Conversations with Yang, Part I: How we accept/reject our unchosen existence

It’s funny how any extended conversation with my friend Yang gets me thinking about everything a little harder.

We got to talking about free will and birth.  Our birth is not our choice.  Or so it seems.  This is an issue of great importance to me, because it problematizes human existence itself.  It threatens to annul all notion of free will:  If even our birth wasn’t our choice, do we have any choice at all? As you can see, it makes for a rather bleak human condition.

Her:  What’s the point of thinking about it if that’s just the way it is and nothing can be done to change it?

Me:  Well, for one, i enjoy thinking about it, and trying to understand this unsolvable problem can help to fuel other philosophical projects which could contribute something real and practical to society.

Even more importantly, the way in which we decide to accept or reject this truth could have great implications on our actions.  In other words, this is a question of moral responsibility.

In my post on Peter Singer’s contribution to The Stone, i couldn’t decide whether having children is ethical, since i couldn’t reconcile birth with free will, while at the same time, my tendency to innately believe that nature is usually “right” restrained me from jumping to the conclusion that it is flat-out wrong to procreate.

But here’s another question to consider:  Our birth aside, on what grounds do we accept or reject our unchosen existence, and if we accept it, how do we cope with it?

I’m not sure if i can answer that for myself yet, but the following is a half-assed and clueless attempt at categorizing and characterizing possible ways that we might do this.

First, some definitions:

will – The faculty of deciding, choosing, or acting.  (Philosophical Dictionary: Whately-Wollstonecraft)

free will – a will that is free from all compulsion and restraint

freedom – The human capacity to act (or not to act) as we choose or prefer, without any external compulsion or restraint.  (Philosophical Dictionary: Whately-Wollstonecraft)

As such, free will is an abstract concept, a will characterized, whereas freedom is free will realized. Some philosophers use the terms interchangeably, but i like to draw this difference.  I’m not sure if this difference is even commonly drawn, but this is how i conceptualize the difference, if there is one.

My proposition:

In human life…

Birth is not a choice.

Successful birth results in existence.

∴  Existence is not a choice.

For a thing to be free, it must have been chosen.

∴  Existence is not free.

[I realize this isn’t an exhaustive argument outline, but for the purposes of this post, only the final proposition itself matters.  I can’t argue it without being able to objectively measure the significance of birth to existence, which i can’t.  There are probably other things too that i need to be able to do make that argument, which i won’t bother trying to identify at the moment.  So essentially, i’m not trying to do philosophy here so much as i am attempting to speculate how one might cope with one’s unchosen existence should seeing it as such become (or even merit) an existential crisis.  I did pose a question about this issue on AskPhilosophers.org, and i will follow-up on this with another post if i get a reply.  Meanwhile, i would love to hear any objections to the above premises.]

And now, some possible positions (assuming acceptance of the premises):

A.  Rejection of the proposition

1)  with pursuit of freedom as a value:  “I refuse to believe that my existence is not free just because my birth was not so.  To the extent that i can assert my freedom as i live, my existence is free.”  This individual takes heart, despite the possibility that free will might not exist, and strives to exercise his self-perceived freedom in everything he does.  He will never be able to tell whether his life is really and absolutely free, because life as we know it always begins with an unchosen birth, and we can’t know if a different kind of life with a certain free will exists, or could exist.  However, this does not matter to him because he believes that his ability to make free choices after his birth somehow makes up for the fact that his birth was not his choice.

2)  with renouncement of freedom as a value:  “My existence seems free, but i feel no need to pursue freedom.”  A happy-go-lucky individual, if you will.  Either nothing has made him suspect that his existence might not be free, or he doesn’t care to look deeply enough into the issue to be skeptical.

B.  Acceptance of the proposition

1)  with pursuit of freedom as a value:  “My existence is not free, but i must be free.”  This individual’s only alternative is to commit suicide.  If his existence is not free but he must be free, he cannot live.

2)  with renouncement of freedom as a value:  “My existence might not be free, but i could think of it as a gift, nothing more.”  This individual considers his life as an opportunity that was generously bestowed upon him, resigning himself to live the life he was given without a real free will.

Next question:  How might these positions play out in a society?

A1:  To this individual, it doesn’t matter whether anyone can verify or prove that human free will exists.  As long as he personally values freedom as an essential human necessity and believes that he can be free if he chooses to be, he will protect others’ freedom as well, barring any moral failings.  An A1-minded society will, at least by principle, look out for everyone’s freedom.  A1’s could potentially drive A2’s to value and exercise freedom and save B1’s from suicide by persuasion.  A1’s and B2’s would probably agree to disagree.

