Sunday, March 26, 2017

Pleasure Yes, Pain No—Part 1

A number of philosophers over the last few millennia have advised us to make many of life's choices from the perspective of a very simple guideline: seek pleasure and avoid pain. One of the first proponents of this concept was Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher, living in the 4th century BCE, who established a school in Athens. Epicurus maintained that we have an innate drive within us to want to experience pleasure and to do what we can to escape pain. It's natural; we don't have to cogitate on it. All animals instinctively do it and we humans—just another animal—do it too.
Some two thousand years later a few Enlightenment philosophers were giving pretty much the same advice. Both Jeremy Bentham (18th century) and John Stuart Mill (19th century) founded the Utilitarian concept that it is nature's influence which drives humans to seek happiness and eschew pain. This simple directive very much appeals to me, yet I shy away from using the terms “pleasure” and “pain.” Why? For one, I'm aware that history has not been kind to Epicurus. Look in any dictionary and find that an “epicure” is one who “takes particular pleasure in fine food and drink.” An epicurean is one who is “devoted to sensual enjoyment.” Epicureanism “advocates hedonism.” So says the dictionary.
In the 2500 years since Epicurus walked the streets of ancient Athens, his pleasure/pain message has gotten distorted; which has discredited his wider teachings in many people's minds. In fact, his reputation was being dragged through Greek gutters even as he lived, as pernicious rumors were spread by opponents of his teachings. The slandering process transformed his message from a simple, beneficial one into one of debauchery and licentiousness. His ethical teaching unjustly became unfairly reviled in the eyes of many people, over the years.
Epicurus became portrayed as a sensual degenerate, but the fact is that he and his followers lived lives of simplicity and moderation. Their aim was to put attention to what is required of us to live morally, while avoiding all forms of over-indulgence. It's unfortunate that their message of temperateness became submerged.
There is no question that Epicurus' philosophy was largely discredited because people have chiseled his message into stone, by insisting on using those terms “pleasure” and “pain.” It's unfortunate that these English words have become the accepted translations for the Greek words that he used. In fact, the words pleasure and pain are well off Epicurus' original intent; they are even misleading. So, before I proceed, let me look for two English words which I think better capture the essence of what he meant.
The Greek word that Epicurus used to describe the absence of pain was ataraxia. Its meaning is an untroubledness of mind; a tranquility; or freedom from disturbance. It implies an ideal state of mind. A few alternative English words (from the thesaurus) that also capture the meaning of ataraxia are: contentment, fulfillment, happiness, and serenity. All of these words describe a state of mind that results from the examined life—very much in contrast to a shallow life of pleasure and entertainment. So when I ponder Epicurus' message, I think more along the lines of seeking tranquility and serenity, not pleasure.

More on Epicurus' message next time...

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Apollo 11 Returning

This photo is from NASA in 1969, as the Lunar Lander is returning to the orbiter, to then return to Earth, which is beautifully appearing in the background. Click to enlarge.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Do We Have Free Will?—Part 3

