Monday, February 12, 2007

Four updated reasons why I'm just not buyin' free will.

I read sentences like the following, from an article in today's Morning Call about the trend known as "holistic parenting": "By the time she was pregnant with her first child, she had quit smoking, become a vegetarian and wanted to impart a natural lifestyle to her children. Holistic Moms Network, she says, is about information and choices." Well, no it isn't. If you impart a lifestyle to your kids, you have taken a major step towards limiting their choices. You have brainwashed them, indoctrinating them into a certain way of looking at life; that indoctrination then becomes a key component of the many forces that conspire to drive their behavior as they grow. The supposedly open-minded and "empowering" holistic approach to parenting is just the same old parental tyranny, now served on whole-grain bread.

If you think about it, the distinction between you and un-you is hardly as neat and clean as we've been led to believe (or have unthinkingly assumed). There is air around us; where we "end," the air begins, and then stretches on until the next person. There is nothing magical about air; it is a physical substance composed of molecules. Therefore, in a very literal way, we are all interconnected—not a nation of 300 million human organisms, really, but a single organism with 300 million (seemingly) discrete parts. The air also goes to Europe, and Asia, and Tikrit. And, of course, there are also dogs, and cats, and trees, and bugs large and small, and other things to which we are, again quite literally, connected. Thus the nature vs. nurture argument may be a false dichotomy to begin with. Nature and nurture—man/woman vs. his/her environment—may just be different-looking variants of the same phenomenon.

Thought, too, is a physical process...isn't it? After all, if thought isn't physical—driven by or relying upon electrons and chemicals—then what is it? Accordingly, as a physical process, it is subject to the laws of chemistry and physics. (Have you seen those recent experiments where they insert probes into volunteers' heads and stimulate certain parts of the brain with tiny jolts of electricity, producing instantaneous changes of mood? Sudden bursts of laughter or tears? Kind of opens one's eyes about the mechanism behind all this.) In chemistry and physics, things happen for a reason—they happen because of something that happened previously. Nothing "just happens" without reason. If you have a thought or a feeling—an impulse to kiss or to kill—it is because something else caused that thought, feeling or impulse to take place. Whether or not you're aware of it. You may not know the reason; I'd argue that you seldom know the reason. But it's there.

We have wants and needs, preferences and distastes. We hate pistachio ice cream, so we're not going to "choose" it (unless, perhaps, someone has a gun to our head, in which case it can't be said that we're really choosing to order the pistachio. What was the alternative?) Is it not reasonable to assume that there are thousands or millions of similar predispositions—quieter, subtler, even invisible—that also drive behavior? So then where's the "choice"? When was the last time you heard someone say, "Yes, I'm a total klutz and I hate the outdoors and the I think I'll go skiing this weekend"? ...

Consider this part of an ongoing series. Feedback eagerly sought. Oh and hey, if it angers you to read this kind of stuff, cut me some slack, please. I can't help but think this way; I have no choice.


a/good/lysstener said...

Wow. I can't say I've given a lot of thought to these topics, but this is very unsettling. It seems to take away everything that makes us human. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to fall into the category of people you've talked about before who need to believe something therefore they make it so, even if there's no evidence. I don't agree with that approach to life either. But this bothers me. It's downright depressing, Steve!

Cosmic Connie said...

Steve, you are obviously a victim of your own thoughts, and surely there is a twelve-step program for this. :-)

Definitely interesting points, although as you probably know, number 2 is often misused (or at least to me it seems like misuse) by the New-Age/New-Wage crowd -- everyone from "The Secret" and "What The Bleep" folks to Rupert Sheldrake and his theory of morphic resonance/morphic fields.

Note to Alyssa: after a while these matters become less unsettling and depressing. If you think of them as an intellectual exercise, you can detach yourself somewhat from the depressing implications.

acd said...

I agree with you to a certain extent, but I don't think you made your point very well in some parts of your argument. I'll address each one separately.

1. You're right about the holistic parenting. Just because parents discover a new, "enlightened" approach to life doesn't mean that they're giving their children any more "choice" in life. However, no matter what lifestyle is imparted to you--for argument's sake--you could still make choices within the acceptable boundaries of your beliefs. I know you're going to say, "Well, that's not choice then," but it is. To use your ice cream metaphor, if you're offered only chocolate and vanilla due to circumstances beyond your control, and you choose chocolate, are you suggesting that that was not a choice, simply because you couldn't pick strawberry? I would argue that certain factors could push you in a certain direction and therefore limit your choices, but not eliminate them entirely.

2. I'm not sure I fully comprehend how you're proving determinism by establishing the interconnectedness of everything. Regarding nature and nurture, I agree that they can be two different ways of achieving the same purpose, that is, eliminating free will. Both genetics and environment can act together to control your life to some extent. But again, that can be like what I said before--you still have choices to make, just fewer things to choose from due to the circumstances.

3. This argument about brain chemistry is probably one of your better ones. We know (for the most part) what parts of the brain control what emotions, and we can manipulate these chemically or with electrical impulses. Therefore, everything happens because something caused it to happen. Why do you think people sometimes blame their actions on hormones or drugs or environmental stressors? There is indeed a reason for every action. However, from a pragmatic perspective, you can't live life blaming everything you do on something else. People need to assume responsibility for their actions, even though those actions were in fact inevitable. In order to maintain a functioning society, we need to assume that free will exists, at least to some degree. However, I think this third point you make effectively proves that the existence of free will is actually an illusion.

4. Your fourth argument is just downright false. Sometimes we make decisions that we don't really want to make, but they are choices nonetheless (in the context you provide here, at least). If someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to eat the ice cream, you certainly can make the choice to not do so and be killed. If you're uncoordinated, hate the cold, and despise the outdoors, you might still go skiing because it means a lot to your companion that you do that together. Just because you don't have all the ideal options laid out in front of you, doesn't mean that you aren't making a choice when you pick from the options you DO have.

