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Thoughts

Free Will or Determinism?

All too often I feel that formal philosophy presents arguments based on the assumption that two different viewpoints are necessarily opposed to each other. The idea whether human action is based on free will or determinism is presented as a binary set, with the thinking being that it must be one or the other. I know I’m not alone in saying this, but I believe the answer lies somewhere in between. Life isn’t black or white, or a set of absolutes dictating what we know to be true. There are shades of grey. The right answer is not always apparent. As we learn more about science we peel back another layer to get a closer look at reality. As we delve deeper we uncover even more mysteries and more unanswered questions. I think that’s exciting, the proposition that there is still so much to learn about the natural world. Back to the question: are we free to control our actions as we wish, or are our actions a product of deterministic forces in a universe completely beyond our control? I believe it’s too simplistic to say either or, I believe both arguments are partially correct.

It appears that we make choices. Decisions and choices are pretty much what life revolves around. As I experience my own conscious mind on a daily basis I feel I am presented with a set of choices in each encounter with the world that I’m involved in. The notion that I have free will is a very strong one, personally, because I feel it gives me agency. Yet as more scientific discoveries about the body and brain are made, the argument for determinism grows stronger, casting doubt on the concept of free will. The idea that we are largely influenced in our lives by our genetics has only really come about in the last 70 years. The concept that in many scenarios the brain triggers a reaction before we can even consciously process it is an even newer discovery. Is it arrogant to think we have free will? I don’t think so. I still believe we have free will, even if we somehow know physically before we consciously make a choice. That physical knowing that takes place in the brain is a product of our upbringing, our life experience, our personality makeup and our genes. Even though we still have a choice, we are largely unaware of all the forces that drive us into a circumstance where we are forced to make that choice.

Determinism also raises a host of legal issues as well. If it can be proven we really aren’t in control of our choices, how can we legally convict someone for murder if we can scientifically prove they are technically not responsible for their actions? It’s clear that the notion of free will is actually rather integral to most of modern society. The entire market economy relies on individuals making choices about how they are going to spend their resources. The entirety of criminal law rests on the principle that individuals must be held responsible for the choices they make. Interestingly, some nations make an exception in the case of insanity, and refer people to treatment rather than prison as a result. If it could be proven that no one is truly responsible for their actions in the free will sense, what happens to criminal law? I think as a practical matter, we must look at human action through the lens of free will.

Categories
Thoughts

Comfortable is bad

For too long I’ve been comfortable with failure. Comfortable with mediocrity. Comfortable with boredom. Comfortable with not taking risks. Comfortable with stagnation. An outside observer might call it laziness, but it’s more than that. It’s a fear based decision-making process. By putting off any and all decisions, I effectively decide by wasting time until the decision is made for me by self-created circumstances. I’ve avoided growth because I was afraid of change. I don’t want to live like that anymore.

In the last 9 months I’ve become much more focused on achieving goals and making progress in my life. I’ve changed a lot of things as a result, but confronting my own negative patterns of thinking and acting is the hardest part of this process.  These patterns have been ingrained in me over most of my life, so escaping them is harder than I thought it would be. I now appreciate how difficult it is to change my outlook and perspective, along with these patterns. My main mode for doing this has been by taking positive actions in my life to get me feeling better about myself. One goal has been to repair and renew existing relationships with people I care about, as well as foster more relationships with new people, to make myself more open and vulnerable. Getting to know someone isn’t hard, but letting someone else get to know me has always been a struggle. I used to be better at it when I was younger, but as fear invaded my thinking over the years it became more and more difficult. The barriers I’ve created for myself are pretty neurotic, it’s like an unfunny Woody Allen movie in my head all the time.

Another part of this process is catching the lies I tell myself as they happen and challenging them on the spot. This forces me to confront my own bullshit. One of the things I avoided doing for years was writing. I used to love to write. I would blog every day 10 or 12 years ago, and it came effortlessly. As I got further and further away from that, one of the lies I told myself was that I couldn’t write, that I had nothing to offer, that my creative spark was gone, so what was the point? I have made it a goal this year to write with something approaching regularity. I can’t challenge these lies I tell myself simply by out-thinking my own brain, I have to take action to produce the evidence that stands in sharp contrast to those lies. That evidence is now here on this blog, and by doing this I really have improved my own outlook and my sense of self-worth. Which might sound crazy to you if you are well-adjusted and already like yourself, but for me it has been a struggle and being able to write again is a big deal.

