Perhaps Nietzsche was right and free will is now just another pleasant fiction that people use to make themselves feel better, and the only reason they don’t reject it is because they are uncomfortable rejecting it.
Of course the brain’s possible close interwovenness with quantum physics implies that perhaps the human soul is indeed something strange mysterious and beyond simple mechanical determination. Perhaps the Order of the Nine Angles is correct that the human soul is acausal, a sort of fountain into the physical mechanical causal world, flowing out of some other acausal dimension where things work very differently.
But what if the doubters are correct and free will really is false?
The first question, then, is what is this sensation that we have a choice? Is it a complete illusion?
Perhaps the way to think about it is that whenever we feel torn, or are weighing different options, our conflicted feelings themselves are the very process of computation which, though mechanical, we still experience emotionally.
This brings up another very important subject. Even if we are machines, we still have desires. Given that the universe (and our brains as an extension of it) is here being thought of as a cold deterministic mechanical progression, should we even care about the fact that we have likes and dislikes, or goals or hopes or dreams?
Perhaps we should just think of them as existing on an entirely different spectrum than physics, even though if we are mechanical determinists, we assume that these very hopes and desires are determined by chemicals, which were themselves arranged by natural selection.
(Of course this very persistence of human subjectivity in a world that should actually be completely unconscious, because of its cold objectivity, is one of the reasons why I question determinism. A determinist might object that there is nothing about a mechanical causal deterministic universe that should preclude consciousness, but then I would ask why and how should such a universe produce consciousness? Consciousness seems to be a completely inexplicable absurdity, similar to matter yet in a separate category. Anyone can test the reality of matter by using any of their senses, if we put aside stupid Matrix arguments that none of this is actually real. Consciousness, too, can be tested by Descartes’s method of “I think therefore I am.” Thoughts are happening, there must be a source of these thoughts or at least an experiencer of them. This source or experiencer may be coherent or incoherent, united or divided, but still it’s there.)
Getting back to my main point, there must still be some kind of way to live as a machine. I think one of the main reasons people refuse to entertain a thought is because they don’t know how they would live if they came to believe that thought. What would they have to change about their lives if they believed this new idea? And they don’t really want to think about the practical ramifications either, because it is often at the very moment that you entertain the details of what you would do differently that you become comfortable with changing your beliefs, so people stay away from this consciously or unconsciously. I admit the whole point of writing this is so that I can be open-minded and entertain the thought that my spiritual beliefs are completely wrong, and that the world really is just a cold scientific void.
So what if we are machines? We still have values, qualitative values which because they’re not quantitative you can’t put a number on. We have to weigh between our values and figure out which ones are the best so we can prioritize what we actually do. You can try to rate them in their degree of import, but again it’s hard to be numeric; you may have two values which you think numerically add up to being more important than a third value, but if that third value is your life’s primary value, you may still choose it over the other two. Then we have to figure out how our preferred balance of values matches up against the world of practical possibilities, and then perhaps change our methods or our goals accordingly.
This process seems to have something in common with a computer. It is a matter of comparing things according to a somewhat logical process. Admittedly often people aren’t so aren’t often so logical about it, and rather than deliberating, they weigh their values in a rather immediate emotional; they just go with their feelings. Really these are two versions of the same thing, the only difference being a more carefully thought-out version of going with your feelings. And then of course often people’s actions are at a complete mismatch with their intentions, because once again, they act on momentary impulsive feelings instead of thinking about larger consequences, or the deep feelings that they have their entire lives (versus the ones that are dominating right this instant).
But the more we talk about feelings the more you see how this is different from a computer. I really have no idea if an emotional computer is physically possible. Maybe, maybe not. But this is what sticks out to me about humanity. Our eyes are not surveillance cameras. We don’t just receive and store data; we experience it.
I often wonder if you just made a computer complex enough, and tangled up its processes so they were done in a more chaotic, simultaneous fashion similar to human brain function, would you get something that was similar to human emotionality? I suspect that you get something similar to human behavior, but it would still not necessarily have feelings. There is still some missing element.
Back to “how should a determinist live?” I suppose a person could attempt to live like a robot. They could live emotionlessly, or attempt to live but what they perceived to be a logical code. The problem is that, their logical code’s foundation will always turn out to be something that they perceive as desirable. People have often tried to argue that there is such a thing as reasoned ethics, one based on what most human beings want. To me this is an incoherent concept. I think what most people want is something entirely distinct from reason. This is not because I frequently encounter human beings displaying poor logic (don’t get me started), but because the two things are on completely different axes. Reason is when you can solve a mathematical equation. Desire can be a lot of things, but it’s not that unless you really like math. Even then, your liking of it is totally different from your ability to do it.
So yes, a determinist with still have plenty of reasons to live. Maybe they might become more logical like the Vulcans, but even the Vulcans have feelings, and very strong compassionate motivations behind their logical codes. I’m with David Hume that “reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions.” A determinist could also just throw up their hands with all the planning and go with their momentary emotions, which honestly sometimes might produce a better result anyway.
What a determinist will find is that no matter how much they believe their decisions are only a mechanical process of computation, they themselves are this very process, physical and mechanical or not, and the whole thing can still be difficult, emotional, and interesting. So the fact that human beings are possibly only a biomechanical construct does not diminish their value in any way. For whatever reason, absurd as it may be, the ability to value things (including the worth of human life) works completely differently than the typical laws of physics (like a pool table, one ball predictably hits another, etc.). Even in the determinist scenario, the human ability to evaluate, and that ability’s inherent worth (well I like it), is still present, both in humans-in-general and in the determinists themselves.
Yes, we may be machines, but we’re still human!