Considering all of your arguments and my counter-arguments, it seems that some combination of both free will and determinism exists. It is difficult to deny that there are forces that will have some effect on what will take place. However, from a practical perspective, there are still choices being made in some of the scenarios you present. On a more philosophical level, however, I can understand the defense of absolute determinism. In the end, I always say that we have no way of knowing such things, so it's pointless to even argue the matter. So I have no agenda with regard to either side of this debate. Nevertheless, I thought it was worth commenting on the validity of your arguments. Call it an intellectual exercise, if you will.

Steve Salerno said...

acd, the quantity of bones I have to pick with you here would be the makings of a major archeological find....but I'm super-busy at the moment, and I'd rather wait to see who else (if anyone) wishes to weigh in, and what they might have to say on the subject. Thank you as always for replying at such length, and in such specificity.

Anonymous said...

Steve, to me this is the kind of naval contemplating time wasting nonsense I'd expect you to attack, not put on the blog in your own name! What's the difference anyway if we're all just going to do what we're going to do, right? Infact I also agree with Connie for once that the idea about force fields or whatever you're getting at sounds like you went over to the dark side here.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think it all comes down to smell--the pheremones that attract us to others, the smells that trigger memories, etc. But we humans can't bear to think that our great brains and all our complex thought processes are triggered by something so fundamental, so outside our control. And so we waste our brainpower rationalizing.

Steve Salerno said...

I smell what you're saying here, anon.

Anonymous said...

I have been following your blog for quite some time and I know you, Steve, have made your belief in determinism known before. The thing you don’t realise is that if you maintain that belief, your entire project against SHAM-land falls apart. If everything in the universe is predetermined (perhaps by a higher power) then how can we blame SHAMsters like Tony Robbins and Dr Phil for what they do if they were predetermined to write their books and seminars? Don’t we blame them precisely because we think they have a choice to either do the right thing and stop writing their empty rhetoric and slogans or to continue writing their scams to make a profit? If you buy into determinism the answer would be that they are forced to write it and therefore we cannot blame them and if that is the case then this blog doesn’t make sense. I believe in free will because then we can blame the con men (and women) for their actions and ask that they change their ways into something meaningful like writing good novels or maybe do some real science for a chance.

The thing is, Steve that determinism is like virginity and marriage, it’s an absolute. You either are a virgin or you are not a virgin – you can’t be a little bit a virgin. The same way either the universe functions with determinism as the governing principle that controls EVERYTHING else, or nothing is predetermined. If you say that everything is predetermined then you also have to answer WHO has determined what is going to be. Is it God, Satan, Nature, or what?

Free will on the other hand has many levels and you can be more or less free to choose. That was what ACD touched on in his post. In a society I am free to act in any way I choose. But at the same time a society has certain laws that I must abide to and live by. The law states that when the light turns red that means stop no matter what I think of it when I’m at a traffic light. My free will is hindered by the law in order for a society to function. However I still have the choice to ignore the law and do what I like according to my free will if I am willing to face the consequences for my actions that is go to prison.

Then there are certain unwritten rules in a society like customs and habits. In most private corporations here in Denmark there is a dress code that states that you must wear a suit to work. That limits my free will because I cannot wear jeans and a T-shirt if I want to. But I still have a free will/choice to find a different job that doesn’t have a dress code or I have the choice to challenge the current dress code by wearing jeans and a T-shirt to see what happens. That is my choice.

When it comes to personal habits I also have a choice in my response to them. If someone smokes cigarettes the nicotine in them is addictive – but that addiction only create a big “want” and not a “need” meaning that the persons who smokes doesn’t die if he/she doesn’t get his fix. Overeating works the same way it only creates a tendency and you still have a free choice of what you put into your mouth (that was why the people who sued the burger industry didn’t win).

In your book (the free chapter I have read since I can’t get your book here in Denmark) you talk about victimization i.e. my father was a drunk so that is why I do what I do. That is really the same as determinism and it keeps people locked down. And then we are back to SHAM because some of us really believe in self help when it is genuine. But self help ultimately goes back to the ancient Greeks like Plato, Socrates, the Stoics, etc. who believed that we can better ourselves if we use our thinking (logos). Philosophy means literally “love of knowledge” and it is that wisdom we can use to improve our souls (psychology originally meant “teaching about the soul”). But all of this soul searching or search for knowledge and wisdom can only make sense if we have free will to pursue it.

Like Alyssa I don’t want to believe something that isn’t true, but like Viktor Frankl states in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” the will to meaning is a primary drive in us humans. We must find a meaning with our lives in some way or else we drift into depression, suicide, violence, addictions and so on. The meaning we find is different for each of us and can change over time. But some one can NOT give us that meaning or state what we should do with our lives. That is why books from Covey, Robbins, Dyer, Tolle, etc. doesn’t work because they try to give you that meaning and that is just another form of determinism/control. That is also why our society is in such a bad shape because we try to find meaning in empty things like money or fame or casual sex. But I will claim that meaning comes before a chemical drug in the brain. That is we love another person and THAT creates a chemical in the brain or we like our job and THAT creates a “happy” drug in the brain not the other way around. But too many scientists, psychologist, SHAMsters, etc. believe that first comes the chemical and THEN comes the meaning.

