Friday, June 25, 2010

Free will as a gilded cage 2

In her blog, The Brazen Careerist, Penelope Trunk wrote a very revealing post about abortions, and her reasons for having them. In conclusion, she says:

"You never know, not really. There is little certainty. But there are some certain truths: It’s very hard to have an abortion. And, there is not a perfect time to have kids."

In Freakanomics, Stephen J. Dubner talks about Steven D. Levitt's research about abortion and the famous correlation between the legalization of abortion and the downturn in crime statistics. Levitt's conclusions were not that abortion is an unambiguous social good, but that the effect of abortion was that mothers who weren't ready to raise children responsibly would make the decision to delay parenthood through abortion, and not raise stressed children.

What really interests me about those pieces of reading is not what they say about abortion, but what they say about choice. How fraught it is to make any choice. School. Career. Family. To be, or not to be.

"Do I have a kid now, and divide my resources between child rearing and career advancement, or later, when the my career advancement has momentum. How sad do I feel about it afterwards?"

"Do I go to school when I have energy, and it's hard to concentrate, or later, when I'm tired and desperate for health care, and how much do I regret either choice later?"

Choices that everybody makes when the opportunity arises, like it or not. As Rush points out over and over again on oldies rock stations.

I believe strongly that adult human beings make choices. I guess some of the research on the human brain suggests that we don't, that we are merely the sum of our influences. And indeed, I think the human body pushes hard on our choices. Emotions, feelings, talents, all combine to make some choices easier for an individual. These are chemicals in the body that, in abundance or scarcity, make up huge tracts of who we are. It's scary to think we are simply the sum of our chemicals.

Practically, though, it seems impossible that human beings are only the sum of their influences. If there were no choice, human males would never settle down. Human societies would look more like a domestic cats, with dominant males visiting loose confederations of females to have children and weaker males looking for holes to fill in the natural order. Women would never do anything but have babies, because that's the best way to pass on their genes and those of their mates. To "be fruitful and multiply." There would be no kindness, just acquisition. We would always give in to our bodies needs.

People have written about things like altruism and culture, and what the biological reasons for them might be. This doesn't reinforce an absence of free will, however. It actually does quite the opposite. It says volumes about our capabilities. It more than suggests that the ability to choose against our bodies is hardwired in. That making those choices is a beneficial behavior in the long run. It suggests that people have different natural appetites and abilities with which to choose because the universe is an uncertain environment, rife with resource disparities, and having the ability to calculate successes and failures based on multiple strategies is a very useful ability for a species to have.

People are a melange of influences and discontents. If we weren't, we would never make any choices at all.

We don't understand this as a species.

We look for the one silver bullet, fact or feeling, that will address all the situations we are unhappy with. Self help books, happiness research, religion, political beliefs, all that stuff is important because it offers strategies to deal with everyday life. But really, none of them work all the time. It's important to give yourself and the people around you the benefit of the doubt. To make peace with uncertainty, so that you can enjoy your life as is.

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