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Hi. I'm a Unix Administrator, mathematics enthusiast, and amateur philosopher. This is where I rant about that which upsets me, laugh about that which amuses me, and jabber about that which holds my interest most: Unix.
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Synergistic Duality...the philosophy

Posted 07-05-2011 at 05:03 PM by rocket357
Updated 07-05-2011 at 05:11 PM by rocket357

There are a few bloggers here with a heavy interest in philosophy that post interesting and thought-provoking ideas on determinism, the soul, the mind, etc...so I figure, what the hey...I'll take a crack at one of them (determinism). More to come later =)

So let's step to...

The most basic act the human mind is capable of is differentiation. We naturally divide wholeness into components and draw lines between related parts. It's hard-wired into our "circuitry" to do so.

But there are two different (haha, there I go differentiating) conditions that are possible in any given situation: dualism or unity. See, sometimes things appear to be distinct when in reality we're looking at a range of just one variable. Heat is a good example of this. Does cold exist? Nope. It only exists as a way for us to differentiate from "more heat". In reality, you can't keep adding "more cold" to something. Eventually you run out of heat to take away. A recent blog post here outlined a few others, such as light/dark, good/bad, etc...

You have to be careful to avoid "pretend" variables, such as cold (and likewise, you can't assume the whole of two components is equal to the sum of the two parts...more on that in a minute). So when posing the question "Does Free-Will Exist?", you have to be careful to weed out the "pretend" variables. Here's what I mean:

One side of the argument says that we're all destined to do something with our lives, and everything is laid out beforehand in a deterministic fashion. The other side says that nothing is pre-determined and we can do anything we put forth the effort to accomplish. I have the circuitry to become a brilliant philosopher, so that's where I'll end up, right? Am I destined to be a philosopher, or do I choose to become a philosopher?

That's thinking dualistically. Let's find a bit of unity here...

Take two people. One excels in math and logic, the other excels in drinking beer. When it comes time to find a job, person #1 is likely to have more choice in the matter than person #2 (since, last I checked, the ability to think and do math was more desirable in a potential employee than the ability to put down a pony keg). What if the beer drinker wants to become a mathematician? What if the mathematician wants to become an alcoholic? There's a distinct difference in the available jobs they can take. A brilliant mathematician can indeed become an alcoholic, as there is little prerequisite ability involved (perhaps some genetic prerequisite, but that's an entirely different story). The alcoholic, however, has little chance of landing a job as a mathematician without some serious effort.

So it's all about innate ability, right?

When I was in the Marine Corps boot camp, I saw more people fail who by all measures of physical strength and stamina should have passed each and every test with flying colors. I knew a guy who, going into the Marines, was 175 pounds overweight. He'd tried joining the Army, Air Force, and Navy, and had been turned down by all. He then went to the Marines, and after passing a basic physical, got the "OK" with "we'll burn it off of you". He failed his first physical fitness exam in boot camp and was sent to PCP ("Physical Conditioning Platoon"). He spent six months there. Six months of non-stop 7-days-a-week physical training. When he graduated from PCP, he then got to START the standard 3 months of Marine boot camp. The crazy bastard was in Marine boot camp for 9 months total. I shudder at the thought!

Did he have the natural innate ability to become a Marine? Absolutely not...not physically, at least. Did he have the innate mental ability to become a Marine? I would say again no, because I know what kind of mental changes are required to survive boot camp. Nah, this guy had more desire than anyone I know. Sheer desire. That's it.

So it's all about desire, right?

Well, what if my friend in the Corps had been blind? Unfortunately, that would be a disqualifying trait, so regardless of desire he wouldn't have passed boot camp (or even made it out of MEPS, to be honest).

So there's a minimum level of desire and ability required, right?

There's a special dualism required...a synergy required of the two (hence the whole being greater than the sum of the parts). I have the innate ability to be a journalist or a newspaper editor (I come from a family of writers, editors, and journalists...it's "in my blood", so to speak), but I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to pursue anything but the bare minimum required for me to get a degree that would open the doors for me to play around with powerful servers running Unix. When I was younger, I had a negative experience with a teacher that exposed how subjective courses such as English are. I could write correct grammatical sentences, the teacher was sure...but the *content* of my work left something to be desired in her eyes. Regardless of my writing approach, I could never seem to get past a B-. I was the kind of student that naturally absorbed teaching without having to hear anything twice...and for this one teacher I could never get an A (previous and later English teachers gave me A's regularly, even up into college level work).

Given my innate ability, was I destined to become an editor, but I was derailed from that destiny by a rogue teacher? Or was a path chosen for me?

An young indian brave once asked his tribe's chief how to deal with anger, and the chief told him that anger and compassion were like two wolves that existed within him and fought constantly for control. The young brave then asked which wolf was destined to win eventually, and the chief answered "the one I feed".

Determinism vs. Free Will is something like that. If you accept that human beings are static, unchanging entities, determinism makes sense. If you accept that choices are random (i.e. not in your own best interest, but purely random), then "free will" makes sense. When you look at the two as a synergy...a complementary pair...you can see the true picture. Free will exists, but people are not random. You can predict choices made by individuals, especially when the choices are highly varied (i.e. "jump off bridge" vs. "go get your favorite food"), but you can't necessarily predict how a person's being evolves over the course of years. I may have a religious crisis in my life that shakes my beliefs to the core. You can't predict that will happen beforehand. I may have a serious physical trauma in my life (car wreck, hunting accident, etc...) that you cannot predict. Given what options are available, people will predictably choose the path that makes sense to them. If a given path is taken away (car wreck causing paralysis removing the choice of playing football in college, for instance), people will choose the next-best path that suits their desires and abilities...they will do what makes sense.

