Saturday, May 19, 2012

Freedom and Destiny

It was a beautiful sunny May day in my hometown and I was doing a little grocery shopping.  Walking back home with my two full bags I noticed the young girls trotting around in their frilly dresses, showing off their shaved legs, painted toenails and "cruel" shoes.   A thought flitted through my mind "the genes controlling those women want to get replicated".  Then it occurred to me that the genetic material sets up the behaviour but the way it is expressed is culturally mediated.  Go to a different culture---Punjabi, Hindi, or Chinese, and you'd have different shoe styles, different types of clothing---salwar kameez,  saris, perhaps, or, a cheongsam.  But the same genetic "push" would still be at work.

My genes are so hot to replicate!!!!

A moment later, my memory generated a random thought about something I'd read on-line earlier and I was feeling anger towards some dorky politicians.  (Our government recently decided to defund the Round-Table on Industry and the Environment because it has repeatedly recommended the use of carbon pricing to combat climate change and the Conservatives don't even believe in what they refer to as "so-called" climate change.)  This sort of thing makes me spitting mad and brings up all sorts of dark emotions aimed at various people.

At this point it occurred to me that I was responding to a cultural cue in much the same way as those girls were with regard to shaving their legs, painting their toenails and wearing a frilly dress.  That is, there is some sort of genetic "push" working in me and my culture is manifesting it through me as anger towards the leadership of the country.  Perhaps it is the constant "push" by inferior males to assert control over the dominant ones.

The Prime Minister and I
I don't know how far I can push the idea of genetics, though.  I suspect that there  is a point where we become predominately if not exclusively cultural creations.  (I wonder if I was angry at the Prime Minister specifically because I was walking by pretty girls?  Maybe one of them would sleep with me if I beat him senseless in front of her.  Somehow I doubt it.)

After thinking of women as culturally mediated gene replication units, and myself as manifesting culturally mediated "beta male" aggression towards political "alpha males", I began to ruminate about how much of our interior life is dominated by culture.  As luck would have it, at this time I passed a young mason who had just finished floating and brooming a sidewalk.  He was wearing a hard hat that he had put on backwards.  No doubt this has something to do with "hip hop" culture.  I don't understand exactly what it is, but I do find it rare for young males to wear a hats the "right" way anymore.  And now that I think of it, I can't see any objective reason why someone finishing a sidewalk needs to wear a helmet anyway.  What is going to fall down on his head?  The helmet's orientation is a signal that they guy is "hip", and the helmet's very existence is a signal that he is a tradesman.

Later on, I was walking down the street and I saw a "tough" guy walking on the sidewalk ahead of me.  He was short, skinny, had a significant tan (a street person?), quite a few tattoos, and a very significant scowl on his face.  He got to the corner just as the "walk" signal changed to "stop" and stomped on across the corner.  I thought that he was "daring" car drivers to try and hit him.  But then it occurred to me that he might be so "scattered" that he was oblivious to the traffic signal.  It also occurred to me that if someone complained about his behaviour, he would probably get very angry and aggressive, maybe even violent.   After a moment's reflection, however, it occurred to me that instead of just being a "dick" he might actually be someone who has been pretty badly jerked around by life and who has never learned even the basic skills necessary to get along with others.  Instead, life may have taught him that the best way to survive is to have a volcanic temper so people will leave you alone instead of attempting to prey upon you.  An instant later, it occurred to me that if he was or wasn't manifesting any of these behaviours in his life, the way I was reading them "into" him simply because of his appearance showed I was certainly in the grip of some significant cultural conditioning.  (I'll never know if I was right or not in my "read", but that that doesn't invalidate the fact that my reaction was culturally programmed.)

The reason why I'm indulging in all this "stream of consciousness" stuff is because I've been having a conversation with my fiancee about the nature of "free will".  She got all interested in this because of a talk she heard by Sam Harris on the subject.  I originally didn't find the talk quite so interesting, because I've

been aware of the incoherence of the concept of "free will" since studying it at university.  But I did find it exciting that at the very end Sam was making the connection between our understanding of free will and our legal system.  This isn't a terribly subtle thing to figure out, but it does seem to have evaded popular discourse up until now.

