By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, moves on,” wrote Omar Khayyam; but the blind poet William Ernest Henley spoke these words: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Which view of life is correct, fate or free choice? Habits and addictions seem to bind up people all around us, inevitably controlling their acts, keeping them prisoners, unable to escape their innate character or upbringing. Jim was a talented handyman who worked for my brother and me on our buildings a few years back. He could do original construction or repairs from the foundation to the roof, including plumbing and electrical. In his forties he looked boyish and gentle as he bustled about, feverishly knocking things together. He earned a good income, but lived in a garage and drove an ancient pick-up truck, which he was constantly fixing. One day he blew his brains out with a shotgun in his garage home. We found out he had been on the drug speed, using nearly all his earnings to feed his addiction. Jim killed himself to escape the prison of his habit. Was that an act of a free will or an inevitable result of his heredity and background? Such cases lead many people to believe we are not free to act with reason, but our behavior is the inevitable product of our heredity, our genes, and the environment in which we grew up. Yes, I agree, our will is not free, because it has to be earned—and reason alone will not lead us to freedom of action.
Brains, even genius, do not guarantee freedom from bad habits. Orson Welles was surely a very bright person, but his addiction to food and wine turned his body into a mountain of fat as he aged. He was a strong man, but died prematurely at 71 years of age.
A dear family friend is 76, with a heart condition, but still working at a job that stresses his system, climbing ladders to roofs. He loves the Casinos in our county’s reservations. A successful family man, intelligent and hardworking, he sometimes declares: “I’ve quit gambling; I’m not going to the casinos any more.” His long-suffering wife sighs and says nothing. She knows he means well, intends to quit his vice, but is unable to do it.
Intention is necessary but not sufficient for the achievement of willful results. Knowing what to do intellectually is not enough. Animals possess small intellects and display little free will. Our emotion of the will developed along with our intellect as we emerged from an animal condition. We learned to reason first as to what is best to do for our own welfare and the objects of our love–and then do the right thing to achieve this end. If you need surgery to prolong your life, you submit to it, though it may be painful. You say no to a tempting pleasure, if you know it is harmful; or, you should say no.
Yet you note that most people don’t like to say no to their passions and habits. If you want a good bet, expect people will not change their ways. It has been said, zebras will change their stripes before people change their habits. For most of us every day is ground-hog day: we repeat without awareness or deliberation, in an unchanging cycle, the motions we have acquired from our genetic tendencies and early habits.
Most of us are but automata, inevitably executing the instructions inscribed in our internal programs.
People who are fat remain this way in the long run in spite of diets and advice from weight control clinics. Statistics show that 95 percent of those who lose weight at a diet center regain it all back and more within two years. Among people born to a middle class family, even after a college education, less than one percent of the people achieve comfortable retirement at age 65. Any one with experience in marketing will tell you, the vast majority of workers who begin in sales fail. Growing up in any of our city slums, such as the lower east side of New York City, the child of poor parents seems to lead inevitably to a dismal life of failure, prison or early death.
Did I say inevitably? We all know of stories when such a child grew up to rise to a big success in any field of endeavor. My dissertation advisor at USC, Dr. Richard Bellman, thought by many as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, grew up in Manhattan’s lower-east side. Turning to fiction, in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” the wealthy publisher and developer Wynand grew up in the lower-east side also. But real cases are well documented of poor children who became wealthy, famous or both. Abraham Lincoln grew up in a log cabin, studying by the light of the fireplace. Napoleon Hill, the world-famous writer on success strategies was an Appalachian country boy. How did these people shake off their defective heredity and environment, rising to prominence? How about that one out of twenty dieters in the statistics who got the weight the off and kept it off?
Let us not focus on the vast majority of people who go through their lives half asleep, unaware and insensitive to opportunities, but on those like the Buddha who awaken to possibilities of action the majority cannot even see. Some persons, like Saul on the way to Tarsus, see the light, are shaken to the core, and become different, like St. Paul changed and able to change the world around them.
This light, is it the grace of God that descends upon a tormented soul on very rare occasions, a miracle of healing, a key out of the prison of vice, to a higher existence? Souls doomed to eternal suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction, cancer, or depression suddenly convert to health and happiness. Doctors cannot explain why some cancer patients, like the famous fitness guru Nathan Pritikin, unexpectedly against all odds, recover from their ailment; but they have a word for it: spontaneous remission. In a religious framework, this phenomenon is called remission of sins.
Alcoholics Anonymous recognizes the power of faith in healing. In their meetings, they call on a higher power to come to the aid of their members. Overeaters Anonymous follows the same program and they are more successful, at the cost of a small donation, than the most expensive diet centers.
I am not, however, searching here for the rare grace of God. I am analyzing the processes in an act of will that changes a character, a life, and a destiny. We know from many observations of human lives that some persons will achieve extra-ordinary successes at whatever they undertake in spite of tremendous odds against them. Reading the “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” you may get some ideas how this man acquired so much wealth and fame as businessman, inventor, scientist, writer, statesman, and social lion, starting a life from very humble beginnings. Similarly, Napoleon Hill told his own amazing story in “Think and Grow Rich.”
Such people were successful, because they exercised the will freely to achieve what they thought was right for the own lives and the lives of others. Yes, freedom of the will is debatable, but turning to a practical viewpoint, let me ask you this. When are you more likely to be effective in your life and succeed: believing you are free to choose and act, or feeling powerless, bound by fate? Kurt Fiedler, another handyman of my acquaintance, was smart and fast in his work. He could have become a licensed contractor with ease. But he was born to a blue-collar family and his father died poor at age 56. Whenever I tried to motivate Kurt to advance himself, he invariably said, “I’ll die like my father, early in life and poor.” Fatalism does not help you succeed–or avoid final failure, if like Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Hitler you believe the stars dictate for you a destiny of constant successes.
