complete control over their life and they should surrender their own reason and choices entirely to God and wait for His directions. God will reveal what to do. God will show the way. God? Hello? God?!?

This also seems to me a bit of a recipe for feeling helpless and morose. The Stoic in me feels like saying, look mate, God has given you reason, and the capacity to choose your own path in life. Stop waiting for the Divine Hand to pick you out of the gutter and instead try to change those parts of your self and your life that you can (while also praying to God for help in that process).

That might sound a bit DIY - the self-help myth of the self-made man, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. I recognize the limits of that myth. I recognize that most of my decisions are automatic, unconscious, and determined by the past and the culture I happen to be floating in, and it's the same for others too. We don't choose to be destructive bastards, it just sort of happens. More positively, I also recognize that there are moments of grace, moments where something beyond our rational consciousness picks us up and carries us. I am fascinated by such moments, and have been hugely helped by them in my own life.

But we can’t rely entirely on such rare moments of grace to guide us every day of our life. At least, I don’t think you can (maybe that makes me a bad Christian or a Pelagian heretic). I think part of the meaning and value of our lives comes from using our God-given free will and discernment to try and make wise decisions and to try to come closer to the reality of God. Of course, we can sometimes choose to surrender, just as the Stoics choose to surrender their external lives to the Logos. Such surrender is still, paradoxically, a choice.

You may not believe in God or the immortality of the soul. You may not believe our free will is God-given or that the proper end of it is to return to God. Still, if you believe in trying to liberate beings from suffering, and you believe we can use our reason and free will in the effort to do that, then I am on broadly on the same side as you (although of course we have some big differences). If, on the other hand, you think we have no free will and no choice, if you either think we’re entirely automatic machines or are completely at the mercy of God’s will, then to me those are two sides of the same toxic fatalism.


In other news:

The Harvard philosopher Roberto Unger is in London. I've only recently (as in...this morning) read some of his ideas. Interesting stuff - reminds me of continental philosophy like Heidegger or Badiou but the mysticism is not too pretentious and is democratic as opposed to Maoist. Read this lecture, the inspiration for his upcoming book 'The Religion of the Future'.

Leading neuroscientist Christoph Koch explains why he believes in panpsychism - which for him means the theory that consciousness is the product of highly integrated systems, and therefore the potential for consciousness is in all matter (so the internet could become conscious, for example).

My friends at Aeon have launched Aeon Films, showcasing short, beautiful films like this one about the last days of Philip Gould, which rather undid me.

Also from Aeon, cognitive scientist of religion Jesse Bering discusses the $5 million 'Immortality Project', which tries to find empirical evidence both for immortality, and our belief in immortality.

This week I spoke at a well-being at work conference to lots of Human Resources people. Weird! But interesting too - with talks from Paul Farmer of MIND about overcoming the stigma of mental illness at work; a presentation from an online CBT company called Big White Wall,and an inspiring talk by the Free Help Guy, who for six months decided to offer free anonymous help for whatever people suggested, via GumTree. This week, another anonymous person gave him £100,000 to carry on his work!

Here's a TEDX talk I did! If you've seen me talk about Philosophy for Life, you'll have heard it before. Would be great if people shared, retweeted etc.

Philosophy for Life needs all the help it can get in the US, where the publishers are struggling to get any publicity for it. Even a review on would help, if you feel like it.

The Nation lays into a swathe of new happiness books, declaring them 'neoliberal', and suggesting we should really find happiness via Keynesian economics. Which to me is another form of toxic fatalism - the only solution to our emotional problems is collectivist economics. Keynesian institutional reforms might be some of the answer but it's not all of it - we can also take care of our own souls (and help others learn how to do that).

Finally, this week's Start the Week had Sir John Tavener, Jeanette Winterson, and the head of All Souls College discussing prayer, faith and culture in a post-religious age. I felt like Andrew Marr was seeking to explore how his stroke had changed him and made him more interested in the life of the spirit...but there was a nervousness about doing that on primetime BBC. Interesting though, and poignant, as Tavener died the following day.

That's all. Next week I'm in Durham doing various talks, including one on ecstatic experiences at the Centre for the Medical Humanities on Wednesday the 20th. I'm also doing a talk at St Cuths on the 19th, at 4pm.

Oh, and thanks to the platinum members who contributed to the blog! Your names will echo for eternity! If you want to donate £10 or more for your annual enjoyment of the blog (it costs $30 a month to run the newsletter, not including my own time, so it's very much a loss-making venture!), click on the link below.