Thursday, August 17, 2006

I guess I was just driven to write this post.

Today I read with interest the lead feature in my local paper, The Morning Call. It concerns Greg Hogan, the Lehigh University student who made it onto the national radar screen after he robbed a bank last December in order to pay off his debts from online gambling. Hogan faces sentencing today.

If you look at the story, notice first how the headline reverses subject and object. It's not titled "How Greg Hogan Ruined His Life Through Online Gambling." It's titled "How Online Gambling Toppled Greg Hogan's World," a headline that personifies/anthropomorphizes online gambling (and even attributes sinister motives to this new entity). That sets the stage for the paper's sympathetic treatment of Hogan throughout this extraordinarily long story: nice college kid, cello player, minister's son, "not the criminal type"--i.e. a good boy who just got caught up in this tragic addiction. (Clearly, poker is the heavy here, not the guy who went out and robbed a bank.) Now, you could make a class/race thing out of this (and I'm sure some will, with justification): How come this newspaper--like others who've covered the story--expends so much time and empathy on this one (white) college kid? Especially since the Call's general editorial take on felons could be summarized thusly: "fry 'em!" The story blames online gambling for "driving" Hogan to do what he did. Well, what about the circumstances that confront inner-city kids daily? Wouldn't that be enough to "drive" inner-city youths to commit crimes? You wonder, among other things, why the Call and the rest of the media typically have such little compassion for the ghetto drug addict who turns to crime to finance his addiction.

Which brings me to my larger, more SHAMblog-gy point. The Call piece tells us that Hogan was "wired to be a gambler." Hmmm. "Wired," huh? That would seem to negate (or at least erode) choice. So the Call is saying that something inside Hogan predisposed him to do what he did.

I can't claim to know how much choice we do or don't have in life. My gut feeling is: not much. That is, any choice we do have exists within narrow parameters. This is just common sense to me.* The rabid Hezbollah follower--being a rabid Hezbollah follower--is not going to suddenly "choose" to be a Zionist, or even to live in peace among his Jewish brothers. Ain't gonna happen. And it's not just that he doesn't want to do it; it's that he can't do it. He's prevented from doing it by being who he is. While most of us would concede the truth of that, we don't stop to think about the implications for the rest of us--that we're all shaped and directed to some degree (I would argue it's a large degree, if not 100 percent) by thoughts and feelings and impulses and inscrutable genetic "wiring," the combination of which makes us who we are, and dictates our "choices" in life. So then: Why do we treat some people as if they had a real choice in the matter, and others, like Hogan, as if they're "victims" of themselves? The older I get, and the more I think about it, the more I believe this is something you either apply across the board or not at all. You can say we have no choice. None of us, ever. Or you can say we have free will. All of us, always. But I don't see how you can reasonably argue that some people, sometimes, have a choice, and others don't. Just doesn't make sense to me.

UPDATE, THURSDAY AFTERNOON. The judge was unimpressed with Hogan's plight, sentencing the 20-year-old to a minimum of 22 months behind bars.

* though as always, I admit that I could be wrong.


Rodger Johnson said...

Interesting you should write, "any choice we do have exists within narrow parameters."

What if choice exists within the narrow parameters of determinism?

What if "free will" -- at least our preception of it -- exists within the parameters of determinism?

Both contradictions to most, but a fascinating questions, nonetheless.

Steve Salerno said...

Rodg, I actually understated my true feelings here. Privately, I don't believe there's a whit of choice/chance in anything we do. I think it's all scripted--right down to the "choice" of breakfast cereals in the morning--for reasons having to do with the complex, inscrutable and ever-evolving interaction between nature and nurture. But any attempt to put forward an even reasonably convincing explanation of why I feel the way I do, and how I came to feel that way, would ewncompass many, many SHAMblog pages, and would almost surely bore the living hell out of people (which makes the rather large assumption that this blog doesn't bore people to begin with, but be that as it may...). Besides, I already know what I think. I'm more interested in what others think.

Theresa Frasch said...

I've been reading The Science of Good and Evil by Michael Shermer and he brings up a lot of the same points. Where do you draw the line between It's Just the Way I Am or I Must Take Responsibility for My Actions?

