against the flow

another ‘free will’ post came to mind.

Whether or not you believe that ‘free will’ is illusory or not, there seems to be an agreed spectrum from, say, rock to Raymond, when it comes to apparent capacity for self-determination: to determine one’s own action.  Rocks are utterly a slave to physical forces or agents other than themselves; being forced into rock walls or river beds.  Raymond however, though his father’s vocation may affect his choice, determines for himself whether he will be a rock wall builder or a fresh water biologist.

Somewhere in the middle would be plants and animals.  Plants ‘choose’ to grow toward the sunlight, apparently.  And animals can ‘choose’ a mate, etc.  I believe I’ve correctly applied the quote-marks around ‘choose’, because as far as we know, the plant and animals are ‘going with the flow’ of the biological and cultural pressure that presses upon them.

Humans at least appear to be able to swim at or hold their heads above, the surface and breathe the air of self-determination.  Rather than being entirely determined by others, we can choose to reject a religion, a meal, a person, an idea, or life itself ((I don’t think suicide occurs in the animal or plant worlds?)) .  A few observations:

  • As a rock cannot choose to be this or that colour, we cannot choose to, for example, fly or levitate.  So we’re talking about possible choices, not impossible ones.
  • Whilst our heads are above the water, our bodies are under water.  We don’t consciously choose to distribute blood throughout the circulatory system, or say to our toenails, ‘Grow!’
  • We easily (and regularly) slip beneath the surface.  Sleep, for example, takes us under.  By contrast, whilst sleep is a refreshing, re-fuelling, humane subconscious state, getting drunk or taking meth-amphetamines pulls you under in a most dehumanising way.  I’ve been drunk many times in my life (particularly if not entirely between ages 18-20!).  There were periods that I don’t remember at all.  These points I was blurring the line between human and non-human.  My ability for self-determination was decreased to the point of nearly vanishing.
  • In light of the above, some macro-choices seem to set up subsequent micro-choices.  The macro-choice to get drunk (itself preceded by choosing to drink ‘one more’… and ‘just one more’…) will lead to all manner of other, progressively less self-determined (!!) micro-choices – including choosing to drive home sleepy and drunk (as I did at least once!!).
  • Because individual self-determining humans do not exist in a vacuum, there will be all kinds of influence from others (and circumstances) upon this self-determination.  Though a) the mere presence of influence does not determine how the influence will be responded to (the flow of influence may be yielded to or opposed), and b) the mere presence of influence on the chooser does not mean that the choice made is unreal; even an experiment where a subject must ‘choose’ the mathematical equation that is balanced is still a choice, though entirely prescribed.
  • In the same way, I see no reason that the ability to predict a choice means that it is not an actual, real choice.

27 thoughts on “against the flow”

  1. On topics, like these I to like to remind myself of the spectrum that is the history of the universe.

    Did those big bang particles choose to collide? I’m guessing most would say no and that it was just a case of the particles reacting.

    Jump forward to the history of life.

    Did those first few prokaryotes choose to form communities? I’m guessing most would say no and that it was just a case of the prokaryotes reacting.

    Now at what point does this change? At what point in the history of the universe, the earth, life as we know it, etc. did some supernatural being reach down and install ‘free will’ into only humans?

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “as far as we know, the plant and animals are ‘going with the flow’ of the biological and cultural pressure that presses upon them.”

    We are part of that eukaryotic domain. Everything humans do is simply a reaction to actions past, and all actions past are reactions to actions that preceded them all the way back to those big bang particles. Whether that’s with the flow or against the flow of biological (or chemical or physical) and human cultural pressures or whether it’s due to emotional reasons or brain damage.

    “we can choose to reject a religion, a meal, a person, an idea, or life itself”

    Animals reject meals and other members of their species all the time. And things like religions and ‘ideas’ haven’t been around longer than humans (unless you go vague and say a squirrel figuring out a better way to fetch an acorn ‘had an idea’).

    When it comes to suicide, it gets understandably complex. Unless things have developed significantly, I’m under the impression that while there are some studies done in the insect world on self-sacrifice – animal suicide is a area of relatively little scientific inquiry. But things that immediately spring to mind for me is the requirement of:

    1) Tools/Technology – guns, knives, rope, pills, needles, flamethrowers, a car/train/bus to jump in front of or however you wanna do it. An animal without adequate tool use skills could only really jump from a great height or wander into a predator’s domain ‘deliberately’ (vaguely suicide)

    2) The capacity to know that you can kill yourself or what you’re about to do will in fact kill you – tricky one because as far as I know, we are one in a small selection of animals who actually are self-aware to the degree that we can comprehend the inevitably of our eventual dissolution, even though we might not like to think about at times and/or possibly entertain the idea of an afterlife.

