REPOST: Where's my free will?
I don’t know about you, but when I tune in to the infantile ‘debate’ about obesity – about who to blame when folk get fat and how ‘someone must do something” (for “someone” read “government,” and for “something” read coercion) – I find it disturbing that fatties and pollies alike find common cause in removing personal responsibility from their respective equations.
If you're a fat bastard and you don't want to be, how about you stop blaming vending machines, your school, your parents, your genes and just try the 'don't-eat-so-frigging-much' diet. (Do you see many fat starving Africans in famine photos hiding at the back going, "Oh, I've just got big bones"? No? Is that a clue? Sheesh!)
And if you're a politician, how's about you implementing a self-imposed 'I-won't-poke-my-nose-into-your-business' week, and just leave us and our eating habits alone.
You see, it's not about victims, it's all about choice -- something you educated people want to remove from our understanding of human affairs.
Why would you choose to do that?
You've probably seen me mention a few times Tibor Machan's view on the basic errors made in the 'ongoing' nature/nurture debate (here for instance). As he's just blogged on how this error affects the 'obesity debate,' allow me to quote:
So once again we see the age old battle between two kinds of determinism, inherited versus environmental factors. But there is another option that needs to be added. This is personal responsibility.Me too. I just don't know how they do that. Are they wilfully blind?
We are all saddled with aspects of ourselves that we had nothing to do with, and we all face elements in our environment we cannot control. But there are also choices we can make, given who and what we are and the world in which we live. The very idea that we should look more to environmental factors than to our hard wiring suggest that we have a choice. This also suggests that no one has to eat fast foods, or clear his or her plate, or go on various binges. Some of us may find it more difficult to resist temptations than others, but so what? Tall people have different challenges from short ones but both need to meet those challenges they face.
As a teacher of ethics, I find it disturbing that so many educated people opt for removing individual responsibility from the picture as they try to understand human affairs.
THE LIKES OF BRIAN EDWARDS will still argue that criminals “can’t help it” when they do bad things—which means, conversely, that neither do heroes when they do good.
Tell that to Thomas Jefferson. Or Nelson Mandela.
But such is the incredulity of the determinist’s conclusion: that between them nature and nurture completely determine human behaviour, so completely that humans themselves should be neither praised nor condemned.
‘You see that triple century that Brendon McCullum just scored,’ a convinced determinist will say, ‘he didn’t build that.’
Sounds like horse shit to me. But then, according to Edwards et al they have no choice about shovelling this shit—and nor do you about taking it.
So much for the nonsense of “hard determinism”—a theory that says man is nothing more than a piece of meat, controlled by forces about which he knows nothing.
Let us take the determinists at their word then: they know nothing—and by their own theory they’re constrained to demonstrate it.
In her advice to authors, Ayn Rand reckoned that the determinist argument—that you’re neither to be blamed nor lauded for your behaviour—is nothing more than “an alibi for weaklings.”
Don't excuse depravity. Don't drool over weaklings as conditioned ‘victims of circumstances’ (or of ‘background’ or of ‘society’), who ‘couldn't help it.’ You are actually providing an excuse and an alibi for the worst instincts in the weakest members of your audience. . .
. . . the best advice I can give you is never to regard yourself as a product of your environment. That is not the key to me, to you, or to any human being. It is not a key to anything, it is merely an alibi for weaklings.
Building on Ayn Rand’s observations on free will and the manifest contradictions in the determinists’ arguments, philosopher Tibor Machan points out that since the determinist argument utterly ignores free will—the faculty that allows us to make decisions for ourselves—it ignores the very faculty that truly does determine our character .
While nature and nurture certainly play a part in forming our talents and personality, he argues, what we do with what we’re given is up to us. It’s up to our free will – in other words, to the choices we ourselves make.
In his argument, nature and nurture together build our personality, but it’s our free will –what we choose to do with that foundation – that builds our character.
It’s the choices we make that define us.
But where does our free will come from? Where does it reside? How does it work? To answer you, we’re going to have to go back to bed. . .
THE FIRST THING YOU NOTICE through the fog of sleep is a loud, ringing sound. As you rise up through the fog of sleep you recognise it as an alarm of some sort. Your alarm clock. You focus further and realise that it's not going to turn itself off. As you force yourself awake you direct your focus to your limbs, lifting yourself out of bed, and you turn off the clock on your way to the bathroom, making yourself shake the sleep from your mind as you go. It's the start of another day.
As you shower, you set yourself thinking about what you need to do today and, as you do and as you shower, the scales of sleep slip ever further away. You understand you have an important day ahead, and you feel yourself rising up to meet it. You choose to. In a few short minutes, by your own direction, your mind has changed from an inert unconscious thing, one barely able to grasp what's going on around it, to one that is now focussed upon the events of the day and is starting to make plans to meet them ... and all this even before the first coffee!
Most of us manage this process in a few minutes. Some take hours. Some will choose to stay unfocussed for days. But everyone who has ever experienced this -- which is all of us, at some time – even Brian Edwards and his criminals--has experienced what it is to have free will.
At its root, free will is that process of choosing to focus, of deciding first of all to lift our level of awareness from a lower level to a higher one (or to decide not to), and then directing our focussed attention to something on which we've determined we need to pay attention. To a lecture, perhaps. Our alarm clock. A book. A piece of music. A blog post on free will. Someone offering us a beer. At each stage of listening, reading, comprehending, trying to grasp a thought, we can choose to maintain attention and focus on what we're trying to take in, to weigh the thoughts and melodies and information that is coming in, or we can choose to float off in a vague fog and let everything just wash over us.
