Sunday, September 07, 2008

GAHP 6*: Wherein Harry Is Sorted and We Consider the Question of Determination and the Smell of Asparagus Pee

The last thing Harry saw before the hat dropped over his eyes was the hall full of people craning to get a good look at him. Next second he was looking at the black inside of the hat. He waited.
'Hmm,' said a small voice in his ear. 'Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either. There's talent, oh my goodness, yes - and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that's interesting...So where shall I put you?'
Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, 'Not Slytherin, not Slythern.'
'Not Slytherin, eh?' said the small voice. 'Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it's all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that - no? Well, if you're sure - better be GRYFFINDOR!'
-Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, 90-91
Sometimes, just as a conversation starter, I like to ask people if their pee smells after they eat asparagus. I'm not sure if you know this or not but eating asparagus produces a bizarre little chemical reaction in human beings that makes our urine smell strange. The really funny thing about this is that not all human beings have the ability to smell this particular odor. I'm told it's a genetic thing.** Wikipedia appears to agree.

I bring this up because it has been my experience that people in Western culture are under the impression that their lives are in their own hands. So many of us think of ourselves as free, as self-determined, as the agents of our own greatness or folly. But here's the thing: not all of us can smell aspargus pee. Not all of us can roll our tongues into little tubes. Not all of us can see. Not all of us can walk. Not all of us can run 100 meters in under 10 seconds. No matter what anyone ever tells you, you are genetically determined. There are things that are, and are not, possible for you.

The idea of determination is important to theology. Theologians don't usually speak in terms of genetic determination but in terms of calling and election and the will of God. The cliche theological terms are Calvinism and Arminianism but the debate between people who believe our lives are pre-determined and people who believe that we have free will is far older than John Calvin and Joseph Armin. More than a millenium earlier Augustine and Pelagius were having the same argument. Let's see if we can summarize the oldest debate in Christian theology in a couple of sentences.

Classical theism (aka Calvinism. Though equating the two is pretty inacurate it will serve our purposes here.) holds that God is completely perfect, all-powerful, unchangeable and that he knows all things. Consequently, if God is these things then all things that occur on earth must, by definition and logical necessity, serve his purposes. Thus, at the level of the individual, everything you ever have done or ever will do is a product of the will of God. Free-will theism (aka Arminianism, same caveat) holds that God is perfect, all-powerful, and all knowing. In contrast to Classical theism, however, the Free-will theist holds that though God knows the future and has the ability to bring about his will, he consciously allows his creation to make decisions that are contrary to his will.

Back to Harry and the Sorting Hat. Those of us who have read the entire series (which I assume at this point is pretty much every human being on Earth) know some things about Harry that Harry does not yet know. We know about his heritage. We know that, amusingly enough, he is actually a direct descendant of Salazar Slytherin. Even more interesting we know that a fragment of the soul of one of the most powerful Slytherins ever resides within Harry. Harry is also a pure-blooded wizard. Harry is also a parselmouth. All of these things mean that Harry not only meets the requirements to get into Slytherin, he's actually a perfect fit. But, as Dumbledore will later point out, Harry chooses to become something other than a Slytherin. There is a degree to which Harry's life has been determined. His heritage, his history, his very abilities, all conspire to remove his ability to decide which course he will take. And this determination is not merely theoretical. All of the most important things that make Harry who he is and help to present him with the choices and situations he will face in his life are the product of someone else's decisions. Harry's life has been predetermined, his course has been set, his choices have already been taken away from him. And yet he decides all the same.

You see though we are all of us determined, whether genetically or historically or perhaps even theologically, that determination is not complete. That some of our options have been limited does not mean that all of our options have been eliminated. In what ways are we limited and in what ways are we free? I haven't the faintest clue.

I do, however, like Harry's example. Determined or not I want to live as though I have a choice. If God has predetermined my actions, then so be it and I'm sure he'll take responsibility when the time for that sort of thing comes. But as far as I'm able I think it's important that I live as someone who is responsible before God for his own actions. I think it's important to live as though I have a choice until a situation arises where I really don't.

Are our lives pre-determined? Of course they are, in a great many ways. But, to be frank, I really don't see what that has to do with whether or not I make the right choices in my life. I say, live responsibly, as though you have a choice. If it turns out in the end that you didn't, then who the hell cares anyway right?

*I realize that I skipped GAHP 5. As I've mentioned to a couple of my readers privately I really do want to do a GAHP post about Harry's entrance into the Wizarding World and the idea of conversion but I just can't seem to get my head around the ideas involved. I guess I'm holding the 5 slot in case some day I can get that post right. We'll see.
**For the record, yes I can smell my asparagus pee.


Chris said...

Wow, well put together argument. I believe that may be one of the better put explanations for where I land on the whole determination/free will debate. It's nice to have a fried who, as Casey Affleck's character says in GWH, "is wicked smart".

Colin Toffelmire said...

Hahaha, I'm glad you thought so. I still think it's kind of a meandering and confusing mess but it's always good to know that you've explained yourself better than you thought you did :). Cheers buddy.

Oh and the equation of you with Affleck and me with Damon is so wildly innacurate it's hilarious. Mostly cause I'm not, in any way, smarter than you at all. But thanks all the same.

Hey, you still doing master's work? Know where yet?

Chris said...

Yep, Taking a few by corespondance through both Regent and acts this semester as I try to convince the admissions department that I am more capable than my GPA from my undergrad might suggest.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Haha, yes the cursed undergrad GPA. I think it hurt me pretty badly in my phd apps.

Colleen said...

Hey Colin, I really liked this post. I've thought so much about this very subject over the years and its amazing how much my opinions about it have changed (like a pendulum, really... from one extreme to the total opposite). But, I loved what you had to say.
I googled GWH to figure it out and am assuming you guys are talking about Good Will Hunting (although it was Ben, not Casey in the movie). :o)
Thanks for this post.

Colin Toffelmire said...

It was Good Will Hunting, and it's actually both Ben and Casey.

Which actor is more talented? Survey says....CASEY!! Mostly because his big brother is a talentless hack who's only ever been in one really good movie, and it was Good Will Hunting.

And thanks :).

Tara said...

I love Harry Potter.

And I'm jealous you get to be in school ... still...

And my gpa ROCKED. I totally kicked you boys' asses.

Good thing my kid's check my gpa a lot to see if I qualify to change their diapers and feed them lunch.

tee hee.