Hold the free will, I’m adding some luck to my knowledge sandwich


This article first appeared on The Big Smoke: http://thebigsmoke.com.au/2016/10/04/hold-free-will-adding-luck-my-knowledge-sandwich/

It’s an odd feeling that I am sure we all know to some degree: when, upon the introduction of new knowledge, concepts that once seemed sacrosanct disintegrate like your smile when you see an ex-lover in the supermarket.

Over the past 12 months, my intellectual diet has changed from a buffet to a degustation menu. I’m consuming less of the everyday and enjoying a much richer and more fulfilling digest of philosophers, scientists and writers. At times this is overwhelming, because I deliberately pick sources who will push my opinions and worldviews around and make me uncomfortable. For example, after a full week’s worth of academic research, I attended a Brian Cox lecture on a Saturday night in July. I felt as though I was a wall that had met a hot and delicious Brian Cox pie at speed. A large portion of the pie (Brian) ended up on the floor, but some bits stuck to the wall (me) such as this gem: “We are physically insignificant, yet we are valuable”, a deeply unsettling yet liberating philosophical point to muse upon for all meaning-seeking creatures. These kinds of revelations tempt me to believe that value and knowledge are synonymous. Human beings have the capacity to create something that could have been otherwise, leaving us with things that are true, and things that are useful for living in the world. It is through engagement and commitment to learning that we become receivers, and creators of knowledge.

Imagine that you and I were meeting over a cup of coffee and catching up on each others’ lives. I tell you about the party I went to last week, and about how I’m pleased to be getting ahead with making my Christmas cards this year, and that I’ve been thinking about getting into a bit of light BDSM, and oh, did you know that there was no such thing as free will?

I felt bridled, complete with a bit betwixt teeth, yet not uncomfortable. There is no singular person controlling me; rather, the whole universe, everyone, is holding the reigns.

The first time I heard Sam Harris talking about the subject of free will, it was in a podcast. I have since read his novella on the subject. For a card-carrying control freak, it was vaguely alarming to hear that I was not the author of my thoughts or actions; yet unsurprising. I can’t pretend that I ever felt as though I was in control of these things, but I assumed that this was because I just didn’t properly understand the neuroscience behind them. What Harris claims is that there is no such thing as free will, that there is only luck. Much like the philosopher John Rawls does in his theory of the social distribution of native endowment, Harris argues that we are socially constructed from the luck of the circumstances we are born into, and whatever we make of those circumstances is determined by more luck. In essence, both scholars argue that none of us “deserve” our position in the world; that it is a red herring to believe that any of us deserve to be born more gifted than others, and that we, therefore, have a responsibility to use our luck for the benefit of all humankind, not just for ourselves.

This is, potentially, extraordinarily useful information. If only one could line up every hyper-privileged “self-made man” in the world and calmly explain that there is, logistically, no such thing as a self-made man; fundamentally because we can’t take responsibility for creating a single cell in our bodies, including of course, those cells that might make us more intelligent, talented or beautiful et al, than others. As Harris suggests, such enlightenment would be a solid basis for compassion for those who are born less lucky, and hence, a panacea for militant individualism, arrogance and hatred.

Upon learning of the illusion of free will, I felt bridled, complete with a bit betwixt teeth, yet not uncomfortable. There is no singular person controlling me; rather, the whole universe, including everyone who has ever had an influence on the social construction of Polly Chester, is holding the reigns.

So what am I getting at exactly? Who knows, really. When I started writing this today, I had no idea how it was going to turn out or what point I was going to try and make, only that I had a bunch of stuff in my head that might be semi-interesting or useful for people to read. On one hand, Brian suggests that we’re insignificant beings, hurtling through the universe on an unknowable trajectory, yet we’re still valuable. On the other, Sam suggests that there is no such thing as free will, there is only luck, and what we make of our luck. So what ought we do with ourselves?

For me, it’s gaining use from your luck. Create value. It is your social responsibility to do so; especially in order to help those who are less lucky.


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