Like Cosmic Connie I would also describe my self as a recovering self help addict and like RevRon I think we must find a balance in life but balance only makes sense if you can choose unbalance/extremes. I read all those crap books because I made a conscious choice not because I was forced into it. I like to believe that thanks to this blog and your book (the free chapter) that I now have more wisdom and can choose a different path without SHAM in it. Are you saying, Steve, that it is NOT because of this blog or your book that I am wiser now and can make better choices when I cross the border into SHAM-land but that it was just fate? :-)


PS: Please forgive the grammar and spelling mistakes but English is not my native language.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
1) Isn't parenting an inherently tyrannical enterprise of necessity? By the time a child reaches adolescence, it deteriorates into a faux tyranny, where the parent(s) fool themselves into believing that they exercise more control than they actually have. But until that point, it is the responsibility of the parent to impart certain elements of what they believe to be a positive lifestyle to their kids.

2) I happen to agree with the notion that we are all interconnected at some levels. Even being interconnected (or especially because of that interconnected relationship), it becomes all the more essential that we strive to nurture those other "parts." The essence of the Christian Golden Rule is to "love thy neighbor as thyself." We diminish the meaning of the passage by interpreting it as "love ... as if he were thyself," thereby implying separateness.

3) Thought... Kinda sounds like a chicken vs. egg argument to me, and it would be pretty difficult to definitively answer which comes first.

I guess my take on determinism is that we are predetermined by any number of factors to have specific preferences, but that we ultimately have choice as to which of those preferences we will choose to acknowledge and satisfy. Re: the parent/child dynamic, I had a Baptist mother and a Jewish father, yet somehow ended up following the Buddhist philosophy in living my life. Predetermined? Perhaps the opportunities to experience the very different mindsets was "predetermined" by circumstance, but in the final analysis I chose the direction I would take, based upon evaluating the factors that I believed would most positively influence my life. Whether they've been effective or not... I guess the jury's still out on that one. :-)

Cosmic Connie said...

Carl, I didn't say I thought Steve had gone over to the "dark side" re morphic fields, etc. I was merely pointing out that I think the interconnectedness notion has been misused by the New-Wage crowd.

To the Anon whose message follows Carl's: You may be right about it all boiling down to smell. At least a lot of it does. Then again, *that* idea is misused by New-Wage "aromatherapists."

Nevertheless, these are worthy points to consider, and I don't think it's "naval contemplating."

Steve Salerno said...

A few points on a few points:

I did not really write SHAM to "blame" Tony Robbins et al for what they do. I wrote it to expose them. (If I tell you, "Hey, that guy over there is going to kill you and eat your remains," I'm not really blaming him, per se. I'm just warning YOU.) Among the things that conspire to shape--and control--our lives are external forces (though as I say in one of my points, I don't think the line between internal and external is nearly as sharp as it is normally portrayed.) The SHAM gurus reprsent one set of external forces that are trying to persuade the average Joe or Jill Citizen to act in a certain way (principally, to keep buying what they're selling). I'm trying to act as another external force, a counterbalance, pointing out where their arguments break down and thus exerting whatever influence I'm able to exert over the decisions prospective buyers (suckers) make. It doesn't matter if, in "trying" to act that way, I too am compelled in my behavior; what's the difference? All that matters in the final analysis is that I'm acting that way, and I become another (small) force in the universe. To say that this blog "doesn't make sense," just because I'm forced to write it, is about as valid as saying that it doesn't make sense to get brain surgery (if you need it), just because the doctor is compelled to perform it. Right?

I don't believe that there is a guiding force or "higher power" behind all this. I think that life and everything else that occurs on this planet (and probably all others) is a sum-total byproduct of the interaction of all of the forces at hand, seen and unseen. By "unseen" I don't mean that they're mystical, but simply that we don't know what they are. They're too small to be observed or their mechanisms of action have not yet been discovered and elucidated.

My point about the interconnectedness of everything is that, as suggested above, maybe we shouldn't be so casual in drawing distinctions between nature and nurture, us and not-us. How do we really know how much of what is (supposedly) outside us is also inside us? Anything containing molecules is capable of exerting an effect on other molecules. So, instead of being 300 million separate software programs (and that's basically the analogy I like to use), I think there may be more interaction between the programs that we're aware of...not in a mystical, Sylvia Browne way, but in a purely mechanistic way.

Finally--for now (another super-busy day)--as to one of acd's points: A choice is not a choice if it is NOT made voluntarily. (Isn't voluntarism the whole point of choice?) That is to say, if there was no possibility that something else could be "chosen," it is not a choice, even if, in the moment, one is ostensibly deciding between two alternatives (i.e. picking the ice cream over the bullet to the brain). No one who is sane is going to say, "I'll take the bullet, thank you." And if you're insane, then by definition that becomes a factor that shapes your (irrational) "choices."

Similarly--I think I've said this before--you'll hear prosecutors in murder trials say, "This man is reprehensible! He has no conscience!" But if you have no conscience, how can people blame you for doing the sorts of things people without consciences do? You are as blameless, in a cosmic sense, as Hurricane Katrina. Was Katrina "repehensible"? Or was "she" just being a hurricane, doing what hurricanes do?

(Of course, we as human beings have feelings, and we are going to blame people who do things to us, regardless. We are predetermined to do that, at least so far. There is no contradiction there. I don't know why people tend to react to deterministic arguments by pointing out the lack of consistency. Who said predetermined things have to be consistent?)

What I'm really getting at here is that inscrutability does not cancel out or invalidate inevitability; just because we don't know and can't isolate all the factors that cause us to act a certain way doesn't mean that those factors don't exist. For example, we could program a computer to perform a very sophisticated and impossibly complex analysis of a given situation, give it a certain piece of data to analyze, and it is eventually going to arrive at a fixed end point that we have no way of predicting, because we, as humans, cannot make sense of all the variables in the same way thta the computer can. But just because we can't sort this all out in OUR minds doesn't mean it's not inevitable for the COMPUTER. In other words, there is going to be a set result to that operation, that analysis, and it is going to happen--it is destined to happen--from the very first keystroke, barring other external changes to the system, like an electrical spike that causes a glitch in the software or some such. (In fact, it was destined to happen since before computers existed--from the moment the earth cooled, and before.) I believe that a version of the same thing goes on inside us every moment of every day: incredibly sophisticated operations that are going to arrive at foregone conclusions. We think we're making choices in the moment--we think we're weighing things--but the real "decisions" are clicking away underneath as the software performs its operations.

