We can improve our self-control, and this is a morally significant fact about the competence of normal adults—the only people whom we hold fully (but not “absolutely” or “deeply”) responsible… in many cases our freedom is an achievement, for which we are partly responsible. (Yes, luck plays a role but so does skill; we are not just lucky.) (Daniel C. Dennett, 1984).
Dr. Denett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He wrote the above passage borrowed from his review of Sam Harris’ book, Free Will. See, https://samharris.org/reflections-on-free-will/. Wikipedia says that Sam Harris is (among many things) a neuroscientist and critic of religion. See, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Harris
I sometimes ponder the concept of “free will” vs. determinism (and the related concept of motivation) when it comes to choices we make and habit change vis-a-vis figure re-shaping or corset waist training. Making certain choices and habit changes regarding foods and how we eat, will help corseting be more comfortable and will encourage better overall health and a shrinking waistline and/or weight–if those are our goals.
While I’m not competent to fully understand the niceties of the intellectual debate about free will and determinism between Harris and Dennett (and likely, not that interested in doing so) , I come down on the side of Dr. Dennett.
I agree with him that “perfect” freedom is, of course, an incoherent idea. No one has perfect freedom. We are authors of our own destiny–and we are not.
For example, I don’t believe it possible today to deny the foundational work of Freud and other psychoanalysts demonstrating the existence, power, and influence on human behavior of the unconscious (see, a few immediately prior blogs). Usually we are not aware of what lurks there, nor are we then in control of its influence on our behavior. Even bringing some suppressed trauma to consciousness does not automatically mean that we instantaneously start making better choices or change our normal behavior; that takes more.
I also have a below-rudimentary understanding of the influence of genes, but I know they, too, have certain impact on the projectile of our lives and health, size and shape, and choices. I take after my slim mom (skinny, wiry, with minimal appetite) while my younger sister takes after the body shape and size of my dad (robust, stocky, with large appetite). Sadly and for better or worse, I missed out in studying Richard Dawkins’s idea of the “meme” to explain how behaviors and ideas replicate themselves like genes or viruses–but despite the effect of genes, I still believe in the value of making the ultimate effort to live in the conscious, and try hard to change deleterious behavior and adopt new habits when it comes to taking care of our health–if that is our goal.
The question is, are we as a society (world?) really choosing? Or are we subject to mass hysteria according to our innate? desire for thrills, titilation, and some measure of power and control in our lives? Do we unwittingly and mindlessly (forget free will!) join in certain thrilling “epidemics” like opiods, fake news that stoke our biases, out-of-body drug-induced experiences (i.e,. see Michael Pollen’s new book), hyper and constant texting, and other trends that become anti-social if not dangerous when carried to the extreme, yet behavior apparently of our choosing?
For example, I ponder the ubiquitous need or compulsion of almost everyone who owns an iPhone/android (and almost everyone does these days, except a few souls such as myself), to walk down busy sidewalks as if one owns them, and cross busy intersections as if no danger exists, head down, texting. Why do so?
I have no clue, save for the lack of exercise of free will. I’m sure there is no gene that compels us to engage in what I deem to be anti-social behavior that probably merits governmental regulation (see, e.g., Hawaii and a SoCal cities regulation against texting while crossing intersections). There may exist some unconscious mass compunction for self annihilation, or generalized desire to wipe out humanity, starting with the elderly or youth who can’t so easily jump out of the way. But it surely isn’t rational behavior in my view.
As Dr. Dennett says, “…unauthored thoughts are the causes, shapers and controllers (not the determinants per se)…In fact we know very well that I can influence your choices, and you can influence my choices, and even your own choices, and that this “bringing into being” of different choices is what makes them morally important. That’s why we exhort and chastise and instruct and praise and encourage and inform others and ourselves.”
As he also says (to which I say “A-WOMAN!), “…our free will is not just a given; it is something we are obliged to protect and nurture, with help from our families and friends and the societies in which we live…Freedom involves the ability to have one’s choices influenced by changes in the world that matter under the circumstances. Not a perfect ability, but a reliable ability.”