Monday, March 17, 2014

A system, which is to say, an embrace

          The plant is its cellulose, its own plasmalemmas, its epidermis, its plasmodesmata.  The plant's cells both make and are the plant.  It takes sunlight, and makes it into food.  It takes its own flowers, and they become fruit.  The vine is all of these things, the various bits muting and swelling into one another.  But also it is the oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen; one moment they are within the epidermis, the next transformed and exchanged.
            In responding to my last post, John mentioned an old roommate who believed "there was no choice of any kind, ever, for any of us.  We were just organisms reacting to stimuli."  I think the image of an organism reacting to stimuli depicts a common perception; it also just so happens to illustrate the kind of "anti-free-will" stance I am not taking.  It seems, in common parlance anyway, that we are always talking about individual organisms, and they are either:
      A)  free, in the sense of being a locus of origination, whether of desire or action or both; or
      B)  determined, in the sense of being poked and prodded from "without," and compelled to do/feel/think various things.
            Both seem to be based on a concept of individuality which, at the very least, I would like to see defended well before using it as a basis upon which to build other ideas.


"Now, changeless within the limits of great bonds,
 [What-is] is without beginning and without end, since birth and perishing
Have been driven far off, and true trust has cast them away.
It stays in the same state and in the same place, lying by itself,
And so it stays firmly as it is, for mighty Necessity
Holds it in the bonds of a limit which restrains it all about,
Because it is not lawful for what-is to be incomplete.
For there is no lack in it; if there were, it would lack everything"
                 (Parmenides, fr. 8).
             This quote is where all of my puzzling over free will began.  All with that little, tiny segment which declares that "mighty Necessity/Holds [what-is] in the bonds of a limit which restrains it all about."
            Ananke — or Necessity — might sloppily be translated as fate, but I would resist such a translation precisely because of the issues I raised above:  when people talk about "fate vs. free will," they talk about it like they are an individual atom of the universe, being pushed and prodded by an external force which they call fate.  But I think Roberto Calasso's ramblings about Ananke — which are extremely beautiful, but also long enough that I won't include all of them here — actually point in a more helpful direction:
"In the late pagan era we can still find this in Macrobius:  'amor osculo significatur, necessitas nodo':  'love is represented with a kiss, necessity with a knot.'  Two circular images, the mouth and the noose, embrace everything that is.  Eros, 'born when Ananke was lord and everything bowed before her gloomy will,' once boasted that he had gained possession of the 'Ogygian scepter,' primordial as the waters of the Styx itself.  He could now force 'his own decrees upon the gods.'  But Eros said nothing of Ananke, who had come before him.  There is a hostility between Eros and Ananke, a hostility that springs from an obscure likeness, as between the kiss and the knot" (Calasso, 99).
And this:
"Of the two, [the gods] prefer to submit to Eros rather than Ananke, even though they know that Eros is just a dazzling cover for Ananke.  And cover in the literal sense:  Ananke's inflexible bond, which tightens in a great circle around the world, is covered by a speckled belt, which we see in the sky as the Milky Way.  But we can also see it, in perfect miniature, on the body of Aphrodite when the goddess wears her 'many-hued, embroidered girdle in which all charms and spells reside:  tenderness and desire are there, and softly whispered words, the seduction that has stolen the intellect even from those of sound mind.'  Unraveled across the darkness of the sky, that belt denotes not deceit but the splendor of the world"  (Calasso, 100).

            The term "system" feels off somehow when I try to explain why I don't align with either free-will or deterministic camps.  But a system does denote the myriad tugs and pokes along the way, the interconnectedness of human experience.
            The question remains as to whether there is something unique within certain beings which is an origin point of any kind.  The experience of artistic creation seems to both support and belie that possibility.  When I create a poem, I experience it both as something which, to all appearances, emerged almost ex nihilo.  But then again, I also experience it as coming from outside of me, and therefore to not be entirely under even my control.  Also, we start to get into very interesting territory, because if we were going to claim the existence of a spark of origination, I would adamantly defend the right of all mammals (at the very least) to get to be in this category.  The more we learn about animal consciousness, the more we discover that the supposedly uniquely human attributes aren't so uniquely human.
            But yes, the term system still feels off.  Embrace.  Bond.  A girdle, tightly binding two atoms in the universe to one another.  Another pair, more loosely.


a vine that grows up trees
                                       (Sappho, 349) 

And this:

                                            when all night long
                                                                       it pulls them down
                                                                                         (Sappho, 301)


            Well, this is it.  All my thoughts on free will from the last three months.  I'm sort of shocked by how much the Parmenides fragment sent my head spinning, and how little I now have to say.  The gist of it seems to have been that I have become aware of a gigantic gap between what makes sense if we spend any time talking about it sensibly, and how we think about ourselves unconsciously on a daily basis.  I suspect that American culture is particularly "free-will-ish," which gives me more cause to doubt the usefulness of our bloated adolescent of a nation.  Come to think of it, Dudley Dursley seems like a nice embodiment of American-ness.
            If any readers are curious, there are some good basic articles on free will on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  I'm particularly interested in Strawson's "Reactive Attitudes" theory, which is towards the very bottom of the page.  There's another good basic page on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as well.