What you have for dinner tonight was already on the menu when Columbus discovered America.

Anonymous said...

Er, huh? So many new foods, new crops, and so on have been developed or discovered since Columbus's time, I can't imagine what you mean. Were we eating tofu and croissants--not to mention ramen, popcorn, burgers, and French fries--or drinking Coke and SlimFast when Columbus arrived? I think not.

Steve Salerno said...

You're looking at life episodically--in terms of one development at a time--when I do not believe that that is how life evolves. I see it as a continuum, a series of events that had to happen precisely the way they did, because of the interaction of all things. Let's say Columbus bites into an ear of corn; he doesn't like the taste. Then one day the corn falls into a fire. Popcorn! (And bear in mind, the reason the corn falls into the fire is that somebody is carrying more corn that day than he ought to be, and he's carring more corn because the usual corn-carrier-helper got sick, and the corn-carrier-helper got sick because somebody who came over on the boat brought a virus. And the person with the virus was ON the boat, in the first place, b/c he had an argument with his wife back in Lisbon, and the argument was about.... You see what I'm saying? Everything can be regressed to an antecedent event, or series of same. So we have popcorn because somebody in Portugal had an argument with his wife. I am DRAMATICALLY oversimplifying, of course, because we don't know all the variables. But they're there, somewhere.) The the industrial revolution occurs; people learn how to make popcorn in mass amounts. Orville Redenbacher comes along. Etc. Everything fell into place exactly as it had to, in order for the events of today to be as they are. I'm not saying that old Christopher Columbus could envision any of this; quite the contrary. But that's my point: There are all these circumstances swirling about us, their method of interaction unknown and beyond our comprehension--but fixed and irrevocable nonetheless. Would you agree with me that the forces for the next great hurricane, though presently unknown, are already in place? The combination of atmospheric temperature, ocean temperature, etc. As forecasters get better and better, and computer models become more and more precise, we are able to forecast these things farther and farther out. But just because our technological models are not yet fullproof, doesn't mean the conditions aren't already fixed and in place! I say that it would be technologically possible--if we knew all of the variables, and understood their method of interaction--to go back to 1492 and predict Hurricane Katrina. Even before 1492. Why is that so farfetched to people?

durga said...

Steve, I'm new to this blog, cosmic connie sent me here, and read most of the posts but not all. I'll finish them later when I have more time. But I read all of what anon said and pretty much agree with him, especially: "But all of this soul searching or search for knowledge and wisdom can only make sense if we have free will to pursue it." While I have a minute I want to say that this subject is one of the topics I'm reseraching right now in 14th century medieval lit. It was the hot topic around 1335 in Jewish and Christian philosophical circles . Much has been written by Jewish medieval Jewish scholars defending the existence of free will and contingency in the universe. To them, a moral universe was inconceivable without free will. Around 1335, a Jewish convert from Spain wrote a book on determinism and astrology, based on Pauline and Augustinian doctrines, claiming that all is determined since a God who is unchanging necessarily has to have foreknowledge of everything that happened is happening and will happen etc..(kinda esoteric)...One of the implications of this idea was that torture was justifiable since it could not be otherwise, since all is known and determined beforehand by God. In any case, I don't have time to get into it further right now, just wanted to point out that the determinist point of view has a long history- and some unsavory implications. I'll check back later and read the rest.

Steve Salerno said...

Durga, thanks for joining the discussion. I am well aware of determinism's long history--and the unsavory implications. However, I have never understood the latter--that is, why derterminism is so, um, determinedly linked with unsavory implications. It simply means that whatever happens, had to happen. It is not an argument FOR libertine/licentious/unscrupulous behavior. After all, the Pope's behavior, too, was predetermined.

Really, I think the upshot of determinism, if one really thinks about it, is that we should be more forgiving (or at least understanding) of those who've been led, by nature/nurture, to do "unsavory" things. And we should be less celebratory about those who've been led, by nature/nurture, to do "wonderful" things. Einstein couldn't help being Einstein. Manson couldn't help being Manson. Do we blame a tiger for being a tiger? No. We just keep the tigers away from children. But we don't mistreat tigers for being tigers.

What's the big deal?

Steve Salerno said...

Let me underscore, again, that there is no religion/spiritual undercurrent to this. It has nothing to do with God or Satan. It has to do with my growing belief that the world is an agglomeration of purely physical processes. Trees take root, grow, get leaves for a while, and die. We take root, grow, have a few kids, and die. It's all the same, in my book. Except we're conscious of it. We watch it happen, so we think we can control it. But we don't. It controls us. It even controls the thoughts that make us think we can control it. There's nothing tautological or paradoxical about that. It's all part of the process.

Anonymous said...

Read Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth," Steve. I think you'll find some gentle, enlightened corroboration there for your point of view.

Rodger said...

What is this IT that determines determinism? This IT(ness) is disturbing to me in a way that is quite profound. If we are neither talking about God or any other power much greater than us -- say a divine peanut...what question still remains. What is IT that is the essence of IT(ness) that determines determinism?

Can IT, in fact be Nothing? Can IT(ness) be the whole of Nothing? Then, if IT is Nothing and IT determines determinism, which determines Manson's behavior, Bush's ignorance, a mother beating her child, even this comment, and death itself. Then isn't the IT(ness) that determines determinism and the behavior and essence of everything that is, is, in fact, Nothing.