Steve Salerno said...

Well, that's just it. Logically, I don't think you can draw a line; seems to me it's an either/or phenomenon. But pragmatically, in order to run a society where people are held accountable for their actions--and aren't running around maiming other people--I guess we have to draw the line. So, if it's indeed a fact that life is preordained (for whatever reason) and man has little or no choice, then the mandates of civilization must override what we know to be true about life and living. How bizarre.

On the other hand, because we know that it is possible for people to change (either due to some internal mechanics, or outside influences), I suppose one could say that society does play a role in trying to influence behavior to the good--but then we have the problem of deciding what "good" is. And you can't even necessarily turn to religion for answers there, since, e.g., both bin Laden and Bush claim the moral and theological high ground. I'm sure that pretty much the same situation exists between Israel and Hezbollah. Who's "right"? Who's "wrong"? A lot to think about.

Thanks for weighing in, Theresa.

Cosmic Connie said...

Steve, Rodger, y'all have gone and done it – made me start thinking again, and I was trying so hard to take a vacation from thinking. :-) One could do an entire blog on some of these topics alone.

Questions such as “does evil exist” could easily drive me crazy, but come to think of it, that’s a short trip. Rather than mulling endlessly over these questions, maybe I’ll read *The Science of Good and Evil* instead.

Theresa asks where we draw the line between "it's not my fault" and "I have to take responsibility." Beats the heck out of me, but I have observed that a lot of the more mystically inclined SHAMsters and their followers don’t even feel a need to draw a line. They have no problem with dwelling on their poor hurt internal selves (inner child, wounded woman, etc.) when the right workshop comes along. Presumably they do this in the interest of "healing" this wounded soul, so they can move on. But many of them never seem to get past the "poor me" phase.

At the same time, as has been touched on several times in this very blog, many cling to the belief that they can influence not only their own lives but world events, and even the universe at large, simply by thinking the right thoughts. Now, *that’s* taking responsibility.

I find this topic intriguing for all of the larger reasons you guys have touched on here, but since the Rev and I are dealing with some “media spin” issues ourselves right now, I am particularly interested in the “spin” angle with which Steve began this post. It really is interesting that the headline writers saw fit to imply that this hapless white boy was driven by the evil god of online gambling to do what he did. Fortunately, the judge wasn’t buying it, a fact that perhaps leaves some room for faith in our justice system.

Rodger Johnson said...

Between these four comments, this line of reasoning is beginning to sound a bit existential...

Whether you believe that choice exists, or whether you deny it's existence. The fact that you've denied it affirms its existence. If choice did not exist, then we would have no recourse to deny its existence -- there would be no notion of it in your mind to comtemplate.

And if determinism is the guiding principle which governs our existence, then it was destiny for the subject of your original post to surcumb to the addiction of gambling. The same argument can be extended to anything -- alcoholism, murder, wife beating.

To introduce an arbitrary line -- say law -- that governs, restricts and guides the vast majority of us, is relative. And deciding what's "good" is relative too.

Whose to say that wife beating is bad? And even if society says, no, no, and I preceive wife beating as noble, good and a necessary thing to engage in, then does that make it right? And, if I act contrary to a given law -- say wife beating is illegal and punished by spending five years in jail -- but I "decide" to beat my wife anyway -- thinking that it's good -- then I've also exercised choice within the confines of a defined reality.

That's a long explanation to answer my second question in my first post.

Reality is in prepetual motion around us, affecting us, and us affecting it.

We can stive only to be. And while we deceive ourselves to think that our fee will affects reality. Reality only exists as long as we attempt to affect it.

It boils down to the falling tree in the forest argument. If a tree falls, does it make noise if no one is there to hear it?

Does determinism really exists if there is no one there to experience determinism? And, to "decide" (that's an act of choosing) whether determinism exists, does choice really exist if there is no on to choose?

Steve Salerno said...

