Saturday, March 10, 2012

Beyond Fatalism

Allegoria Della Vita Umana, Guido Cagnacci (1601 - 1663)
Getting hung up on fatalism seems one of the biggest problems people have in accepting the determinist view (that there is no free will; the choices we make have been fully caused); even if they see it as rational, they worry the implication will be so dire that to accept it would be embracing something immoral.

This is incredibly flawed logic, of course, in that it puts the cart before the horse, and accepts the idea that you don't have to accept reality if you don't like it - as if your views had any bearing on the laws of the physical universe!

But it is also flawed in that it assumes that determinism implies fatalism. For me, rather it implies compassion, empathy, understanding of the ego, and the path to making better decisions. It implies humility and the recognition that we are all doing the best we can. It implies that our positive and negative actions are merely consequences of larger dynamics, and thus allows us to better understand how to ultimately shape those larger dynamics and increase human happiness.

I was reminded of this after the recent school shooting. At the end of the story, the newscaster noting the grief being experienced throughout the small town community, his final words were that the "community was left grappling with one question: why?" It occurred to me that this question is at the root of so much human despair and anguish. When something painful is not understood, it is in our nature to agonize all the more over it. Feelings of fear mix with anger and frustration into a toxic concoction. These emotions cloud our judgement, and often lead to an impulse of retribution, likely itself an attempt to banish the uncomfortable emotions.

Yet as I heard the newscaster's question, and sympathized with the sentiment, I was experiencing none of the angst to which he referred: there would clearly be a reason why, there always is. The boy was disturbed. Whether it was from a personal history as the victim of abuse, or his suffering from mental illness, or dysfunctional cultural influences, or, more commonly, a mixture of all three, he was clearly created by his genes and their interaction with the environment.

Any of us who has ever thought, "well, I would never do something like that", intuitively grasps this notion, that the self is relative: the reasons you would never do such a thing yourself are precisely the things that were absent from the shooter's self.

Parents also intuitively grasp this notion whenever they take the time to provide guidance to their children: they recognize that their child's behavioral development is a physical process dependent on positive multi-sensory stimulation: touching, hearing and seeing the world in ways that stimulate the positive brain growth responsible for improved cognition, emotional regulation, etc. These things don't happen by accident - everything in our cultural and religious heritage since the dawn of history has evidenced that, as advanced primates, humans are practically defined by our ability to learn, and teach, so as to pass on specific behaviors and development that we desire in successive generations.

So, while the question"why" is interesting from a scientific perspective, as there is clearly an infinite number of things to learn about the process of consciousness and individual choice, the larger, existential, question has clearly been answered. We know in a general sense why "bad" people do bad things, as well as why good people do "good" things: because they have been made that way.

This may all lead to a refutation of the second claim in the worry about fatalism: that acceptance of determinism will lead not only to despair and meaninglessness, but to a morality devoid of personal responsibility.

Even if one believes (knows?) that life unfolds according to physical processes beyond our ultimate control, one's practical experience is remarkably unchanged.  One still has needs and desires.  Surely the fact that I do not choose to become hungry, or that my taste buds have been designed to respond to make certain foods pleasurable, doesn't mean that I cannot enjoy a delicious meal.  Or, that my pain receptors have been designed to give me discomfort when they are stimulated by injury?  I cannot escape this fact of human life.

But what of the choices I make?  Here lies what may be the nub of the issue.  Every conscious choice I make is essentially a selection among a variety of options, each given variations of "weight" towards my ultimate goal of making the "best" choice.  This is at one level a physical, mathematical process, in that there exist multiple variables that are adjusted and defined according to discrete relationships, so as to give each meaning in context of the others.  Our brains have been designed to "learn" to make these choices as unconsciously as possible, firmly laying down complex routines and sub-routines, so as to maximize efficiency and free up mental resources for expanded conscious capacity.  For instance, when first learning to ride a bike, 100% of conscious attention is required to manage the feedback of innumerable stimuli.  Yet once bike riding is "learned", the routines have been laid down to the degree that it is now possible to ponder direction, carry on conversations, or ruminate over other, more transcendent concerns.  What began as a complicated series of conscious decisions (keep pedaling, lean left, lean right, watch out for the tree!), has become entirely unconscious.

Yet many decisions in life are unique, and require more sophisticated analysis.  Surely picking a president, or deciding to get up on time to go to work, or to quell one's anger so as not to go on a killing spree, or to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior, require more conscious choice.

Or do they?  Individual decision-making is difficult to track, especially on complex, dynamic issues such as religion, politics, or motivation, where a seemingly infinite set of variables come to bear.  But when people are looked at as a group, in categories defined by set variables such as family history, education, wealth, culture, mental health, etc., patterns begin to emerge.  It becomes increasingly possible to predict the likelihood that any given individual in a group will make particular decisions.