The goal with this blog is to just write about whatever interests me, or whatever’s on my mind. The goal is not to cater to an audience or even for other people to read this stuff. I’m working on improving and refreshing my writing skills and rebuilding my self-confidence in my ability. To be completely honest, I don’t care if anyone reads this stuff. If someone does and likes it, that’s just an added bonus. So far so good.

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Religion Thoughts

There Is No Why

There are questions religion, and theology in particular can’t answer. At least in my opinion, they can’t answer them. They attempt to answer these questions, and I believe that they fail to. The classic question “why do bad things happen to good people” comes to mind. One could also ask “why do good things happen to bad people.” It seems just as relevant in light of how the world actually works. The ancient Greek thinker Epicurus worded the dilemma of evil this way:

“The gods can either take away evil from the world and will not, or, being willing to do so cannot; or they neither can nor will, or lastly, they are able and willing.

If they have the will to remove evil and cannot, then they are not omnipotent. If they can but will not, then they are not benevolent. If they are neither able nor willing, they are neither omnipotent nor benevolent.

Lastly, if they are both able and willing to annihilate evil, why does it exist?”

Of course, as humans we have to agree that evil is even a real thing. We have to accept that evil exists and is a force in humanity. We have to agree on an acceptable definition of what activity or behavior is evil. Humanity does not have this agreement, different cultures have different values, but most cultures at least have a conception of evil, even if they disagree on the definition. Some extreme religious cultures view blaspheming God as evil and deserving of death, while other cultures (I would argue more civilized ones) would view the killing of a “blasphemer” as evil or immoral. Anyone that accepts the concept of evil and also believes in God is confronted with the Epicurean dilemma, even if they might not directly acknowledge it. In philosophy this is known as The Problem of Evil. Attempts to answer this problem have been made over the many thousands of years, usually by people trying to justify a belief in God.

I believe this happens because as humans we have a strong desire to answer the question “why?” Why is the world this way? Why would God allow this? Why do bad things happen to good people? In a way I am asking why. Why do we need to know why? The stand-up gag about a 3 year old constantly asking his dad why is a classic bit in comedy. I would say our desire to know why is not merely strong, it is pathological. This desire has driven most of Western thought and science. We want to understand our world. Not every philosophy or culture assigns as much importance to the question why, however. Buddhism sees no need to explain the nature of God or the origins of the universe. To know why in these cases is simply misguided desire and a waste of time. In a way Buddhism is disputing the notion that there is always some answer to the question why.

Sometimes, I believe, there is no why. Because we can view cause and effect in nature, allowing us to make scientific discoveries about how things work, we wrongly assume that cause and effect is a principle that applies everywhere. We may learn one day how the universe came into existence, and in a way that answers why, but in a way it does not. If we never make contact with a God or gods, we can still ask, what is the purpose of this universe, why are we here? I doubt there is any answer to this question. There is no why. There is no greater purpose or answer to discover here. We exist, we came into being, and it is up to us to assign our own meaning to this existence. On a personal level, I don’t find any need to have some made up story about God’s plan for the world or the afterlife to find meaning in this world. There is meaning in struggling to survive in this harsh universe, to make our mark that we existed and flourished in spite of the odds.  The very concept of existing and discovering more about our world and the universe is exhilarating to me, and I don’t need any greater meaning or purpose than that.

Categories
Thoughts

leaving Christianity

I don’t believe in determinism, the idea that we are not in control of our actions or events because everything that happens is a result of forces beyond our control. Laws of physics, genetic imperatives, chemical reactions. I will admit, however, that determinism has merit. It explains much of what happens in the world. In many ways, we are slaves to our programming. We are influenced by the way we are raised, as well as by our DNA. In some ways we are no different from robots. We have hardware and software that are responsible for much of how we act. So on the other hand, I don’t necessarily believe in free will either. I think reality is somewhere in between.

I’m reminded of the neuroscience discovery whereby it has been shown that the brain will start acting and moving a person before they have a conscious thought about taking an action. So in a sense we are always on autopilot. It’s akin to the story of the monkey riding the elephant. The elephant goes where it goes, when it wants to, but the monkey tells a story about why the elephant is moving, pretending as if it’s in control of the elephant. In much the same way our emotions, our actions, our thoughts are like the elephant, lumbering along beyond our control, while our conscious minds are like the monkey, telling a story about why things happen, because we need certainty, reassurance. We want to know how and why things are the way they are. The desire for certainty is very powerful.