Then that leads us to conclude that Nothing matters most.

Steve Salerno said...

There ya go, Rodg! The recipe for enduring happiness! I think you found it.

I agree, though--what I think you were getting at--this leaves us with the problem of WHAT set this all in motion. Without the notion of a supreme being--in an entirely mechanical system--what was the first "it," as you put it? Then again, religion doesn't have a satisfying answer for us, either. To simply fall back on the idea that, "Well, God was always there, even before there was existence..." It just doesn't cut it for me. At some point, something had to evolve from nothing. And nowhere in heaven and earth do we find an intellectually comforting explanation for that.

Rodger said...

Let me say that I do believe in God, and that that God was, is and will be the essence of everything and nothing too. But let's suspend the God argument for a sec.

We can neither conclude or prove the is(ness) of IT that is, in fact, Nothing, can determine determinism.

We can only understand that IT is Nothing that gives the ability to say X is "not" Y. That free will is not determinism. But even that possess a particular problem.

If Nothing is IT that determines determinism and from determinism we fool ourselves with believing in the notion of "free will" then that too was determined.

We were determined to fool ourselves by inventing "free will" from Nothing to mask the truth that Nothing is, in fact, all that there is -- that is(ness) is also, in fact, a figment of our imagination, and IT as is(ness) of Nothing matter most.

I concocted that without any weed...

My wife says I need to be doing something else with my snow day...I might go iron.

durga said...

Steve, I didn't mean to imply that you are not aware of determinism's long history. i was using your blog to procrastinate and felt the urge to spout off some of the things I've been reading about lately. You probably know much more than I about the history of determinism. I guess, though, I should stick to the 21st century in this discussion.
One last medieval reference: a 14th century philosopher i was reading says that most of life is pre-determined but that because we are endowed with a rational faculty, we can choose to leave what he calls the causal nexus. This rarely happens, though, because a high degree of intelligence is required. So maybe that's the answer.
Maybe I should smoke pot to make my posts more interesting.

Steve Salerno said...

Durga, please, don't be silly! Your thoughts are more than welcome here, and unlike some of us (including, sometimes, me), you actually have facts and historical references in which to anchor your remarks. So don't apologize for a thing; indeed, I've often thought that SHAMblog visitors should consider smoking pot in order to make MY posts seem more interesting!

Anonymous said...

Steve, I didn’t mean to imply that this blog “doesn’t make sense”. I think it makes a lot of sense but the reason for that is that we can educate us against SHAMsters and then make better choices in the future. But education only makes sense when there is free will. If your teacher tells you to study harder for the next exam then that statement seen as a linguistic peace of communication only makes sense if you are free to either study harder or not to study harder. J.L. Austin has written a book called “How to do things with Words” and in it he talks about something called perlo-cutionary statements like “I promise to do the dishes for the entire next week”. Austin’s point is that I can’t really make that guarantee since I can’t know what will happen in the future ( I could get sick or die before the week is over). But we use language in that way in other words we DO things with words and play with language. If on the other hand if things are predetermined then Austin’s theory falls apart because then it’s not a perlo-cutionary statement but it is already decided if I will do the dishes or not and hence language stops being playful (I imagine that a journalist would object to that). Austin was a professor at Yale so I think you should be careful to dismiss his theory so quickly, Steve.

In the ice-cream case you are making MY point, Steve! A person can DECIDE what to eat (ice-cream or the bullet) but the person evaluates the situation with his cognitive skills and come up with the fact that it’s best to eat the ice-cream and then makes the choice to do so. In other words he decides that it makes more sense to eat bad ice-cream than to die. He is free to make the choice. Let’s add to the scenario and say that the sorbet was made out of blood from his dead mother who had just been killed by the guy holding the gun. Now the choice isn’t as clear as before, but it is STILL a choice. Do you eat the nasty sorbet and live or do you take the bullet? If the guy who is holding the gun is black and has been discriminated against by society for his entire life and now decides to take revenge, is he predetermined to commit the crime? Society doesn’t think so because we put him in prison no matter what the cause is for him to commit the crime. We say that no matter what reason he had to do it is irrelevant because he could have chosen otherwise. Other people in the same circumstances have made better choices and so could he if he wanted to. If he was predetermined to do it we can’t punish him for the crime and hence if you believe in determinism you must also believe in an anarchical society where everyone just do what they are predetermined to do.

Further more in the court room he was asked to put his hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth (a perlo-cutionary statement) and again that only makes sense if he is free to either tell the truth or to not tell the truth. When you think about The Ten Commandments also only makes sense if there is free will and so do the Golden Rule. That we must not steal only makes sense if we are free to steal or to not steal and we can therefore deduce that God and Jesus believes in free will! If you believe in God and determinism at the same time you are being illogical. Then you would be saying that God has decided (!) everything there IS and also my actions but then God gave us The Ten Commandments that He Himself violates when he created me in such a way that I steal or doesn’t respect my parents or whatever.

Your idea about “forces” seems so intangible, Steve. You are getting very near the border to SHAM-land with that statement and that’s a problem of conflict when you have appointed yourself the job of border patrol-guard into SHAM-land. It’s true that if the sky is getting very dark that we can predict that it will rain soon – in other words that the rain was predetermined to come before it actually started to rain. That’s nature at work. But I will maintain that I, as a person, am free to choose my attitude to the rain. I will also maintain that I am free to choose if I want to bring an umbrella with me or not. If we accept your analogy about that we are all little programs that run at our appointed time then we have to ask the question – who is the Programmer? It can’t be God since I have proven that it can’t be Him. So who is it, Steve? A guy in a white suit in a white room with a lot of TV screens (like in Matrix Reloaded)? Now I’ll admit that my questions isn’t entirely fair given that philosophers have been pondering these questions for thousands of years so to believe that piss-ants like us can find the answer is probably hubris. Still what distinguishes us from the animals is our ability to ponder these topics so let us use that gift to the best of our ability.