    3) The capacity to despair or be depressed or to desire an end to your life – highly linked to 2) I’d say.

    Anyhow. I think ‘exercising free will’ is probably best described as ‘reacting a particular way in response to all factors/actions/circumstances leading up to that point’. And that’s a bloody dense history of f/a/c.

    e.g. say I hit Movenpick and had the ‘free will’ to choose between chocolate or strawberry.

    if I chose chocolate (which I would and always will unless I’m feeling like a total rebel/badass) it’s due to a 25 years of loving and preferring the chocolate flavor! I was always going to choose chocolate given the preceding f/a/c.

    if I chose strawberry it’s because I was thinking about this ‘free will’ discussion and felt like being a total rebel/badass. I was always going to choose strawberry given the preceding f/a/c.

  2. fun topic indeed. I don’t think it’s rampant anthropocentricism to note where we are unique in terms of self-awareness, and thus capacity for self-determination. And indeed, your choco v. strawberry choice could rightly be seen as a choice between a) enjoyment of icecream and b) enjoyment of philosophical bad-ass-ness. But again, my thing is that I see no reason that the factors (known/unknown) that put pressure (known/unknown) on the choice (or even more/less fully cause it) somehow mean that it suddenly wasn’t a real choice. Even being forced to make a choice doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a choice.

  3. If you like to think the particles and prokaryotes ‘chose’ then sure.

    Like tildeb said (other thread I think) just because something else ‘could have happened’ – does that make it a choice..

  4. nah, that doesn’t take into consideration our uniqueness – we have a capacity for self-determination that particles and prokaryotes only dream of – or don’t :P

  5. Again, like ‘free will’, ‘self-determination’ is a misnomer.

    All we are doing (like the particles) is ‘‘reacting a particular way in response to all factors/actions/circumstances leading up to that point’

  6. I think it’s both/and. We have significant pressure upon us, and much of our activity (i.e. toe nail growth, breathing, blood-beating, etc.) is not ‘chosen’. But our unique degree of self-awareness (given the spectrum among organisms) gives rise to a unique capacity for self-determination.

    A boating metaphor might be helpful. We are not, like a battery-operated toy boat with a fixed rudder a slave to currents and the initial direction we were set off on, but we have the ability to chart a course and alter it mid-course. We can cut the engine, stop and reflect, seek out new pressures upon our wills that counter those we already have, resulting in behaviour change.

  7. Make up your mind about what it is you’re talking about. You’ve hopped from free will to self determination and now to self awareness.

    Self-awareness is something an organism either has or doesn’t have. There are tests an animal can sit to determine self-awareness. There is nothing ‘unique’ to humans about being self aware. And not a ‘degree’ scale. One can not partially have the capacity for introspection and the ability to reconcile oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals. You either have it or you don’t.

    Yes but why did you cut the engine? Why did you stop and reflect? etc. At the root of all those ‘why’ questions you can say “I was reacting in a particular way in response to all factors/actions/circumstances leading up to that point”.

  8. well, they’re clearly related, aren’t they, and I haven’t ‘hopped’ from one to another. And as in the other thread, the central point here is that there are some things that we can do that other species cannot, or cannot to the same extent. And ability for self-determination is one of them. I think you’re making it sound more offensive and controversial than it is?

  9. “the central point here is that there are some things that we can do that other species cannot, or cannot to the same extent.”

    Haha if that’s your central point now. Then I can agree.

    Boom.

  10. you’ve extracted the most generalised form of my statement and left out the bit about self-determination, which we still seem to disagree on. I’m happy to agree to disagree here.

  11. Ok. Just saying..

    If you want to believe that only humans possess self-determination, well, have fun believing a falsehood.

    If you want to believe that because humans have the ability to exercise self-determination in a wider/greater variety of things (thanks to evolution) that this means anything special (ultimate purpose, destiny, whatever..) well, think twice, because in a few millions years, our “degree” of self-determination you think is so important is going to look to the then superior species like an ant’s “degree” of self-determination looks to us today.

    When you zoom out and look at the wider picture (Neil deGrasse Tyson vid, the SciShow vid I just posted now) – no “humans are God’s favorite” belief or however you want to consider it, holds any water.

  12. Falsehood? The only thing I’ve seen is you claiming that because we can predict a choice (i.e. ‘know’ it before the chooser is aware of it) it’s not a choice. Because we have some pressure on our wills, they are fully/totally/unrelentingly enslaved to the mechanisms of genetics and sociology. I don’t buy any of those.

    And are you predicting the future? You’re certain (you said “is going to look”, not “might look”)? But at any rate, even if we were to find another species (or another species were to find us! which to my mind is more likely, esp. if they are as complex/intelligent as us or more!), and even if this species had more self-determination than us (whatever this would mean), this wouldn’t mean that we suddenly have less. So rather than discuss how our abilities might compare with a species we might discover-or-be-discovered-by, we can just focus on what kind of ability we have.

