Friday, 25 September 2015

Free Will

Because I am raving mad, I thought we'd tackle this one today. Friday is (sort of) my day off. I still work but not so much so I have time to get into deep philosophical debate.

This topic keeps coming up, and I have to be honest, I am convinced most people really don't even think about it much, let alone form their own solid opinion on it. Here are a couple of things to get you thinking.

I have long maintained that we do and we don't have free will. Which is why I don't get uptight about the more extreme arguments here. I see it as relative, not absolute, and I'm well aware that that fits in with Buddhist teachings (at this point I an obliged to state to new readers that I am NOT Buddhist, but I really get along with an awful lot of Buddhist philosophy, and I've studied it in some considerable depth) but I have always felt that way, ever since I can remember.

My reasoning, as with Buddhist reasoning, is that no man is an island. Simple as that. We are affected by (and we affect) everybody and everything around us, which means that absolute Free Will is de facto impossible.

Which is not to say you don't have any. You have all sorts of freedoms, even ones most people don't think about. Everything you do - EVERYTHING - is by choice, even if your choices are limited.

How does that work? Well, reality really. Laws of Physics. I would love, for example, to be able to fly. But I don't have wings. And gluing some on won't help, because they wouldn't lift me off the ground. So my freedom to fly appears to be non-existant, while birds make it look easy. However, I have flown, by buying a ticket for an airplane. This was a freedom by money. I could afford it. If you can't, then that freedom doesn't exist for you. And so on.

Now, I COULD throw myself off a building, and I'd fly (downwards) for a short time. But this would be an unwise choice because it would probably be my final choice. Hitting the ground would not be by choice, it would be inevitable. On the other hand, by dint (and dent) of my actions I WOULD be choosing to hit the ground. That's how choice works. Consequences are part of choice.

And that's what freedom, and therefore Free Will, is all about. Choices. I think that much is obvious. Where the arguments come in really is how much of these choices are truly free. How many are even conscious?

One of the least popular debates you will ever have on this is "I chose to be fat". People balk at that. They object. They tell you they don't eat too much, it's metabolic, or age, or genetics, or whatever. This is all an excuse. A lie.

There were zero fat people in the concentration camps. Well, after a while, anyway. No. If you reduce your food intake sufficiently, you will get thin. Very thin. But most of us are unwilling to go without food to that extreme. It's unhealthy, it leaves you with no energy, and it hurts.

We all have the freedom to do that, but we choose not to. Fact.

While I'm here, let's take on the people who believe your Will is so strong it can combat anything. Do you think you can will yourself thin? Without changing your food intake? Why can't you will yourself NOT thin then, when you are starving?

Well, science, that's why. The human mind is a wonderful thing, but it has its limits.

It cannot will you to fly, it cannot will you to metabolize differently, and it cannot will you to allow for any and all of the millions of effects that surround you, whether you are aware of them or not.

That would be magic. Even if you believe in magic, and most people do (I'll come back to that) you allow it to have limitations. You allow that. You do. Oh yes you do!

If there was magic, just like in Harry Potter, where virtually anything is possible, there would be LESS Free Will, and not more. Yep.

HUH? How's that Melanie?

Well, for a start, everyone would be fighting. The nanosecond your Free Will came up against somebody else's, and they differed, wands would be out.

We have peace and harmony because Free Will is limited. It is limited not only to control over only your own body, but there's even a limit to that. You cannot become 50 feet tall and strong enough to throw boulders at people, because if you did, that unfair advantage would give you the ability to take control of your entire species. And biology is more egalitarian than that. And if everyone had unlimited growth potential things would get very silly as we all raced to get bigger. Eventually our heads would be outside the atmosphere.

It should be stating the obvious that Free Will is limited. But for a number of reasons (and not all of them religion or superstition, I might add) people often over or under-estimate it. 

Firstly, anyone who has studied this at an academic philosophical level will have learned about the various theories proposed over the centuries and will have seized upon the teachings of Descartes or Hume or whoever. Those who have decided that they are non-determinists often end up going so far that they give too much credit to the human mind. They almost reach the levels of the New Age types who have heard that you can create your own reality and have taken it literally. When you give them the weight or flight examples they scoff. 

There are many people who therefore believe in magic. They don't call it that, most of them, anyway. They call it Positive Thinking, or Reiki, or Astrology, or Homeopathy, or prayer, or whatever. But they actually believe that the Laws of Physics don't always apply. They aren't saying "perhaps science has some surprises left on that front", they are saying that with enough human Will, the Laws of Physics can simply be overcome. Right now.