The problem is that our legal system is based on the assumption that there are these independent, totally autonomous beings known as "people" who freely choose to do one act as opposed to another.  People who freely choose to break the law are "criminals" and people who freely choose to follow the law are "good citizens".  Harris, and I, would argue that this way of looking at the world is at odds with everything we know about how the human mind operates.

First of all, there is the inductive or scientific argument.  That is as follows.  It might be that people choose to act in a certain way because they are constrained by either their biology or conditioning.  If it is a question of brain chemistry or childhood trauma that caused the behaviour, then how is it free?  Let me give two examples that seem to indicate that this in fact could be the case.

Sometimes people who have brain trauma or take certain types of drugs exhibit wild mood swings, and sometimes these swings result in violent behaviour.  Indeed, there is a body of opinion that the US soldier who murdered many Afghan civilians recently did so because he had suffered from brain trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and a specific type of anti-malaria drug that is specifically contra-indicated for people who have suffered concussions because it has been shown in the past to lead to mood changes and violent behaviour.

Secondly, people who have had a history of savage abuse sometimes have a very hard time controlling their anger, which leads them to do terrible things.  I read once about a robber in New York City, for example, who held up a convenience store and totally gratuitously turned around and shot the clerk dead while on the way out.  During the trial there was no doubt at all about who did the shooting, as the whole thing was on video tape.  The jury was howling for the perpetrator's death.  But during the sentencing hearing a lawyer introduced evidence about the childhood of the shooter.  As a child he had literally spend years locked into a tiny cage in the basement of his parent's home.  Once the jury found out how badly the person had been abused, they were more than willing to sentence him to life imprisonment.

If people do extreme things because of some sort of morbidity in the brain, or, because their childhood conditioning predisposes them to act that way, how can we labour under the illusion that they freely "chose" to act that way?  And if we can allow that people's freedom is constrained in these, extreme, circumstance, then doesn't it make sense that less severe behaviour may be the result of less severe, but equally important, conditions?  Maybe people shoplift because their brain chemistry gives them some sort of specific predisposition to such a thing (poor impulse control---ever heard of manic/depression?)  And maybe being around adults who routinely "push the envelope" and "take risks" reduces the anxiety that a child feels when thinking about doing something risky.  If this is the case, then it would seem that there is far from a "level playing field" when it comes to making those sorts of snap decisions that can result in someone's life going down hill pretty fast.

The second set of arguments against free will are deductive or philosophical in nature.  That is to say, if the idea that underlies our understanding is contradictory or incoherent, then we should be willing to entertain doubt that we are saying anything of value when we use it.  Certainly, we should rethink any laws or policies that our society enacts on the assumption of free will.

It would seem that if when we talk about "free will" we are saying that there is some sort of "live" choice involved.  That is to say, that a person who chooses to either do "a" or "b" really could choose one or the other.  But if the person chooses to follow course "a", we are left with the question "did he choose to choose to follow course 'a'"?  If he did, then did he "choose to choose to choose to follow 'a'"?

This might sound like a silly, semantic argument, but what is being raised is the issue of "causation".  That is when I "choose to choose", I'm saying that the way our minds work would assume that we have to have a reason to do something, a "why" we choose to do something.  But once we start asking why, we end up in an infinite regress---something like the old lady in the nursery rhyme who swallowed a fly.  You cannot explain anything with an infinite regress, because all you are doing is pushing the reason for doing something off into the deep, dark past.

Let me flesh this out with an example.  I have chosen to write this blog entry on the subject of free will.  But the reason I did is as a result of a whole range of other choices, such as, for example, proposing to my fiancee who put this particular bug in my ear a couple weeks ago.  (One of the several thousand things I love about her is the fact that we have these intense conversations about stuff like this.)  And the ideas that I am raising are a result of things like the books I have read and the instruction I received at university.  And, in turn, I choose to read some books as opposed to others, and to study philosophy at university instead of tool and die making at college.

In other words, if we look at our "free" choices they tend to be the result of a chains of previous choices that are also the result of earlier choices.  Each of these previous decisions was also the result of historical happenstances too----courses that were offered in one semester, books that were on sale in a second-hand store, random conversations at parties, etc.  The point is that it is hard to reconcile the idea of radical choice with chains of causation.