A2:  The individual least in despair, Kierkegaard would say.  Or as Heidegger might say, the individual forever trapped in “everydayness.”  These individuals go with the flow, not stopping to question whether their existence is really free.  Depending on how deeply they are immersed in their everyday lives, it would be difficult for A1’s and B1’s to get them to consider that their existence might not be free.  These individuals could live with B2’s in harmony, agreeing to disagree, or they could even cite B2s’ argument of seeing the opportunity of life as valuable in itself as the reason for not valuing freedom.  Ultimately, there could be infinite arguments for the renouncement of freedom as a value.  Still, A2’s are the most susceptible to persuasion from other positions, since their position is the least reasoned.

B1:  Could B1’s lead a mass suicide?  Maybe.  Could they argue their position to A1’s, A2’s, and B2’s, and get them to resort to suicide as well?  Possibly.  But could they offer counter-objections to objections to their arguments?  I’m not so sure.  For instance, how might they respond to the objection, “But why must we value freedom?  What objective reason do we have to value it?”  And how might they argue against B2s’ case that whether birth was a free choice or not, it afforded them the opportunity of life, which could have value in itself?  Troublingly, B1’s have no sense of morality, since they see no value or meaning in human existence.  For everyone’s well-being, it would be best if they kept to themselves.

B2:  The least susceptible to the argument that freedom should be valued.  These individuals see life as an opportunity that would not have been given to them had they not been born, so they already see value in existence.  They are the most content, because they value life even with the understanding that it might not have been a free choice.  Unless A1’s and B1’s can successfully argue for freedom as an objective value, these individuals will never be fazed.  At the same time, they have no compulsion to make their case to anyone who thinks otherwise, because as far as they know, there are no objective values to argue for.

I think that’s enough for now.  A little sloppy and not really reasoned at all, but i’m hoping someone from AskPhilosophers.org will shed some light on the relationship between birth and existence.  I think that’s what’s really key here, but i haven’t found any discussion of free will that considers the relationship.  So here’s to hoping i get a reply, and in the meantime, have a kick-ass July 4th weekend, Americans.

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4 Comments

Filed under conversations with yang, ethics, philosophy

4 responses to “Conversations with Yang, Part I: How we accept/reject our unchosen existence

  1. njs

    In the sense that matter and energy are interchangeable and conserved, we have always existed, so there’s not much point in thinking of “bringing” something into existence.

    In the case where something/someone that can “will” in the first place is created, it is likely out of something that, on its own, cannot will. To a certain extent, I agree with the “why argue with reality” part since life involves growing from non-willing to willing collections of building blocks.

    There isn’t much of a solution I find satisfying in the way this is discussed so far because I can’t convince myself of much, but perhaps another approach: I would rather have the option to try and experience with the free will to commit suicide than not have the option at all.

    Free will/freedom cannot be exercised without will, and will cannot happen without the bringing-to-be of something that can will. If it is accepted that choice/free will are things that are good, allowing an exercise of that choice through birth and knowledge leading up to an informed decision seem a pretty reasonable way to look at it.

    It is true that the suffering argument in a previous post can make this look dysmal, but not even allowing choice seems to make humans in general pretty dissatisfied. And while the person born is born into a reality constricted by other’s previous will, they still have an ability to exercise their will and change the world as they find it – the most anything can possibly do if it necessarily comes into a state where it can will at any point except the creation of the universe.

    And saying will should be unfettered only makes a certain amount of sense. A good deal of freedom has been willingly yielded due to the benefits of modern society, so that’s evidence that there’s a benefit to yielding some freedom.

    How do you address the fact that free will cannot be exercised without an act of will on that being created? Gut feelings seem to suggest that the ability to “will to will” is required as a premise because nothing is violated until one can actually will him/herself.

    • n

      In the sense that matter and energy are interchangeable and conserved, we have always existed, so there’s not much point in thinking of “bringing” something into existence. [I don’t see why we should limit our perception of reality to only what can be explained by science.]

      In the case where something/someone that can “will” in the first place is created, it is likely out of something that, on its own, cannot will. To a certain extent, I agree with the “why argue with reality” part since life involves growing from non-willing to willing collections of building blocks. [Regardless of how life evolves, why shouldn’t we consider what life with free will might be like? If nothing else, it puts our reality into perspective, and the goal of philosophy is to amass as many perspectives as possible. You see, it’s not “arguing” with reality. How could you argue with reality? It’s not like any other reality is possible for us, as far as we understand. It’s imagining other possible realities.]

      There isn’t much of a solution I find satisfying in the way this is discussed so far because I can’t convince myself of much, but perhaps another approach: I would rather have the option to try and experience with the free will to commit suicide than not have the option at all. [I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here. Are you arguing for procreation?]

      Free will/freedom cannot be exercised without will, and will cannot happen without the bringing-to-be of something that can will. If it is accepted that choice/free will are things that are good, allowing an exercise of that choice through birth and knowledge leading up to an informed decision seem a pretty reasonable way to look at it. [How much meaning does that choice have if it wasn’t even chosen by you?]

