Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Is there any purpose in thinking this?

The weather is still lousy so I've been thinking. One of the things I thought was that I can say what I like about idiots. The PC crowd won’t bother me because idiots are not a minority. Far from it.

On a more philosophical note, New Scientist recently carried an article on whether free will exists or not. Are we making decisions, or are we simply following a predestined route? That sort of thing.

It doesn’t take long for your head to start hurting with this stuff. Eventually, though, you come to a dead end.

There’s no way to test this, either way.

Suppose I decided not to post this after all. Suppose I said ‘I’m going to exercise my free will and make a decision to delete this.’

Did I make the decision through free will, or was I destined to delete? In the event, I have posted it. Did I decide to do that myself or was it Written that I Must?

It is not possible to determine whether or not we have free will. Every word we utter, every letter we type, every idiot we insult, might be the product of an individual decision. Equally, they might have been scripted, and we simply follow the script.

The best argument against predestination is human intelligence. If we simply move through time, saying and doing what we are destined to say and do, why do we have intelligence? We don’t need it if everything is predetermined. Why, they say, did we evolve intelligence?

We can equally argue that humans are intelligent because we were destined to be. We can further argue that intelligence is an illusion. We are not intelligent if we are following a plan. We are simply doing what we have to do, thinking the thoughts we were meant to think. We do what quantum physics decided we would do at the Big Bang, or if you prefer, what God designed us to do.

Is every claim of intelligence or free will simply an expression of the route we have to follow? Is there a God in a white coat watching this program unfold, to see whether we work out that we’re only doing what the initial stages of the program dictated? Or, as most of us prefer to believe, is it all random and our own decisions shape the future?

The only way to find out is to step outside the universe and look in. We can’t do that.

There is one further possible test.

If the future is already determined, if tomorrow’s events are already set up for us, there might be a way to work out what those events will be. If we can devise a way to predict what will happen tomorrow, the day after, or next year, then if it all turns out as we predicted, the future is indeed already preplanned. We have no free will.

If that is the case, then we are destined (or not) to find out. What will we do about it? We’ll do exactly what we were supposed to do. Blame someone, most likely.

The flaw in this idea is that if our predictions are wrong, we won’t know whether that means we have free will, or that our method was wrong. So future predictions might prove that we don’t have free will, in which case there’s no point doing them because it’s all going to happen anyway and we can’t do a thing about it.

Future predictions can’t prove that we do have free will because if the predictions don’t happen, we won’t know if our predictive method was any good.

The most dramatic prediction around is that of the end of the world. According to many major religions we are now in the Last Days, the End of it All, the Kali Yuga. These predictions were made thousands of years ago. If it happens, if the big ‘Game Over’ flashes in the sky, we will finally know for sure. We didn’t have free will. It was all planned and someone told us, a long time ago. We didn’t listen because we weren’t supposed to listen.

I wonder who’s destined to be the first to say ‘Oh, crap.’

I hope we do have free will. I’d like to think the insults I generate are my own ideas.

I just can’t see any way to solve this one. I wish I could stop thinking about it, but maybe I’m not supposed to.


Southern Writer said...

Why does it have to be either / or? Why can't it be some of both?

Evangeline Adams (descended from John Quincy Adams) was one of the foremost astrologers of modern times. She learned astrology as a young child at the knee of a local physician. She wondered the same thing. She saw in her chart one day that she was likely to break a bone on a given day, so when that day came, instead of riding her frisky horse to school, she rode her old mule, instead. She thought it was the safer choice. As it happened, something spooked the mule, he bucked her off, and she broke her leg. Was that predestined, or free will?

I tend to believe that some things are predestined, while our reactions to them are determined by free will.

One of the things I've been privileged to observe over many years is that no matter what the environment, education, or upbringing of a child, she always "becomes her astrological chart," as she grows into adulthood. I think we have a set plan before we arrive (which explains a priori knowledge and deja vu), but whether we succeed of fail with the plan is up to us.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Romulus Crowe said...

Happy Valentine's Day to you too, whatever it is.

I don't see astrology, palmistry etc as the same as determinism. Palmistry gives a general view of what's likely, based on the shapes and signs written into your hand. The things a palmist tells you about can be avoided.

With astrology (and I concede I'm no expert in this) you have more precise predictions, but still, the predicted events can be changed.

