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.

lewis on science & prediction

From Lewis, Letter’s to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 38-39.

It is true in one sense that the mark of a genuine science is its power to predict. But does this mean that a perfected science, or a perfected synthesis of all the sciences, would be able to write reliable histories of the future? And would the scientists even want to do so? Doesn’t science predict a future event only in so far as, and only because, that event is the instance of some universal law? Everything that makes the event unique – in other words, everything that makes it a concrete historical event – is deliberately ruled out; not only as something which science can’t, or can’t yet, include, but also as something in which science, as such, has no interest. Take away from the sunrises that in which they differ and what is left will be identical. Such abstracted identicals are what science predicts. But life as we live it is not reducible to such identities. Every real physical event, much more every human experience, has behind it, in the long run, the whole previous history of the real universe – which is not itself an “instance” of anything – and is therefore always festooned with those particularities which science for her own purposes quite rightly discounts. Doesn’t the whole art of contriving a good experiment consist in devising means whereby the irrelevancies – that is, the historical particularities – can be reduced to the minimum?

Later in his essay Burnaby seems to suggest that human wills are the only radical unpredictable factor in history. I’m not happy about this. Partly because I don’t see how the gigantic negative which it involves could be proved; partly because I agree with Bradley that unpredictability is not the essence, nor even a symptom, of freedom. […] But suppose it were true. Even then, it would make such a huge rent in the predictability of events that the whole idea of predictability as somehow necessary to human life would be in ruins. Think of the countless human acts, acts of copulation, spread over millennia, that led to the birth of Plato, Attila, or Napoleon. Yet it is on these unpredictables that human history largely depends. Twenty-five years ago you asked Betty to marry you. And now, as a result, we have young George (I hope he’s got over his gastric flu?). A thousand years hence he might have a good many descendants, and only modesty could conceal from you the possibility that one of these might have as huge a historical effect as Aristotle – or Hitler!