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How Free is “Free Will”

by Brian T. Lynch

This is purely my opinion, but my understanding of “Free Will” is very narrow compared to most people I talk to about it. I see it as something that emerges gradually along a continuum from actions that are totally coercive to purely rational and independent. It isn’t an all or nothing phenomenon, as some see it. I exclude all impulsive actions taken due to internal urges from my definition since urges aren’t rational and follow from completely different pathways in the brain. Also, actions that spring from emotions may or may not involve free will in my view. It is here that the gradual blossoming of free will is most evident. 

When ever we act to satisfy urges or emotions we really cannot distinguish “free will” from the actions taken since acting on a urge feels identical to acting by choice.. That is why people don’t even know they are addicted to something until they discover they can’t simply choose to stop. Addiction in insidious that way. No one can say for sure that they smoke by choice after that first cigarette because even six months later the brain can trigger powerful urges for another cigarette.

The same holds true, by degree, with our emotions. We can’t know for certain if we are acting on free will when we acquiesce to our feelings since emotions can also overpower free will. We even say we are “acting on our emotions” to explain certain behaviors, but it still feels exactly like a choice, even if we can’t help it. So inwardly speaking, we can only no for sure that we are acting on free will when our actions are contrary to both our urges and our feelings. It is only when we place them in check that we can know for sure we are acting on our own free will.

That said, what about free will in circumstances when our only available options for action are proscribed by others, or by circumstances out of our control? If we have no choice but to act, do we have free will? If we have only bad choices, are we exercising free will by making that bad choice? Was Socrates exercising free will when he choose to drink hemlock rather than face a public execution? It so, and I believe he was exercising free will, then a limited form of free will must exist even under extreme forms of coercion.

How we define “free will” has enormous social and political implications because it thereby defines how responsible individuals are for their actions. It is here we see the continuum of emerging free will run its course. Some folks believe everyone is 100% responsible for their actions. They might then blame the poor for being poor, or the sick for being sick (live style choices) and would probably not accept an insanity defense for crimes committed by the insane. Speaking of justice, we see the role “free will” plays in our action played being calculated in criminal sentencing hearings when mitigating and aggravating circumstances are used to determine appropriate punishment. We punish people for criminal intent but not acquit them, or lighten their punishment if they were not in control of their actions.

These are just examples. In fact, we use these sort of calculations everyday with each other or our children in judging their actions and in modulating our responses. So the idea that free will is an all or nothing phenomenon just isn’t born out in our every day experience.

Anyway, here is an interesting article on the subject.

It has become fashionable to say that people have no free will. Many scientists cannot imagine how the idea of free will could be reconciled with the laws of physics and chemistry. Brain researchers say that the brain is just a bunch of nerve cells…

SLATE.COM

Reflections on the Human Spirit

Spirit is a word with many meanings, but the difficulty we have in defining it should not take away from the fact that it is real.

 For me, spirit is a personal, intuitive sense of being, distinct from, yet an integral part of the greater universe. It is the source of morality, ethics, justice and universal truths. It is not synonymous with religion. I believe human spirit is the source, not the result of religion. It is what makes human rights unalienable. It is what knits us all together while singling each of us out as somehow special at the same time. It is the organizing force behind our social economy and the broader social ecology of our collective development.  It is that which, despite all individual and group differences, makes all of us equal from birth. It broadens and deepens our social bonds. It is the essential element for our personal well being, our survival as a species and the survival of Earth as we know it today.

 From my perspective, spirituality is indwelling. It invades conscious awareness from  fundamental sources deeply imbedded within each of us, as if our whole body is a spiritual organ physically connected to all things. Other people experience spiritual perceptions from a different direction, such as emanating from outside the body and beyond physical existence. It hardly matters.  What matters is that it connects us to the world and to each other. It reveals to us pure and enduring insights that we all share. It is a source of knowledge, accessible through introspection and heightened perceptions, that dissolves the estrangement we sometimes feel towards nature or other human beings. The human spirit always arches towards a broader, deeper unity and that special sense of well being we call love.

 With all the tensions and challenges today, are we loosing our humanity?  I don’t believe so.  The human spirit has always faced competitive forces. The most persistent form of this competition pits self-interest over communal interests or present advantage over future needs. Nearly every challenge we face today fits this form.  Our challenge, as always, is to elevate the human spirit in our selves and in our world. There are no secret strategies. Most everyone reading this knows what they need to do. Together we must overcome greed with our generosity, both materially and in spirit.  We must empower the marginalized, inspire the dispirited, organize the discouraged, protect the vulnerable, overpower the skeptics, confront the intolerant and above all, bring up our children to be champions of the human spirit.