If we have free will, then astrology isn't determinism. It's not a prediction of something that Must Come True, it's a deduction of cumulative effects and their likely future result. Knowing that likely result, we should be able to avoid or change it.

Suppose you did a chart for me, and it came out, say, that it would be exceptionally dangerous for me to take a certain flight on a certain day. Later, that flight crashed.

In determinism, my decision to be on the flight, or not, was already defined before I heard your prediction. In free will, my knowledge of your prediction could change the outcome: I might decide not to take the flight because of what you said.

That might be free will - but it might be that the events, their avoidance (or not) and the prediction itself were all 'destined' to happen. That's why we can't prove free will - whatever we decide, we might have been already 'destined' to decide.

I don't define astrology and related subjects as evidence of determinism, because if you were tapping into a pre-written future, nothing could be done to avoid the predicted outcome.

From my perspective, I see astrology as a form of logical deduction: 'this planet influences this, that planet influences that, so combined, so-and-so is likely to happen'. But it can be avoided.

Astrology is a very old subject based on centuries of observations of the positions of celestial bodies and the occurrences that coincide with them. Using that past experience, you can say that when certain celestial bodies are in certain places in the sky, particular events or influences are likely to happen - because past records show that for those combinations, the events or influences frequently occur.

So, if we have no free will, it is possible to see the future and it will happen exactly as seen.

If we have free will, it's not possible to see the future because it hasn't happened - but that doesn't stop us deducing what future events are very likely to be, based on past experience. The more experience, the more accurate the prediction, and astrology has a long, long history of recorded experiences.

However, those predictions can still be avoided, so they're not 'seeing' a prewritten future, they're predicting a most-likely outcome.

The thing is, all those predictions and our actions as a result of knowing them could have been predetermined. There's no way to know.

Does that make any sense? It's dificult to put this into words.

Romulus Crowe said...

Oops - didn't answer your questions!

On the broken bone - she predicted it was very likely she would break a bone that day, but not (I assume) how. If she had chosen to stay in bed all day, she might have avoided breaking any bones.

So it's not proof of determinism, unless she had said she would break her leg by falling off her mule at a particular time, and then found she could do nothing to avoid being on the mule at that time. What it suggests is a very accurate prediction, and that she took the wrong action to avoid it. The broken bone could have been linked to the mule-spooking event, rather than her choice of horse or mule. So a different route might have worked, while a diferent horse did not.

People turning out as their astrological charts predict means that the astrological charts accurately predicted how those people would turn out. Again, not definitely determinism, but rather a case of accurate deduction.

a priori knowledge and deja vu aren't determinism either - they can be partial precognition (which might mean seeing a defined future, or it might mean seeing an outline of a possible future, or it might mean a subconscious deductive ability that allows some individuals to predict without being conscious of the complex deductions they are performing).

They might also be evidence of reincarnation events, and there's a lot of evidence around to suggest that reincarnation does occur. I don't think everyone has past lives, nor that everyone is reincarnated (if they were there'd be no ghosts). However, I'm sure it happens, and more frequently than reported because the 'new' body isn't usually aware that it has an 'old' soul.

If it happened to me, and I was aware of it, I'd make sure my first words were 'Oh no, not again'.

tom sheepandgoats said...

If you purchase and operate a car without a clue as to maintenance, and for some reason you refuse to consider the owner's manual or like sources, it is certain that you will end up with a pile of scrap metal. That's not predestination, but it's a certain prediction, and the dealer could have made it the moment he discerned your blockheadedness. (Generic "you" of course, Rom, not a personal "you")

As regards the Bible and Last Days, this is the analogy that fits. I'm not sure about end of the world traditions from different sources.

The auto purchase parallel can be discerned in the Genesis account, which most people count as a fairy tale. God has not created humans with the ability to govern themselves. Power corrupts, absolute corrupts absolutely, that sort of thing....God knew it all along, because he did not create them with self-rule ability. Just as he did not create them with ability to fly or to walk through walls. [though I hesitate to be dogmatic here in view of your field of expertise!]

But the first humans ignore him, disobey the only command he has issued, a command which symbolizes their reliance upon him, and embark on the path of self-rule. There begins a long experiment of human rulership, which God permits as it is the one way of permanently settling the issue of rulership. A bit like Mark Twain's observation that a cat which sits on a hot stove will never sit on a hot stove again. In fact, it won't sit on a cold one either, for they all look hot.