    And I’m going to bracket the discussion of what self-determination (or the absence of it) means for theology in general (or theological anthropology in particular), and hope we can just focus on the question of our ability for self-determination. I’m trying to say “Yes/yes/but”. Yes, we’ve pressure on our wills. Yes many of our functionality is sub-conscious and not chosen. But in spite of (not because of) these realities, we also operate in the domain of consciousness and reason, thus we can transcend our ‘instincts’ and direct ourselves.

  13. All I said is that the belief that only humans possess self-determination is a falsehood… Other animals have this quality.. Thus it’s false to believe only humans do..

    “So rather than discuss how our abilities might compare with a species we might discover-or-be-discovered-by, we can just focus on what kind of ability we have.”

    And what ability is that…? The ability to start religions? What abilities that are actually ‘unique’ to humans do you want to discuss?

    “we also operate in the domain of consciousness and reason, thus we can transcend our ‘instincts’ and direct ourselves.”

    What instincts are you think of? For example, other animals can transcend selfish instincts and direct themselves towards more selfless empathetic goals also.

  14. I’ve never intended to make an over-stated claim that no non-human animal possesses anything at all like or approaching our capacities. My only claim is that we are at the most-self-directing, most-conscious end of the spectrum. This is uncontroversial stuff, and it distracts from the key question of whether or not we (and indeed if we are, then so are all other animals) are nothing but purely enslaved to physical, biological and cultural pressures, and that we have not even the faintest of ability to transcend these pressures and choose to act differently than the actions which those pressures would direct us toward.

  15. (and I note in passing that among those who are far more equipped than either of us to write/think about consciousness, the question of whether or not humans have a wholly unique kind of ‘consciousness’ than animals is hardly a settled issue.)

  16. “whether or not we (and indeed if we are, then so are all other animals) are nothing but purely enslaved to physical, biological and cultural pressures, and that we have not even the faintest of ability to transcend these pressures and choose to act differently than the actions which those pressures would direct us toward.”

    Maybe you could give me an example of when you did something that you think ‘transcended’ physical, biological and cultural pressures?

  17. The activity of thinking about thinking (metacognition, I believe is the term), and acting about acting would be what I’m getting at. The very awareness of pys/bio/cultural pressures enables us to ‘do something different’. There’s something of an infinite regress here, because you can always claim one more sub-conscious pressure that is moving you to ‘do’ whatever it is you are doing. But this flavour of hard-determinism is very extreme among folk who know much more about it than you/I. Suffice to say that I’m yet to see the logic that even a fully determined choice is still not a choice, and that’s not even considering (arguably) non-fully-determined choices.

  18. Would you say ‘fully determined choice’ happens at a chemical level? Or would you call that something else.

  19. It certainly makes sense to say that it does. Or perhaps appeal to a more general physical law… though quantum indeterminacy should (rightly) be brought to bear on this discussion as well at this point.

  20. Interesting that you’re happy to consider particles making ‘choices’.

    Do you understand how as we zoom out (slowly if it makes you dizzy) that everything is in fact a result of ‘fully determined choice’?

  21. I’m not making that claim – I’m taking you on the logical journey from particles making ‘fully determined choices’.

    Do you understand how quantum indeterminism also shakes the ground under your conception of ‘free will’?

    This is why I said somewhere earlier on that I consider ‘free will’ an unnecessary misnomer. Like tildeb said somewhere earlier also “there’s nothing ‘free’ about it” (or something along those lines)

  22. Certainly interpretations of QM abound, and it is easy prey for what I take to be misguided and fanciful suggestions about ‘creating your own reality’ (i.e. ‘The Secret’ and ‘What the Bleep Do We Know?’) with your mind. But it remains true that, unless the word indeterminacy means nothing, our choices (and indeed sub-atomic phenomena) are not physically determined, and may have something to do with consciousness/mind/observers.

  23. The word indeterminacy literally means “not exactly known” – so as long as your god concept envelopes omniscience the word is not in your vocabulary. Nothing can be truly indeterminate with a know all entity.

    The key word (for me at least) in your final sentence is “may”.

    I still fail to see how anyone can hop off the fence one way or another when so much is still unknown. I’m telling you, if you can deal with the discomfort of not being directly grounded, the view up here is great.

  24. Nice to be your patron :)

    For me it’s both/and. Our very real freedom is within, or rests upon, or emerges from, very real limitations and regularities. All irregularity would be scary indeed. But all/only determinism would empty life of meaning and choice. I like my both/and view, not just coz I like it either, but because it also ‘fits’ with all that we see and experience.

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