So what control do we really have over our actions? Is our brain's neuronal firing activity just going along on its own, with no input from us? If so, we appear to be shaped by a lot of influences beyond our conscious control. It can even seem as if we are pawns in a game of arbitrary brain electrical activity. Neurons fire and we simply respond.
These recent findings of neuroscientists are rather upsetting to many of them. It has caused some of them to be very cautious about becoming too visible and vocal about their results. If they were to cast doubt on our ability to act freely, maybe they'd play into people's bad behavior. If some people toss out the idea of having free will, they might conclude that their choices—particularly their moral choices—are irrelevant. Why try to behave ethically, when we're not really in charge? My brain made me do it; I'm not responsible! And furthermore, my brain may have made me do it, because my parents did not give me a nurturing home life, or because their brain chemicals were screwed up and they passed them on to me. It's not my fault!
So where do we go with this issue? What is the real story? Is it free will or determinism? Am I responsible or not? I will weigh in here and propose that it is not a case of either/or, but a case of free will and determinism. It's both. Neither one really excludes the other. These recent neuroscience experiments do seem to show us that free will plays a smaller role than what we've previously believed. But where does this leave us? What do I do with the possibility that it might be both? How do I decide which is which?
Humans have historically believed that free will reigns. So let me explore what we might come to conclude if we were to go to the other extreme: that we are fully under the influence of determinism. In other words, what might the implications be if we maintain that only determinism reigns.
If we choose to believe that determinism rules—that our firing neurons completely control our choices—we then must conclude that our actions are not our responsibility. Thus we are not morally responsible for what we do. There have been documented cases of people behaving immorally when they believed that free will does not exist. What are their lives like? Research has shown that they feel less blameworthy. They are less likely to be generous or volunteer to help others. They experience more stress, are less committed to making relationships work, are more likely to feel that life has no meaning, perform less well academically, are less creative, less grateful, and are more likely to conform. That's a pretty lengthy list of undesirable and unprincipled behaviors!
The propensity of people who deny they have free will and then act immorally, as I wrote above, has many neuroscientists very wary of publishing the truth about the fact of our limited free will. They're concerned that their findings may instigate bad behavior. Some even advocate that we should go along with the illusion of free will, while others feel that this is dishonest. They struggle with the dilemma.
There is a positive side to to accepting the role (if not the domination) of determinism, however. Our criminal justice system—which is based on free will—does not recognize the fact that some offenders simply inherited unlucky genes, or that their brain chemistry might have been altered by an injury. Their crimes are not always completely their fault. This is an explosive criminal justice issue! It would make a dramatic change in our penal system, if we accepted it. It might even humanize the system. And it could make us less likely to pursue a path of vengeance, when someone commits a crime.
If society allowed a degree of determinism, it could foster a softer view of criminal justice. It could prompt society to be more likely to improve the environment of disadvantaged people, so they'd be less likely to offend. It could lead us to revolutionize our education system and help people be better able to realize their full potential. People in a bad situation might be seen as needing help, rather than punishment. And when punishment is called for, we might levy it with more kindness and compassion.
When a natural disaster strikes—such as an earthquake or a hurricane—we do not think of extracting revenge on God or nature... we just rebuild. The calamity was beyond our control, so who's to blame? Could we possibly adopt some of this attitude toward those who commit crimes? And the biggest stretch of all: could we more constructively respond to terrorism? Our first gut reaction—influenced by our tendency to believe in free will—is vengeance. The United States responded to the 9/11 terrorist acts with retaliation, and then caused far more damage around the world by doing so. It could have been different, if determinism had been allowed to influence our viewpoint.
So let me return to the age-old question of whether it's free will or determinism. I've already said that I believe it's not an either/or situation. Neuroscience is demonstrating that determinism plays a bigger role than we've historically believed. This is a very important lesson. But it does not imply that we trash our opinion that we act with free will. It's a mixture of the two. It's complex. We must open our minds to acting in various mixtures at various times.
We make choices—sometimes within our conscious control, sometimes beyond our conscious control. I think the point is to examine our choices and subsequent actions—however they come about—and evaluate them. How can we learn from them, so that we do a better job next time? How do we show ourselves—and others—compassion? Won't that help us all to become more moral?





