Monday, December 11, 2006

Freedom Contrived

I found this the other day. I know it's an old post, but it made me think.

Like a woman who has applied makeup before running to her first tryst, the world, when it rushes toward us at the moment of our birth, is already made-up, masked, reinterpreted. And the conformists won't be the only ones fooled; the rebel types, eager to stand up against everything and everyone, will not realize how obedient they themselves are; they will rebel only against what is interpreted (pre-interpreted) as worthy of rebellion.


This is a fascinating idea. That even those who rebel are themselves still within the system following along "approved" lines of rebellion. It reminds of the Matrix where Neo finds out that he is merely the sixth 'One' and that Zion has been destroyed several times before him. The rebelling humans may technically be outside the Matrix, but they are not really free. They are playing themselves out along the robots' plans, in just another level of control.

This is not unlike R' Kook's ideas about the place of atheists in God's plan for the world. They think they are rebelling but really they are merely playing the role set out for them in God's mastermind plan for humanity. This is an idea both frightening and comforting, in a way.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of people who rebel against their parents to the point of living their lives to spite their parents. Whatever their parents want from them, they do the opposite. But, in doing that, they have given their parents every bit as much control over them as if they were completely obedient.

CyberKitten said...

Orthopraxsaid: This is an idea both frightening and comforting.

..and meaningless. While simply asserting that atheists are rebelling within God's plan without anything to back the statement up is easy to do, it actually moves the debate on not one inch. An atheist - not unlike myself - would simply laugh and say "What God? What plan?" and go about his business...

Such a totally unfounded statement neither frightens nor comforts me.

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"Such a totally unfounded statement neither frightens nor comforts me."

Ok fine. But if you would imagine a what-if scenario then you might appreciate its implications.

Personally I don't buy R' Kook's ideas, but what about the controls set upon us by our upbringing, biology and society? Might we just so be within the unconscious boundaries of some higher control even as we try to be free?

Baal Devarim said...

OP:

"but what about the controls set upon us by our upbringing, biology and society?"

You call that frightening? What about the controls and limitations set on us by gravity and physics? Personally, I find that much more frightening, especially when driving on icy roads. ;-)

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: But if you would imagine a what-if scenario then you might appreciate its implications.

Oh, I think that I do fully appreciate the implications. However, it still neither frightens nor comforts me. Why should it?

Orthoprax said: Might we just so be within the unconscious boundaries of some higher control even as we try to be free?

Anything is possible. But somehow I seriously doubt it - certainly enough not to live my life in its shadow. We could all do "What if's" till we keel over with old age.. after a while though it just gets boring. It seems fairly pointless to postulate something like that without the first tiny hint of anything to back it up. We may not be 'free' but until I see good evidence to the contrary I'm going to continue to live my life as if I am.

Baal Habos said...

Orthop,

>This is not unlike R' Kook's ideas about the place of atheists in God's plan for the world. They think they are rebelling but really they are merely....



Interesting. I find this very similiar to that mantra that people are skeptical to justify their craving for following their Taavah.

(we'll never be free).

Orthoprax said...

BD,

"You call that frightening? What about the controls and limitations set on us by gravity and physics?"

Well, yes. But what frightens me is the way those factors control how we think and how we act in ways which we cannot even identify without destroying ourselves in the process.


CK,

"However, it still neither frightens nor comforts me. Why should it?"

Ok, nevermind then.

"Anything is possible. But somehow I seriously doubt it..."

Why do you doubt it? All of those things impinge on my thoughts and deeds on a daily basis. Biology makes certain demands on my behavior, as does my upbringing, as does my society. And these are demands that I don't feel myself unwillingly bending to - but very willingly acting upon. And even when I act in ways other than those directives require I am still not acting freely for I am simply acting in purposeful contradiction.

Our past controls our future. We simply cannot escape the web of causality.


Baal,

"(we'll never be free)."

It seems the only real freedom is where we are free from our past - but this is impossible. Our experience is our identity. To be free then is to die.

alex said...

I once pointed out a punk among a group of punks to my kid: "He just wants to be different from everybody else, just like all those guys around him who look just like him." Your post is indeed thought-provoking, and I'd love to see how you apply the theme to yourself.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: Biology makes certain demands on my behavior, as does my upbringing, as does my society.

Agreed.

Orthoprax said: Our past controls our future. We simply cannot escape the web of causality.

No. Our past *influences* our future. It does not control it. Causality is OK as far as it goes but it is not the answer to everything. When you look for causes to any effect you eventually end up back at the Big Bang as the *cause* of everything that has ever happened in the Universe... which 'explains' absolutely nothing.

