Volume > Issue > The Secular Mind I: Determinism

The Secular Mind I: Determinism


By Robert Coles | September 1987

I am fairly sure that it is Robert Bellah (I have admired his work, his kind of moral and religious analysis, for many years) who took careful stock of 20th-century secular thinking in the industrial, cosmopolitan West and came up with certain important aspects of that thinking — a cast of mind that has four parts: determinism, positivism, reductionism, and relativism. When I first saw them linked that way I marveled: what an astute and knowing person can do with that amorphous phenomenon known as a “culture”! To this day I think of that foursome as I read the papers and magazines, listen to writers and professors talk, and watch television or the movies. Most definitely we all learn certain assumptions about this world as we move from grade to grade in school, thence work our way through college and beyond — learn how to think about others, about history, about human personality, about the world of nature and man. Let me, in this piece, and in three others to follow [in the Nov. 1987, Dec. 1987, and Jan.-Feb. 1988 issues], call upon Bellah’s quartet as I have encountered its workings in the course of my own secular life.

From the first days of my exposure to the social sciences in college, to psychiatry in medical school and in the residencies I took, and to psychoanalysis in a psychoanalytic institute, I was taught that there is far less freedom for the mind than ordinary people care to acknowledge. Again and again I was reminded that our thoughts and actions, our beliefs and habits, our interests and inclinations — they are all “conditioned” by various “forces,” or they are all the “result” of particular “drives” exerting themselves, or “conflicts” expressing themselves. By the time one has taken biology and physiology and sociology, and courses in psychoanalytic theory, one has little regard for the notion of free will or spontaneity of feeling, let alone for a conviction that is based on mere reason or on a thoughtful explanation of a particular issue. Genes determine not only how we look, but how (to some extent) our brain works, so neurobiologists remind us. We acquire all sorts of reflexes, the experimental psychologists tell us — as explicated by so-called “conditioning and learning theory.” We are constantly buffeted by our instincts; their struggle for expression, some psychoanalytic theorists would have it, constitutes the essence of our thinking, feeling, and dreaming life. Indeed, my sitting at a desk writing these words is but a reflection of various psychological struggles which have been “worked out” by me in such a fashion that — well, among other things, I write this “Harvard Diary,” and on and on.

I don’t think what I have just asserted comes as a big surprise to many who have learned their school lessons well. The surprise may come when we meet someone whose ideas about human thought and action differ from ours. I remember, for instance, the black woman I met in a small Alabama town in 1963, who told me that when she spoke about certain moral and religious matters, and did so before segregationist mobs ready to kill her, she felt the voice of God rising from deep within her. What was someone like me, trained to think as I had been (talking about “determinism”!) to make of such a description and claim? Think of her as ignorant, as fatuous, as superstitious, even as a bit delusional? What was I to make of the man I met in South Africa, poor and black, who put himself between the police and a group of children, and told those heavily armed men (their guns were drawn) to fire away, to kill him — only spare the boys and girls, most of them under 10? What to conclude as I went from home to home, among ordinary American working men and women, heard their descriptions of the long, hard days at work, heard their accounts of obligations, debts, responsibilities, doubts, worries, disappointments — and still, the labor, the hope, not to mention the small, daily moments of consideration for one another, for strangers as well?

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