Monday, March 13, 2017

Do We Have Free Will?—Part 2

Our Western social systems—criminal justice, welfare, and education—are primarily based on the assumption that we possess free will. This is particularly true of our criminal justice system, which is founded on the principle that we are responsible for the choices we make. If we choose poorly, we can expect negative consequences to occur (from the state), and we expect to bear the burden of those mistakes. Conversely, if we make good choices, we expect to reap the benefits and take credit for our accomplishments.
Evolution has encouraged us to make good decisions. Those critters in the deep past who made poor choices, tended to die out, and those who made smart choices prospered. All animals must possess the ability to generate options in a given situation, to weigh them, and then to choose the more favorable one. This ability implies some quality of free will on the part of all critters. As our human brains evolved and grew in size, we were able to conceive of additional and more complicated options when confronted with situations and thus make even better choices than most animals. This seems to suggest that we are freer than most animals. Yet evolution has also provided us with many innate choices; such as a tendency to jump and run from a snake. We do not weigh options in such an emergency... we just jump.
So how free are we, really? I may wish to believe that I act at my own discretion, but is that really the case? How autonomous am I, really? And, furthermore, how moral am I? When I take some action, how much credit or culpability am I entitled to? These are free-will philosophy questions that have been argued for millennia.
Recent scientific research in the field of neurology is changing and updating the free will/determinism debate. Neurology has cast a new light on this ancient argument—bringing us information that our forebears were lacking: details about what's going on inside our heads as we evaluate and make life's decisions. And they've found that what we formerly believed about the mental process that leads us to do things, to think, to dream... is wrong. We've previously imagined that a spirit or a soul is at the core of us—something immaterial and even transcendent that is the very essence of who we are and what we do, and that is mostly unchanging over the years. It turns out that that idea is not really right.
Neurology is giving us a very different picture of what's going on. What is being discovered is that our thoughts, our hopes, our memories, and our dreams do not emanate from the immaterial spirit within, but are simply the result of material neurons firing inside our skull. Researchers are able to show that so much of who we are and what we do actually stems from electrical and chemical activity within the brain... not an immaterial soul.
This is a profound result! It suggests to me that what I do and think are controlled by neuronal activity—not my immaterial soul or thoughts. Who am I? What's more, neuroscience has demonstrated that my brain actually changes—and thus my behavior changes—when my brain chemistry changes. Experiments that interfere with or promote certain brain chemicals literally make me a different person. This is not my soul changing, but my physical brain. These findings were often discovered when researchers examined people who had experienced some sort of brain trauma. When their brains became damaged, they became different people. Military veterans return from war zones, where they've experienced brain injuries, with significantly altered personalities.
In the 1980s some ground-breaking experiments were conducted by neuroscientists on subjects in the lab. One astounding result is that, when our body responds to some external physical stimulus, only later (maybe one-half second later) have we consciously decided to take action. The message: our body often responds on its own—unconsciously, without any intent on our part—and we later think that we chose to do so. In addition, these experiments showed that when people behaved rather irrationally in given situations, when asked why, they often made up silly excuses that made no sense—excuses that arose because they needed to feel that they were really in control of what they did, when in fact, some unconscious process had caused them to do what they did.
It's a fact that some 90% of our brain activity is below the level of consciousness—activity that is beyond our intentional control. Thus my brain is constantly making many decisions without “my” involvement; without any intent on my part at all. For example, when do I choose to breathe in? What and how do I choose to digest my meal? When and how do I choose to instantly withdraw my hand from a hot stove? When do I choose to blink? These are all automatic activities that my unconscious brain takes care of all the time. I'd be tied up in immobile knots if my conscious mind attempted to make these decisions.

Conclusion of free will next time...

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Do We Have Free Will?—Part 1

Whether or not we humans possess free will is an issue that has been speculated about and argued over for centuries. This timeworn debate has swung back and forth, as one side or the other has predominated, often due to the current dominant philosophy. It's similar to the old nature-versus-nurture debate, which asks, Is our personality mostly governed by our genes or by our environment?
So let's begin by defining our terms. What is free will? Here's the dictionary's definition: the power of acting without the constraint of necessity; the ability to act at one's own discretion. This definition says that, in order to act with free will, we must possess the ability to make choices without the influence of any agent other than our own cognitive evaluation.
The opposite of free will is often described as determinism. So what is that? Again, the dictionary gives us: the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. This definition implies that our actions are determined by something outside of us, which is certainly in opposition to free will, which says that we act from our own discretion. Thus, if determinism is true, we have no free will. They indeed are opposites.
So is free will or determinism true? For most of history, people have tended to lean toward believing that we have free will. For example, the field of ethics has assumed that we freely choose between right and wrong. One of the West's major philosophers, Emmanuel Kant, maintained that we must have free will—otherwise why should we seek to live morally? If we think that our actions are not freely chosen, then we must be driven by external forces (determinism), since we're not in control. That can be a frightening thought to those of us who want to feel that our life is under our own command.
But there have also been influential opposing voices to free will. An example was Francis Galton (a cousin of Charles Darwin), who said that our biological inheritance—something outside our control—plays a major role in our choices. In a sense, Galton helped kick off the nature-versus-nurture debate. When genetics was later discovered, the question often asked then was, Is it our genes or our environment? Galton tipped the argument for a while in favor of genes and thus determinism.
Let me note here that determinism is not fatalism. They are distinctively different. Certain events and choices that we make may be external to our will (that's determinism), but fatalism says not only are our actions not under our control, but that they are inevitable. Fatalism says that we are destined to do things despite any decisions that we make; that our efforts make no difference at all. That's simply too extreme, I believe.
A key quality of possessing free will is the idea that we must be free of coercion from others—that we are able to make our own choices and follow our own desires. So this brings up the question of what things might limit my ability to make my own choices. Is a hindrance to my making a choice really something external to me or do I inhibit my options myself? Am I getting in my own way?
Another factor: children do not have the free will that a mature adult has; and they shouldn't have. A child needs guidance from parents, teachers, and elders. Their free will must be limited, until they are able to take charge of thier own lives. The same could be said for any student who defers to his teacher. Until he has mastered some degree of understanding of the subject, the full exercise of his free will could cause him to stumble and fall from the path. The outside influence of the teacher is necessary... at least for a while.