Categories
Thoughts

A Universe of One

When I was a child, my mother would frequently scold me with the cliched parental phrase, “the world doesn’t revolve around you!” whenever I happened to be acting in a way she didn’t like.

My response, even from a fairly young age, while I was still in early elementary school, was to argue that the world did in fact revolve around me. From my perspective, everything did. I argued that because I see the world through my own eyes, that I can only understand things as revolving around my own perspective. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was actually making a fairly advanced argument for solipsism as a clever way to justify whatever behavior my parents didn’t like. Usually something involving not doing chores, I think.

Categories
Thoughts

Anxiety and Existential Fear

At various times in my life I’ve felt a lot of anxiety. It has shown up at different times, in different places, and in different contexts. Some of it has felt overwhelming as I was experiencing it. Some was the result of me not taking my health seriously enough, and not doing what was necessary to manage my mental illness, while on other occasions it was largely the result of circumstance. I would say that most of my anxiety, at its core, stems from a deep, existential fear. In the process of trying to know myself, to understand my subconscious motivations and in general my emotions and their source, I have given a lot of thought as to where this fear comes from. What is this fear, and how does it inform all of my actions?

I guess it perhaps stems originally from early childhood, and it developed for reasons I can’t fully explain. I grew up in a very stable and loving household. Unfortunately, I was raised in a very devout Christian household, and I was taught from a young age that man is by nature sinful and evil, and therefore I was sinful, and evil, and in need of salvation through Jesus. Perhaps as a result of this, and other factors, I never felt good enough, I always felt defective. I worried that I was doomed to hell, and I prayed desperately for a way out. When I would engage in behaviors that my parents, pastors and peers called sinful, I would feel immense guilt afterwards, terribly confused about why my behavior was not in line with what I was taught I should be doing. A sort of existential confusion ruled my childhood. Because I was told that what I wanted was inherently sinful and basically wrong, I resisted wanting anything, I attempted to drown out my desires with distraction, because my desires were at root evil. I simply viewed myself as worthless, not worthy of love, not deserving of anything.

As I grew older, I thought, at the age of 22, that since my actions (not going to Church, reading the Bible, or praying) didn’t line up with the faith I purported to believe, I realized that my only logical option was to abandon my faith and declare that God was dead. I was miserable emotionally, and the struggle I had with my newly discovered mental illness made me consider that maybe religion had it wrong. This was a big event in my family, and when I revealed to my parents that I didn’t believe in God, they were terribly concerned and viewed that information as some kind of emergency. The real emergency was that I seriously needed effective mental healthcare, which I did not receive.

I did not recognize my anxiety for what it was as a child and a teen, because I wasn’t always very consciously aware of it.  Looking back, I can see how it informed nearly all of my actions. Getting bullied at times, lashing out violently at students who mistreated me, generally experiencing unnamed fears over various situations and interactions, not doing things to help myself, procrastinating endlessly, I can now say all stemmed from my anxiety and fear. In my 20’s, as my illness progressed and worsened, these feelings at times became overwhelming. The fear manifested itself in many different ways. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of intimacy, fear of abandonment, fear of rejection. Fear of making decisions or taking on challenges. Fear of school. Fear of work. Fear of losing all my friends, being destitute, being homeless.  Again, at its core, much of this fear came from the early, very early notion that I was essentially bad, not worthy of love, and flawed. I was destined for hell, so clearly I didn’t deserve love. I failed miserably at loving others in my 20’s because I had never learned to love myself. I didn’t know how to express outwardly something I had never done inwardly.

Concepts like happiness, contentment, and inner peace were completely foreign to me. Not long after I had entered college, I turned to substances to replace my feelings, to numb out, to escape myself.

I remember vividly the first two times I was intoxicated. The first time, on a family trip with some cousins, I got fairly buzzed, but not fully drunk. The second time, in college, I drank heavily, and got very drunk. Both times, the feeling I got from alcohol was incredible to me. I had never felt this good before, that I could ever remember. I thought to myself, perhaps subconsciously, that I was finally alright, that this was the best feeling I had ever experienced. The beauty of it was that I could drink whenever I wanted. Instead of choosing awareness, and difficulty, and perhaps some form of emotional progress, I took the easy way out: I chose the bottle. A few years later, as I was a junior in college, I tried marijuana for the first time. The feeling I got from my first hit was wondrous, to me it felt just as good, if not better than the alcohol. I had a new favorite substance. I was finally home. The moments when I was high, I felt ok with myself.

