1984 - ON CHOICE

Free-Will and Determinism

      The last chapter focussed on the role of chance in the lives people lead; this chapter focusses on the role of choice. Determinists emphasise chance and freewillists emphasise choice. Perhaps this determinism vs freewill chestnut has been roasted for so many centuries because we are both right. If you are determined to be a determinist (and are not concerned about the contradiction), then your life is determined. If you are a free-willist then you do indeed have free-will, since the first act of free-will is to believe in it. We are all self-fulfilling prophets.

      This was pointed out to me by a wise old man I once met in Los Angeles. He had just emerged from a mental hospital, he was physically sick, his wife had left him, and his children were alienated from him. After a five-hour discussion, during which we disagreed on every topic that arose, l suddenly saw an underlying pattern to our debate.

"I see now, old man, why we disagree. We consider each topic at such depth that we get right down to our basic philosophical assumptions, and I am a free-willist whereas you are a determinist."
" Of course, young man, you are a free-willist - your life is going well and you want to take the credit. And, of course, l am a determinist - my life is going badly and I don't want to take the blame."
      Though I'm nervous about flying, I fly a lot. I'm nervous on the way to the airport and waiting for the plane. However, as soon as the plane takes off, I relax. My life is now out of my control. A free-willist on the ground, I'm a determinist in the air. It must be very relaxing to go through life believing that its script has been pre-written and you can't even edit it. Sometimes I envy determinists. Believing that your actions have an impact on your own life and the lives of others is a major responsibility.

      Once I tried to teach myself not to get mad at inanimate objects. My technological possessions are not in a conspiracy against me. I finally convinced myself that they did not work because I was not using them appropriately. One object however still made me mad. My showerhead kept freezing or scalding me. Forgetting to move the whatsit to re-direct the water to the bath, my showerhead attacked me from behind as I bent over to check the temperature. Once again, I was responsible but - because of the lack of spatial and temporal contiguity - it seemed to be doing it to me. The feedback chain is usually much more complex than this, as when our karma comes back as a result of how we treat other people. Thus we keep blaming other things and other people for what is happening to us. The upside of accepting blame for the bad things that happen to us is that we can also accept the credit for the good things that happen to us.

      Introductory textbooks in psychology (including my own) intone, time after pompous time, that this or that behaviour is determined by some complex interaction between environmental and genetic factors. However, there seems to be a third factor. Once again, an anecdote may help: Chang and Eng were Siamese twins. Whereas Chang was practically teetotal and celibate, Eng was an alcoholic and a womaniser. Here were two people, who were genetically identical and had as close to similar environmental influence as possible, yet had totally different personalities. Their different personalities could not be attributed then to genetic factors, or environmental factors, or whatever complex interaction between them. There must be a third factor. Eng chose to lead the short happy life, whereas Chang tried for the long miserable one. Alas, poor Chang had to die when Eng died. However, most of us are not attached to another person and lead lives determined by our choices.

      This emphasis on choice does not imply that genetic factors are unimportant. Choice is a function of the natural unfolding of the potential of our species. Both phylogenetic (animal to human) and ontogenetic (child to adult) development could be best described - if they must be described in one sentence - as the progressive emancipation of the organism from the tyranny of the environment. Nor does this mean that the environment is unimportant. There is no evidence that any group of people has cornered the market on any of the human vices or virtues. Different cultures create different climates which encourage or discourage different choices. What is truly important, however, is the third factor of human choice. We are indeed constrained by our genetics and by our environments but, within those constraints, we can exercise choices to determine, to some extent, the course of our lives. We can write our own scripts.

      That is why the first chapter is called ON POTENTIAL and not ON FATE or ON DESTINY. The latter terms imply that the script is to some extent pre-written. We go through life lip-synching to a tune that was written before we were born. The more neutral ON POTENTIAL implies that the potential may or be realised in dramatically different ways, depending on a number of factors which are explored in this book. To continue the games-people-play metaphor, the argument of this book is that the 150 very different lives led by the various members of my karass is less a matter of the cards we were dealt (we were all "dealt" the conception-day gift of the wisdom acquired by our species over thousands of years of evolution) than the way we played the cards.

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