Sunday, August 20, 2006

The last word on free will (from me, anyway).

As I look over some of the back-and-forth in this debate on free will vs. determinism, I am reminded of one of the core elements of my argument against self-help, and one of the primary misconceptions that inspired me to write SHAM: that the need to believe in something is not, ipso facto, justification for something, and certainly not proof of its existence. To shift the context slightly: I have heard it said many times by many people that they simply must believe in an afterlife, because the notion that "this is it"--that we spend a few short decades struggling our way through life on earth, then die and go to dust--is unacceptable to them. They can't face the new day (or the loss of loved ones, or the myriad other reversals that are part and parcel of being human) without holding in their hearts the prospect of "something more." Well...tough noogies*...logically speaking, that is. Now, there may turn out to be a heaven. Personally, I'm all for it. But our passionate desire for a heaven does not make it so--and has no place in a rational debate about whether heaven exists. Similarly, the fact that we want to see ourselves as imbued with free will, as masters of our personal domains--and that we abhor the notion of being mere puppets on some grand metaphysical string--does not mean that free will exists. Would society fall apart if we stopped holding people accountable for what they do? Yes. Does that mean that people are accountable for what they do? No. Not in and of itself, it doesn't.

No matter what we're discussing--no matter how sensitive the topic or how serious its implications for civilization--the rational side of us should insist on evidence. That is, evidence that meets the burden of proof that we apply in the scientific judgment of other facets of life.

* as we used to say in Flatbush.

8 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

On the logical front, can we agree that energy can neither be created from whole cloth nor destroyed? It may be transformed, as matter can be transformed to energy, but not completely eliminated. If one accepts that there is such a thing as psychic energy (a big IF, granted), it would follow that this energy would not just cease to exist when the physical body ceases to function. What actually does happen is for the individual to interpret according to their own beliefs. We get into trouble when we confuse those "beliefs" with "truth," which exists beyond and independent of beliefs.

I don't adhere to the existence of a place called Heaven, nor to one called Hell, but see them rather as a state of consciousness; Heaven being a state of hopefulness, faith, and well-being, and Hell being a state of despair, disconnectedness, and hopelessness. We needn't die to visit either, and only the individual can determine the cost of admission.

I agree that the desire for something doesn't make it so. But if we desire - for whatever reason - to act in a socially acceptable manner, we can act accordingly, even when such actions are not consistent with our default behavior. Such is the basis for what we loosely refer to as civilization.

While desire is not the sole prerequisite for existence, it can certainly be an effective foundation upon which to build. If I truly desire the experience of heaven, I can model my own behavior in such a way as to make it more likely that I will realize my goal. Doing so requires the judicious practice of affirmation and denial; affirmation being nothing more than a conscious decision to seek that which you desire, and denial being a letting-go of things that do not benefit you. The vow of poverty I described earlier was an example of both; an affirmation that I had enough, and a realization that some desires didn't really satisfy any hunger.

As to evidence, I'll cannibalize a quote from a movie: Does love really exist? Prove it.

Steve Salerno said...

Good points all, Ron. As I said, I'm giving SHAMbloggers the last word on this one. So I'll merely offer this smart-alecky, cynical, been-through-the-mill-a-few-times response to the question you pose at the end: Does TRUE love exist? Prove it...

RevRon's Rants said...

Some whose fingers have been burned find healing, some only continued pain. I have to wonder what differentiates "true" love from plain old "love?" All boils down to whatever an individual judges to be valid evidence, doesn't it? :-)

Anonymous said...

Surely the fact that society does function, and function fairly reliably, because the vast majority of people control themselves despite constant temptation not to, is the very best proof of free will!

Steve Salerno said...

I would dearly love to respond to this--I think it cries out for a response--but since I promised to give the last word to others...is there anyone who sort of agrees with me, who's interested in tackling this last comment on my behalf? Thank you...

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of people "sort of" agree with you, on a limited scale, at least--the people who scream that McDonald's is evil, as though Ronald McDonald were pinning people down and cramming Big Macs in their mouths, or that Wal-Mart is the Great Satan, as though people were being forced to shop there and drive family-owned businesses out of operation. Yes, both these things have been very bad, but I do believe in freedom of choice, and I also believe in putting one's money where one's mouth is--stop screaming, and start patronizing the small businesses!

Anonymous said...

Isn't the definition of the transition from childhood to adulthood the acceptance of free will, defined most simply as taking responsibility for one's actions/choices? The child says, "It's not my fault!" The adult doesn't necessarily make the right choices, or do the right things, every time, but he does say, "It is my fault," and mean it, and make his choices in that context. The Twinkie defense is for cowards!

Theresa Frasch said...

I thought you might enjoy this on sports and free will: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBIKPLo0VlA