Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Determined to have free will?

Hmmm. Trying to figure out why my previous item (on the latest anger-management guru) seems to have struck such a chord--an unprecedented 10 responses already, including a nice give-and-take between several posters. I'm particularly intrigued by the sub-theme that has emerged involving free will, personal choice, and the like. I tend to be pretty cynical in such matters, essentially subscribing to the "determinist" school of human behavior, as outlined in brief in a prior post, and fleshed out in the link therein (though I do differ with some of the conclusions drawn in that link, and I'm about as far from a Marxist as you're apt to find). I know, I know--it's an odd stance, as some acquaintances have observed, for a guy who takes the positions I appear to take in SHAM, vis-a-vis personal responsibility. Sit down with me for, oh, a few years and I'll try to resolve it all for you, if you like. (Just know in advance that no one with whom I've ever had this discussion, at any length, still talks to me. Then again, few people talk to me anyway.)

What say we try to keep this going, folks. Any other observations out there regarding free will, choice, and related matters? The relevance in a discussion of self-help--and, indeed, the self itself--should be obvious.


acd said...

I have always denied the existence of free will, but in order to argue points that relate to self-help and personal choices, one needs to separate the philosophical view from the pragmatic view. For example, if we would assume that everything is predetermined, one could argue that there is no personal responsibility because we are powerless over our fate. However, it would be a chaotic world if everyone excused their own destructive behaviors on the basis of: "I couldn't help it. My actions are predetermined." Then we could not hold anyone accountable for anything.

Therefore, I feel that if we are to discuss personal choice in the context of self-help, we would have to assume free will. Otherwise, everyone is just victims of fate and cannot take a personal hand in their self-improvement anyway. So, two discussions could evolve from here: a) one concerning only the matter of personal choice in self-help, or b) a debate over the fundamental question of fate vs. free will.

Even if we assume free will in a discussion of choice, we still revert to debating the basics, such as moral relativism, etc. There always remains that problem of establishing a few assumptions before debating the more practical issues.

acd said...

I think the illusion of free will is one of the most damaging effects of SHAM. Leaders in the self-help movement convince people that they have the power to shape their lives however they want and can achieve anything they put their mind to. Then, as people are bound by certain inevitable limitations and ultimately fail at attaining their unrealistic aspirations, they are worse off than before.

Achieving a state of contentment entails knowing that not literally anything and everything is possible. It's just a matter of simple reason.

Anonymous said...


First let me touch on the determinism. For some rational reason(s) you have chosen to accept the percepts of determinism. That's fine. But you had to CHOOSE. That means you were presented with two ideologies, X or Y, determinism or free will. You, probably without being strong-armed, decided the a determinism made the most sense, but you still had to exercise your will to choose one over the other.

SHAM gurus distort free-will ideology and puff it with gradiosity. You say, "achieving a state of contentment entails knowing that not literally anything and everything is possible." And, I think Salerno says the same is absolutely true--it's an alsolute like gravity that I elluded to previously.

I think handicap people like myself truly understand the limitations that we live with daily. So, many of us truly understand that no amount of self-determination will ever propel me to something great. Ain't gonna
happ'n! For example, I have cerebral palsy that affects my right hand. No amount of aspiration will ever compensate my inability to write or type with my right hand. That's a limitation.

So, if we are speaking about biological limitation as determinism toward acheivement, I agree.

What we have to do is do what we are good at. I'm good at three things, so I do them. One as a hobby, two I us to pay the bills. And I'm content in that, but the desire to do better still burns inside me and pricks me on.

It is this pricking in each of us that the SHAM gurus, and might I add to that tele-evangelists who use SHAM tactics, to feed our desire for more. More happiness, more contentment, more money, more people who like us.

Contentment is an interesting point, and one worthy of deeper examination.

acd said...

First of all, I didn't choose to believe in determinism. That in itself is determined, as definitely as if there were a gene in humans that controlled which stance a person took and I were to have a gene that encoded the belief in determinism. Whether it's nature or nurture, it's all determined. See, this is where pragmatism and philosophy clash. Yes, practically speaking, I made a "choice," but philosophically (and truthfully) it was determined, and thus was not a free choice of mine.

As for the issue of contentment, this discussion warrants a look at motivation, which is something Salerno certainly addresses quite often. Personally, I believe that some motivation is required. Otherwise, one could stay in a permanent state of absolute contentment: perfectly happy with where they are even if they could do better. I do not believe that motivation alone drives people to success. Self-help gurus would have you believe otherwise. I have no problem with the idea of a "desire to do better." It's just necessary to acknowledge limitations and remain realistic. Indeed, SHAM will encourage people to believe that they are worse off than they are, or simply imply that no matter how good their lives are, they could be infinitely better.

