Author's note: This was written by a far younger version of myself. I have learned a lot since then. Make of that what you will and I hope you experience some elightenment from what follows:
I know... no one lives in the slums because they want to. It's like this train. It can't run anywhere except where its rails take it.
-Cloud Strife, Final Fantasy 7
Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.
Click here to watch a young lady raised by dogs.
When you see choice I see a mathematical equation filled with variables the chooser has no control over which determine both the choice itself and its outcome.
Given that head-scratcher, I believe that it is important to our future that we recognize this and act on the knowledge. For only when we can all come to an understanding that we tend to be only as moral and as fortunate as the circumstances our unchosen birth and development allow - the cycles of poverty and violence in poor neighborhoods bear this unfortunate reality - can we retire our damning pointing fingers and work to ensure that all environments are improved and that each of our unique needs are catered to.
If life and the choices derived from it are indeed nothing more than deterministic calculations, we must take that knowledge by the horns and work to improve those calculations for everyone.
Proclamation: I do believe in choice and on what grounds you make your decisions. I don't think it's even close to involuntary.
Ah but the grounds are always shifting beneath our feet aren't they?
You're assuming that you choose the grounds leading up to your choices, but you do not. Take the people you respect as an example: Had you been born during the slavery era your grounds for respect might have been how much whip skill your fellow plantation owner exhibits when doling out lashings to his slaves. Had you been on the boat with Columbus you may have respected the way your shipmates managed to rape the native Lucayan girls without getting a scratch. Had you been a settler, you may have admired the careful way your local soldier passed out the smallpox blankets to the Indians without catching the disease.
I know those examples sound provocative but they're not meant to be, nor are they an attack against you as they apply to everyone. Now you may be reflexively disagreeing or you may be soul searching and trying to figure out if - had you been born during those eras - you would have been capable of those things but if you are you're doing so from the vantage point of a different person than who you would have been if you had and as a result such speculation is useless. Furthermore, in the event that your unique physiological makeup did indeed prevent you from acting in that way regardless of the environment your psyche was fermented in (which is extremely unlikely) it still doesn't matter, nor does it make you any more righteous than anyone else. Why? Because you didn't choose your physiological makeup any more than the environment which sculpted it - you were merely lucky enough to hit the pick six in compassion roll of the genetic dice.
The alternative is to believe that if you had been there and raised in those same cultures and circumstances that you alone would have stood tall against the forces of immorality among millions who have not throughout history. That you are the ray of light in the darkness. The human embodiment of that shining city on the hill. That you, through your own innate virtue and purity, are simply impervious to corruption, cultural conditioning, peer pressure and propaganda, and never experience any of the ingredients of depravity which might steer your actions away from the moral: distrust, paranoia, fear, envy, greed, inferiority, superiority, hate. In summary: that you are just better than the countless unpitiable masses who - through clear fault of their own - failed to live up to the moral standards you specifically chose to adopt and would always adopt in all possible scenarios no matter your experiences, influences, or education level (wait, did you choose to adopt them or are they just your unchosen nature? There's a conflict here, can you see it?). Take a moment and try to get a handle on the level of narcissism and conceit such a view of your psyche requires in order to prevent it from collapsing in on itself from its own weight.
So now that we've established that the grounds from which you stand to make your choices are not of your choosing, let's drill down into the choice itself.
Imagine that you go to the ice cream shop and when asked what flavor you'd like you think about it for a moment and choose chocolate. Let's examine this scenario:
1) You didn't choose that you like chocolate. What pleases your taste-buds are not of your choosing.
2) You can only choose chocolate because coco exists.
3) You can only choose chocolate because someone decided to make it into ice cream.
4) You can only choose chocolate because someone distributes it and transportation exists to get it to you.
5) You can only choose chocolate because the earth hasn't been destroyed by a meteor.
6) Universe exists.
7) Universe supports life (and chocolate ice cream).
8) And on it goes.
So the grounds from which you stand to make your chocolate choice are not of your making, you are merely the privileged benefactor-ette of a society in a universe that managed to keep itself together long enough to fulfill all the prerequisites required for you to go home a happy chocolate ice cream customer.
But again, forget the grounds from which you make your choice and let's think about the choice itself. Imagine if after you made your decision for chocolate I reset the universe back to the point before you made your choice (i restored every variable in the universe to the state it was in prior to your determination), and you made your choice again. Do you think you would make a different choice?
What if i reset it ten more times?
Now stop and REALLY think about this. Would you ever make a different choice? If I kept resetting the universe till the end of time, would you ever decide differently?
Barring chaos theory (which we'll discuss in a minute), the answer is no, you would never make a different choice. In the same way that 2+2 always equals 4, the sum of all the variables leading up to that choice always equaled chocolate and the only way they could ever equal anything else - regardless of how many times I reran the calculation - is if one of those variables were changed. Thus the choice is deterministic: Merely the result of a mathematical calculation filled with trillions of variables not one of which you exercised even the slightest bit of independent control over. And just like the chocolate choice, every choice you have ever made and every choice you will ever make is on rails.