Interesting points, all. Rodg sort of loses me at the end--maybe I'm having a senior moment, but I don't really see the parallels between the classic tree/forest conundrum and the debate on choice/free will. And at a certain point, the whole thing becomes moot, of course: Even if it's all predetermined, it happens beneath our radar. So what's the point of getting all worked up about it? The only respect in which this dicussion has any real bearing on anything is the question of how we think about the nonconformists (and even the misanthropes) around us. I guess I'm saying that, yes, we have to separate the dangerous people from the rest of us, or else society couldn't function. But do we really blame them for what they do? Should we hate them for what they do? Given that what they do may well be scripted/beyond their control? I don't know the answer there. And in any case, whatever we feel about them was equally inevitable...right? So let's all just go out and have a nice predetermined weekend we were meant to have....

RevRon's Rants said...

"Where do you draw the line between It's Just the Way I Am or I Must Take Responsibility for My Actions?"

I think the line is actually quite clear. On the one hand, we must accept what we "are," not as a finished product, but rather, as a work in progress or a raw material. We may have no conscious control over our personalities and tastes, but we do have - and it is our responsibility to exercise - control over our actions. Aspiration toward the "finished product" is a pretty universal description of the meaning of life (Non-Monty Python version). I may be in a terrible mood, which is, to all appearances, beyond my control. Yet in anything resembling a civilized cultural setting, I make a free-will decision as to how that mood is manifest.

One's internal moral code is a major influencing factor, as is a logical understanding of cause and effect. Different religious teachings approach the question from opposite directions. The fundamentalist Christian perspective is that absolution for any behavior is instantaneous, once the person has accepted the Christian tenet of redemption through acknowledgment of Christ's divinity; vis a vis Divine Intervention. In Eastern teachings, one's thoughts and actions accrue karmic credits and debits in an account to be balanced during subsequent incarnations, with the closest thing to a true Diety being a n Akashic accountant, of sorts. The first is a function of Grace; the second, of Law.

What rings true for me is a balance of the two, with the universe functioning within a framework of laws, both physical and spiritual. Lack of rigid laws would result in chaos and the ultimate destruction of the Universe. But were those laws not founded in the principle of Grace (belief in which does imply belief in a higher power), retribution for even the smallest act owuld be instantaneous, and it is doubtful that any sentient creature would survive to adulthood.

I do believe there is such a thing as free will, but that it is limited in its scope to that which the individual can affect. What there is of predestiny amounts to the initiation of a process, a roll of the cosmic dice, if you will, followed by Divine Observation, rather than intervention. On that metaphorical seventh day, God saw that it was good, and rested. Subsequent episodes of the cosmic show may or may not have been equally enjoyable, yet are allowed to play out as they will.

Okay... enough Rev'ing for one day!

Steve Salerno said...

Sorry, RevRon, I'm not buyin' this. Though I much admire your eloquence in making your case, and I certainly think you represent the socially responsible point of view, I also think, in the end, that social responsibility and reality are two different things. Just because we *want* people to control themselves doesn't mean they *can* control themselves. I come back to my comment, some weeks back, about the sociopath: He (or she, for I've known females of the species) lacks a conscience. If the sociopath lacks a conscience, how can we expect his actions to be informed by one? A person who has no self-control has no self-control--and is going to act like it. A person who can control his actions--who can impose a filter of restraint between what he *wants* and what he *does*--has demonstrated that he can control his actions. A person who can't control his actions, can't control his actions. I firmly believe that what each of us does in any given moment is the best and worst that we were capable of doing in that moment--in fact, it is the only thing that we were capable of doing in that moment. It's just how I see things.

RevRon's Rants said...

Granted, a textbook sociopath lacks a conscience, and thus cannot rely upon one to control his or her actions. Other traits common to sociopaths, however, are manipulativeness and a keen sense of cause and effect. They know how to achieve a desired result, and though they might not be hampered by a sense of right vs. wrong in their efforts to achieve that result, they may be guided by an awareness of what would be the most effective means for them to achieve that end, at the lowest personal cost.

For example, a sociopath might hate someone who thwarts his/her plans, and wish that person dead. Knowing the potential repercussions of seeking such a goal, the sociopath may deny him/herself the satisfaction of killing their adversary, perhaps to replace the primary desire with a secondary, less risky behavior. No matter the source, this does imply control. This theory is borne out by the preponderance of sociopaths who seek to manipulate the legal system by claiming to be psychotic, and thereby not responsible for controlling their actions.

