Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Here's the post about free will. It's not actually about free will at all, not in the Boethian sense -- that is, it's not about whether human volition is ultimately illusory. It's just about the practical relationship between resolutions and actions.

Free Will

For those, like me, who often find themselves doing things they have resolved not to do, the question of "free will" is not an abstract one, but a practical question of pressing importance. A commenter on Ailina's site wrote "I believe we have control over our actions." With all respect -- I think that's silly. Either tautological or false. To say that we do what we decided to do, at the moment we decide it, is simply to say that we do what we do -- perfectly true, and perfectly unhelpful. To say that we do tomorrow what we resolve to do today is manifestly false. I can resolve on Sunday, with all my heart, to forgo ice cream, and find myself curled up with a bowl of it on Monday. This is not a rare occurrence: it's a typical one. My inability to control my future actions by present resolutions is a well-established fact.

Four possible responses to this fact:

1. Deny it. Assume that the problem is that I didn't resolve fiercely enough, and try to clench my mind on the resolution, so as not to lose it. This is probably still my most common response, and my stupidest. The ferocity of my resolve has little to do with keeping it. The main effect it has is to tinge my subsequent failure with self-contempt, which generally exacts a further bowl of ice cream in tribute (penance?) A variation on the response of denial is to conclude that while it's true that normal people can control their future actions, I cannot, because my will is abnormally corrupt. This is a useless conclusion. For how would one repair an abnormally corrupt will? By an act of will? (Nor do I have any objective reason to believe that my will works any better or any worse than anyone else's.)

2. Control the circumstances. This is useful, in a limited way. I can't control my future decisions but I can, to some extent, change the circumstances in which they will be made. If there's no ice cream in the freezer, I'm less likely to eat some. If there is ice cream, and nothing else to eat ready to hand, I'm almost certain to decide to eat some.

3. Train my mind. This is useful, but slow. Through meditation I can train myself to widen the space between the arising of an impulse and my response to it. I can learn something about how to let thoughts go, rather than clutch them. But this solution -- though finally the most important and effective, I think -- is a long-term one. The changes wrought by the first couple weeks of meditation were (for me) astonishing, but the rate of change dropped, after that: another year now will probably yield less fundamental change than those first couple weeks did.

4. Watch what happens. This is the most useful in the short-term, I think. When there's a well-established pattern of failed resolution, there is always some failure of perception or understanding. Why do I make different ice cream decisions on Sunday and Monday? Because I'm aware of a different set of facts. There's a tendency to assume that Sunday's awareness is superior to Monday's, and it may be, but I have more often found that the reverse is true. On Sunday I may be aware of plaque accumulating in my arteries, and fat around my abdomen, and of my associated self-contempt. But on Monday I may be aware that death is coming inevitably to even the cleanest arterial wall, and that the relationship between a flat stomach and happiness is problematic in the extreme; further, I may be aware that if I don't kick my blood-sugar up rapidly I'm likely to lose my temper with my kids, and that my self-contempt would thrive in a lean body just as happily as in a fat one. So a more useful thing to resolve might be, not to forgo ice cream, but to observe, as closely as I can, what goes through my mind the next time I eat it. Only a Sunday resolution made with a full awareness of Monday's facts is likely to stand on Monday.

No comments: