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Friday, September 27, 2013

A Critical Review of Ian A. McFarland's In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, Part 5: Misleading distinctions

This is the fifth post in a series. Please use the navigation guide if you want to check out previous posts. In this post we will explore the relationships between human nature, the individual, desire, and causation. This may seem like an odd combination of topics, but we must examine them together in order to evaluate a key argument of McFarland's properly.

In the previous post I laid out what I believe is a more adequate account of human desire than that presented in McFarland's book. The final implication of that account is that an individual human's desires are caused by complex interactions between her genes, environment, development, perceptions, and prior brain and body states. McFarland, on the other hand, attempts to detach human "willing" and desire from the web of cause/effect. In fact, this is one of the key goals of the book. If he fails, his entire theory crashes to the ground. In this post I intend to prove that he fails, but first we must understand his argument more precisely.

Throughout the book McFarland describes the current human condition as "fallen." It needs to be pointed out immediately this and related expressions are nothing more than a dead holdover of traditional theological language. McFarland does not believe in an historical fall, collective or individual, even though he knows that by giving up on an historical fall he is boxing himself into a tight corner. As he points out, traditional theology about the fall served an important theodical purpose, namely, it protected God from the charge that he made us sinners. According to the traditional approach, God created us good, but we ended up as sinners due to a primordial act of sin by our first parents. Even though we all now sin because we are sinners, we all ended up as sinners because at one point a non-sinner committed the first sin and by some mechanism we all share in the resulting guilt, alienation from God, corruption of character, suffering, and death. McFarland rejects this approach. He raises objections against every variant of the theory of an historical fall. Traditional views that original sin is the result of an act of "Adam" and/or "Eve's" are made unbelievable by modern discoveries about evolution and the internal inconsistencies of each variant approach (pp. 35-39, 148-153). His criticism of these views strikes not only against many traditional theologies but also against a straightforward reading of Biblical texts such as Genesis 2-3 and Romans 5. He proposes no alternative reading of the texts or doctrine of Scripture. I find that odd, given that he often treats Biblical texts elsewhere in the book with the respect -- or naivete -- of a fundamentalist. Be that as it may, he has no more sympathy for modern theories of original sin that suggest the "fall" is an individual experience brought about by nature and/or nurture. These fall short either because they fail to take account of the universality and inevitability of sin or end up identifying the created order as the source of human sinfulness. (See especially pp. 39-48, as well as 144, 154). Although he does not say so explicitly, it is fairly clear from his failure to advance an alternative view of an historical fall that he believes there never was a time when human beings, individually or collectively, were not sinners. Therefore, on McFarland's theory human beings are not "fallen," strictly speaking, because there was nothing to "fall" from. He is well aware that taking this approach appears to expose him even more to the criticism that his theory of original sin makes God the origin of human sinfulness, as in, we sin because God created us sinners. McFarland spends the better part of chapters 4-6 advancing an argument to resist this conclusion.

Here I will try my level best to give a fair outline of his argument. It starts with a three-sided distinction between "nature" and "hypostasis." They differ as type to example, innate characteristics to developed character, and structure to mode. Human nature is that set of characteristics that all human beings share in common, whereas hypostasis refers to each human being's individuality, that which sets her apart from every other human being, that which makes her an "I." Human nature refers to that set of qualities with which we are born and so have no role in producing or developing ourselves, whereas "hypostasis" refers to the individual as an agent who plays an active role in everything she experiences. Finally, nature refers to the invariant structure of each individual being's bodily and psychic existence, whereas "hypostasis" refers to a specific way of expressing that nature, much as each chemical element has a (relatively) invariant atomic structure but can exist in various states depending on the temperature of its immediate surroundings. The facility or capacity to act on desires, which we commonly call "will" is part of human nature. But it is also that part of human nature that expresses each person's individuality and by which each of us comes to own and take responsibility for our actions. In regard to original sin, "damage" is applicable to human nature but "sinfulness" is only applicable to a human person ("hypostasis"). In other words our human nature is "damaged" in such a way that when an individual with this damaged nature exercises her will, she inevitably commits sin. But it is wrong to conclude that damage to human nature causes an individual to sin. Rather, since the individual has a will her acts are voluntary. Even though she cannot help but sin, all her sins are performed willingly and therefore she must take responsibility for them. To put it another way, humans act wrongly because our desires are perverse, and our desires are perverse because we are the kinds of people who have perverse desires, namely sinners. How we came to have these perverse desires is a mystery, an unanswerable question that is really beside the point anyway. Since we are responsible for our own deeds, we can never fully explain them by reference to any combination of external factors. Ultimately, each of us does what she does because she wants to do it.

