Friday, March 19, 2010

Bekka-chan's comment on how hard she was hit by the movie "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" made me think of my beliefs of human free will. Most go to one polar extreme or the other [surprise, surprise!], either declaring that we have no free will and are simply biochemical robots or that we can choose whatever we like and are fully accountable for everything we do. This tendency to think in extremes has caused much grief in human history and, I think, helped to lead Hegel into his thesis, antithesis, synthesis view of history.

The fact remains that people do horrible, even unthinkable things, if they feel peer and superior pressure to do so. Yesterday, the L A Times reported that a French “reality show” was actually a psychology experiment repeated on national television. Participants were told to more and more severely electrically shock a man [actually an actor] until he died. Sounds impossible? Sadly, in both the original American experiment and in the television program, most participants did what they were told to do and willingly committed murder. In fairness, in the experiment, and I assume in the program, the participants were not told to actually kill the individual they were shocking, but they did hear him pleading for mercy and showing signs of major damage from their actions. Clearly, they should have seen that the man was near death and stopped--but they didn’t.

Much of the basis for Original Sin lies in the assumption that Adam and Eve had free will and abused it to decide to defy God’s will. The Greeks certainly believed in moira, or fate. The website,, refers to the Fates in this entry:

The ancient Greeks believed in Fate. They said there were three sisters of fate, the Moirae, tripple [sic.] Moon-goddesses robed in white, whom Erebus begat on Night. They were not the children of Zeus, but parthenogenous [sic.] daughters of the Great Goddess of Necessity, against whom not even the gods contend.

Yet the Greeks, for all their fear of Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, believed in free will. It was not that you could decide your course and control your fate entirely, but you could control how you faced your fate. The hero, the great man so important to Greek thinking, earned respect by struggling nobly against the impositions of the gods. He might not be able to change his fate, but he could refuse to meekly submit.

This places the belief in free will at the very foundations of our culture, both Greek and Judeo-Christian.

My own beliefs have developed over my life. when young I insisted on a more Judeo-Christian interpretation than Greek. Now I find myself much more in agreement with the latter. the evidence had=s compelled me [fate?] to acknowledge that we are biochemical robots, that we are another form of ape. Yet, I insist that we are apes plus, biochemical robots plus. Plus what? Plus free will. Call it intelligence, call it options, call it defiance of the gods.

Much of literature takes time to condemn man as a herd animal, as a member of the flock. But man is not a sheep, not cattle. We are apes. We are members of a troop. As social animals we feel not merely pressure, but biological and psychological needs to fit in. This is not limited to our experiences in high school [I was a loner--that’s a sort of group which, then again, isn’t a me to take the odd path. Must be my fate].

Still, how is it that some members of our troop gain authority to be the deciders for the rest of us? The answer is complicated, but well known to us all. We know who the leaders are, we help to publicly decide them in elections. But even the chosen have followers and deriders. This means that we also decide personally and privately who to trust and who to deride. There are those who choose to trust Fox News as their provider of facts and even as their leader in thought. As for me, I don't fully trust any source, but I refer to Fox as the Fox Propaganda Channel. And I’m not joking.

The problem with choosing someone or some group to lead us is that this means we have surrendered a portion of our free will, and remember that I find free will very restricted to begin with. That is not to say that doing so is a mistake. We operate on auto pilot for most of our lives because this is necessary. Imaging using free will for every single decision. The alarm goes off, do we choose to turn it off or to let it ring? Having decided to turn it off, we much decide which are to use to reach over to hit the sleep button...uh oh, should we turn it off or hit the sleep button? By the time we decide all of our choices, we will probably be too weak from starvation to get out of bed, which, of course, nearly eliminates free will.

The problem arises when we use auto pilot so much that our free will becomes atrophied from lack of use, like muscles that are never exercised. This is even easier to allow because we are not only biochemical apes, who can think and make choices but often don’t bother; we are also animals who are deeply emotional. When we do make choices, most of them are made not from thought, but from emotional response. Consider one of the most compelling and dominating choice we make, our religion. Ask individuals about this choice and most will assure you that they carefully decided this. Press for details and you will quickly realize that the “thought” that went into this decision was almost entirely emotional. Actual thought came in after the decision was made, as rationale for a choice already confirmed. This is why I insist, as I have since high school, that the only honest intellectual position in religion is a sincere agnosticism. Religion, even atheism, is about faith and emotion, not about rationality. Even the fundamental evangelical atheists who hate religion so bitterly are clearly being emotional apes, not thoughtful human beings in their hatred. Yes, I mean Hitchens and Dawkins--they sound more like Falwell and Robertson than like intellectuals when they rant against the evils of religion. The bitter sweet irony is that they have deluded themselves into thinking they are coolly rational on the subject!

For anyone who doesn’t know me, I suppose I must add that referring to these men as emotional apes is not an insult. We humans are all emotional apes -- You, me and the guy next door. It is what we are. We are also, to a very small degree, thoughtful human beings who can think and can utilize their limited free will. Also note that the very term “human being” incorporates the emotional ape base and the tiny, but potentially significant bit of intellect and free will at the top of the pyramid that is humanity. Finally let me add that any time anyone says ‘All humans...” you know they are talking about themselves. When Freud said everyone wanted to murder his father and marry his mother, he said a lot about Sigmund Feud, and almost nothing about the rest of us.

I’m getting disoriented so I’ll wrap this up. Most of human evil is done from blind obedience and a desire to fit in and do what is expected. From the experiment above to the infamous prison experiment in which college student played out the roles of brutality and resistance expected of them in a role play situation [see:], we humans surrender our free will to fit in, to be a part of the troop. This is not all bad, we are social animals and must fit in or become sociopaths, but it can quickly become a horror of Nazi extremism and murder. What is needed is what I always say is needed, balance. Homeostasis, the Vital Balance [Thank you, Karl Menninger]. We must fit in or become sociopaths, yet we must not fit in so well that we lose our thin and precious overlay of humanity.

Fate, moira, kismet, destiny, karma--they sharply restrict, but do not negate our free will. Unless we let them.

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