If, on the other hand, we suggest that decisions are made without the influence of causation, we have another problem.  Suppose that we do make decisions "just because".  By removing the "reasons" for doing something, the only way we can explain why we do anything at all seems to be random chance.  And if we do things totally at random, it is hard to see how this is any freer than simply doing things because we have to.  This is because "freedom" seems to include some element of meaning.  Personal freedom includes the concept of personal volition, and it is hard to see how people choose one action over another if they do it totally at random.

The deductive argument leaves people stuck with two, equally unappealing positions.  They either have to admit that every choice they make is constrained by an infinite number of earlier choices, or, else that their freedom consists of not much more than throwing the dice and accepting what comes up.  The inescapable result is that there seems to be at least some element of inevitability in our behaviour.

As Harris rightly points out, if we accept that there seem to be at least severe limitations on people's ability to freely choose one course of action over another in any given situation, then this makes a mockery of the whole concept of "guilt" or "innocence".  This, in turn, wreaks havoc with the notion of "justice".  How can we call someone "guilty" if we admit that if he had had a different set of circumstances leading up to him "choosing" to commit a crime, he would have chosen differently?  Similarly, how can we say that a punishment is "just" if we admit that it appears that the person being judged seems to have been pretty much doomed to commit the act.  Punishment just seems like a gratuitous act added onto an already tragic chain of events.

"Tori" Stafford
I've been thinking especially hard about this issue since there has recently been a court trial that involves an especially sad crime.  In my home town, across the street from my little brother's house there was a family that included a very cute little girl.  Her name was Victoria Stafford, but the media instantly shortened her name to "Tori".  As you can see, she was impossibly cute.  (I feel a little ashamed perpetuating this disgusting exercise in sentimentality, but I'm hoping that the point of this essay will justify adding my bit to the mountain of vile exploitation.)  One day she disappeared on her way home from school.

Terri-Lynne McClintic
Michael Rafferty
At first the police put their spotlight on her parents but eventually some video camera footage was found of little Victoria being led off by a stranger in a "puffy" down jacket.  Eventually this led to the arrest of a woman by the name of Terri-Lynne McClintic.  She, in turn, led the police to Victoria's body and a man by the name of Michael Rafferty.  

From what I've seen in the press, it seems to be that McClintic is a woman who is totally devoid of any self-esteem who seems to believe that she is totally doomed.  As the medieval Catholics would say, she is consumed with "despair", which was considered the worst of the deadly sins because once you are in the grip of it, you give up even trying to be a good person.  Rafferty, on the other hand, seems to be someone who is consumed with sexual desire and who has been damaged by learning how easy it is for a good-looking man to manipulate women.   This strikes me as a tremendously toxic mix as it connects a woman who is willing to be used as a tool with man who is able and willing to use her to pursue perverted desires.

The trial is over now, both Rafferty and McClintic have been sentenced to life sentences.  What really creeps me out is the way the media has been falling over itself to report people's "jubilation" that "justice has been served".  This sickens me.  Stafford is still dead, and two other people's lives have been totally ruined.  I feel absolutely no sense that anything worthwhile has happened.   One of the few takes I have on this trial that does make some sense to me came from a crime reporter from the Globe and Mail.  He calls Rafferty an "empty, hollow psychopath".

I'm not a psychiatrist and neither is the reporter who made that statement.  But from what I can tell from the Wikipedia article on "psychopathy" , there seems to be a genetic trait that results in people becoming predators on the rest of society because, among other things, they get bored really easily, tend to aggression and violence, are very good at manipulating people, and, are not be afraid of getting caught if they break the law.  Most importantly, they don't have any sort of internal moral compass.  That is to say, they know in some sort of theoretical sense that torturing little girls to death in order to get your rocks off is a bad thing, but they don't feel any sort of emotional revulsion at the actual act of doing so.

This last point is important, because the legal definition of "insane" doesn't apply to this situation.  An "insane" person has to be someone who is so out of their heads that they didn't even understand what was happening.  One Canadian example that occurred recently involved a fellow on a Greyhound bus who was convinced that a fellow passenger was a demon sent from Hell, so he cut his head off in front of a busload of horrified onlookers.  The killer was declared insane, didn't stand trial and was sent to a mental hospital instead.  (He is now on medication and has responded so well to treatment that he has recently been granted day parole.)

