Lent Course 2007: Magnificat

Unit Two - Why Stuff Happens

"For He that is mighty hath magnified me; and holy is His name".

Before we take a look at the idea of motive, of why people do things, we need to take a step backwards and put this in the context of two other phenomena:

These three ‘ifs' emphasise how subject we all are to arbitrary chains of events. Our lives can completely be changed by an apparently tiny event beyond our control. Once, for pure convenience, I changed my flight schedule and avoided being on a hijacked plane!

Some people regard such chains of events as chance, as sequences which depend on random factors; others use the word fate to mean that there is some overall, hidden, plan to which they are subjected; and some others believe that everything that happens is the result of divine intention.

Because people are always trying to understand the patterns in our lives, some people think that everything is causal and so elaborate theories have been developed to explain events. The most fashionable recent theory is Catastrophe Theory which makes such propositions as: "The wings of a butterfly quiver and, halfway round the world, a year later, there is a catastrophic landslide". The attractiveness of this theory is that there is a grain of truth in it. Quite often very large events happen because some apparently stable phenomenon tips, as when you make a pile of coins and at some point an added coin causes the whole pile to topple. Catastrophe theory depends on multiple topplings.

The importance of variables is that they often cloud a clear chain of causality. A plane crashes in the jungle and the pilot survives. He is routinely breathalysed and it is established that he was well over the permitted limit of alcohol. The immediate conclusion drawn by all the media is that the crash was caused by his inability to control the plane because of the alcohol level. Much later, the analysis of the data from the recovered black box of the plane shows that there was a fatal malfunction in both engines which caused them to ignite. If the pilot had never drunk alcohol it would have made no difference. In other circumstances, if the pilot had misread his instruments or failed to react  to an alarm, matters would have been different; but in this case the alcohol level wasn't causal, it was, to use a philosophical term, contingent. In different circumstances, then, the same factor, the alcohol, could either be causal or contingent.

One of the major mistakes we make in order to make sense of our world is that we conclude that certain things are causal when they are contingent. One of the key factors in this error is the way things come in and out of our lives. So, for example, an atypical micro climate is noted over a small city. During the time it prevails there are three serious car crashes. Next day the media say that the micro climate "caused" the three crashes because nobody bothered to establish the fact that the average number of serious crashes per day for that city is three. The micro climate may or may not have accounted for the crashes, they could have been caused by it but it is far more likely that the two phenomena were contingent.

If we think about an average city, hundreds of interesting things happen every day but what makes us take notice is when two or more things happen that look as if they are connected. Going back to our plane crash for a moment (this Unit seems to be full of crashes but they are good examples of mixed causality and contingency) aircraft are designed so that they do not crash if one or two things go wrong. When three or more things go wrong this might be causal (a fire spreading) or contingent. Our politician sums this up best (it is actually a quote from Prime Minister Harold Macmillan about what ruins governments) when he talks about events beyond his control. Stuff happens!

When we enter the field of human causality we are apt to carry our unscientific baggage with us; here are three well known propositions:

There are any number of other theories to account for the way youth behaves from earlier puberty to rising disposable income. The thought behind these kind of statements is that if only we could agree on the causes we could solve the problem. So, the call might be for a more altruistic society, less permissive legislation, a Church of England initiative, restrictions on pubertal pre-teens or a drastic reduction in the rates of pocket money. The problem is, as we noted in Unit One, all these suggestions are speculative theories; they are not fully tested hypotheses or phenomena which fall within a paradigm. There are too many variables (we have only noted five) and, therefore, the resulting calls for various kinds of action are based on prejudice. Such prejudice is damaging to victims and perpetrators alike. Occasionally prejudiced solutions do solve problems - people can do the right thing for the wrong reason - but usually the failure damages everybody because the problem remains unsolved.

It is important to bear these basic ideas in mind because they will be central to our discussions in Units Four and Five. Before we allocate causes to certain kinds of collective behaviour we have to be sure that we have both collected adequate evidence and also eliminated variables.

However, the biggest variable of all is that we are all different. So let us look again at the alleged problem of youth culture, where we meet our six teenagers from Grunge Park Estate:

a) Causes.

b) Contingency.

There you have six people roaming the streets for very different reasons but because of the contingency of geography, they find themselves with other youths of their own age (all with their individual causalities) in the same place on a Friday night variously illegally consuming alcohol (sold to them by knowing shopkeepers) or narcotics (sold to them by Bill's brother).

c) Solution.

Our six situations require six different solutions:

If there is any causality at all, everybody except Phil have problems caused by their parents. We can immediately see how unhelpful it is to lump these six characters together, and their peers, and come to any solution like those outlined earlier on.

So far we have only dealt with first level causality, whether an action or pattern of behaviour in one person directly causes some action or pattern of behaviour in another person. We have not traced the causality of parental behaviour back to other causes but as this could go on almost infinitely, let us leave it there.

