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Free Will

Free Will published on 2 Comments on Free Will

A few days ago I talked with a school friend with whom I hadn’t spoken in a while. She is a first-year studying English Literature, History and Philosophy in university. We talked over the usual news and plans which people explore when they haven’t chatted in a while; then we moved on to philosophy, an area in which I wish I had more knowledge.

We centred on the subject of free will and established that we both thought that it didn’t exist. Her argument was that we are so bound by our culture and up-bringing that free-will is not really an option. My argument was that behaviour of the fundamental particles which constitute our bodies is derived from the previous events and the laws which govern them — what room there is for spontaneity and randomness in the quantum realm is not governed by us; in this sense we are governed by the materials which form us. So, for our different reasons we both agreed that we are not free to determine our own actions.

I asked; ‘Given that we do not have free will,  how do you regard your life, ambitions and decisions?’. At that point she said that people ought to separate their philosophical thoughts from their other attributes, their loves and needs; otherwise they would jeopardise their chances to flourish.

At this point, we diverged: she quit the ethereal — and in this case depressing — domain of philosophy, and I remained there; she quarantined the undesirable and continued with her enthusiasm, while I stayed, regarding the irreconcilable.

We mustn’t be so swift in disregarding our logic so as not to nudge the pool table. While it’s true that we, on making a logical determination, should not immediately act upon it, instead submitting it — pending — to more criticism, because it may fall after greater pressure. Nevertheless, it is the logical maneuvers which make us most uncomfortable which are of the greatest importance, this is how we progress.

In a sense, ever since I though up my anti-free will argument (I say mine, what I mean is that I am not versed enough to know its originator), I have been on pending-status, acting like a creature which has control over its actions, while seriously doubting it.

In addition, what should we do if humanity does not have free will? Does it render hundreds of thousands of years of civilisation meaningless or pointless? Or is it something which we should accept and then continue as we would have otherwise? Simply, while without free-will it is difficult to mandate our continued existence, it is not a mandate for ceasing this existence.

My friend then said that if we care about something enough, it mandates our existence, which I think was diverging from the point. In terms of providing a reason for living, Christopher Hitchens and Hunter S. Thompson have provided me with the closest, simplest and most elegant attempts:–

Maybe there is no Heaven. Or maybe this is all pure gibberish—a product of the demented imagination of a lazy drunken hillbilly with a heart full of hate who has found a way to live out where the real winds blow—to sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whisky, and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested . . . Res ipsa loquitur. Let the good times roll.

That was from the introduction to Thompson’s collection of essays from the 1980s, ‘Generation of Swine’.

I know what’s coming, I know no one beats these odds. It’s a matter of getting used to that, growing up and realising that you’re expelled from your mother’s uterus as if shot from a cannon, towards a barn door studded with old nail files and rusty hooks. It’s a matter of how you use up the intervening time in an intelligent and ironic way. And try not to do anything dastardly to your fellow creatures.

This was spoken first, correct me if I am wrong, by Hitchens on a Washington roadside. Both of these great allegories still do not provide an explanation for, as Hitchens made clear, ‘Why should we care?’. Nevertheless, they are fine examples in that they assume as little as is possible and do not defer to the imaginary.

When religious people challenged Hitchens, saying that without a god, people will have no impartial way of deciding their values (which is amusing, in that they seem to think that the fact that this state of affairs is not desirable to them, that it should not exist) he was always very able to explain his own reasoning and how this allowed him to derive his values — his statements were still subject to the ‘Why should be care?’ problem, nevertheless. He did not, however, provide an  impartial source for our values, and I haven’t found a convincing one. What if we cannot argue ourselves out of that terminus? I can’t, but I’m working on it.

To a large extent, people reverse engineer their arguments; we’re gene machines, our model is not designed for realism — the survival instinct makes us want to continue, and we design arguments which agree with this: our distaste for our own annihilation, the rejection of our insignificance. What we must do is separate what is superficially desirable from that which can be supported, the latter being the more honorable goal. Until we can make those judgments, the only logical movement I can make is to proceed from the reality of our existence to saying, permissum bonus vicis suscipio.

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