I don’t think I want to smoke pot but I did read about a Japanese guy who can turn milk into beer so perhaps we should all drink some more “milk” when we read Steve’s posts!


durga said...

Steve, I just found a good quote from "The History of Jewish Philosophy" to start the day off. Maybe it will give more fodder for your discussion. It's about Ibn Daud's conception of the problem you pose: "His presentation of the problem is confined to 2 extreme answers to this question, that is, the one that says everything is determined, so that nothing can be subject to human choice, and the other that says that there are instances of choice that are absolutely free, so that they can in no way be subject to determinism. It seems to Ibn daud from the very beginning that both views are not simply incoherent; they are wrong. The correct understanding of their relation lies somewhere inbetween, so that all actions are to some extent determined and some determined actions are subject to human choice". This isn't the same philosopher I mentioned yesterday in my post. I think the argument he is making was a common one based on Aristotelianism. I don't think Aristotle was too big on God (I think he called it the prime mover), so you can go there for a non Judeo-Christian centered argument about determinism and free will if you have a lot of time and milk or pot.

Nancy Massotto said...

Free will is undoubtedly based upon both the consciousness/awareness of the individual of the choices that exist and his/her ability to actually make those choices. A newborn infant whose awareness of its existence leaves little by way of free will as they have not yet mastered the ability to "voice" their choice or move in that direction (although we have seen documented cases of newborns who, when placed on their mother's abdomen's after birth will "crawl" to the mother's breast to nurse). Of course, one can argue that a newborn's cry to be held and comforted reflects the will to be close to a parent, although American culture tries to force independence at an early age by allowing children to "cry it out" to thus rejecting their mode of expression. Parenting does inherently imply a form of direction, although I would suggest that "mindful" or holistic parenting is far less tyrannical than a mainstream approach. We now know that infants (and fetuses) certainly do experience pain and what rational infant would choose to be strapped down and circumcised, given the awareness or opportunity for choice? (Even conventional medicine no longer mandates this practice although parents continue to choose this option for their children.) Holistic parenting is perhaps more of a benevolent dictatorship than tyranny by encouraging parents to be conscious of the choices that are available (informed choice) and to cultivate respectful awareness of the needs and desires of children, taking these forms of expression and consideration of their needs into account. These practices, as well as such aspects of holistic parenting as democratic education and unschooling, leave far more room for free will than do more conventional parenting philosophies. While guiding children in a certain direction may limit their choices, education about choices increases their opportunity to express will.

Steve Salerno said...

Let me try to express my feelings in the most stripped-down way possible: If you open up the calculator on your computer, and you give it a problem to solve (let's say you ask it to add 2+2), the operations that produce the answer--which is inevitable, if your computer is working properly--do not represent the computer's exercise of "free will." The computer is merely doing what it is programmed to do. I believe that people are simply more elaborate versions of the same basic functionality.

Steve Salerno said...

A few random points:

To Nancy: As you suggest, all parenting is a form of tyranny. (Indeed, all teaching is a form of tyranny. Teaching that results in "emotional learning" is a particular form of tyranny, as its lasting impact is often so disproportionate to its cognitive content/worth.) I don't yet know enough about holistic parenting to write about it intelligently, but it's on my agenda to investigate (and I don't intend for that word to have pejorative connotations; I'm just gonna look into it as a journalist, is all). Thank you for taking the time to respond with such elegance and passion.

To the most recent Anon: I think what we're getting hung up on here, again, is the precise meaning of the word "choice." Obviously people make "choices"--they pick one thing and not another. We would not be able to negotiate daily life, were that not the case. My question is: Are the choices voluntary? Or are they predetermined? I think it's the latter, and I don't think you have to be in a scenario where the options are as dramatically polar as ice cream vs. head wound for that predetermination to apply. The "forces" that you seem to find so mysterious are simply the antecedent events that put us in the position of doing--inevitably--whatever it is we do. Do you agree that nothing happens at random? That, say, a book on your desk is not suddenly going to fly up into the air and give birth to a dik-dik without some (very special and bizarre) reason? If you agree with me that in physical systems, everything happens ONLY because of something else--and if you agree with me that the body is a physical system--and if you agree with me that thoughts are a byproduct of electricity and chemicals, interacting--then how can there be true choice? Where does it enter the equation?

Anonymous said...

I agree to the fact that a book on my desk isn’t going to suddenly fly upwards and I agree with you that many many things happens because of they are part of a larger system that controls their actions – the so-called butterfly effect. I don’t know if I agree with you that NOTHING happens at random. In math you can calculate the probability of a certain outcome like flipping a coin and say the percentage of head or tail after a given amount of flipping. But if nothing is random then you should be able to totally predict the outcome of a flipping a coin and if that’s the case then you can’t use the coin to open the game at Super Bowl anymore. Also I think you confuse how with why. If a car suddenly skids out and hit a cyclist that’s driving by then we can explain how that happened like the amount of wind at the car, the texture of pavement, the speed of the car and all of those factors that caused the car to skid and killing the cyclist. But we can’t really say WHY it happened. But if nothing is random then there must be a reason for it – that is there must be a why.

