The Invasion and the Incarnation

An entity descends to earth and takes on human flesh, proclaiming human flesh, spreading the “good news” that all humanity can be one, war can be ended, and peace and unity can prevail.

If this story sounds familiar, you must have seen The Invasion, the most recent remake of The Body Snatchers, this time starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

The parallels to what religions seek and/or claim to offer are noticeable, as is the fact that the spore that infects humanity seems to offer so much that humans claim to want. But at what price? May it in fact be the case that in order to achieve such goals as utter tranquility of spirit, total ending of all conflict and tension, we would have to give up that which in fact makes us human? And if so, then are those things really desirable as ends in themselves? Are they even genuine possibilities?

In his book God’s Problem (Harper Collins, 2008, pp.12-13), Bart Ehrman in fact notices an issue along these lines that is often neglected in discussions of Christian theology, free will and the afterlife. Christians have historically claimed that the afterlife will be akin to what I’ve described: no stress, no war, no evil. But can such a world be realized with human free will intact? If so, then why did God not simply make such a world to begin with? If not, will freedom be eliminated? But then why give us free will in the first place? Or will it in fact be possible for the order of eternity to descend once again into chaos, a never-ending cycle?

It is tempting to draw the comparison further between the spore in the movie and the “meme” understanding of religion. But as John Gray puts it in his recent article “The Atheist Delusion” in The Guardian, “the theory of memes is science only in the sense that Intelligent Design is science. Strictly speaking, it is not even a theory. Talk of memes is just the latest in a succession of ill-judged Darwinian metaphors”.

So what is wrong with the “solution” to human ills offered by the spore? The son of Kidman’s character is immune, and the spore-infected humans state clearly that there is no place among them for one who cannot become part of their collective consciousness. In other words, they can only achieve peace and harmony by eliminating diversity. There is no conflict with the other, because there is no other, is the way it is put at one point. This is not the “unity in diversity” that the New Testament and many other traditions speak of. This is the utter uniformity of fundamentalism, conformity of the sort Steve Taylor sang about in his song “I want to be a clone”.

I came across a nice description of fundamentalism in B. Alan Wallace’s book The Taboo Of Subjectivity (Oxford University Press, 2000, p.186), and it is worth sharing to close with:

The last gasp of a religion that has forsaken its contemplative heritage is fundamentalism, which throws logic to the wind and defends its beliefs with a raw appeal to authority. All forms of fundamentalism, religious and scientific, regard themselves as self-sufficient, displaying no interest or concern for external challenges to their dogmas. The contamination of science with scientism and of religion with fundamentalism constitutes a lethal infection, which, if left unchecked, is bound to result in the death of its host; and the aftermath of that fatality bears little resemblance to any genuine science or religion.

We need to check from time to time to see what we have: religion, or a dangerous infection. The latter cannot be cured by religion, or science, or knowledge per se, since such approaches can themselves be infected. The only cure is the recognition of the value in other perspectives, in diversity, in the existence of the other, and a refusal to flatten it out through a dogmatic drive for uniformity.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Ehrman’s book was the first place I had encountered the Free-Will/Heaven problem described. I figured that I was behind in my reading and that Dr Ehrman was merely passing on a critique that was already in circulation. Am I wrong? I suppose you, Dr McGrath, are not an expert in apologetics but is anyone else aware of the status and origins of this argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07225890125470949454 Bad

    I think a major problem with these issues is the still largely unconfronted problem of “Free Will” being effectively incoherent. No one can explain exactly what it is: how it functions, how it affects the process of making a choice, etc. Lacking that, we are left with little means to draw useful conclusions, and so address issues like the one raised here.Here’s an example of the problem that not knowing what “Free Will” is leads to:Imagine person A and person B standing before a gold coin. Person A would steal the coin. Person B wouldn’t. Both are said to have whatever “Free Will” is in making this choice.Now imagine if you could simply turn Person A INTO an exact copy of person B, whether instantly or gradually, such that person A would retain his memories and a continuous sense of identity, but would end up being exactly whatever person B is. Does doing this reduce the “Free Will” of Person A? It’s hard to see how: if the new person A is a copy of B, then he has all the same qualities as B… including “Free Will.” It becomes hard to impossible to argue that the new Person A lacks “Free Will” without imperiling the idea that Person B had it. And yet you’ve now created a world in which no one steals the coin.Likewise, imagine the issue of seduction. A man desires a woman, but she does not have feelings for him: yet. If that man woos her over the course of many months, she will come to love him by “Free Will” and end up in a state in which she has both “Free Will” and loves him. But what if the man acquires a love potion changes the woman such that she will want to and choose to love him? Has he violated her “Free Will”? Most would say that he has. And yet, the outcome is a person who is identical to the person whose “Free Will” was supposedly not violated by seduction: a person that “freely” chooses to love him. Going forwards, the situations are identical, and even if you still claim that the man violated her “Free Will” originally, the fact remains that if it is possible that there could exist a woman who freely loves the man, than simply making such a woman exist does not leave us in a situation in which there is any ongoing violation of “Free Will” in any sensible, functional manner. What one might object to is a sort of “personality murder”: the woman that existed previously was destroyed and replaced with a new one. The problem here, of course, is that it’s not clear how this act of “murder” differs from what happens to people naturally as they change over time with their experiences. Why are external acts by a person bad for someone, while external acts of experiences are not?In any case, that’s just scratching the surface. “Free Will” is a major stumbling point in people trying to think about choice and identity. It bears all the hallmarks of a a supernatural “anti-explanation” whose purpose is to cloud and confound rather than illuminate a deep and tricky philosophical issue.