Not only that, they think their particular method or group alone has this arcane power. And they are willing to use it for the most trifling of things.

I have heard perfectly sane, educated, intelligent people claim that they prayed for a (very small) lottery ticket win, and got it.

Tell me. Why would the entire universe re-arrange itself to provide extra money for one applicant? Especially when many other applicants may well be doing the same thing?

Small children do that. They have been taught to pray and being trusting, they try it out. On small things. Oh, you say, how quaint. They don't understand! Oh, but they do. You taught them. Ask and it shall be given, you taught them. Like Santa Claus, or grandmothers. Yeah. I remember doing it with raffle tickets. Never worked. Why? Because even if you are a firm believer in a deity, you cannot seriously think of him as a genie. That's childish.

"AHA!" Says the theologian. "God's Will is paramount!" Well, yes, it would be. Not much point being God if you are not omnipotent really. So the only way your heartfelt supplication stands any chance whatsoever is if it happens to coincide with God's Will. So quite frankly, why bother? I hear this: "If it be your will, then.....". Well duh. If it's God's Will it's going to happen anyway, so save your breath.

But it's not just the God Botherers, is it? This applies to all and everyone voicing their wishes, and the standard New Age (and quantum physics, these days) idea is that if enough of us want something badly enough, we'll get it. Only, this time the opposite applies. The more minor and petty it is, the higher the chances. If it's quantum, it is something very minor indeed. And even the wackiest New Ager tends not to believe he can move mountains.

So, one way and another ALL of these people, the wishful thinkers, rate their chances of getting their way rather highly.

Do they think of that as Free Will? That's exactly what it would be. YOUR desires, YOUR choices, YOUR plans.

And if you have Free Will, why doesn't it work every time?

Because you don't. That's why.

There again, there's another attitude. "It is God's Will and I can't change it." "It is in my tea leaves." "It's in the Akashic records." "Ye cannae change the Laws of Physics, Jim". The glass half empty crowd. They shrug, they accept their fate, and they never lift a finger to change it.

Well, that's just as daft, isn't it.

Twice recently I have opined that we have endless choices, and got told that we don't. Let us now examine the anatomy of choice.

Let us assume for the sake of a convenient analogy that the choice is "What shall I have for lunch."

OK. So. Assuming you have at least some money to spend, and/or a fridge/pantry with food in it, you can have have lunch. No lunch at all then is totally free choice on your part. "I was too busy to eat" is not true. Anyone can stop what they are doing. This may cause other problems, sure, but the choice to down tools exists.

Now then, let's assume in my fridge there is ham, cheese, and eggs. Fairly basic stuff that most people will have "in stock". Let's also assume there is a loaf of bread on the counter. I can choose a ham sandwich, a cheese sandwich, or an egg sandwich. That is at least 3 choices. If I were a bit decadent I could put any two, or even all three of them in my sandwich. And I could then toast it. I could add vegetables, and sauce, and I could cut it many ways. The permutations of possible sandwiches are quite high with a few extras.

On the other hand, I couldn't have a chicken sandwich. Or could I? What if I went to the deli and bought some chicken? Or to the sandwich shop and bought a chicken sandwich, just like that? Or went out back and killed a chicken? In theory, at least, I COULD have a chicken sandwich.

I couldn't have a T.Rex sandwich. That's not available. That's not an option. But there are many others.

I could sell my TV, buy an air ticket, fly to Montreal and have a genuine smoked meat sandwich.

I could steal somebody else's sandwich.

I could have soup instead.

All of these options are open to me, and if that isn't freedom of choice, there's just no pleasing some people.

OK, admittedly, some of these aren't terribly realistic choices, or choices I would ever consider making, but they remain. A choice doesn't have to be sensible, or even legal. People make stupid, criminal choices all the time. Quite often when a person complains of his lack of choices what he really means is "simple choices".

Free Will is supposed to be a deep philosophical construct, but if we have it, we actually do a lot better if we use it on everyday stuff too. It beats making excuses, anyway.

We all have obstacles our lives, and that's life, but it's bloody stupid to put them there ourselves.

To sum up then, I maintain that there is such a thing as Free Will, but it's far from complete, and for some people, not even used. I would also like to point out that is wholly a "modern" idea, and can not be claimed (or dismissed) by any traditional religion. It is outside of those.

In fact, belief in Free Will is completely free.

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