Also it’s clear that you believe in reductionism - that everything can be explained by some specific factors. It’s true that thoughts are electric energies and chemicals in the brain but what I object to is the use of the word “by-product”. In my opinion you can’t reduce thoughts to mere by-products of the brain. When you love your wife some specific chemicals is created in your brain but would you call your love a by-product? Or would you tell your kids to appreciate your love now because if you shake your head (and the chemicals in it) that you might not love them tomorrow? Can you accept the fact as a journalist that reading great literature and enjoying them is nothing more than chemicals in the brain and the way to judge great works is NOT by the words and meanings but by the chemicals they create? The problem with reductionism (as with cynicism and nihilism) is its very hard to argue against. A nihilist will ask why you should create a beautiful painting since it’s going to vanish one day, a cynic will ask why you should try to change the world when the world suck anyway, and a reductionist will ask why spend time and money to woe a girl when all you could do is to take a certain chemical to get the same feeling of love. I can’t answer that by any other way than to say that we human beings are to complex to be reduced to a mere system. Poetry, music, love, friendship, science and life are NOT just a matter of chemistry or a system.

But, Steve, I think we almost agree on these issues and maybe I got stuck on the word “choices” as you said. I truly hope that we can agree to disagree and still be friends and that I am not banned from this blog from now on. I love the high standards of this blog (and all the “fawning bloggies” and “puppets” who write here) and that you take a stand against this billion dollar industry (SHAM) here and in your book. I just watched to link you gave to The Secret. How can anyone in their right mind take that crap seriously? Even some one with a George W. Bush IQ should spot the glaring contradictions with in 3 seconds like what about 9-11 and Katrina and all those who died there. Were they just not thinking positive enough or what?

But in the end if I one day is going to be worthy to be called a fawning bloggie in this blog then I’m going to be a happy camper indeed! :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, I don't buy your premise about coin flips; they're not random. They land heads or tails (each toss) for a variety of reasons--the geometry of the coin, the wind vectors at the moment the coin is flipped, the amount (and subtle variations in the direction) of force applied during the flip. I submit that if you could flip a coin in a closed system where all variables were assured of being precisely the same--absolutely and precisely the same, right down to the directional forces, the amount of resiliency in the surface upon which it lands, etc.--and if the coin were totally honest (i.e. perfectly symmetrical, etc.), it would not, in fact, land heads or tails, but probably suspend on its tiny ridge each time--and just sit there. In any case, it would do the exact same thing every time. In a system with total integrity of variables, anything that is acted upon by the same exact forces every time produces the same exact result. (James Gleick made several serious errors of logic in "Chaos.")

RevRon's Rants said...

"I submit that if you could flip a coin in a closed system where all variables were assured of being precisely the same... it would do the exact same thing every time."

And if grasshoppers carried .45s, mockingbirds would never mess with them. What I see as the flaw in your theory, Steve, is that in the real world - as opposed to the theoretical - grasshoppers don't carry weapons. The world is hardly a closed system, and IMHO, the quest to quantify, qualify, and control all variables - even as a means to prove the existence of determinism - is a great definition for the word "futility."

Again, my own opinion, but I think that accepting that every aspect of existence is predestined would be quite depressing, as even the concept of hope would be reduced to an illusion.

As I'm sure you've guessed, I tend to agree with durga's assertion that "all actions are to some extent determined and some determined actions are subject to human choice."

S**t happens. But we get to choose whether or not to step in it, wipe it off our shoes, or just deny its existence and wonder why people wrinkle their noses when we walk past. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

RevRon, I grant you, some of this stuff gets absurdly theoretical--my coin flip theory being a prime example. However, I do think that if people are going to offer up rebuttals, placing in evidence certain illustrations, we are permitted to impeach them on the logical integrity of what they say--b/c, obscure or not, some of this stuff does have a bearing on the real world--like, e.g., how we should handle criminals.

All that said, your points are well-taken, as always.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I'll have to go with RevRon on this. In a lab we can keep all the variables stable but not so in real life. Therefore it becomes impossible to always give perfect cause & effect reasons for why people do what they do. Hence we have to assume free will simply because the alternative is unacceptable to society because punishment (prison) is the result of bad behaviour and bad behaviour can only be bad if there is an alternative to it that would be considered good. If the behaviour was predetermined there would be no bad nor good but only a behaviour. Therefore on a practical level we need free will to keep an accountability from people in a society.

It’s true that this discussion is very theoretical but isn’t that the beauty of this blog? That we take the time to discuss these matters even if we don’t find the final answer and that is what’s wrong with society today that most people are more interested in Paris Hilton’s whereabouts in the last 24 hours than in these matters. So again I say keep up the good work, Steve!


acd said...

"Therefore on a practical level we need free will to keep an accountability from people in a society."

That is like saying that the Church needs Catholicism to take advantage of and gain control over the people. It does not mean there is any validity in the belief system itself.

Maybe free will exists. Maybe it doesn't. But you cannot prove its existence based on our need for it. It works the other way around, if anything. That is, if absolute determinism exists, then we cannot blame criminals, for example, because they have no choice.

The most appropriate argument here would be that we should base our society's rules on the assumption that free will exists (whether or not it actually does) in order to avoid chaos. However, that does not mean that we should accept the existence of free will when we are searching for philosophical truth.

RevRon's Rants said...

"However, that does not mean that we should accept the existence of free will when we are searching for philosophical truth."

If we do not accept the existence of free will, why bother searching for philosophical truth in the first place? After all, if determinism is indeed the structure upon which existence is based, that truth will be revealed and comprehended - or not - at a time already established, regardless of our efforts (or lack of them).

To those who believe in determinism, I would pose the following questions:

Do you ever find yourself hoping for something?
Do you ever attempt to change the outcome of a situation or another person's perspective on a subject?
Do you fully accept that your hope and efforts are futile, since whether that something will or will not occur, or whether the other person will "see things your way" have already been established, independent of your desires and efforts?
And finally - and probably most important - are you at peace with the fact that you must accept situations that you find abhorrent, since you are powerless to affect them?

acd said...

