Monday, October 26, 2009

What We Ought to Do

"But [whether or not we have free will] is PURELY IRRELEVANT because the knowledge that we lack free will does not displace that introspective awareness that we have of it. If the realization of a fact has no impact on what or how we think or do or say, then who cares?"

I completely disagree with this sentiment. I think it does have a profound on what we should think do or say. Sure, we are still determined, but we are the agents of the larger social organism and although we must do as it has created us to do, the fact that we are humans is integral to its vision - our vision - for what we ought to do. We are using this insight to extrapolate our localized behavior with our loved ones - how we wish to treat and be treated by them - to our larger community of fellow humans.

I came to my current position on free will (that we have none) from purely political and social considerations. How was it, I asked myself, that such inequality exists, especially in America as we have such a relatively robust infrastructure for personal success? As a liberal, I was troubled by conservativism's main argument for maintaining the status quo: that success is there for those who choose it. But many people don't choose it, and I began to see patterns.

When broken down by demographics, certain groups have very predictable life experiences. By adjusting variables, you can easily put life outcomes on a scatter plot and they will be highly determined.

At one end of the scale, we might have a white male born into wealth, with highly educated parents who love him and nurture him, push him academically and basically give him an optimal upbringing. On the other, we might have a black male who's father is in prison, his mother on drugs, whose school is filled with others from similar backgrounds, and he falls farther and farther behind in school.

It is obvious which child stands the better chance of success in life. Yet for all practical purposes, when the first child starts his own business and lives a life of rich luxury, we say it was his own choice - that he earned it. And when the second child drops out of school, begins selling drugs, and commits murder, we say it was his own choice - that he deserved it.

We have enormously complex social policies set up based on exactly that premise - that both of these men had a choice in their lives. Sure, occasionally individuals will perform outside the norm for our crude parameters. But the exception doesn't prove the rule, it simply calls for a more nuanced and detailed look at what those particular cases involved.

If people did indeed have free choice, we would be unable to come up with predictors for social outcomes. Education, family, neighborhood, income, etc. would have no relationship with outcomes. Every individual would be just as capable of breaking the rule, thus disproving it.

So if we are to truly take a determined view of human social behavior, we must be prepared to radically revision how we structure our society.

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