Saying that "The Big Bang made me do it" would hardly be much defence in a court of law.. [grin].

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"No. Our past *influences* our future. It does not control it."

I wasn't referring to deterministic thought specifically, but simply that all of our actions and reactions are based solely on the experience presented for us. Even if you are willing to believe that the human mind is a self-willed actor, you must still recognize that our present and future choices are bounded into certain pathways by our past.

Another way to look at this is that to decide one way or the other for a single proposition still indicates that you are reacting to that proposition and as such you cannot be free from it.


Alex,

"Your post is indeed thought-provoking, and I'd love to see how you apply the theme to yourself."

Well, most prominently is the issue of Judaism and Orthodoxy specifically. It is an issue presented to me and I make choices, form beliefs and so on about that issue. I am unfree to unacknowledge it as an issue.

I, just like so many others, have been faced with this issue and some kind of choice must be made. Yet whichever choice I make this issue will always be a significant contributing principle in my life's path one way or the other. Basically I'm stuck with it.

So even if I were to choose to leave Judaism entirely (something which I do not wish to do) I really never could. I can "rebel" and yet still be controlled by this larger system which encompasses both those "within" the fold and those "without" it.

Simply speaking, you cannot escape your past.

Anonymous said...

I see two different things being said here. One, that we are just as influenced by external forces as them, just different external forces. Two, even though we leave the fold, we are still just as OJ in our thinking. We still think in the same categories, orientations etc. Both points are incredibly true and incredibly insightful. It scares me to talk to my Hindu or Chinese friends about religion. Their concepts, categories, and preconceived orientation is so different from my own, it makes me realize how influenced I still am by Jewish perspectives. And, it also adds a whole new level of skepticism towards OJ. Not are OJ’s conclusions suspect, there is a whole suite of assumptions OJ is premised on that we don’t even realize are there.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: all of our actions and reactions are based solely on the experience presented for us.

That's not strictly true. Again past experience & knowledge certainly influence our choices but they do not determine them. It is possible to 'think outside the box' as the saying goes.

Orthoprax said: you must still recognize that our present and future choices are bounded into certain pathways by our past.

Only to an extent. Though difficult it is entirely possible to completely break with the past on move in a totally new direction. Though the past may influence that decision that influence will diminish as the new path increasingly diverges from the old one.

Baal Devarim said...

OP:
"I wasn't referring to deterministic thought specifically, but simply that all of our actions and reactions are based solely on the experience presented for us."

Yes, that's what being human is. Why is this frightening? We are not proverbial gods, unbounded by universal rules (of logic, say) and experience. Can anything (even a God) exist that is not bound in some form by the specific nature of its existence?

I don't see why this is scary. I happily accept that my very essence is bound by some universal laws and that my biological makeup, memories, and acquired traits (irrespective of the issue of free will) basically determine who I am.

In other words, I am unique, just like everyone else. ;-) Welcome to humanity.

Orthoprax said...

LF,

"Their concepts, categories, and preconceived orientation is so different from my own, it makes me realize how influenced I still am by Jewish perspectives."

Indeed, but the strange thing is that these implicit assumptions don't bother me. They are part of who I am for better or for worse. But still it is a little frightening to see how much of who we are is completely out of our power.


Cyber,

"It is possible to 'think outside the box' as the saying goes."

Well yes but I'm not sure if such a thing is possible. Unless you suffer memory loss I don't see how your past experiences cannot effect your future choices.

"Though the past may influence that decision that influence will diminish as the new path increasingly diverges from the old one."

Perhaps, but it is like that big fork in the road at the very beginning of the trip. It determines the paths you can take.


BD,

"Yes, that's what being human is. Why is this frightening?"

Perhaps "frightened" is the wrong word, but it bothers me for some reason that so much of who we are is not in our control. Our very thoughts, the thing we often point to as solely of our own providence, really is not.

"I happily accept that my very essence is bound by some universal laws and that my biological makeup, memories, and acquired traits (irrespective of the issue of free will) basically determine who I am."

Ok, then I guess we have just taken different views on the topic. As a supposedly free individual I find it unnerving - as an integrated segment within whole existence it is somewhat appropriate and to an extent comforting.

Anonymous said...

And, I should add, it's not only our upbringing, but out personality type as well. Some are rational, some emotional, some uptight, others relaxed. it's interesting to watch as my friends shift from less religious to more religious, then less religious again, but their underlying concepts don't change. You've got the group that is always basing themselves off of rational arguments, but just keeps changing their mind as to what's rational. You've got the group that wants to fit in, but keeps changing their mind about where they want to fit into etc. It seems we can never escape our core. As you say, we are who we are.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: Well yes but I'm not sure if such a thing is possible.