Take a look at the painting of Vermeer's Geographer above, in the very process of grasping a thought. That’s what it looks like from outside. Look at a child when she does it for herself. See the way her forehead wrinkles? That’s what Victor Hugo called poetically ‘the first mark of God on the face of a child.”
This is special – it’s at the very heart of what makes us human. Riffing on Hugo’s theme, Ayn Rand asks you to:
project the look on a child’s face when he grasps the answer to some problem he has been striving to understand. It is a radiant look of joy, of liberation, almost of triumph, which is unself-conscious, yet self-assertive, and its radiance seems to spread in two directions: outward, as an illumination of the world—inward, as the first spark of what is to become the fire of an earned pride. If you have seen this look, or experienced it, you know that if there is such a concept as “sacred”—meaning: the best, the highest possible to man—this look is the sacred, the not-to-be-betrayed, the not-to-be-sacrificed for anything or anyone.
This is what the determinist wishes to expunge. This ability with enormous consequence. This process, begin by turning on instead of dropping out.
The process of turning our alarm clock of and heading off to a lecture shows the process in microcosm: choosing to focus more intensely at each new level of awareness we reach. From the fog of sleep right up to the intense awareness needed to focus on your lecturer (to integrate her points with your previous knowledge, and to spot her errors) every step of the way we’re choosing to focus more intensely.
And even if we choose not to, we still have made a choice.
The act of choosing to pay attention (or not to) is a volitionally focussed act. It occurs in two stages, by which we first say to ourselves, "I need to focus on this, to understand this," and then acting -- choosing to act -- so as to direct our minds to that on which we ourselves have determined that we need to understand.
Observe your own mind while you’re reading this post. Are you focussing on the arguments in an attempt to understand and address them, or have you already drifted off into non-comprehension and evasion?
AS I’VE DESCRIBED IT ABOVE, the act of focussing is voluntary, and is almost like continually turning on a car. At each stage we can choose to go either to a higher level of awareness, or not; we can choose to focus, or we can choose to drift back off either to sleep, or into a state of unfocussed lethargy. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Equally, you can lead someone else's brain to stimulus, but you can't make it respond. That person must do that work for themselves.
Volition is a powerful factor. Thoughts, values, principles aren’t just given to us out of the ether, or imprinted upon us by our genes; rather, they are things to identify and think about and grasp for ourselves. Or not. No one can do the thinking for someone else. With sufficient will we can work towards grasping the highest concepts open to us, or we can even sleep through the warning alarm clocks of our consciousness.
That choice -- to focus or not; to switch on or not -- is contained entirely within ourselves, and from that choice made by each of us every minute of every day all human thought and all human action is the result. The fact that we are continually making this choice (or choosing not make it) every waking minute of every working day is perhaps why we sometimes fail to see that we're doing it. We've almost automatised our awareness of it, but honest introspection (if we honestly choose to do so) is all it requires to be identified.
This is the nature of the volitional consciousness that each of us does possess, even Brian Edwards, and is the fact those who choose to deny free will wish to evade: that this great thinking engine resting on top of our shoulders does not turn itself on automatically. We ourselves own the keys to the engine, and it is in that fundamental choice -- to think, or not to think; to focus, or not to focus; to go to a higher level of awareness, or to drift in and out of awareness -- that the faculty of free will itself resides.
So given that very brief discussion of free will -- to which, if you like, you can add previous similar discussions here, here, here, here and here -- what then do you make of this discussion from the former Sir Humphrey's blog. in which Lucyna (now posting at NZ Conservative) not only argues that free will is a product of the god she subscribes to, but if you subscribe to free will you ipso facto must join her in worshipping him too.
"...if there is no God there’s no free will because we are completely phenomena of matter... we cannot be considered morally responsible beings unless we have free will. We do everything because we are controlled by our genes or our environment." [Comments by David Quinn in The God Delusion: David Quinn & Richard Dawkins debate] Logically, if you are an atheist, you will believe that we are completely influenced by our genetics and environment. That there is no free-will, that moral responsibility has no ability to manifest in any human being. If you don't believe all of that, then you cannot be an atheist and you must have some inkling that God exists.
What do you make of that then?
Let’s turn on our brains – by ourselves, without any diving assistance -- and examine it for ourselves. "If there's no God then there's no free will"? And “If you are an atheist” then “logically” [logically?] you can't "believe" in free will?
Doesn’t this sound like horse shit too?
As I've suggested above, we don't need to "believe" in free will in the same way a Christian chooses to “believe” in the existence of a supernatural being; instead, to identify that we do have the faculty of free will all we have to do is introspect—to apply our cognition inwards (to choose to) and watch ourselves making choices.
What you’ll see by looking inward is your own process of weighing arguments, or evading them.
Indeed, you can see it for yourself right now as you weigh in your mind that last proposition, and choose whether or not to accept it -- or whether to evade the effort or the knowledge. (And recognise, dear reader, that if you choose not to accept it or to evade it, that you still have made a choice.)
So much for needing to believe in the supernatural in order to "believe" in free will. As Ayn Rand identified:
That which you call your soul or your spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call your "free will" is your mind's freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.”
We have consciousness.
Consciousness is endowed by its nature with the faculty of free will.
What we each choose to do with our own consciousness is up to us -- it's there that the discussion of morality really begins.
Yet without this recognition, it’s a discussion that could never even get off the ground – because without the ability to choose what we value, what use is a science of value at all?
So stay focussed, I say, and eat what you damned well please.
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