So can you predict what makes sense to a given individual? What if identical twins are born, and at a young age one has a dis-figuring accident? Let's say they both have the desire and ability to become news anchors. What then?

See, the issue is that the choices we make as human beings are dependent on more than one factor. If I desire (and have the ability) to become the best lion hunter in Sweden, big changes need to take place such that I can develop the necessary skills (feed the necessary wolf) I choose. Desire and ability alone aren't enough...I have to have the desire, ability, and environment suitable to achieve my goals. On the flip side, given a base of genetic traits and environment, we might be able to predict what desires would develop and what path someone would choose.

You cannot overlook the influence environment has on "free will". A person with all the physical and mental capacity in the world, who is raised to believe he's "simple folk", will likely fail to achieve much more than farmer's lifestyle. On the flip side, many a politician is born each year who is raised to believe they can solve world problems better than anyone else.

The question is, what do you believe? Do you believe you're capable of becoming a Linux guru who has companies throwing offers at you? I believe I am. Where'd that come from? Did genetics play a role? Certainly! Did my environment play a role? Absolutely! Did my desire to learn Linux contribute to this belief? Definitely! What about a role as a newspaper editor? What do I believe about that? Given the negative experience I had with the aforementioned teacher, I believe that subjective topics are a waste of time. Regardless of my talent, the teacher "got away with" treating me as a B student. Nothing I could do would bring about change...so I chalked English up to "a waste of time beyond the bare minimum required to get to more advanced science and math studies". According to me, English is a waste of time outside of being a stepping stone. My sister would whole-heartedly disagree.

So are we destined to end up in a given position in life? Yes. Do we have free will to get there? Yes...but only if we have the ability, desire, and environment necessary to feed the right wolf.
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1.  Well, all's I can say is that you've failed to convince me. You're basically reiterating determinism in the end. In fact, I'm reminded of a little quote I read that someone posted on the xkcd forums (can't remember the original author of the post or quote, and this is the best I can recall): Quote: Free will is an illusion. It is an illusion not because our acts are beyond our control, but rather because we will do precisely what we desire most. Our desires dictate our acts, not some random or arbitrary "free will". (^ I'm tempted to make this my sig, actually) …my expansion on this is that "control" is also an illusion, because those "desires" form subconsciously, before one is even consciously aware of them (see Benjamin Libet's experiments). …and as for my own personal interpretation of the facts? We're all basically delusional by design. We have a hardwired belief that our acts are our conscious responsibility, when in fact they were determined by forces outside of our conscious control. Of course, one can't completely disassociate themselves from their acts, so we're stuck with the illusion of control. Posted 07-10-2011 at 08:20 PM by MrCode Updated 07-10-2011 at 08:31 PM by MrCode
2.  You've overlooked an important factor...desires don't magically appear. They are formed by something. The question is...by what? You've heard that "attitude is everything"? Well, what drives attitude? Your beliefs drive attitude, right? If someone runs up to you on the street and pushes you so hard that you hit the ground and are knocked unconscious, what do you think of this person? He's a jerk? He's some other word that I probably shouldn't post here? Now, you wake up in the hospital and the nurse comes in and tells you that you're lucky...the "whacko" pushed you out of the way of a careening drunk driver...and was killed by the drunk driver instead of you. Now instead of wanting to sh*t on his grave, you want to go pay respects... Ok, so desires are driven by belief, and belief is driven by information gathered from external forces. Still pretty deterministic...except that I can choose when to form my belief about the "whacko". Most people will take the information given to them and run with it...a very valid point, but you can choose to wait for additional information before drawing any conclusions. For most people, though, that's not an option because they go through life with their brain stuck in neutral...they fire off at the hip with little information, and many times those kind of actions form self-justifying beliefs (The world is full of jerks...so I treat everyone like they're jerks...which in turn makes them act like jerks to me), which only reinforces their beliefs. They're "slaves to their realities", in other words. Posted 07-11-2011 at 10:35 AM by rocket357
3.  Yyyyyyeeeeaaahhhh…… To be honest, I wasn't expecting such a thoughtful, polite reply; I kinda wrote that comment when I was in a less-than-pleasant mood. I guess that's a sign of two possibilities: either you're nice enough that you were willing to ignore the "attitude" in my comment, or you didn't even notice it, and I just happen to be able to write a (semi-)well-formed argument even when I'm under emotional stress. Anyhow, my point of view regarding free will is pretty much as summarized above, except without the presupposing/arrogant attitude…well, it might be fair to say that's my current point of view, because I'll admit, I probably take Wikipedia way too seriously, and I was jumping to conclusions from the Benjamin Libet/Daniel Wegner/Neuroscience of free will articles… …so that point of view might change. I suppose I should also add that after a quick visit back to the xkcd forums (I started a "DEAR GOD HELP ME" thread in their "Dear SB" forum, if you know what I mean [it's not literally called that; that's just for emphasis :p]), I've decided to make this a strictly academic position, in that I'll still live my own personal life as if free will exists (how can one not? It's a pretty integral human experience, I think), but if the question of "free will or determinism?" should come up, I'll probably side with the determinists. As I also said above, though, this viewpoint could change…I dunno. I'm 19 years old and yet I'm interested (though somewhat marginally/hesitantly) in philosophy. Posted 07-11-2011 at 10:12 PM by MrCode Updated 07-11-2011 at 10:17 PM by MrCode