What this implies is that people, no matter how conscious they might regard themselves to be when they get out of bed in the morning, or step into the polling booth in the afternoon, are in fact much more determined than they might themselves recognize.  Knowingly or not, they are on courses of patterned behavior that their brains have been evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to establish systematically.  

Can we break free from these determined patterns?  This is actually the question the fatalist gets at:  If one were to, after accepting that he is fully caused and thus not ultimately responsible for any of his behavior, commit murder in cold blood and feel no guilt or shame?  

He certainly could, but only if he were able to completely extricate himself not only from everything he has ever learned from society regarding the immorality of murder, but also from the biological structures in his brain responsible for the human emotions of empathy, compassion and love for others.  He would have to be the proverbial "superman".  

Not only would this be a highly unlikely development in any average man, it would have to be entirely deterministic.  That is, he must recognize that whatever behavior he undertakes to choose, it will have arisen from his own special circumstance as a "self" that had been created under the precise conditions so as to allow him to carry out such a morally radical action, one in direct opposition to biological and social norms that society has not inherited arbitrarily, but largely having been designed with regard to maximal individual interest.  

The decision to flaunt this design would be tantamount to denying one's biological imperative to eat, or even move.  If there is truly no point to anything, as we are all determined, then why should we do anything at all?

I tried this once, when I came to a similar conclusion at the age of 18.  I remember sitting on a chair in my bedroom, realizing that I could find no clear, rational purpose to life, other than to fulfill preordained social and biological (at a certain point these blur together) impulses.  I had no real option other than to adopt a catatonic posture towards waking reality, and simply let nature take its course.  I moved to the floor, laying down onto my back.  I had to breath - that was largely a autonomic response anyway.  I didn't need need to pee just then, which in retrospect was probably a bonus, as I would have had to wrestle with the thought of allowing my bladder to release its contents of its own volition.  

So, there I was.  Waiting.  For what, to die?  I imagined my then girlfriend arriving home and finding me there, inevitably arguing with me to get the hell up off the floor (maybe by then lying in my own excrement).  It began to dawn on me that what I was undertaking required enormous willpower.  By choosing to make no choices, I was stuck in a paradox.  Any behavior would be chosen behavior.  This was simply a physical reality of being human.  And any choice I made was going to be dependent on prior choices, or naturally occurring stimuli.  If I were to truly stay in this catatonic state, and I suppose eventually be taken away on a stretcher, I would have to have process enormous amounts of prior learning and have managed to re-route those innumerable sub-routines.  To do so - and here is the bottom of it all - would have all been entirely determined anyway; reaching this point would have required a specific set of environmental and biological processes to occur that would have caused me to make whatever choices I was pretending not to make.  Maybe it was because I read Camus.  Maybe because I rebelled against my parents' religion.  Maybe I was simply depressed. 

In the end, I could not escape choice.  I would have to then take responsibility for the choices that I did make, even if they were ultimately chosen for me.  I thought first of my girlfriend, and my loving feelings for her. I thought of the sunshine.  I thought of bagels and cream cheese, and riding my skateboard.  I thought of making others happy, of doing good deeds, and of all there still was to learn in the world.  These were all things that gave me pleasure.  They were, of course, all products of my life up until that point.  They were the final result, the now, of the particular way in which all the elements that originally spun together, accreted into the planet Earth, assembled into lifeforms, evolved into humans, and over thousands of years gave rise to little old "me".

As I rose up of the floor, I felt a sort of ecstacy.  I had found an answer to the question "why".  It may not have had much explanatory power - that would come as I continued to live my life, learning and digesting the world before me.  But it was an existential answer.  It integrated my self with the natural world around me.  It established, through reason, a purpose for my existence.  Above all it elevated humility, a word rooted in the basic understanding that we are all only human.  Not only need we not be anything more, but we simply cannot be any more.  As Descartes famously wrote, "I think, therefore I am".  No matter that my thoughts came from some determined place in the past; I am my thoughts.  I am not omnipotent, and I must be satisfied with that limitation.    I must be satisfied with these physical limitations, even as I seek to expand my consciousness - that which is defined by the relationship between the self and it's own immediate history.  

Just as a serpent cannot eat its own tail, the self cannot think itself away.  It is trapped in its own causality.  All we can ever do is try to understand as best we can that which we have come from, that which makes us, as it will lead to the kind of fulfillment we cannot help but desire.  What this fulfillment is, or even how to attain it, is nothing less than the human project.  We are involved in it whether we like it or not.  It is indeed fate, but it is a fate much more profound and dynamic than we can hope to understand.  All we can do is go along for the ride, our contribution, in no matter what capacity, preordained.  

And there is beauty.  

Of course.


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