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.

1 comment:

  1. i recently started and dropped out of--sonething i've never dobe before--a class in whuch i once again found myself reading parmenides. it occured to me how much time can be wasted pondering a question that has no answer. probably that means it's the wrong question.