God knows how the experiment in governing will turn out, just as the dealer knows how your car stewardship will end. In time, the evidence mounts to the point where all but the most obstinate can see that God’s position was correct all along....humans just make a hash of things with their own self-rule. He can then bring "the end of the world" and restore matters the default position....his governing. He's not mad at the earth. He's kind of fond of it, it being his handiwork. He's mad at those who have ruined it, and he tosses them as a landlord might eject a bad tenant.

His that what the Bible means by "God's Kingdom?" That is proclaimed ahead of the eviction, and people and able to respond for or against. You observed: "if the big ‘Game Over’ flashes in the sky, we will finally know for sure. We didn’t have free will. It was all planned and someone told us, a long time ago. We didn’t listen because we weren’t supposed to listen." We actually were supposed to listen and we were given opportunity. Some do and some don't.

That's how it is with the Bible. Again, I can't say for other religious traditions.

Romulus Crowe said...

Hi Tom

I'm not trying to say we don't have free will. Rather I was trying to point out the futility of researching it. There's no way to determine an answer.

Your comment did put an interesting picture in my head - the 'workshop manual' for creation. I always buy second-hand cars and it's rare to get the manual with those. So, does this mean the original owner (Adam) lost the manual, and the Bible is perhaps an attempt to reconstruct it? It sounds like a flippant question, but it's not.

If there was a creation, and an original intent that Adam and Eve messed up, then we would expect their descendants to try to put together what should have happened - to try to recreate the manual. A God who sees these descendants struggle might well be inclined to help them out. After all, his beef was with Adam, not with us.

As for human's inability to govern themselves, well, that's undeniable. I can't think of a fault-free ruling person or group at any time through history, whether king, dictator, democracy, or even at the local (council or business) level.

'People are not designed to govern themselves' is a statement I can definitely agree with. We've had plenty of practice and it's clear we just can't do it.

tom sheepandgoats said...

In general, churches portray the earth as a launching pad from which to leap into an eternity of heaven or hell. We don't. God did not put us on earth because he wanted us somewhere else. He wanted us here and he wanted humans to expand the boundaries of the garden of Eden (the Hebrew term for garden is rendered paradeisos in Greek, from which we get the term paradise) to embrace the whole planet. He did not create humans to die at all, but to live indefinitely, which they would have done had they not rebelled against him.

By rebelling, disobeying the only command he had given them, they damaged themselves. A little like pulling the plug on a fan. They lost their perfection.

Sometimes children suffer because of parental irresponsibly.... doing something to mess up the genome for example, so they can only pass on damaged goods. Or sometimes the parenting itself is negligent and the children themselves suffer for it. When that happens, no one blames God. They blame the parents. The first parents cannot endow their offspring with the perfection they once had. they can only bequeath imperfection. Put a dent in a cake pan, and any cake that comes out of it reflects that dent.

To that extent the owner's manual analogy fits. But you cleverly pursue the analogy in all its aspects, so I must try to follow! And BTW, that's good news that you never buy new cars. Neither do I. Let someone else take the depreciation hit. I'm not afraid of a few odometer miles. With a practiced eye you can learn to avoid the clunkers.

From the outset of that first human disaster, God has a salvage plan so as to still achieve (eventually) his original purpose toward humans and the earth. It is cryptically referred to in Gen 3:15 (And I shall put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed. He will bruise you in the head and you will bruise him in the heel.) and is frequently discussed in JW literature. The "plan" makes for lengthy discussion. I've written about some of it here:

The Bible is an owner's manual of sorts, but it is not the original one God might have provided had humans stayed obedient. Rather, it is the one to guide us through his "salvage" plan. This plan points to a means of canceling out that original transgression, thus making everlasting life "legally" possible down the road. It also points to God's coming rulership (God's Kingdom) which comes into full power once the disastrous experiment of human rulership comes to its deserved end. Acting in harmony with these two aspects, we find that God indeed "helps us out" through the consequences of that first rebellion. But for the most part, people do not act in harmony (or even know about) these aspects. Even entire religious systems have long since abandoned God's means of rescue in favor of trying to put a "happy face" on Adam's contribution......human rulership. This God does not bless, and following this path does not lead to ultimate, and often not even temporary, happiness.

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