Of course it is. How else do you explain inovation and creative thinking? What is originality but 'thinking outside the box'..?

Orthoprax said: I don't see how your past experiences cannot effect your future choices.

They can - and often do. But I don't believe that you are constrained by your past experiences. They do not determine, but do often inform, future choices. Once on a path we can choose to get off it.

Orthoprax said: Perhaps, but it is like that big fork in the road at the very beginning of the trip. It determines the paths you can take.

Sorry, no. Taking a particular fork in the road may ultimately *limit* the paths you can subsequently take - but it does not necessarily determine them. If you decide that the fork was a bad idea it is often possible to go back and change direction again. Its all a matter of choice.

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"How else do you explain inovation and creative thinking? What is originality but 'thinking outside the box'..?"

Yes, in that sense you are thinking outside the box. But these are rather superficial and external concepts. Thinking 'outside the box' for personal decisions would be thinking outside of your own mind.

I don't think you appreciate how strongly and how deeply your past effects your very being. In a very large part - your experience _is_ you.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: In a very large part - your experience _is_ you.

I agree with you - but only to an extent. I think we are basically disagreeing on the extent of these influences in our lives rather than whether or not they exist.

I am certainly influenced and informed by my past experiences - but I am not *bound* by them. My past experiences inform my decisions - but it does not determine them. I learn and grow by experience but I do not ossify. Experience gives you more choice not less.

Anonymous said...

my original impression of this post - particularly in the context in which it was printed - was not that it was referring to the individual within the grand universal plan for creation, or even anything neccessarily religous or existential. this was how I read it; the world forces certain accepted mainstream conventions upon its masses. sometimes people wake up and say "hey - I don't want your silly conventions! therefore, I shall rebel!" only since their conceieved notions of rebellion have already been laid out for them, by dint of society's influence upon them as well as the long history, tradition, and formula for rebellion, they simply step into another role, pre-planned, steamed and pressed, and probably already necessary to society to continue functioning as it does. they aren't actually being rebellious so much as simply stepping from one sterytype into another - or, to use a familiar image, stepping out of one box, directly into the box next door.
I think the idea was that people think they're being original when in fact they're so called non-conformity is simply conformity with another group; they do not create so much as put on what has already been created for them. they only call it rebellion bc it is new to them.

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"I think we are basically disagreeing on the extent of these influences in our lives rather than whether or not they exist."

Fair enough.

"My past experiences inform my decisions - but it does not determine them."

See, I don't think our experience stops at just giving us information, but also shapes the very way we think - and as such its effects would generally be imperceptible to us since it is "built into" our very thinking patterns themselves.


Miri,

"they aren't actually being rebellious so much as simply stepping from one sterytype into another - or, to use a familiar image, stepping out of one box, directly into the box next door."

Oh yes, I agree with that understanding of the writer's intitial quote. I just went a different way with it.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: I don't think our experience stops at just giving us information, but also shapes the very way we think.

I agree. But past experience does not *determine* the way we think. It helps shape it. If past experience determined the way people thought then they would not be responsible for their actions - since their actions were determined by their past. Even more so they could not be *held* responsible for their actions. Hence we would have to dispense with the ideas of Law and Morality which are based on choice and Fee Will.

Past (and present) circumstance should certainly be taken into account when judging anyones actions and you can get a pretty firm handle on someone by knowing much about their lives, culture etc.. but it would not allow you to determine their future actions.

Orthoprax said: its effects would generally be imperceptible to us since it is "built into" our very thinking patterns themselves.

If the effects are 'imperceptable' then how do we know they are there? If we have no evidence for a phenomena how can - especially for something happening in our own minds - we think that it is true? So far you seem to be voicing an assumed position. What are you basing it on?

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"But past experience does not *determine* the way we think. It helps shape it."

You're basically saying the same thing there. If you wish to say that there are additional factors that inmapct on our decisions along with out experience then fine.

"Hence we would have to dispense with the ideas of Law and Morality which are based on choice and Fee Will."

And? I thought atheists hated it when people formed beliefs based on consequences they didn't like. ;-)

"Past (and present) circumstance should certainly be taken into account when judging anyones actions and you can get a pretty firm handle on someone by knowing much about their lives, culture etc.. but it would not allow you to determine their future actions."

Maybe. You're getting into deterministic thought here which wasn't something I was planning on engaging in, but if you knew a person's past experience fully and wholly - you might just be able to predict their future decisions.