      It is true that the suffering argument in a previous post can make this look dysmal, but not even allowing choice seems to make humans in general pretty dissatisfied. [I would repeat here the same question i wrote directly above.] And while the person born is born into a reality constricted by other’s previous will, they still have an ability to exercise their will and change the world as they find it – the most anything can possibly do if it necessarily comes into a state where it can will at any point except the creation of the universe.

      And saying will should be unfettered only makes a certain amount of sense. A good deal of freedom has been willingly yielded due to the benefits of modern society, so that’s evidence that there’s a benefit to yielding some freedom. [I never argued that freedom is in any way inferior to free will. You can’t even compare the two in such terms since freedom exists in reality and free will is an abstract construction. Of course freedom is valuable, but what i’m trying to get at is the fundamental structure of our reality; for all we know, there could be a parallel universe with free will, one in which birth and death do not exist but existence does. And it could be a lot “better” than our universe. There’s no way of knowing if it exists or not, so our reality will never be definitive.]

      How do you address the fact that free will cannot be exercised without an act of will on that being created? Gut feelings seem to suggest that the ability to “will to will” is required as a premise because nothing is violated until one can actually will him/herself. [I think you’re using “free will” here the way i would use “freedom.” Free will isn’t something to be exercised. As i’ve said above, it is an abstract construction (at least in this framework). How could the ability to “will to will” be a premise in our existing reality when birth is not a choice? There’s an example of somebody else willing us to will, which is basically the whole point of this post.]

  2. njs

    “there could be a parallel universe with free will, one in which birth and death do not exist but existence does”

    In the context of will (and hence free will and freedom), this doesn’t make sense to me because it seems that by definition life and death are tied to the ability to will and its absence respectively. A plain dictionary definition I pulled up notes “functional activity” as a part of life, so will is inherently tied to the concept of life. In this case, ignore the possibility of death and go under the assumption of good vs. bad. Below I link good and bad with life and death to prevent annoying mappings from the human condition to something hugely abstract.

    “I don’t see why we should limit our perception of reality to only what can be explained by science.”

    My point was that existence is really the wrong word, and shows a disconnect with my perception of will relating to the state of life.

    “Regardless of how life evolves, why shouldn’t we consider what life with free will might be like? If nothing else, it puts our reality into perspective, and the goal of philosophy is to amass as many perspectives as possible. You see, it’s not “arguing” with reality.”

    I was trying to convey that the will of the newly-created willing entity that results from birth is completely separate from anything preceding a state in which it can will. I dislike the claim “For a thing to be free, it must have been chosen.” This indicates freedom is restricted not by the situation after the ability to will, but rather the inability to control being born. I assumed that since you were talking in these terms instead of the abstract that you wanted a more narrow discussion within a context closer to the human condition itself … so I thought that was arguing with that assumed reality. Here’s what comes to mind for something more abstract.

    To avoid the “we can’t know because things are ambiguous”, For discussion, I’m going to assume “good” and “bad” are both mutually exclusive and exhaustive. In the context of life, I would say a good life means an entity with perfect freedom chooses to live, and a bad life means one that an entity with perfect freedom chooses to terminate, resulting in death. For an entity, I say life is the state in which an entity can will (an entity can exist but not be able to will), and death is the state of an entity that cannot will. This is an embodiment of/analogy for the definition of freedom as the ability to act or not act as it is linked to preference. Because we are concerned with freedom, I am considering will solely in the context of a preference.

    At first let’s assume that an entity can will, death can only come about by the entity’s will, and since we are talking in the inherently human concept of birth, that existence means an initial state of life, and that it is not possible to transition from a dead state to a live state.

    Other assumptions are not made, and this simplifies the discussion but distances it from complex human problems such as a possible “enslavement” in a bad situation due to the inability to end one’s life at will, clearly exhibiting a situation of immoral suffering.

    Exploring the possibility of perfect freedom in this situation …

    “Regardless of how life evolves, why shouldn’t we consider what life with free will might be like?”

    This relates to freedom in the relationship of good and bad, and therefore life and death in my assumption connecting will to life.

    Consider two possibilities: perfect and imperfect information on the part of the entity at the point of existence. If the entity immediately has perfect information on the benefits and detriments of existence, it instantly chooses either life or death based on that information. In the absence of perfect information, some threshold must be determined where the entity can be sufficiently sure of a decision. This is a huge discussion based on developing the relative benefits and detriments of everything contributing to existence including the irreversible nature of a decision towards death.

    These clearly vary across individuals … so are we at an impasse? If we are in a world with a single will in isolation, it appears that assigning relative value to all factors of life for the living entity will lead to a quick up-or-down vote on life vs. death. By definition this is deemed action or inaction based on “good” vs “bad” of a perfectly free entity.

