Thursday, 7 March 2013

An excursion into free will

I recently read an essay entitled Free Will by Sam Harris, a scholar and philosopher for whom I have much respect and whose opinions I tend to take very seriously. In it, Mr Harris argues that free will is an illusion. Now, my entire approach to life hinges on the idea that -- perhaps within a framework of some limits -- we have the option of making decisions as we see fit, thereby shaping our world according to our wishes.

I’m sure you can imagine how troubling the implications of such an essay were for me -- considering that an adequately strong argument has historically swayed my worldview on a number of notable occasions.

I needn’t have worried. Although this is not the time or place to discuss my responses to Mr Harris’ outstanding essay in detail, it is enough to say that there are two main reasons why he did nothing but reinforce my existing belief system. The first is that according to my criteria, the objective existence of free will is irrelevant compared to the subjective experience of contemplating and deciding on a course of action, which then results in consequences that would not have eventuated if we had made a different decision. Mr Harris and I agree from the outset that feeling free and being free are two independent issues.

The second reason is that my own experience of life, and the phenomena I have been involved in first-hand, are drastically divergent from what Mr Harris has experienced. Therefore it is to be expected that my interpretation of why things happen as they do is different to the interpretations offered by Mr Harris. The net effect is that reading his essay felt like absorbing a passionate diatribe explaining why the world can be nothing other than flat, when I myself am a seasoned space cadet and have seen the planet very differently from orbit.

(I hope you will forgive my good-natured ad hominem jibe; ironically, the ‘flat earth’ analogy is one I use myself in relation to free will, and the side I argue for is that the shape of the planet is secondary to the fact that for all intents and purposes, the Newtonian world as we experience is indeed flat.)

In any case, it is a superbly written exposition and one I recommend unreservedly. It was extremely thought-provoking, intriguing and enjoyable to read, and as I previously alluded, I am in complete agreement with many of the points Mr Harris makes. I also learned several new words, and that is always a thrill for me. I respect Mr Harris’ views, and would never suggest my own version of the truth is superior; as always, I invite you to read for yourself and make up your own mind as to whose ideas are most beneficial for you.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

How much do one's coordinates of birth predetermine one's life?

Recently, I was talking to someone who asserted that more than any other factor, one’s fate -- at least, as measured by their likelihood of success or failure in attaining one's desires -- is dictated by the location of one’s birth. I would add that the time of one’s birth is an equally relevant consideration, but this does not detract from the basic question.

My own point of view is that the one overriding factor deciding how our lives unfold is the collection of choices we make. However, the issue of where and when one is born exists outside of our decision-making spectrum. As you can probably imagine, then, this is a variable that I find very troubling.

On one hand, I am eager to say that even the poorest Kenyan can still end up as a successful runner in the Olympics. But firstly, that is such a stereotype that I am almost embarrassed to even mention it, and secondly, what guarantee is there that the people who are chosen to run in the Olympics are, in fact, the best whom Kenya has to offer? Thirdly, closing the circle, what if the best runner in Kenya has more pressing priorities -- such as caring for his or her family -- and as a result, has elected not to even try out for such a prestigious title?

I say this consideration closes the circle, because you will note that the aforementioned ‘fastest runner’ has stayed out of the Olympics by making a choice. But at the end of the day, this is all a great deal of pipe dreaming, and really I am something of a hypocrite to be speculating about such things from my comfortable upper-middle-class life. I am well aware that even my most acute torments are not life-and-death issues; they are products of interpersonal politics, more than anything else.

My gut feeling is that choice does remain a great deciding factor in all people’s lives, from the poorest to the most spoilt. (As an aside, it is interesting to observe that in a survey of which nations’ citizens consider themselves happiest, the winners are generally very poor countries. Prosperous first-world nations tend to be uniformly miserable by comparison -- which in itself is a subject for a different discussion altogether.)

Since I have no way of verifying my instinct, I should probably best focus on the life that I know -- a first-world, Western existence. I maintain that the various tribulations I have been fortunate to survive have equipped me to prevail in almost any environment -- including one of abject poverty. How I would go about rising from such an environment is another matter, and yet another is how someone who has not benefited from my own life of learning and comparative luxury could do the same.

I would not dream of pretending to be some great philanthropist whose message is just as valid for a bus driver in Manila as for a well-to-do white British male. It would be so very fulfilling for me if the concepts I try to share could indeed help enrich the life of a person in the former situation; I do believe that with persistence, clarity of vision, and one or two other key qualities, it is possible to achieve happiness and a sense of success from virtually any starting point. Perhaps my idea that it is possible to engineer just about any future for oneself -- within basic physical limits -- is true for any human, no matter when and where they were born.

However, I am never likely to find out for sure. In the interim, I shall roll the hard six of triage: I am a pragmatic man, therefore I shall focus on empowering those whose lives I know I can definitely help change.