But even without strict determinism, if you have a group of people with similar backgrounds, you could probably predict their decisions about something within a few different possibilities and be correct a very large amount of the time.

In daily life we predict individuals' behavior all the time and we are generally correct even when we know virtually nothing specific about the person. With people you know better - your closer friends or family - you can predict their behavior even more precisely. You could even describe an action as something Mr. X would say or do. How is this possible?

"If the effects are 'imperceptable' then how do we know they are there?"

The specific effects of how experience makes us think, not the external effects of said experience. We do not often perceive the way our thinking is effected by our experience. But you can often clearly see it in others.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: And? I thought atheists hated it when people formed beliefs based on consequences they didn't like. ;-)

[grin]. I had a feeling you'd pick up on that! It's certainly not an argument against the idea of determinism - just a consequence of it.

Orthoprax said: if you knew a person's past experience fully and wholly - you might just be able to predict their future decisions.

I think that's a VERY tall order. You would have to have perfect knowledge of that person (which is most probably impossible) and even then I'm not convinced that any predictions would be 100% accurate.

Orthoprax said: if you have a group of people with similar backgrounds, you could probably predict their decisions about something within a few different possibilities and be correct a very large amount of the time.

Even people who grew up in similar circumstances grow up differently - otherwise there would be a *lot* more conformity in the world! Even identical twins turn out to be different enough (once you get to know them more than superficially)

Orthoprax said: With people you know better - your closer friends or family - you can predict their behavior even more precisely. You could even describe an action as something Mr. X would say or do. How is this?

You obviously haven't met my family and friends [grin]. Don't those close to you still surprise you? We can predict others behaviour to an extent because we (as humans) share a lot in common. Most people share an empathy with the human condition. If we could not predict the behaviour of others life would most likely be nasty, brutish and rather short!

Orthoprax said: We do not often perceive the way our thinking is effected by our experience. But you can often clearly see it in others.

Really? I certainly have no argument with the idea that experience changes the way people think - that's where learning from experience comes from. Experience most certainly modifies the way we think - but as I keep saying, I don't believe that it 'determines' the way we think or act.

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"Even people who grew up in similar circumstances grow up differently - otherwise there would be a *lot* more conformity in the world!"

Sure, but of those people who are nonconformists if you ask them why, would they just shrug and have no answer for you - or would they be able to point to a few experiences that led them to a different path?

And even if they did just shrug, do you really believe there wasn't some unique experience or experiences that they've had to distinguish them from all the general conformists?

Within this little online community of Orthodox skeptics we have a perfect series of noncomformists - and lo and behold, virtually all of them have a story to tell about how that happened and what influenced them.

"We can predict others behaviour to an extent because we (as humans) share a lot in common. Most people share an empathy with the human condition."

Indeed. That is my point. Human behavior is predictable. For better or for worse we are all running on the same basic programming.

"Experience most certainly modifies the way we think - but as I keep saying, I don't believe that it 'determines' the way we think or act."

If you don't like the word "determines" then you can ignore it. The point is that our thoughts and behavior are effected in ways which we never willed them to be. Just by being exposed to X our thinking is effected and our actions will follow a different course than had we never been exposed.

In this way X has a measure of control over our thoughts and behavior.

CyberKitten said...

You know what....? I think that we're actually agreeing with each other much more than we are disagreeing. The problem I think we're having is in the details & interpretation.

As you say Non-conformists are often reacting to the conformity they see. They are certainly defined by their stance to that conformity and might see themselves in that way too.

I have no problem with the idea that we all have stories related to incidents that put us on our present path. After all we don't normally conjour our lives out of thin air. Each of us has a (fairly) unique personal history.

Orthoprax said: Human behavior is predictable. For better or for worse we are all running on the same basic programming.

Indeed. We are all humans with largely the same genetic inheritance (though less uniform than was thought until recently). Global culture is also becoming more uniform or at least recognisable so we have many things in common with our fellow homo-saps. Therefore, its not that surprising that we can predict the behaviour of our fellows to a large degree. I don't think its anything like a cast-iron argument for determinism though.

Orthoprax said: The point is that our thoughts and behavior are effected in ways which we never willed them to be. Just by being exposed to X our thinking is effected and our actions will follow a different course than had we never been exposed.

Of course they are and I don't think I've been arguing any different. Our thoughts and behaviour are affected by things we are (largely) unaware of as well as things beyond our control - like our genetic predispositions. I don't think that this eliminates the idea of Free Will though. It just means that we are not *totally* free in everything we think or do. I actually find it hard to even imagine what a 100% free mind would be like.