It's all about moderation. Be content, yet allow for improvement. Try to do better, but don't expect to master everything you set out to do.

Anonymous said...

"Be content, yet allow for improvement. Try to do better, but don't expect to master everything you set out to do."

That is a worthwhile thought. Fortunately for you and I--Salerno too--I hope--we intuitively understand this.

The determinism vs. free will argument is debate from antiquity that far great minds have attempted to tackle and resolve, alas to no avail.

I will forever firmly pop my tent in the free will camp, while yours will be tied down with the determinist's.

And that doesn't make you a bad person :) (writing tongue-in-cheek).

As the voice over guy says in the Motel 6 commercial, "we'll keep the light on for you."

In the meantime, I haven't paid the attention due my other writing. and work. But this has been fruitful.

Steve, wherever you are in Allentown, PA. That was a good coversation and a nice diversion from my weekly load of research writing. After Thanksgiving, I'll read and, hopefully, comment more.

By the way, SHAM is the talk around my office.

Anonymous said...

maybe it's me but, though i like this blog in general, i don't get this whole argument here, which reminds me of the old thing about angels and the head of a pin. what difference does it make whether the things we think of as "choices" are really predetermined acts? in either case we're going to do what we end up doing anyway aren't we? these kinds of discussions are a waste of productive time. stick to dr. phil and such...

acd said...

I understand what you're saying. That's what I meant about separating the pragmatic and philosophical. In the context of self-help, we should keep it on a more practical level. I was just saying that it's easy to get into more fundamental arguments because in explaining a point of view, one may make assumptions that another may disagree with, such as the idea that we are truly making our own choices, etc.

We still had some productive discussion though, concerning notions of limitations, motivation, contentment, and the like. So feel free to weigh in on some of those more practical matters, if it should please you.

Anonymous said...

So, what does Steve himself think of all this?

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that we have drifted onto notions of limitations, motivation, and contentment. All of these seem to be more common sense notions than grandiose ideas that self-help gurus preach.

So why do so many people buy into the SHAM? Well, I think the answer is very simple.

Our development (maturing, coming of age) whatever you want to call it is chaotic. At times, I can see the determinist's pragmatic perspective that there's stuff that happens that we cannot control.

And it seems to me that until we become mature enough to begin making our own life decisions, and until we become comfortable in our own skin, life is full of unanswered questions.

Let's talk motivation.

I'll admit that once, many years ago, I purchased Dr. Phil's Life Strategies book. I was in a time of my life where I needed answers to tough questions and I had no body to turn to.

At the time, Dr. Phil made sense to me. Take for example his Life Law (1) "You either get it or you don't."

Not bad advice for a twenty-something who just bombed his first job as a journalist. Obviously, I concluded that after busting my chops at newspaper reporting, I just didn't get it. One the other side of the coin, I learned quickly that working with PR folk piqued my interest. Four years later, I'm finishing an MA in Communications and have more PR work than I can possible handle. And, I love it--I guess I get it.

So what's so bad about that?

How about Dr. Phil's Life Law #6: There is no reality; only perception.

There is a whole philosophical canon dedicates to just this topic. And, there is quite a lot of truth to #6.

I am building an MA thesis on perception, motivation and root-metaphors as they can be used in PR.

If Dr. Phil is a quack on reality and perception so was Dr. Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, his American counterpart, and also every inch of marketing and advertising research found on three continents.

If anyone with Dr. Phil's 10 life laws by their side would like to discuss them, I'm open.

I'll work late on my other stuff.

Jen said...

"Sit down with me for, oh, a few years and I'll try to resolve it all for you, if you like. (Just know in advance that no one with whom I've ever had this discussion, at any length, still talks to me. Then again, few people talk to me anyway.)"

Oh, yeah. This I can relate to, Steve. I don't know what the value of commenting on a post you wrote almost three years ago might be, but just wanted to say you are in good company here.

Oddly enough, timing being the thing it is, someone with whom I'd lost touch (and the lost touch was grievous in some respects) is all of a sudden making her presence known in my life again. In other words, she's talking to me when the last words we shared were unproductive and difficult ones. Free will figures in prominently here, and determination, too. I think she and I were "determined" to make our respective statements and at the same time refuse to bend in each other's direction enough to work out a dialogue that could have 1) saved the friendship and 2) helped resolve the very real problem that went unaddressed.

Sorry to be so vague, but this topic is relevant for me right now.