  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew

    “(I)f you could simply turn Person A INTO an exact copy of person B, whether instantly or gradually, such that person A would retain his memories and a continuous sense of identity, but would end up being exactly whatever person B is.”Ben, I think with these examples you are conflating something as being determined from something that is being conditioned. IF we determine both A and B to be precise duplicates then we have determined that A and B would make the same decision. The actual choice that the person that we have dramatically altered is rather illusory (see the Calvinist understanding of free will here – the will is only free when it is determined for regeneration by the will of God).Blade Runner looks at this issue too. The replicants have free will and rebel even though their entire physical makeup has been determined including memories. Here is the catch with this. Even though memory and DNA have been determined, what still exists is a mental structure that is uniquely adaptive and self-transcendent as it seek to make sense of the world. To this end, both the person we change to be a perfect facsimile of another, and the replicant are determined only at a specific point in time. As development occurs, mental structures of cognition change in the process of adaptation and it is clear that this will never happen the same exact way. Studies in twins bear this out as well.This is why determinism in the psycho-physical functions of a human being cannot hold – it ignores self-transcendence in the process of continuous adaptations to experience where cognitive structures (and now there is evidence for change in physical structures as well) inevitably occur. In humans this happens far more than in any other species.To the point of James’ post here, a fantastic article by Leszek Kolakowski, “The Death of Utopia Reconsidered” focuses on this issue. To each individual consciousness the picture of perfection will always be different. The only way for utopia to be experienced collectively is therefore by eliminating this difference through force. Utopia and freedom can therefore not exist. Well, unless you are a Calvinist ;-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I seem not to have been predestined to be a Calvinist…:)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07225890125470949454 Bad

    “Ben,”Bad. :)”I think with these examples you are conflating something as being determined from something that is being conditioned.””IF we determine both A and B to be precise duplicates then we have determined that A and B would make the same decision. The actual choice that the person that we have dramatically altered is rather illusory (see the Calvinist understanding of free will here – the will is only free when it is determined for regeneration by the will of God).”I don’t agree that there is an “understanding” contained in those, or any of the doctrines of “Free Will” (the reason I capitalize and quote is to distinguish it from mere freedom TO choose, which is uncontroversial). Otherwise I’m not sure what your objection is.My point is that choices have to get made in SOME way. The idea of Free Will is essentially an endless regression to avoid having to answer what that “way” is. Once you start trying to explain how and why this or that person makes this or that choice, the very act of trying to explain it negates the claims of the concept.Thus, if B has “Free Will,” whatever it is, then turning A into B cannot result in a person that now lacks “Free Will.” Thus the objection that people cannot simply be made to be such that they willingly and freely choose to be good is baseless. I make this argument in this fashion so that it holds without needing to agree on exactly what “Free Will” is, since I maintain that it is a non-concept, a non-cognitivism. “Even though memory and DNA have been determined, what still exists is a mental structure that is uniquely adaptive and self-transcendent as it seek to make sense of the world. To this end, both the person we change to be a perfect facsimile of another, and the replicant are determined only at a specific point in time. As development occurs, mental structures of cognition change in the process of adaptation and it is clear that this will never happen the same exact way. Studies in twins bear this out as well.”Twins are not even close to philosophical identicals. But I don’t see how your point here conflicts with what I’m saying. The fact that people develop and change over time based on contingency is, as I noted, what I’m getting at. The only difference between my changing A into B and A changing into C over time based on experiences is the cause of the change. “This is why determinism in the psycho-physical functions of a human being cannot hold – it ignores self-transcendence in the process of continuous adaptations to experience where cognitive structures (and now there is evidence for change in physical structures as well) inevitably occur.”I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here. All self-transcendence seems to mean is that various aspects of a person’s character can affect and change each other: people weigh various interests against each other and so on. So? What does that have to do with “determinism” or “psycho-physical.” You can invent any sort of scenario you want in any “non-physical” (whatever that means) or “non-determinisitic” (whatever that means) frame of reference you can imagine: that doesn’t relieve you of the obligation to explain what is going on and how. “Utopia and freedom can therefore not exist. Well, unless you are a Calvinist ;-)”This argument seems decidedly flimsy. Certainly if what some people in a society want is to kill each other, then no utopia can be had. But the very existence of things like civilization and laws has demonstrated a means to harmonize both people’s values, desires, and to change the rational calculus of choices. Does this constrain people’s “Free Will”? Are people in a civilization more pod people than those outside it? I don’t see any reason to think so. What it does is that it produces people who are better to begin with, and thus freely make choices that better mesh up with everyone being happy.

  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew

    Bad…sorry…I think your response clarified things quite a bit.I think we are in general agreement and my point was mainly semantic and to push the idea more than a direct argument contra to what you were suggesting with the clarification…so…”Once you start trying to explain how and why this or that person makes this or that choice, the very act of trying to explain it negates the claims of the concept.”I don’t really follow this. If a person can choose one thing among three options, how is the concept of free will thus negated? IF we are arguing from a notion of free will in which freedom is somehow unconstrained that seems to hold. But I do not think that there is such a thing.”What it does is that it produces people who are better to begin with, and thus freely make choices that better mesh up with everyone being happy.”And what this requires is universal consent to the ideals of both the good and “happy” in order for that ideal to exist. History clearly does not bear out that such conditions benefit from a universal consent of the people in the society. If a given vision of utopia as an ideal limit of a good society is to be fully realized, to do so without constraining consent seems to be an impossibility. The question is how that consent can be adjudicated within the bounds of that ideal of the good. Perhaps I will zoom in on Kolakowski’s argument in better fashion than can be done here.BTW – my comments about Calvinism were really tongue in cheek. TULIP lacks a pragmatism to the degree that it is rather useless in principle.Cheers.


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