Ashutosh and Kritika, two independent contributors to Joylogues, are holding a series of email dialogues on the book ‘THE BIG QUESTIONS: PHILOSOPHY’ by Simon Blackburn.
The book deals with 20 existential questions; covering subjects like human nature, morality, existence of God and death. Each question gets a dedicated chapter and hence we thought it would be best to break the dialogue into multiple and thorough parts. This first installment, based on the chapter – AM I FREE? Choices and responsibility – discusses the subject of free will.
Here is a brief introduction of the chapter.
The problem with free will is easily felt. Perhaps the world is a deterministic system. This means that its state at any time is controlled by its state at some earlier time, and so on back for ever. ‘Control’ here means that given the laws of nature, and given the earlier state, the later state follows by necessity.
Following is the verbatim email discussion on it:
I finished reading the chapter last night and because I’ve not spent too much time on it, this mail might be more me thinking aloud. I’ll be able to polish my thoughts on it as I continue to write.
The chapter begins by stating the context of the title. Are we really free?
It got me thinking. What does it really mean to be free? Free from what?
Being free in one way means that we’re able to make our decisions without any influence. But can we ever get rid of the influence that our past has on us? Essentially, all our choices are connected to the past, which ends up controlling everything. Our past has moulded us into the person that we are today. So maybe I can never truly be free. And if that’s the case, then where is the free will?
These are some of the questions that the chapter deals with and these are questions that I honestly don’t have an answer to. Like I wrote earlier, this is what is so frustrating yet truthful about this book. This is why these are the big questions of philosophy. These are not science experiments that will have black/white answers by the end of it. There are no answers to any of the questions that Blackburn has raised in his book. It just states the questions, elaborates on them, discusses and analyses them in the context of logic, history, morality and such but never arrives at the answers, because probably there are none.
Coming back to the question of choice, when I reflect on my own life and the decisions that I have made, one thing is clear that they all follow a pattern. The pattern of my belief system. Since as far back as I can remember, I have had a stream of beliefs and while it has evolved over time, it still has its original identity and flavour. From where did this particular stream originate? I can’t say. Even as a child, I don’t know why I was inclined towards certain sport, people, teachers, movies or music. It’s hard to say. It could be my family, but they have different tastes, different beliefs. This distinct way of being and behaving is my own and it’s who I am, or who I choose to be.
This obviously makes me go back to the original puzzle of what came first – the chick or the egg?! Which happened first – our (identity+environment) or our choice? Because one thing is for sure, our choices end up impacting the environment as much as they get impacted by it. Which one is more powerful, is a question that I feel we all need to explore within our own lives.
Just my random thought scribbling.
I’ll write more later.
Hey Ashu, good to hear from you.
I could totally relate to what you’re saying! But I wouldn’t say that there are no answers. I think it’s the wisdom of philosophy to allow its pursuers to look for answers themselves.
I want to actually address this from a slightly different perspective. Let me start by responding to what you highlighted in your email –
- If the mind of the person making the choice is already under influence of the baggage of past or social conditioning or whatever, then the decision itself is coloured and hence there’s really no freedom of choice. This could be dangerous in situations where the environment is fashioned towards destruction. Eg. Terrorist camps. If day-in and day-out, one only gets surrounded by those talks, then eventually your decisions will start to take similar shape.
Yes, I agree that we are all moulded by our upbringing, our education, our society, our movies, TV shows etc. But there are a million examples out there of people receiving the same kind of parenting, education, social exposures and yet they make completely different life choices. This would mean that there is something more than our environment that shapes us. Now this is both promising and scary.
Promising because it means with a positive environment, we can help people take better decisions which will help everyone. And scary because it also means that no matter how positive our surroundings become, if our minds are twisted, we will carry that forward in all our life choices.
This brings me to my second point.
- My own pursuit of this answer, hence, AM I REALLY FREE?
After giving this a lot of thought, I realised that for me (and this is my personal benchmark), I feel it all boils down to my own choice being in favour of value. No matter how strong my influences and how valid my reasons may seem, if it goes against creation of value, then for me its a wrong choice and the responsibility lies only with me and not with the external effects. Ofcourse, I am in favour of being able to logically understand what prompted a certain action and in most cases, the source lies buried in a person’s past or belief systems (however they were developed) .. but it’s the easiest thing for us to say that we are not responsible for our actions because well – eg. that’s how we were brought up!
There’s a reason why humans have gotten this far. We have abilities that others didn’t have. And if we don’t use to those abilities positively and transfer blame or responsibility elsewhere then we’re no more evolved than our predecessors.
If we’re old enough to make a decision, then we should be brave enough to take responsibility also.
In any case, this chapter helped me realise a few things in my own life.
It’s been a good one. Keep writing.