Actually, RevRon, my responses to your questions would be, for the most part, as follows: No. No. Yes. Yes.

Alyssa had it right from the beginning--it is depressing. But often what makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside isn't reality...

RevRon's Rants said...

So if you saw a toddler running toward a busy street, you wouldn't try to stop the child? After all, if the moment of the child's death is predetermined ...

An extreme example, granted. But if one truly abandons the notion that they can affect destiny, such would be the only honest course to take. I find such an assumption depressing, as well.

And who knows... perhaps the more cynical theory isn't reality, after all. At any rate, I choose to follow a logic that makes me feel better, rather than worse. And if my ultimate destiny is already decided, it makes sense to me to enjoy the journey there.

acd said...

In asking that question, you are assuming there is some degree of free will. If a toddler runs into the street, it's not necessarily predetermined that he will die at that moment. It could be predetermined that I would save the child. That would not be a matter of choice.

In any case, if you "choose" to follow a logic based on how it makes you feel, then I can't really argue with that. All I can say is that I'm not able to do that. I base all of my opinion on logic, and if the conclusions I reach make me feel depressed and hopeless, so be it.

Steve Salerno said...

I think she's got you there, Ron--point being (obviously) that someone's actions in saving or not saving a child are as inevitable as the child's reckless (but also predetermined) dash for the busy street. You know, we use terms like the "butterfly effect" in throwaway fashion, but in my view it's an entirely valid concept. I keep coming back to that good Samaritan in the train station in NYC. As he has said during the formal ceremony in his honor, he was not the only person on the platform that day. But he was the only one to act. Why? What was in his nature that (inevitably) prevented that other person from dying on the tracks? Or forget about nature--what about his activities that morning? Did he pause for a second cup of coffee, because the coffee was unusually good, and that little bit of lateness is what had him on the platform at the exact right moment? Why was the coffee better than usual? Did he try a different brand? So--in thumbnail form--that person who fell on the tracks is alive today because such-and-such a company has better coffee than another company. Or let's say he skipped the coffee that morning...why? Did his coffee maker break? Why did it break? Did he buy a cheap one, because he was short of funds on that Sunday afternoon a year earlier, when he made the purchase? Why was he short of funds? Etc. All of those circumstances, as well as many we'll never known, made it ironclad certain that that person was NOT going to die under that train on that day.

And this isn't just pointless "naval contemplation," as someone called it, above. There are very real implications here for criminal justice, hero worship, education, research, etc.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I base all of my opinion on logic, and if the conclusions I reach make me feel depressed and hopeless, so be it."

I can accept that someone can base all their *intellectual* conclusions on logic, but when it comes time to act (or react), those internal dialogs in which we so often engage - and the logic upon which they are based - frequently fly out the window.

The very statement that your own purely logical conclusions lead you to feel depressed runs counter to the instinctive - even synaptic - aversion to pain. Were one to function on a purely objective basis, they would choose to avoid physical or intellectual exercises that trigger the pain response, the extreme exceptions being individuals with either an organic dissociative or behavioral disorder, those whose perspectives are affected by pharmacological agents, or those who have been subjected to trauma via head injury or lobotomization.

The vast majority of people fall somewhat short of the extremes; we do some things that hurt us, always thinking we are acting logically. Hopefully, we learn from such destructive endeavors and modify our perspective and behavior accordingly. Realistically, most of us tend to attempt to dig ourselves out of future holes with more or less the same shovel, until we finally become so exasperated with the consistency of the outcomes that we look for a new approach. In so doing, we mature and grow.

In the final analysis, I disagree with Steve's assertion that this is not a purely intellectual exercise - navel contemplation - since each individual responds to situations in their own fashion, frequently in a manner that defies logic. We are forced to accept the existence of some parameters in our lives; how one chooses to perceive and react to those parameters plays a significant role in defining us as individuals. Some perceive all things as being preordained, others perceive a universe founded in chaos. The truth is independent of and transcends our perception of it.

Perhaps the most productive thing any of us can do is to look closely at the way we perceive and react to the circumstances of our lives, ask ourselves what we are seeking, and attempt to determine - logically, of course - whether our way of looking at and responding to those circumstances is taking us closer to our ultimate goals. Whether our perspectives drive our emotions or our emotions drive our perspective. I think both are true, and that one of our most significant challenges is to determine which is applicable to a given situation, then to attempt to follow the course that we find most enriching. But then again, I base my entire argument in my own strongly held belief that we are free to choose - not the individual circumstances of life, but rather how we define and react to them. Your mileage may vary.

Steve Salerno said...

I hear you, Ron, regarding the individual reactions that we're going to have anyway--despite all the philosophizing. But let me ask you this--and it's an honest question (i.e. not rhetorical): Let's assume we accept the fact that at least much, if not all, of life is predetermined by some mechanism (nature, nurture, etc.) Won't you at least concede that that realization has a major effect on how we should treat lawbreakers? Even killers? If we recognize that they "had to be that way"?

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
I might find it easier to accept your assertions (about criminals, anyway) if society dealt with them in anything resembling a logical manner. In truth, our judicial system is structured upon judgment and revenge, rather than evaluation and resolution.

If we accepted that they "had to be that way," we'd simply find some remote spot away from our society and dump them there (vis a vis the British colonization of Australia). We prefer, however, to cumulatively judge the criminals' characters, after which, we apply whatever punishment is most satisfying, yet within the framework of the legal system.

If we accept the notion that "they had to be that way," we refute our justification for punishment and/or rehabilitation entirely, and could significantly streamline our legal justice system by converting it into a mechanism for pure cause and effect. Besides, think of the devastating effect such a system would have on the media, which flourishes upon our appetite for revenge. :-)