But I find this distinction pretty hard to accept.  It seems to me that a person's emotional response to a given situation is pretty tightly wound up with whether or not someone really does understand whether it is "right" or "wrong".  It seems pretty obvious to me that ethical statements are always emotive (i.e. "emotional") in nature, otherwise they simply wouldn't be "ought" statements but would instead be "is" ones.  (This is the classic definition of the difference between moral statements and statements of facts.)

Moreover, there seems to be a genetic component to psychopathy.  Scientists seem to have discovered different hormonal and brain physiology qualities between psychopaths and the general public.  Moreover, there is an evolutionary explanation for the existence of psychopathy.  Male psychopaths have an enhanced ability to reproduce in human society because their lack of empathy and ability to manipulate allows them to seduce a great number of women and spread their genes throughout the population without having to worry about supporting the children.

Sadly, there is no way to treat psychopaths.  At one time talk therapy was tried, but it proved to be counter productive in that all that happened was that the patients learned how to be even more manipulative in their dealings with others.  And one of the symptoms of psychopathy is an immunity to punishment----jail or even the death penalty are simply not credible threats.   But just because we cannot help them, doesn't mean that we need to exult in their being found guilty.  They are products of forces over-which they have no more control than the forces that shape our lives.  It is just that they are dangerous.  As Sam Harris would argue, we don't feel hatred against hurricanes or tornadoes, but we do take steps to protect ourselves from them.  In a similar way, we need to lock up criminals to protect ourselves, but we don't need to think that we are in any sense "superior" to them.

So what has all of this to do with Daoism?  A fair amount, oddly enough.

I've been scanning through A. C. Graham's translation of the Liezi and as luck would have it, I read chapter 6, "Endeavour and Destiny".  As Graham points out in the introduction, the authors of the Liezi are arguing for a fatalistic worldview.  This position is in contrast with the Mohists who felt that virtue was rewarded by Heaven, and the Confucians who felt that while Heaven was often indifferent to people's behaviour, we are still able to decide to do good.  The Liezi's point of view is that whatever controls our fate is completely and utterly indifferent to our well-being, so there is no hope of good being  rewarded.  Moreover, the book argues that people's reactions come from their innate nature, which is unchangeable.

In the case that I have mentioned above, it is certainly the case the little Victoria Stafford could not have done any sort of evil thing that would justify her awful fate.  With regard to McClintic and Rafferty, Liezi would argue that they never really did have any chance to avoid their behaviour.  She was doomed to be putty in someone else's hands, and, Rafferty was doomed play out his anti-social tendencies.

The only response that Liezi suggests is for people to understand that they are doomed to their fate and to accept it graciously.  In one of the examples, two men are contrasted:  Pei-kung-tzu and Hsi-men-tsu.  The latter has the "golden touch" and prospers in everything he does.  The former has the opposite effect, everything he tries to do fails.  Eventually, this Pei-kung-tzu becomes bitter and asks why their fates are so different.  The sage Master Tung-kuo argues that the only real difference is luck and nothing else.

The effect that this has on Pei-kung-tzu is profound, however.  As Liezi says
When Pei-kung-tzu got home, the coarse wool he wore was as warm as the fur of fox or badger, the broad beans served to him were as tasty as rice or millet, the shelter of his thatched hut was as shady as a wide hall, the wicker work cart on which he rode was as handsome as an ornamented carriage.  He was content for the rest of his life, and no longer knew which was honoured and which was despised, the other man or himself.  (p124)
For the Daoist, the only real control that we have over life is how we mentally react to it.

Oddly enough, I would argue that that isn't exactly true.  How we react to the teachings of Daoism is also a function of who we are, which is determined by fate.  Master Tung-kuo understood this point, for he said of Pei-kung-tzu he was "a man to whom you need to speak only once is easily awakened."  

So like those pretty girls I saw on the street, and like Michael Rafferty, I too am controlled by my fate.  I am doomed to pass on these little nuggets of wisdom that have come down to us from ages past.  This isn't merely "fancy speaking".  I have been absolutely obsessed by this blog post for about a week.  To me, thinking and writing about these sorts of things are as important as food and sleep.  I'm just glad that this is such a harmless obsession---there are far more horrible ones.