McFarland repeats this argument in whole or in part on pp. 126-131, 144-147, 154-161, and 184-187. Each of these sections is meant to stress a specific part of his overall argument and adds some detailed observations in support of his position, especially the middle two sections. Also, it is important to note that McFarland's overall framework is derived from his analysis of the implications of the dyothelite Christology of the third Council of Constantinople as expounded by Maximus the Confessor. He argues that Jesus himself had a fallen human nature and yet was sinless because as an individual (his "hypostasis") he was none other than the second person of the Trinity. Being at once God and human, his human will was "deified" or "glorified" (perfected by direct exposure to the fullness of God) and so conformed perfectly to the divine will. McFarland uses this framework to separate "damage" to human nature from "sin" by human individuals. Jesus was as damaged as we are, yet he committed no sin. Therefore, there is no causal relationship between the damaged nature and the sinful individual. Of course, we are not divine persons and do not have "deified" wills. Lacking that direct communion with God we as individuals express what is in our damaged human nature and so we inevitably sin (See chapters 4 and 5).

I have much to say in criticism of this argument, but first I would like to give McFarland a chance to explain himself in some detail. Here is one version of McFarland's argument in full. It occurs in the context of his discussion of Jesus Christ's having a deified human will:

In order to see how this understanding of Christ's person does not fall into a Docetism according to which his material existence was only a sort of divine play-acting, it is necessary to attend to the peculiarity of the will among all the components of human nature. The deification of the body involves transformation of its physical properties in order to render it incapable of suffering and death. By contrast (and as Maximus takes pains to insist), to speak of Christ's will as deified does not imply any such structural alteration: as a piece of human nature, the deified will differs from the non-deified will only in its relationship to God (i.e., in its mode of operation). This difference reflects the ontologically odd status of the will as the feature of human nature that gives this nature a kind of open-ended indeterminacy. This is not because our wills allow us to determine or to override our natures. To argue that way would be precisely to succumb to the Pelagian understanding of the will as some sort of ontological reserve standing over against human nature rather than as part of it. The will is not a power we have over our natures (since we will what we desire, and we do not control what we desire), but rather identifies the fact that we live out our nature as agents who (and to be an agent is precisely to be a "who") are always implicated in our nature in a way that makes it impossible to view it as simply given. In short, human nature's open-endedness is a function of the fact that a human being is someone rather than something, and thus not adequately or fully described in terms of what she is.

The phenomenon of sin further displays the ontological oddity of the will. As both Maximus and Thomas agree, human beings hunger, grow tired, experience fear in the face of danger, and the like because these phenomena are natural consequences of material embodiment that cannot be altered except by the wholesale transformation of human bodies through the resurrection. They are, in other words, ontologically determinate features of human being under conditions of earthly existence prior to glory and, as such, constitute the determinate "whatness" of our nature in time and space. By contrast (and following the Augustinian insight that human willing follows desire), the reason human beings sin is that their desires are perverse. But when it comes to explaining why those desires are perverse, the only answer that can be given is, "Because we are sinners" -- that is, in terms of the "whoness" (or, in the language of classical theology, the individual hypostasis) -- that is the mark of a created nature with a will. In this way (and as a further example of the correlation of will with human nature's open-endedness), the will, as that aspect of my nature (i.e., my whatness) where my status as agent (i.e., my whoness) is revealed, discloses a limit on all attempts to account for my being solely in terms of what I am (i.e., my nature). (pp. 126-127)

This excerpt illustrates two fundamental problems with McFarland's argument. First, with his distinction between "nature" and "hypostasis" he employs a false conception of individuation. Second, his attempts to exempt "willing" human action from the web of cause/effect -- outside of a person's own inner desires -- all fail. I will address the first problem in the rest of this post and tackle the second in my next post.