My substance abuse helped me to fail out of college. I had, by my senior year, entered into a deep depression medicated by alcohol. After dropping out, I returned home and took solace in more booze, and this time much more marijuana. I eventually got around to trying pills as well, but usually infrequently and when it was randomly available. The next 11 years of my life were marked by moments of insanity, hospitalization, arrest, misery, and depression. My drug abused threatened any type of stability I had in my life. My only friends were generally people I got high or drunk with. I did this to escape my anxiety and fear, to treat my depression or my mania. To distract myself. Anything to avoid my feelings. The perpetual knot in my stomach signified an area of my brain and body that I refused to go to, that I refused to acknowledge or deal with or attempt to resolve. Functional relationships were extremely difficult, if not at times completely impossible. I did my best to muddle through, but it seemed like every time I tried to go to school, to get a new job, to do anything for myself, I always failed.

The hallmark of these times were usually short periods of attempted sobriety followed by even worse alcohol and drug abuse.

Finally, I reached a point in the last year where my situation became desperate. I had finally run out of answers and excuses. The way I was living wasn’t working. My mental life was a mess, and dominated by thoughts of suicide. After multiple months of this, looking for a way out, looking for answers, I finally realized that I needed to stop abusing substances. I had tried living clean before but it had never worked for me. This time I fully committed myself to the process and attempted to change everything about my life that was in my power. I wrote out how I felt, and I focused on what I didn’t want, and how my feelings were. This was the turning point for me. Sharing this with others, and then going back over it myself helped me to achieve some clarity. I’ve always been pretty bad at figuring out what I truly wanted and acting on it, so instead I focused on what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to kill myself, ultimately, and I didn’t want to keep feeling the way I felt. The drugs no longer numbed me out, no matter how much I used. The escape mechanism stopped working. I was forced to come to some realizations about myself and my situation.

With a lot of help from others that I reached out to, I started over again. I’ve been clean nearly 4 months now. I got a job, I changed my living situation, and started making friends with people who were also clean and making good choices. I’ve never felt more certain about what I need to do, and I’ve never felt better about myself. Still, the self-doubt, self-hatred, and self-pity that were my mode for so very long are still there, but less so. When I feel those things today I respond with action, with positive movement in a good direction. I realized that if I’m not moving forward with my life, if I’m not growing, I’m dying.

The anxiety and fear are still there, but I have to aggressively attack these feelings by continuing to walk through it. My confidence is growing, little by little, after having been crushed for so long by many personal failures and disasters.

I read something yesterday, spoken by Winston Churchill, many years ago that really got to me when I saw it. That’s how I’ll close this writing. He said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

I could not agree more.

Categories
Thoughts

reasons

I guess I started this blog because I need to write. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. I’ve been writing in one form or another for a few decades now, and I rely on it as an intellectual and emotional outlet. What that implies about my life may be interesting, but mostly only to me.

I’ve been blogging since way before it was cool, on Geocities and Tripod in the late 90s, and then on my own domain, with blogger, and then later WordPress and a few different social community forum things.  I can’t remember all the different sites and publishing methods I’ve used.

I’ve been using the internet in one form or another since probably 91/92 or so, as a young child. I’ve grown up with the internet as the technology itself has matured. For that reason it is where  I feel most comfortable in different phases of my life. I crave all the forms of communication the internet makes possible, with the exception of video, which I feel is somehow restrictive.

Many, if not most of the platforms and technology I’ve used are long since defunct.  This has made me somewhat jaded, and especially purchase phobic when it comes to choosing technology platforms on which to rely for a long period of time.  It has also however made me very optimistic, as I have been able to witness first hand the rapid ascent of the computer age over the last 25 years. It has really been a glorious thing to behold.  The internet has opened new avenues of communication to people all over the world, for the first time in history people across the world can cheaply and easily communicate with each other. The impact of this revolution is still yet to be fully felt, even as it continues to transform the way the world works. So there is hope as technology continues its now seemingly inexorable advance.

In a way all of the topics of this blog will be somehow related to that, as this revolution has informed my life and the way I think about the world.

It’s been too long since I’ve last blogged on a regular basis, hence the name of this here site.  The idea is to write once a day, at least. Let’s see how we do.