Sappho.  If Not, Winter:  Fragments of Sappho.  Trans. Anne Carson.  New York:  Vintage Books, 2002.  Print.

Parmenides.  Trans. Robin Waterfield, First Philosophers:  The Presocratics and the Sophists.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000.  Print.

Calasso, Roberto.  The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.  Trans. Tim Parks.  New York:  Vintage International, 1993.  Print.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A highly biased, anecdotal, and personal framing of why I think free will is bullshit

            When I was in kindergarten, a little boy sat across from me who, I now realize, was Black.  But for whatever reasons — probably mostly to do with lack of contact — it didn’t actually register to me that he “was” anything other than a little boy.  I was definitely aware of his skin (the term rapturously gorgeouscomes to mind).  But other than his darker skin tone (and skin tone is a big hang-up, but it is not the sum of the notion of race), I didn’t see him as being anything other than a friend.  In fact, I think if someone — some wise grown-up — had tried to explain to me that we were different, I genuinely wouldn’t have understood what they were trying to say.  (Cue heart-warming “innocence of childhood” music.)
            But then I got older, and somewhere along the line it changed.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the moment I remember noting the change was when I was fourteen years old, and my mom had brought me to my new high school, in a different neighborhood of a city that was entirely new to my family.  The memory goes like this:  “Every single kid on the front lawn of the school is Black.* <pause> Holy fuck.”  I was, to be perfectly honest, terrified.  I was so, so scared.  Everyone dressed differently than I did, they talked differently, they were listening to different music, they even had a distinct language of gesture and movement.  Even the volume of speech felt intimidating.
            Now, if someone — another wise grown-up (all grown-ups seem so sure they’re wise, this could be just about anyone) — had stepped in and tried to explain to me that those Black kids and my uptight White ass were, in fact, not really different at all…  That all the things I was getting hung up on were surface-only, I would have looked at them with all the pity that misguided grown-up deserved:  Of course we’re different! Can’t you see how much has changed?!
            All of this is about perception.  When I was five, I genuinely did not perceive race in the little boy across from me.  When I was fourteen, I most certainly did.  Race.  Not color.  Race is a whole package of stuff, and it had taken root.
            Now if just perception — just the ability to see what there is in front of you, and then to interpret it, and to make evaluations about its relationship to your own existence — if just perception can be so deeply and subconsciously infiltrated and shaped, I can see no way forward to accept an idea of “freedom” which isn’t so heavily curtailed by chronology, geography, religion, race, gender, able-bodiedness, class, etc., as to become a moot point.
            I should note that in the grown-up world of philosophy, there are much better, more subtle responses to questions about free will. I think my favorite so far is what's called the reasons-responsive view. But the reasons-responsive view is so sensitive to the forces at work around and within an individual, I actually think it significantly deviates from what most people are talking about when they insist that they have free will. Most people who like the idea of free will seem to conceive of themselves as origin points, where new energy and direction is generated ex nihilo, and they make "rational" "decisions"***. They evaluate things. They look at the world with open eyes and minds, see what's there, see their options, and form opinions based on reality.
            Even the examples used to illustrate choices on websites like the IEP show these sorts of blind spots. Allison is considering taking her dog for a walk. Will she choose to do so, or choose to stay inside and take it easy where it's warm and dry? In the kinds of examples used by every philosophy textbook and internet explanation-generator I've ever seen, no account is taken of the complex of childhood, self-definition, fear, hope, laziness, self-loathing, and vague qualia-of-the-moment that is any given human being in a given instant. If we take into account all of these factors, and take into account that these shaping/directing factors are in fact part of the agent in question and not somehow external to her, the question of whether or not her decision-making process is free begins to feel a bit silly.
            I guess I'm harping on about this because I genuinely think that there are still a lot of people out there — granted, probably mostly White dudes, but those White dudes still hold a lot of sway — who think that this is how they and their fellow humans work. And this, frankly, worries me.

* This is a memory which, I now know, must be edited. There were huge contingents of Latino, Filipino, and Afghani kids, and even a significant minority of white kids. My brain, either in the moment or later on, filled in what were non-black faces (but also non-white, and so confusing to a simple this-versus-that racialized brain) with the scary faces that I at least felt I "knew" what to expect from. My experience with — and indoctrination about — kids from Latin America, the Philippines, and Afghanistan was so limited, my guess is that my brain just used them as a blank canvas to paint something on.**

** Yuck. This "being honest" shtick is making me look bad.

*** Hmmm... I quite like putting decision in quotes.