McFarland tells us that "nature" and "hypostasis" are "Chalcedonian categories," which I guess means that he intends the terms in accordance with their use by the theologians of that and immediately following generations. (For those who may not know, the Council of Chalcedon was a church council formed to settle a dispute over the relation between the divinity and humanity of Jesus. It issued a confession in 451 CE. that Jesus has both a divine and human nature united in one "hypostasis" (person) without mixture or compromise of the attributes of either nature.) I do not have enough knowledge of how 4th and 5th century theologians used these terms (more precisely their Greek and Latin equivalents) to make any comments about that. Instead, given that McFarland is working with concepts that arise in a very unfamiliar intellectual environment, I will try to map his use of them to what appear to me to be equivalent modern concepts employed in the sciences and see how his argument holds up under that light. We can start by acknowledging that each of McFarland's distinctions has at least some validity. The genetic code all humans are born with marks us out as a distinct species and structures our bodies and minds. This common code accounts for the the common set of characteristics that gets the label "human nature." But we are also born with variations in our genetic code that distinguish us from other human beings, some of which we may share with others, such as "females," "pygmies," and "people carrying the recessive gene for type 1 diabetes." As we add up these genetic variations in the genome of a single human being, the number of others who share the same combination of variations shrinks until we have a list of variations so specific that it matches only one human being. Clearly, then, each of us is born not just with a given human nature, but with a nature specific to ourselves. Some of these variations are known or very likely to be a major or even the dominant or sole factor in the development of a characteristic that will profoundly shape our personality and relationships without dramatic post-natal inverventions. Clinical depression and psychopathic personality come to mind almost immediately. This is hardly news and wouldn't need to be mentioned except that McFarland underplays it.

Compare this to the following statement found on p. 187:

Hypostasis is irreducible to nature, as the mode (tropos) in which the nature subsists. In this context, it is important to remember that the constitutive features of human nature (whatever these may be supposed to include) are by definition those features that all human beings have in common. As that dimension of human being that is irreducible to nature, hypostasis is an anomalous category: all human beings are hypostases, yet because the hypostasis refers precisely to the distinctiveness of each individual human being, it is misleading to speak of it as something common to all human beings. On the contrary, it refers to that which cannot be defined (e.g., in terms of its properties or capacities), but only named as an unrepeatable particular.
Here McFarland's distinctions come into conflict with one another. If "nature" is what each of us is born with, then it cannot be defined merely as "human nature," because that is just an abstraction for the characteristics we share in common. Since we are also born with characteristics that distinguish us from other humans, these inborn characteristics must be ... part of our "hypostasis?" But then, how can McFarland say the hypostasis is indefinable? OK, then, these unique inborn characteristics must be part of our nature, which conforms with my observations above. McFarland errs, then, by failing to account for the specificity of our inborn nature.

Furthermore, McFarland's description of human nature as "open-ended" in the first quote above is problematic. This characterization is based on a passage earlier in the book in which he reflects on the nature of Jesus's obedience to the will of God expressed in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, "not my will but yours be done." On pp. 98-99 he says, "...Maximus' answer rests on making a distinction between what is natural to human will (in this case, avoidance of death) and the movement of the same will inasmuch as it is 'wholly deified' and thus fixed immovably on God. ...the movement from rejection of the cup to its acceptance illustrates a progression from human nature as it operates according to its own powers and nature that, as enabled to transcend those powers through grace, fulfils [sic] the particular calling of the individual within God's wider plan for deified humanity." McFarland concludes from Maximus' interpretation that via the will's obedience to God's call, an individual human being can perform acts that go beyond her natural capacities (i.e., without God's grace she would never do them.) In that sense, human nature is "open-ended." And if a person can go beyond her natural capacities in obedience to the call of God, we cannot say that human nature causes our behavior. Let's leave aside for the moment doubts about the historical veracity of the temptation in the garden and focus on Maximus's claim that Jesus's willingness to go to his death went beyond the natural capacities of human beings. How does he know this? Given the number of people over the course of human history who have gone to their deaths willingly to save others' lives or in defense of an ideal, it seems that McFarland will have to engage in some special pleading to defend Maximus's definition of human nature. Of course, McFarland can always claim that all these instances were in response to the action of God's gracious calling. On what basis can he make this claim?

What can we say about our "hypostases?" Obviously a great deal, and most of us are more than happy to elaborate! Given the fact that each of us is born to a specific pair of human parents at a specific time and place and go on to trace a unique history on the universe in which we live, it is hard to see how any of us "cannot be defined." On the contrary, we would need a massive library to contain a complete description of a single human being. Of course, no human being has ever been fully defined in this way; it is simply beyond our capabilities. McFarland could point out that if we live eternally it will be impossible to ever complete the definition anyway. But I don't think that's what McFarland had in mind in the first place. He really needs an indefinable "hypostasis," because indefinable is also indeterminate, i.e., outside the realm of cause/effect. This is in contrast with the "determinate 'whatness' of our nature" that he mentions in the first quote above and in comparison with the "open-endedness" due to our having a "will." By the way, on p. 139, note 52, McFarland tells us that "hypostasis" refers to "the whole human being, body and soul," not just the aspects of a human being that make her unique. I bring this up merely to illustrate that in order to keep the formation and exercise of individual character clear of cause/effect relationships with the rest of the natural world McFarland can't hew consistently to his own definitions.

