Monday, June 17, 2013

Discussion Question on Determinism

In the newly released Philosophy Adventures (a program designed to Christian students from 6th-12th grade think critically as they explore the history of ideas), we read that 
"In his defence of Helen, Gorgias argued that, if Paris used the power of persuasion to seduce Helen, she was helpless to resist him. Essentially, he argued that Helen was not responsible for her actions. (p. 62)
The notion that a person is not responsible for his or her actions because they are controlled by the whims of fickle gods may seem archaic in our enlightened era, but are we really that different? Stacy Farrell, the author of Philosophy Adventures, suggests that modern materialism may have some affinity with Gorgias' idea of fate. She writes,
This abdicating of personal responsibility was consistent with the materialist's belief that we are merely impulse-driven creatures with no free will, no divine imprint nor access to divine power to refrain from immorality." (p. 64)
On the surface, the ancient pagan idea that our fate is controlled by spiritual forces may seem to have little in common with modern materialism, which recognizes no spiritual dimension. Yet when it comes to the abdication of personal responsibility, I think Farrell is correct to note this important connection.

In his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, Julian Baggini wrote, “What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical, out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values—in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.” To many thinkers, this type of materialist reductionism can only mean that we have no ultimate freedom or responsibility since everything about us is the result of forces outside out control. Like Helen, all we can do is give in to our impulses, including our inclinations towards immorality. We may no longer think of ourselves as being controlled by the gods, but we are controlled by something just as powerful and just as much outside our control: matter itself.

Discussion Question: What are some ways that we see this type of materialism operative in the modern world?

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