More on free will next time...

Monday, March 6, 2017

Tree Cricket

Tree cricket munching on sedum plant. Click to enlarge.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Practicing Plainness

When I moved out to the country 33 years ago, walking away from an urban, comfortable lifestyle, it was to seek a simpler, plainer existence. I have struggled ever since to articulate what defines my type of life, or even to describe in objective terms the nature of my simple practice. The term “simple living” is a very subjective one. One person's simple is another's sumptuous. One person's prosperity is another's privation.
In addition, the practice of trying to live plainly is an endless learning process. Just as a rich person never can fully say that he's arrived (there's always more money to be made), one who tries to live simply also never finishes the task. There's always more simplicity to learn. While the former way of life yields to endless greed, the latter faces an interminable process of self-examination, as well as an ongoing discovery of some deeper truths about the appropriate way to live plainly.
I have come upon several role models—who are my heroes—over the years, who have pointed the way for me; people who have championed the values of an unadorned lifestyle, such as Jesus, Gandhi, Socrates, the Buddha, Catholic Worker members, etc. What they have taught me is that a life of simplicity is also a moral life. But again, morality is a relative thing. One person's morality is another mendaciousness. One person's vice is another's virtue.
I recently read an essay in Aeon Magazine by Emrys Westacott, a professor of philosophy at Alfred University in New York, titled “Why the Simple Life is Not Just Beautiful, It's Necessary.” Westacott equates the good life with the simple life, which is an expression of morality. He makes the point that in earlier times a simple life was most often the only choice for many people. They did not have the option to live acquisitively. Our ancestors moreover considered simplicity to be a moral virtue.
In contrast, we moderns have access to many things: many luxuries that our ancestors could not have dreamed of. Our culture honors relentless growth; it literally drowns out simplicity. And simplicity is often considered boring. I clearly remember former city acquaintances being baffled by my leaving the comfortable city life to go live in the country. They thought that I was opting for an existence of humdrum, when, in fact, I have discovered a level of fascination that I had only dreamed of.
Westacott writes that many people today are feeling a backlash against our acquisitive culture, and are turning toward the plain life in response. Many of them do not succeed, however, because they have become brainwashed by society's values and can't really come to believe in simplicity. While we might condemn the extravagance we see in our society, we still seem to subliminally admire it. When I made my move to the country three decades ago, I was mindful of the number of hippies who “moved back to the land,” only to return to an urban environment a couple of years later, when things got either too tough or too austere for them.
Westacott points out that it's also interesting that our precarious economic system is forcing many people into a frugal existence—against their will. The upshot is that some of them are subsequently discovering that the meager life can just happen to be a virtuous life. Those who are involuntarily thrust into a life of simplicity are more likely to view having lots of money as immoral, rather than admiring and aspiring to be wealthy. It seems as if once a person gets a taste of frugality, it can transform them.
Westacott makes another argument: there is a growing need for simplicity today; we must stop trashing our environment. He says that simple lifestyles could help correct the destructive course that society is on.
We seem to be living in a time that is bringing unprecedented changes to our world. If humans continue on the path we're currently following, numerous catastrophes await. Westacott writes that we may be headed toward a crisis that will force us to live simply. Whether we choose the moral path of simplicity or not, it may soon be our only alternative.