Philosophers have been arguing about human destiny and freedom of the will for thousand of years. I can see why. Whatever you decide as the truth about the will, the consequences for religion, morality and legality are serious. If the will is not free, we should not ascribe sin or crime to any action, punishing the guilty person. If you are addicted, and not free to choose, you are sick then from alcoholism, drugs, or some other obsessive-compulsive condition: you are not responsible for your actions. You should not be blamed or be admonished to correct your behavior, but be given treatment in a clinic, hospital, or outside by expert psychotherapists.
If the will is not free, to be born poor in a family lacking education, means that you cannot rise above your station and family status to become important in society. Society wastes time and money teaching you thrift, hard work, saving, and investment.
Aha, you say; but some persons are born with some special genes or combinations of genes, which drive them to greater effort; or, it was a special teacher, friend or relative who inspired these poor souls to excel–in spite of their unpromising heredity and environment. That’s still cause and effect, you insist, and free will had nothing to do with their success in life. Perhaps, I may concede to you this point now. To proceed, however, let me begin with an analysis of terms, where I should have started in the first place.
What is freedom, what the will?
First, let’s talk about freedom. Some objects have one degree of freedom, like a train on a track, moving back and forth constrained by the rails. Other objects, like four-wheel drive cars on the open road have two degrees of freedom, moving around on a surface. An aircraft on the other hand, can fly in all three directions with maximum freedom.
Now you say, we’re not discussing mechanical freedoms. True, but mechanics is a good starting point. After all, Newton’s laws of motion gave a main impetus to determinism, the inevitability of cause and effect in Nature, and some good arguments to questioning freedom of the will in people. Now, however, quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and Einstein’s relativity theories modify Newton’s laws, making determinism an obsolete notion.
Setting physics aside if you are not strong in science, let’s talk about people. Who is more free, a prisoner or a person in the streets? You will agree the person outside the prison walls has more freedom, although a true philosopher can be free in spirit while imprisoned–and more so than an ordinary person in the streets. Another case: who is freer, the master or the slave? You’ll have to say the master. And between the employer and the employee, who has more liberty? You must agree that in general the employer, because he or she gives the orders, which the employee must follow or lose his or her job.
Who are more free, those living in a dictatorship or those in a democracy? We would all agree citizens of a democracy can usually travel anywhere they want to go, even outside their country, speak as they wish, write and publish what they want, with some restrictions, and are not afraid of being put in jail for their views. But are they completely free? Certainly not, because they are not allowed to violate the rights of others or do harm to other people in the democracy.
So, freedom is never an absolute, but a relative quantity.
Second, what can we say about the existence of the will, free or not? I define the will as that function of the mind which allows humans to act contrary to their desires, if intellect indicates to do so is necessary for their own good or the good of those they love. Thus you submit to painful surgery when your doctor explains the procedure is necessary for your health. An animal is not likely to do this, even if you can communicate this truth well to it. You may also abstain from a pleasure, such as some sex or food greatly desired, to avoid hurting yourself.
Do you now? Do you abstain from pleasures because they are harmful? Perhaps–if you are not addicted to them from past engagements. And even if you are addicted, you may act deliberately and avoid the pleasurable activity, because you have had sufficient practice exercising your organ of the will. If your will is strong and you can avoid harmful pleasures, are you going to do that every time you are tempted? Certainly not, sometimes you will succumb to your desires, because you are not concentrating on your resistance; you are tired, distracted, or relaxed.
In a state of emotional tension you have fought temptation successfully and you know this emotion rising inside you, leading you to fight for what is right. I experience it as assertiveness, aggressiveness, or even cold anger. Let us call this feeling thymos, as the Greeks would call it: a quiet anger tied to the intellect, guiding you to behave sanely, for the safety of your body or spirit. Like all faculties, thymos gets stronger, if it is exercised regularly, with gradually increasing intensity, and for a sufficiently long time.
There is a will then, if there is an intellect telling us the consequences of our actions and a thymos aroused to guide those actions to virtuous behavior–sometimes. How can we change our behavior to get us on the path to our goals?
You may have something to add at this point, as some philosophers have done. When we follow the right course, it is only because we have a desire for health, order, or justice, which is stronger than our lower instincts. Therefore, again there is no free will but a push by a different desire that determines our behavior. But I am not suggesting we replace one desire that leads to harm by one that prompts what is good. Doing so is a simple technique and works well in many situations to improve behavior. No, I am proposing that we act purely on abstract grounds, putting away desire during our period of deliberation.
Can I give examples of such abstract grounds for acting freely without any desire? I am not sure I can. Suppose you decide to do something, a good deed, because it will decrease disorder in the world and promote life. Can such a goal be free of desire? It cannot be. But suppose you put aside the satisfaction of a present desire to achieve some future benefit you visualize as probable. Even though such a benefit may be tied to a desire, the existence of a will so defined is worthwhile, because from two or more choices you pick the tougher one, enriching your life in the future.
I offer you such a freedom of the will then which exists for some people, some of the time, occasionally leading them to succeed when others fail, maybe moving them to a higher level of consciousness, above the animal ways, to truly human behavior. It is not a total kind of freedom, as René Descartes would have it in Passions of the Soul: “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained.” I define a will for the world of quantum physics, where events are probable but never certain.
This relative will is enough to have. It is enough to give enormous power over time to those who possess it to alter their own characters, to influence people and events, thus creating destiny for themselves and the world around them. Because most people are like sheep compared to those with this relative will, which is a combination of some intellect and sufficient thymos. Willful people are shepherds leading others on the path of good or evil, and so the world takes shape, beautiful or ugly.