What else can we say about our "hypostases?" Being an individual human being does not, in and of itself, implicate one's "will" in everything that happens to her. This is an implication of the fact that the fundamental distinguishing mark of an individual is her body. This is also so obvious that it hardly needs mentioning, except that McFarland downplays it. On p. 106 he acknowledges that our individuality is also marked out by our bodies (and minds), but this observation bears no fruit in his broader argument. McFarland might say in response that he focuses on the "will" because it marks each of us out as an individual agent, which is critical for his argument about our responsibility for "original sin." Trouble is, he ends up confusing individual experience with individual responsibility. To illustrate, consider this more correct analysis of McFarland's sweating example. When I say, "I am sweating" I am not implicitly confessing a crime, even if as a result I feel embarassed or guilty. Rather, I am simply acknowledging that the body that is sweating is the same body that noticed the sweating. I own my sweating because the sweat droplets formed on my skin, and as they cooled and dropped the temperature on my skin, they kicked off nervous impulses that reached my brain and generated the sensuous experience of coolness and wetness which I virtually instantaneously recognize as a part of the experience of my body's sweating. When other bodies sweat, my body, i.e., I, do not have these experiences. Not only is my body what I am, without remainder -- to borrow a phrase that appears later in McFarland's book -- it is also for the most part who I am. My thoughts are mine because they occur in my brain, which is located in my head. When other people think, I do not experience their thoughts as occurring in my head, and so on. None of this self-identifying language logically implies that I, that is, my body, desires or "wills" to have these experiences, even experiences I, that is, my body, actively contributed to having. Furthermore, this conclusion is not only not compromised by phenomena such as split personality or the "alien hand" syndrome experienced by some individuals with brain injuries, they underscore it. We know that our experience of a unified consciousness, an "I," is not only more fragile than our bodies but can and has been manipulated and disrupted by brain injuries, sickness, medications, and artificial stimulation. When a person experiencing "alien hand" syndrome sees her hand moving without consciously intending to make it move, she does not say, "That's not my hand." She says, "Someone else is moving my hand!" McFarland may object that the physical damage to such an individual's brain says nothing about the situation of the "will" in a normal individual, but I respectfully disagree. For one thing the experience of this type of person simply underlines the primacy of body awareness for our sense of self. Second, the experience of alien hand is a "canary in the coal mine" type of phenomenon. How many other activities in which we are engaged appear to our conscious minds to be motivated by some conscious desire or decision but in fact are motivated by an entirely unconscious process?

It is ironic that McFarland works so hard to separate "hypostasis" from causality; when you think of it, of all the places to look for cause/effect activity the first place we would pick is a concrete situation. After all, no abstract concept causes another abstract concept to do anything. Causation takes place on the level of individual real objects in the world, not between concepts in our brains, or at least that is what we intend by the language. To speak of causation operating on the level of human nature but not on the level of an "hypostasis" is absurd. In response McFarland may concede the point when it comes to events affecting an individual's body, but claim that at the core of her personality the fact that she has a "will" prevents us from ascribing her behavior solely to external causes. Part of McFarland's justification for this claim is his view that humans are basically "rational," which I refuted here. The other key part of this claim is an argument from human experience. McFarland states it most clearly and succinctly here: "... because the will is the faculty in and through which I recognize my own agency, I can never coherently dissociate any defect in my willing from my agency." (p. 160) Since the "will" is intimately linked to desire, it further follows that I can't dissociate any defect in my desires from my agency. Finally, this experience of agency rules out the possibility that any of my desires can be caused exclusively by factors external to my "will." McFarland never justifies this last claim. It is true that our experience of ourselves as agents leads many of us to conclude that external causes cannot fully account for our behavior/desires, etc, but our experience could be misleading. I already suggested the evolutionary value of this belief; that in no way implies that it is a correct belief. We are not self-conscious all the way down. As McFarland himself acknowledges, it is adaptive for us not to have exhaustive knowledge of our own body's functioning. Our own motives are also partly hidden from us. What is more, it is not just our motives that are partly hidden from us; it is also the bodily and external events that give rise to these motives that are often at least partly hidden from us. For that reason, our experience of ourselves as agents is not a sufficient basis upon which to rule out that our desires, even those that we consciously experience and base our decisions upon, are caused by one or more non-personal factors.

Pardon me, reader, for going on at such length on this issue. In the next post we will examine McFarland's account of causation in detail.

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