Paul Ryan’s Mentor: Ayn Rand, the Mother of Modern Conservatives

On April 30, 2012, The Atlas Society published a piece called “Paul Ryan And Ayn Rand’s Ideas: In The Hot Seat Again.” 

In it they talked about the close association then vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, had drawn between Ayn Rand and his own political philosophy. Publicity surrounding his views were prompted by a National Review article entitled, “Ryan Shrugged” which characterize as an “urban legend Ryan’s alleged connections to Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. While Rep. Ryan may never have expressly indicated he embraces her Objectivist philosopy, he is clearly a fan of Ayn Rand‘s ideas and requires his staff to read Atlas Shrugged. (See National Review’s “Ryan Isn’t a Randian” for more along these lines.)

How closely Paul Ryan and other conservative associate themselves with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is important because it shines a light on the heart and soul of their political objectives.  Ayn Rand, a staunch believer in individualism and foe of collectivism in any form, believed altruism and any form of self-sacrifice was evil.  She meant this literally, and any institutions based on such collectivist notions were also evil.  This included churches and all major religions. Ayn Rand was obviously an atheist.  This is an inconvenient truth for Ryan and many evangelical Christians who have adopted Rand’s ideology with respect to the behavior of  corporations  and the formulation of government business policies.  Rand’s Objectivism philosophy has become, ex-post-facto, the underpinning for today’s very aggressive brand of capitalism.   In fact, the incompatibility of Rand’s value systems applied to business behavior and Christian values applied to human behavior is the great paradox of our time.  Objectivism and Religion antithetical belief systems.  (To hear a little more about Ayn Rand in her own words, listen to her interviewed on the Phil Donahue Show back in 1979.)

In the article the Atlas Society released an audio recording of a 2005 speech mand by Paul Ryan at the organizations “Celebration of Ayn Rand” event. That audio file is posted here below along with the following excerpts [highlights are mine].

Congressman Paul Ryan on Ayn Rand

(1:45) I just want to speak to you a little bit about Ayn Rand and what she meant to me in my life and [in] the fight we’re engaged here in Congress. I grew up on Ayn Rand, that’s what I tell people. You know everybody does their soul-searching, and trying to find out who they are and what they believe, and you learn about yourself.

(2:01) I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged. People tell me I need to start with The Fountainhead then go to Atlas Shrugged [laughter]. There’s a big debate about that. We go to Fountainhead, but then we move on, and we require Mises and Hayek as well.

(2:23) But the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand. And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.

(2:38) In almost every fight we are involved in here, on Capitol Hill, whether it’s an amendment vote that I’ll take later on this afternoon, or a big piece of policy we’re putting through our Ways and Means Committee, it is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict: individualism vs. collectivism.

(2:54) And so when you take a look at where we are today, ah, some would say we’re on offense, some would say we’re on defense, I’d say it’s a little bit of both. And when you look at the twentieth-century experiment with collectivism—that Ayn Rand, more than anybody else, did such a good job of articulating the pitfalls of statism and collectivism—you can’t find another thinker or writer who did a better job of describing and laying out the moral case for capitalism than Ayn Rand.

(3: 21) It’s so important that we go back to our roots to look at Ayn Rand’s vision, her writings, to see what our girding, under-grounding [sic] principles are. I always go back to, you know, Francisco d’Anconia’s speech (at Bill Taggart’s wedding) on money when I think about monetary policy. And then I go to the 64-page John Galt speech, you know, on the radio at the end, and go back to a lot of other things that she did, to try and make sure that I can check my premises so that I know that what I’m believing and doing and advancing are square with the key principles of individualism… [To better understand Ryan’s references here go to David Weigel’s commentary in Slate from August 13, 2012 ]

(6:53) Is this an easy fight? Absolutely not…But if we’re going to actually win this we need to make sure that we’re solid on premises, that our principles are well-defended, and if we want to go and articulately defend these principles and what they mean to our society, what they mean for the trends that we set internationally, we have to go back to Ayn Rand. Because there is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works.

TO LISTEN TO AUDIO, PLEASE CLICK ON THE ORIGINAL ATLAS SOCIETY LINK ABOVE