A genuine psychotic may lack the ability to exercise impulse control, or may find adequate justification for any action within the framework of a delusional system, but that is very different from one who merely refuses to exercise impulse control, only to subsequently claim that they aren't responsible for the decision.

Steve Salerno said...

To me, the bottom line is still this: How do you control what you can't control? Or--even giving the "perp" less of the benefit of the doubt--how do you control what you merely don't want to control? Isn't "not wanting to control" your behavior, in effect (if not in material fact), an integral part of who you are? It's like, say, ice cream. If I like chocolate, I like chocolate. You can force me to taste vanilla--but you can't make me like it. And given my "choice," I'm always gonna pick chocolate. So too, if I enjoy robbing grocery stores, or raping women, or setting fire to churches--that's just part of who I am. And if my desire to curtail that behavior is not strong enough to outweigh the desire to indulge in that behavior--then my self-control simply isn't strong enough, and the dark impulses win out. How's that my fault? It's like a computer that is programmed 70 percent to do A, and 30 percent to do B, in a case where it's also programmed to do only one or the other. It's going to do A.

RevRon's Rants said...

I see your point, but don't feel we are so thoroughly programmed that even the most sociopathic of us cannot choose to act - or not - upon our initial instincts. To accept such an idea would, IMHO, preclude anything resembling free will, in which I firmly believe.

When I got out of the military some 34 years ago, I had been thoroughly indoctrinated to the notion that well-directed and efficiently expressed rage was the highest form of human behavior. My reaction to any kind of agressive behavior was instantaneous and brutal. For all practical purposes, I was a classic sociopath, completely out of touch with my own conscience. Yet a part of me knew the inevitable conclusion to following such a life path, and I had no desire to end up shot or in prison.

I was fortunate enough to find a teacher who could teach me gentler skills, and who ultimately taught me how to emerge from my rage. But I first had to choose a behavior that would not lead to my own destruction. It wasn't that I wanted to be a better person... I just didn't want to suffer consequences. I made a choice, and it is one that people - even sociopaths - make every day.

The bottom line to me is that even a sociopath can control what he/she chooses to control, no matter what their motivation is for doing so. IMHO, it is only the severely delusional person who is unable to make such a decision.

Perhaps we should simply agree to disagree, each basing our perspective on our own studies and personal experiences. I can live with that.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, RevRon. I vote for free will and self-control. Just because we WANT to do something doesn't mean we MUST do that thing, or there would be no civilisation at all--just a bunch of cavemen running around smashing people over the head with clubs and taking whatever they wanted. It is the choice of restraint, the willingness of people to behave responsibly (and predictably) that enables society to function and peace to exist.

Steve Salerno said...

This last anonymous poster compels me to clarify something, when s/he writes that s/he "votes for" free will and self-control. I'm not "voting against" free will and self-control, in the sense that I think they're unimportant (!). I'm just saying that I doubt their existence, at least in the way that those terms are usually used. And I don't think it's any conscious, purposeful mechanism that necessarily enables society to go about its business in peace. After all, most golden retrievers are pretty docile and peaceful, too--not because they exercise self-restraint, but because they're wired that way, and/or were trained to be that way. So too with people. Training that changes your behavior is not something that you do to yourself; it's something that was imposed on you from outside, and that you now internalize (i.e. like loading different software onto a computer). It's a subtle but important distinction.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
No matter the source, even if one internalizes exogenous controls, those controls can still be implemented, even if one lacks the "hard-wiring" to appreciate them. It is this point on which we seem - on the surface - to disagree.

Anonymous said...

You are a wonderful example of the truth! That was a magnificent post regarding free will and discussing your past, etc. You sound as though you are evolving right on track, you seem to just GET IT. Perhaps Steve could learn a lesson or two from you ... but would that be on his own free will or predestined:) Ron, the best part of your comment was, "The first is a function of Grace; the second, of Law." You went on to descibe what rings true for you is the BALANCE of the two. I wish this would resonate in more souls (especially at this time).