    It is this context that leads me to science as a starting point for discussion: there is a clear-cut separation between stuff that applies to reality and other possible worlds.

    But things seem to get more complicated with a willing entity as constructed in the context of another willing entity as constructed. In the context of the definition for life and death being based on an assumption of perfect freedom, consider to cases:

    Case 1 – one entity never has the preference for the death of another

    Case 2 – one entity may have the preference for the death of another

    By definition, the first case cannot allow a perfectly free entity because there is an external restraint since it excludes a possibility of preference, so discussion must continue without the possibility of “pure” freedom but instead move into discussion based on degrees of freedom and the benefits and detriments of freedom as they relate to the benefits and detriments of interaction (non-isolation) of willing entities.

    In the second case, assuming a proper analogy with death/life and good/bad to illustrate perfect freedom, a contradiction is raised since at least one entity may no longer has control over its own state of life vs. death.

    ———–

    going back to questions/statements

    “How much meaning does [the choice of birth] have if it wasn’t even chosen by you?”

    Before any experiences, none at all. If I was born in complete isolation of wills, the absence of a decision is inherent. Otherwise I can easily say the meaning is in the context of assessing my situation by understanding how others relate to me and the effects my free will has on others … and how that led to such an action, purely as information for my own judgment of how worthwhile my life is.

    “I never argued that freedom is in any way inferior to free will. You can’t even compare the two in such terms”

    I never did either. What I attempted to do was say that I think there needs to be a discussion about freedom being a good thing because it inherently includes preference, but also in the conflicting and over-constraining context where there exists more than one willing being. This was a clear failure to communicate effectively on my part.

    A “will to will” in the context of freedom as defined to contain a preference is everything here, and it boils down to how it can be ethical procreate (IMO, of course). I’m saying I view the issue, necessarily with imperfect information and limited freedom, as an issue of whether or not it is worthwhile to will the ability to will on another. Me willing the ability to will on another does not in turn necessarily constrain their will in an abstract case where I birth a child and then everything ceases to exist. Then go the point of me dying when I birth a child so that I can no longer will and influence the child. The child’s freedom is only influenced by others (and other non-human willing entities if you must be pedantic) … and recursively down to the first humans, meaning that the decision, one one is aware of it, is based on the acceptability of the way the society into which the child is born has revoked freedom for what many see as beneficial.

    For that you can draw upon political and social philosophy and find how it relates to your values. That is how this relates to the human condition. The abstract is helpful, but application is much more vague. And I would argue that before dismissing arguments in the context of the human condition on the bases of separate possible worlds, that a separate world is described that has at least an analogous mapping to the human world … it’d be a great starting point fore the more abstract!

    I would will to will if I perceive the benefits of life to be greater than its detriments. Personally, love, company and interesting problems are more than enough to keep me happy in my current situation. Love and good company are the hardest to obtain IMO, but also the most beneficial. I don’t know why – I assume it’s some biochemistry thing possibly combined with societal conditioning.

    • n

      It’s interesting that you tie life with the ability to will and death with the inability to will. How could you so readily make assumptions about death, one of the very few phenomena of human existence of which we know next to nothing? I personally find it incredibly difficult to momentarily assume, even for the sake of argument, that life = good and death = bad. Could life exist without death? I don’t know.

      Think of the premise, “For a thing to be free, it must have been chosen,” as a sort of stepping stone onto a discussion of the abstract, the unknown possibilities. I did want to talk about the abstract, but i was using the phenomenon of human birth as a jumping point. “These are the conditions we have, now let’s consider what alternatives there could be,” if you will.

      With your life/good/willing vs. death/bad/unwilling paradigm, you are discussing freedom, not free will. I think i should have made it clearer that in imagining other possible realities, i was more interested in free will, not freedom. In this context, the second half of the post with the different possible scenarios involving freedom was a red herring of sorts, an effort to show why such an abstract discussion—under the assumption that the problem of unchosen existence complicates the issue of free will—could have practical value in real life. As long as nobody accuses such abstract discussions of being useless, i’d much rather skip the application part! Or better yet, leave it to somebody else.

      One assumption in your paradigm that i really took issue with was this: “death can only come about by the entity’s will.” It might protect the discussion from the possible “enslavement” situation, but it also makes suicide the only possible death. This seems to weigh life heavier than death.

      After all your efforts, i still find myself unconvinced, largely because i just can’t buy that death could be bad. I suppose then you could ask, “If you can’t make the a priori assumption that death is less desirable than life, then why don’t you just commit suicide and see for yourself what death is like?” I guess we stick around because as long as we live, we feel indebted to our loved ones. This could also explain why you value love and good company above all.

      I think i’m just hopelessly uninterested in and less capable of discussing reality, but i think you might have made up for it.

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