Sunday, July 31, 2011

Lost in the Big Picture

There was something I started to add to yesterday's post, decided it was best to hold off, and I'm glad I did because it gave me something to write about this morning. It concerns the treatment given free will in The Adjustment Bureau. In this film, the caseworkers (see 7/30/11) tell Matt Damon's character they've taken over managing human affairs because we've botched the job whenever they've given us the opportunity to do otherwise. To justify their position, they refer to our darkest and worst times, e.g. the Holocaust in Europe during the 1930s and 40s.

Their approach is similar to the one I've heard used as an objection to theism, the idea that God is personal (may be engaged in relational terms) and more specifically, to Christianity. If an all-powerful God exists and this God is good, then how could such a being permit ______ (you fill in the blank)? The implication is we humans at least possess good intentions and if we could prevent vile things from occurring, we would.
Therefore, presence of evil indicates God either does not exist or s/he is not good. If God merely lacks the power to act, s/he is not of much use and frankly, I'd agree. Most gods are too small, anyway.

But what if evil is a matter of opinion and the problem lies in perception? Well, to really qualify as evil and not simply as bad or inconvenient, something has to be so bad that any conceivable world would be a better one without it. Famine, pestilence, and environmental degradation strike me as good examples. Things that have the potential to bring about irreversible damage, rendering life less tenable. Evil has to be more than semantics, otherwise we're just playing word games.

Now, back to the caseworkers. They cheat because they paint our misuse of free will in broad strokes, blaming us for the Big Evils while conveniently ignoring the little ones. If they're really nudging and guiding us along to fulfill the intentions of The Plan like they say they are, why do we hurt each other so often? What about the fellow who robs a little old lady on the street or guns down an innocent bystander in a shoot out with police? I know, they said there aren't enough of them to ensure chance events don't happen once in a while, but they also said those occasions are generally insignificant. If that's true, who's minding the store the rest of the time? If they're doing the nudging and we only think we possess free will, then it seems to me we're off the hook. We've got one massive King's X when it comes to being blameworthy and they've got some serious explaining to do.

For me, what it comes down to is, either I'm free to be a bastard or God or the Devil make me act like one. Maybe I'm slow on the uptake, but I don't see a whole lot of other options. True, how could I know if someone else was directing my actions, particularly if I never saw or had any communication with them? I'd have to be able to stand outside myself, observe my behavior, and measure it against some relatively objective standard, to say whether or not I was acting on my own or as a puppet. And in fact, isn't that what we do when we call someone into court, compare their actions to lawful ones, and then decide innocence or guilt with whatever objectivity we can muster? Even if free will turns out to be a fiction, we have to presume it is not, if we're going to hold each other accountable for our actions.

Black and white turns interminably gray at this point because none of us are as free as we would like to be or as would like to think we are. Personal baggage, unconscious or not, influences decisions and behavior, and it's the recognition of this fact that forms the basis for mercy. Extenuating circumstances, errors in judgment, simple stupid mistakes, are part of life and perfection is a far off ideal for most of us. The caseworkers got lost in the big picture; grace is found in the pixals. Enough of them and you've got a snapshot, but you have to see them to see the whole story. I guess it takes a human to do that.

(Creative Commons image entitled "Angel" by just Luc via Flickr)

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