Late night metaphysics

My mom has recently remembered that she is Jewish--reminded, no doubt, by the faculty at the yeshiva she's teaching at again this year. This is cute for a variety of reasons, only some of them sacrilicious (mmmm... sacrilicious!): she wears hats and long black skirts to work, she feels the need to duck down whilst riding in the car (not driving; we don't have one of those [American] robot cars) on Shabbos if she thinks anyone she knows might see her, and she put mini-yamulkes on each of her fake dogs, including Puddin', which is her female fake dog. And cetera.

We went to Yom Kippur services on Friday night and came back and had a nice theological family discussion. I enjoy my family's discussions a lot more now that they're either about theology or how much we hate the Bush administration. The topic of free will necessarily came up, specifically in relation to the holiday and the theme of repentance. It's tough to wrap your head around repentance if you don't believe that you employed any agency in any of your actions to begin with. In fact, it's tough to reconcile traditional notions of sin with determinism, full stop. And that's where we go meta.

For the sake of the discussion, let's call whatever whatever created this universe G–d (note the holy em-dash), though I obviously have no idea whether this corresponds to any traditional notions of G–d or anyone else's conception of G–d or a mystic alpaca or the Platonic form of the number 34. Or maybe there's not a G–d, which I realize isn't actually a necessary assumption for the sake of this discussion, but isn't the concept of a mystic alpaca great?

Anyway, we're here, alive, doing stuff, though what we actually do is completely dependent on the laws of physics and our brain chemistry and all that stuff. Unless you really believe in a non-corporeal soul, but then you honestly have a lot of explaining to do, not the least of which is why this non-corporeal soul never actually manages to influence anything in the physical world, which wouldn't that be the whole point? It follows that our actions and thoughts and everything else is predetermined, and we don't have any true agency in our actions. So how could sin fit in?

Well, if one were to act in a way deemed unacceptable or dishonourable or cetera against others or yourself, that can be seen as a sin. This wouldn't be an a priori sin (and I'd argue that there aren't a priori sins), but a sin relative to a social frame of reference. You can argue that you weren't truly responsible for your actions, but that doesn't mean it your actions can't be viewed as sinful (proof: none of us are truly responsible for our actions, and yet our actions can be deemed as sinful). It's a useful construct for a number of reasons, many of the social contract-variety. Although a (depressingly large) number of people would argue that our conceptions of sin are directly informed by the judgment of G–d, this is by no means necessary--we as a society can come up with ideals of good and bad without justifying them by referencing the way G–d might feel about our actions.

While we certainly can come up with free-standing systems of morality despite the fact that we don't bear true responsibility for our actions, it's valid to question whether it's "fair" to do so. I can certainly see how passing judgment on a person with reference to a relative system of morality (for the lack of any legitimate objective system) could be construed as being unfair. My response to that criticism is that yes, the charge of unfairness might be made, but so might the charge of fairness; while "fairness" might be conceived as something separate from morality, the same concept of relative systems of fairness applies as we lack any true objective conception of fairness. More importantly, systems of morality, even if relative, are terribly useful and play a fundamental role in social interaction. So while we might (or might not) strive to make the system we adopt "just," why do they have to be "fair?"

To bring this all back to the original topic, how do you then reconcile the idea of sin with predeterminism? What I'd say is this, and if it makes any difference to anyone, this is actually how I feel: you have to adopt a frame of moral reference, with the knowledge that a) it's just one of many possible system of morality, and b) that the moral value judgments made don't bear the weight of corresponding to meta-judgments made by G–d (which follows from a), but is worth emphasizing). I'd recommend trying not to think too much about the fact that we're all just acting the way G–d wants us to act, because I think you tend towards adopting laissez-faire systems of personal morality as a result of that kind of meta-reflection, with carte-blanche to go out and do things that violate "accepted" systems of morality, such as misuse French. And while you're exactly as justified in adopting any such system of morality from a metaphysical perspective, society is exactly as justified in throwing your ass in jail from by the same reasoning.

To provide a concrete example, especially for those squeamish about moral relativism: I went to shul on Yom Kippur and read a list of various sins for which I was supposed to repent. I did not dwell on the fact that everything I did in the past year was the result of G–d's will (despite the fact that it's true), because I wanted to avoid the sociopath scenario presented in the previous paragraph, and instead told myself that there were certain things I considered wrong and others that I didn't. I "repented" for, let's say, not making the proper burnt-offering of twelve cattle, since I considered that a grievous sin, but I don't consider eating pork a sin so I didn't particularly repent for my actions having to do with food and drink for the previous year. That's reasonable, no?


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