Those rails are a physiological makeup you did not choose interacting with an environment you did not choose which produces an individual in which every choice he makes is a calculation created from the fusion of both. When thinking of choice imagine a random number generator. The choice itself is the random number and can always be traced back to the seed (environment/physiological makeup interaction).
1) If the universe is reset and the choice itself or the result of the choice both stay the same then the choice and the result are both on rails. Thus it is not independent choice but a deterministic calculation filled with variables (like your tastebud's preferences) beyond your control.
Now you may be saying, "no sir, i'm sure eventually i would make a different choice because of the uncertainty principle (or chaos theory). Eventually enough wave functions would collapse a certain way and i would choose strawberry."
And sure that's certainly possible, but it doesn't make you any more capable of making an independent choice than you could before because all the uncertainty principle is doing is adding a sprinkling of chaos to the choice and you don't control the chaos any more than you control any of the other variables.
Or you may be saying you'd eventually choose another flavor because the human brain is special and can act independently of the universe around it, and the underlying mathematics which run it. In which case i say that sounds hard to believe, but if true you still don't control the randomness function of your brain any more than the chaos function of the universe, and as such your choices would still either always come out the same, or be randomized by a chaos engine you don't have the keys for or have a license to drive. By definition randomness can not be controlled.
But wait, why would it have to be random? What if during one of those universe reset thingys i simply changed my mind about chocolate and decided vanilla was the flavor for me?
Just think about what you're saying. You decided on chocolate. Out of all the available flavors, that was the one you desired the most. Even if it was like a really close match, with chocolate edging out vanilla only by the tiniest of hairs, chocolate still won. Heck, even if you couldn't decide and just picked one in what you thought was a random manner, chocolate still won. Free will cannot be a wishy washy type of deal and still be called free will. If you change your mind when nothing else has changed then you are not exercising free will. At that point something else is at work beyond your control, and you are just along for the ride (and getting gypped out of chocolate ice cream to boot).
2) If the universe is reset and the choice itself or the result of the choice changes then it is random. Thus it is not independent choice but a calculation that contains random "chaos" variables beyond your control.
All of this can be neatly tied together by remembering the movie Groundhog Day, and how Bill is able to bend the entire town to his will through trial and error. Figuring out how to manipulate someone was merely a matter of trying different combinations of inputs until he got the desired result - like opening a safe. Choice isn't choice when it's directed entirely by the whims of the environment you're in at the time. At that point it's merely a mathematical exercise, no different than a computer simulation or a boat with no rudder sailing on an ocean of pure fate. To recognize this all one has to do is take a glance at how trivial it is to manipulate and shape thought:
Grew up with dogs
Choice. Free will. Self-determination. These are the battle cries of us unimaginably privileged few who look down from our ivory perches and pass judgement on the actions of those less fortunate. We no more chose the circumstances leading to our charmed ascent to the top of that perch than those on the ground chose to live under our scorn. Worse still, most of us are completely oblivious to the very privilege which builds and maintains that perch. Morality then becomes an exercise in self-examination, awareness, and acknowledgement of that privilege (problem awareness), and then from that new perspective trying to understand why they live down there and we live up here (problem cause), and finally working to overcome it (problem resolution).
Sit back for a moment and try to quantify some of the benefits you've had throughout your life that others may have not had. Try to picture some of your key life lessons or experiences, and imagine how your life may have played out differently had you missed them. Zero in on some key moments that changed you and your perceptions for the better: A kind word perhaps, or a helping hand at a crucial moment when all seemed lost.
Think of a harsh admonishment from someone you admired that triggered a painful but profoundly useful period of introspection which helped forge your character. Remember the feeling of palpable affection you've received from those who cared about you and sacrificed for you. Think of that book you read or that movie you watched that changed everything. Who would you be if not for these things? Cage your ego and conceit and recognize that those experiences made you who you are, and that without them you would not be the same person in the same position. That without them you could just as easily be the one living at the bottom of that ivory tower. Embrace the fact that the sum total of your life has been completely out of your control, and realize that if i could independently go back in time and erase those positive life molding experiences: you would no longer be you .
And now - with that self examination still at the forefront of your thoughts - try to imagine someone so misfortunate they were never graced by any of them or - through no fault of their own - simply weren't wired to receive them (you don't choose what resonates with you). Imagine someone who far from experiencing any of these positive events at crucial moments in their development, instead endured the opposite. Using the insight you've just gained from your own self reflection, now try to fit into their alien shoes and understand them.
Understanding disarms judgement. With judgement disarmed goals shift from retribution to rehabilitation, from reaction to prevention, from blame to empathy. We can make a global paradise - heaven on earth if you will. We can elevate each and every one of us to new heights and soar above those perches of unfounded egotism that bind and blind us. But first we must fully embrace understanding and then rigorously follow where it leads.
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