This sequence, however, no matter how long, is a quite separate subject from motive, the reason why people, consciously or unconsciously, do something. It is highly unlikely that Grunge Park parents were behaving in a certain way in order to drive their children onto the streets; the children's fate was a kind of collateral damage. They might even have recognised that their behaviour caused their children to spend time away from home but in all likelihood this was, whether it should be or not, marginal to their concerns. Whether it was, respectively, pursuing a grudge, escaping from a dreary life or getting the next drink or fix, the fate of their children was marginal.

The problem with this kind of complex analysis is that Pilgrim is deeply suspicious; he smells a rat. He doesn't believe in random events or coincidence. If there is a large bunch of teenagers on the street drinking lager and taking drugs then somebody has to carry the can! He wants the causes analysed and dealt with. We will look at this again in much more detail in Unit Four but the central question is whether we design our political and judicial systems to accommodate our power structure and our prejudices or whether it has an element of impartial purity.

For Christians these questions are crucial because we base our ethical code on motivation, on intention - on why people do things - and not on the outcome - on what they do. Or at least we do this at a superficial level. At a much deeper level we have to face a more fundamental set of questions about the nature of humanity and free will.

Here is the classic set of paradoxes:

'Fallen', or imperfect, human beings are given free will by an omnipotent God.

Is this so difficult that we never really come to terms with it? The people who believe most strongly in the omnipotence of God and the 'fallen' nature of humans ought logically to be most generous in forgiving faults. If, after all, we have been created as imperfect then we can't help being imperfect; and yet it is the pessimists about the wickedness of humans that are most punitive. At the other end of the scale, the people who most believe in the free will of humans, who believe that we have a large degree of control over our own actions, tend to be those who are least harsh in wanting to punish people for the wrong they have done. How can this be?

The answer is not simple but it comes down to the two different paradigms we discussed in Unit One when talking about the nature of oranges: to the pessimists, we are fundamentally imperfect and can only be improved through punishment; to the optimists, we are naturally constructive people who need encouragement. Whatever your point of view - and both have Christian traditions going back to the contrast between Paul and Luke - there is always the problem of divine omnipotence and human free will.

Having got this far, it is time to go back to our four prototypes and see how they might deal with this problem:

For once, the Preacher's standpoint is unhelpful to Christians. To say that God is omnipotent is to say nothing about the exercise of god-given human free will. At best we can say when we have made a choice that we have chosen what God knew we would choose. He knows forever that sometimes we will choose correctly, at other times incorrectly; he knows for all time that we are imperfect because that is how we were created. If we were perfect we could not choose to love God and that is why we were created. It follows from this that we should not be punished for our nature, for what we are, but only for what we consciously do that betrays God's love for us and our created purpose of loving God. In other words, we should not be punished because we are all sinners but only because we all sin. Whether or not we should impose punishments on each other for our sins or whether this is a divine prerogative is quite a different matter which we will discuss in Unit Four.

The Philosopher's answer is equally unhelpful. In theory we are in charge of our own courses of action but it is only an aspirational theory. As we will see, we have to resolve the difference between these two but in practice our two other prototypes are on the way to doing this. If we take events one at a time we are rarely, as the Pilgrim says, in control of our lives; but the Politician rightly points out that things don't happen in a tidy sequence, they overlap. Joe's parents, for example, are having interminable arguments because they have been let down by a trusted adviser. In an indirect way Joe is suffering because his parents were trying to do the right thing. Mary is roaming the streets both because her mother has changed partners but also because her new father's boss manages by fear and her mother needs to be there to support him even if this is only silently watching television. On the surface, Jane's parents have become alcoholics for economic reasons but there  are almost certainly  multi factoral reasons that can probably never be untangled. This, too is the situation in which Sam finds herself; her problems at school arise from an almost interminable number of factors. Bill likes a good fight so that when he lashes out after a couple of cans of Export we feel entitled to draw the conclusion that his is a case where the motive is clear; but he has been brought up in a household of fighters.

We should recall here the question of our Pilgrim from the Introduction, why do the wicked flourish? If Bill liked a good fight in a society dedicated to peace and harmony where competition was unknown and co-operation was the norm, we would find his behaviour curious but the truth is (see Unit One) that our genetic make-up has designed us to be competitive and this is reflected in our academic and economic structures as well as in our mating rituals. Bill is simply an extreme form of competitor from a family who have learned to survive as best they can. Is he, then, the victim of a gross hypocrisy which allows economic competition to bring extreme degradation on millions but frowns on naked, physical violence on street corners or is Bill responsible for his own actions? Is society even-handed in the way it deals with people like Bill,  or does it only frown on such violence on suburban street corners  not really caring what happens in slums?

As God made us the way we are biologically, where do we stand over the issue of competition? As we are all competitive, where do we stand on the limits to competitive behaviour?

These questions may sound a long way from our central theme of causality and motivation but they are central. The key issue is to resolve the contradiction between the preacher and the Philosopher. How much are we in control? How far are we responsible for our own actions? How far can we behave as individuals? And how far can we judge issues on their individual merits?

Having discussed these questions in broad outline we will consider them in detail in Units Four and Five; but before that that we need to complete our homework in Unit Three.