Even Rocket Science Isn't Rocket Science
Copyright © 2010 by Bill Becker
I have had this essay — with this exact title — in mind for a long time. It sees the light of day now because of a comment made by a friend, with whom I recently became reacquainted.
Jack — not his real name — wrote that he once had to reinvent himself, and that in the process he had learned humility. I was impressed. If I had been asked which of Jack's qualities had impressed me the most, humility would not have come to mind first. But, that was not the reason I finally sat down at the keyboard. The reason is that Jack is sort of a rocket scientist. (I say "sort of" because Jack does not actually compute satellite orbits or rocket re-entry trajectories, but he does write programs that test the computers that must work perfectly together for such projects to succeed. Close enough.)
I am not a rocket scientist, but I had something similar in mind years ago. It originated in my love of mathematics. After a sojourn as a philosophy major, during which I learned some formal logic and also something about the foundations of mathematics, I decided that I would rather be a brilliant mathematical theorist than a logical one. I told my inductive logic teacher about my plan. "You know, Bill," he said in a serious tone, "being successful in mathematics takes mathematical maturity. Do you think you have mathematical maturity?" "Of course I do," I said. Some 9 years later — after getting married, having a child, dropping out of school and then returning in a panic — I earned my B.A. in mathematics.
By that time I had accepted my fate—I lacked mathematical maturity. I had to work too hard at it, and I lacked the imagination to challenge myself with any math subjects or problems other than the homework I was given. So, without any real regret, I gave up my dream of being a brilliant theorist and stuck with my secure job and its excellent medical coverage for my family. And that's where I stayed until I retired.
Now, Jack is very smart; especially in mathematics. Jack's mind did not stop where mine stopped. He easily saw answers to problems I would have had to work hard at just to understand what was being asked. In his Junior year Jack went to Germany to study mathematics, and after earning his B.A., he was offered the Chancellor's Fellowship at UCLA to earn his Ph.D. Instead, he chose the job he was offered in the defense industry.
Jack went on to be a heavy-duty programmer, and I continued to work with the mathematics of surveying and elementary geodesy. Later, I segued into run-of-the-mill computer programming. There is a big difference here.
But, in all this Jack and I had one very important thing in common: nether of us could help ourselves. Jack has no more control over his ability to do serious mathematics than I have over my relative inability.
And, the same is true for all of us. Mozart as a child wrote concertos in his head. He could not help himself. The music came to him, and he had no idea what the next note or phrase would be. Nor can chess prodigies prevent themselves from seeing strategies and tactics that are opaque to the average player. It does not refute my point to say that Mozart had a "sense" of the musical phrase before it became inner "musical" speech, say; or a "sense" that something was wrong with a phrase he then improved. That "sense" was no more in his control than were the specific notes as they materialized under his pen, as the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre once suggested about his own prose. The fact is that we are all at the mercy of our next thought.
A Short Discourse on Free Will
It is clear that something goes on in our heads that we do not control, yet we say that we choose our actions. The question of free will has frustrated philosophers since they began thinking, and the question of whether or not we "have" free will is the holy grail of neuroscience and cognitive psychology today. Good luck. I applaud all the philosophers who have written tomes on the subject, purporting to show either that we do have free will, or that our behaviors are determined in strict but mysterious cause-and-effect sequence. So far they have not succeeded one way or the other.
I myself see no room for even a coherent idea of free will within our paradigm of cause-and-effect; a paradigm we all live by, even if we purport to disbelieve its universal application. Neuroscience and psychopharmacology reveal that our brains are electrochemical dynamos, subject to the laws of physics and chemistry. Take a little mescaline and we hallucinate; a little ritalin calms the hyper-active child. Take an anti-depressant, and decide to live. Such evidence inspires most physical scientists to reject the idea of free will.
More philosophically, what can a "decision" be? Is it a physical entity, or is it not? If not, what can it mean for a non-physical event—the "decision"—to begin, or to interrupt, a cause-and-effect sequence of physical events? How does it "reach" the next event in the sequence. If the "decision" is itself physical, how does it escape being caused by something else?
Perhaps the idea of free will arises out of the apparent existence of what we call "alternatives." The logical "or," if you will. While strolling in the woods, Robert Frost comes upon a fork in the road. He recognizes that he cannot take both paths at the same time; he must take one or the other. Which one? He ponders. He "decides" to take "the road less traveled by," and later writes a poem saying that it "made all the difference." But did he really "decide" to take the less-traveled road; or did he simply find himself upon it and then conclude later that he had decided to take it? Where did that "decision" come from? Because Frost recognized "either the right path or the left path" does not at all imply that either one was available to him. The electrochemical machinery in Frost's brain was humming along, and using modern brain imaging methods, his "decision" could very likely have been predicted before he became consciously aware that he had "made" it.
George Orwell wrote "At fifty everyone has the face he deserves." This is another way of saying that we choose the behaviors that will sculpt our features into what others see. Yet, we are all familiar with the fully-functioning uncle, well over 50 and either reactionary or far left, whose political buttons can be pushed to predictable effect virtually 100% of the time. And, in many such cases, a knowledge of the uncle's own upbringing "explains" his apparent inability to even hear another's point-of-view. There seems to be an inevitablilty to his entire life—at least we give up on trying to change him.
So, what becomes of the notion of free will itself? It doesn't matter. If we are free, we will continue as we have: we will criticize or praise others for the choices they make; philosophers will study the mystery of free will; life will go on. If we are not free, we will continue as we have: we will criticize or praise others for the choices they make; philosophers will study the mystery of free will; life will go on. There can be no discernable difference either way. What does seem clear, however, is that talking about free will as if it is something real and meaningful is a practical necessity — a necessity which I will observe.
There But For the Grace of God Go I
The practical necessity of the notion of free will does not eliminate the problem of our next thought, of course. Thus, we must "decide" on the appropriate response to this problem. I suggest that the strictly honest response is just the affect that Jack experienced when he reinvented himself—humility. Humility restrains us from taking personal credit for behaviors and abilities whose origins are profoundly mysterious. And, it follows also that we should feel gratitude—something of a "thank you" to whatever it was that "gave" us a leg up in life, whether that leg up was an ability to see a hugely lucrative opportunity in a run-of-the-mill business enterprise, or entering the world as a trust fund baby. A recognition that had our genes been arranged a slightly different way, or had we been born to abusive parents, we might be on death row for murder instead of being productive members of the community. And, I suggest that even those who overcame serious disabilities are as called upon to feel humility and gratitude as are the heirs of large fortunes. The common and self-congratulatory critique "If I overcame poverty/drug abuse/____________, anyone can," is patent rubbish.
We can go even further: I suggest that virtually all the major virtues should emerge naturally from the very meanings of humility and gratitude: patience; tolerance; compassion; sympathy; kindness; empathy; generosity. Certainly this constellation of attitudes and behaviors are very often found together in the same person. We like to praise such people, even as we tell ourselves that not everyone can be like them.
We are all at the mercy of our next thought. The honest acceptance of this fact begets humility, which pretty much begets the other virtues. Ignoring this fact too often begets arrogance, smugness, and their darker cousin Hubris. These affects are personally and globally destructive; together they are a major wellspring of war and of the assault on nature which began with the industrial age. But even if Hubris succeeds for a time, sooner or later it meets its match — Nemesis.
Good luck with your next thought.