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.

1 comment:

  1. When I was in college, I had a roommate who was a Psych major, and a devout Skinnerian behaviorist. I would argue for free will, mostly to piss him off. But he was pretty extreme: there was no choice of any kind, ever, for any of us. We were just organisms reacting to stimuli. This felt like a very reduced view of life, and it still does. What you're saying makes more sense, though.

    I think the best metaphor might be that you're in a boat on a rapidly moving river, and you're free to do whatever you want in that boat, but, um, the river is moving, whether you like it or not.

    And then I think of things like mental illness, and the brain states that even healthy people get into (we all have reflexes, survival instincts, periods of anger or grief or being in love, or other dominant emotions). A lot of shit just happens to us. And I'm not really sure what to do with that.