This brings me to Marxism. I find the Marxist theory of free will vs. determinism to be completely incoherent. You either have free will or you don’t. You are either a product of economics or you are not. Marxists say people make history but in conditions not of their choosing. If Marxists are asserting that human beings have true free will, but we’re limited by physical and economic circumstances, that is one thing, and I’d agree. It often seems that Marxists argue precisely this point. But in German Ideology they/the man himself also argues that even something as fundamental as human thoughts are economically determined. This would imply that, in reality, “people make history but in conditions not of their choosing” is a lie, because not only are the conditions beyond our choosing, but even our own thoughts, our “free will,” are actually just entirely determined by conditions anyway.
So it seems to me that the Marxist has a few options. (1) Embrace literal free will, human thought self-originating, free of the economy, but with human action limited by various physical/economic walls. (2) Embrace hard determinism, figuring that not only our physical/economic limitations, but even our choices within them, are economically determined. I think many Marxists subconsciously do this, except for a few religious Marxists I know who I’m guessing go with (1) or: (3) Engage in some sort of mutual-cause, chicken-and-egg explanation, which muddles-but-still-includes the rather religious, or absurd, or at least unexplained idea of free will (alongside, rather than instead of, economic determination of thought). This is something I think most hard-atheist Marxists would be very bothered by realizing they must do.
I think most Marxists do either (2) or (3). But they dislike (2) because they claim to be dialectical and not determinist. And they dislike (3), if they are honest about its implications, because they are hard atheists or just don’t like dealing with inexplicable things. (It’s true that, even though something is inexplicable doesn’t mean we have to resort to religion; in my case both my scientific and religious explanation are the same thing.) For the record I’m currently in option (1), placing me with Jean-Paul Sartre. I used to be option (2).
I will grant that actually economic causes are an excellent guideline, and I often use it to understand things, but people consistently take it overboard like it precludes any possibility of human thought independent of economics. Of course figuring out where a person’s thoughts come from is a ridiculously hard thing to do, so this to me seems like an unprovable dogma.
For all you know, a science fiction author could be responding to the feelings that capitalism gives them or receiving brain signals from an alien source. Jesus could be interpreted as a critic of ancient feudalism and imperialism, or as someone who had a message from God for all times and all places. Not just Jesus, but how about any individual person? Are their thoughts and feelings coming from the experience of capitalism or are they coming from the experience of simply being human? Both? And what percentage of each? Or can the thoughts not be easily divided, and perhaps right now being human and experiencing capitalism are the same thing? Or is there a human element that exists in capitalism, and is conditioned by it, but is also an independent, distinct, or even separate entity unto itself that is universal across all times and all places? Or perhaps is not universal but is just simply independent?
Maybe we just need to admit that sometimes things don’t fit into our giant all-explaining framework, and people just have their own thoughts! “But where do these thoughts come from?” the determinist asks? Well, how about the person themselves? “But what determines the content of that person’s mind?” they insist. Nature? Nurture?
Maybe it comes from the Void. Maybe actually there is a kernel of biological human nature independent of economics, and it comes from there. (Is sex more economic than biological? It seems like people of all times have wanted to do it…) Maybe the thought acausally emerges from the person’s soul. Maybe it could be explained by any number of things that you don’t want to admit are possible because they don’t fit with your dogma that everything must arise from economic material conditions. Yeah, maybe The German Ideology explains a tremendous deal of human behavior, but that does not mean it is a tightly-sealed, absolute, proven theory behind absolutely all of it. Maybe human behavior is inexplicable and that’s the great mystery of life. Maybe uncertainty doesn’t bother me, while it makes many people panic. Actually maybe uncertainty is a great thing, because the world is currently in the shitter so uncertainty could only lead upwards.
In fact I think it’s extremely dangerous for Marxists to believe that they have an all-explaining framework, even if they/we are actually very close to having one. It turns them/us into very closed- minded people.
A lot of the time this seems to not be a problem, because actually we do have to have a certain mental rigidity. The constant capitalist propaganda must be constantly opposed and refuted. Our personal beliefs regarding socialism often come under constant individual attack. But at the same time maybe we are just doing something wrong in terms of strategy or tactics, and we need to be radically open-minded. Maybe there is some new issue we are ignoring which we thickly think we already have the answer to. For example until fairly recently there were many socialist groups who did not recognize the importance of gay rights. Even race and gender were not issues taken up universally by the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs’ time.
What if we are not wrong, but could just do even better than we are already doing? What if we are doing things pretty well, but we could continue experimenting, continue learning, continue improving? This is an experience I’ve had very recently actually with the ISO and Philly socialists. It’s not that the ISO is a bad group, actually it’s an excellent one. It’s just that despite how well-performing the ISO often is, Philly Socialist has an organizational model that is even better, without this necessarily refuting most of what the ISO does. Anyway, in my new anti-sectarian outlook, I can still be a supporter of both groups, and I am, without even being a member of either.
We have to live as if, at any moment, we could be presented with evidence or an idea that completely explodes our entire concept of everything – of reality, of politics, of whatever.
Often we are guilty of arguing with a point before we’ve even truly listened to the point being made. We assume it’s the same old tired kind of argument we’ve heard before, but maybe it’s actually coming from a completely different new angle that we are unfamiliar with, or the person presenting it has new evidence that we have never heard of. We shut the conversation down before we even hear this new element because we think we already know the answer.
We should stop doing that!
We should embrace a life of radical openness where the things we are currently working on or invested in have no influence on what we entertain as true or untrue – in which we are willing to perform a complete about-face, to radically reorient the direction of our lives based on the things we learn or realize.
Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone. Anything is possible.