1 January 2012
I would confidently declare the winner of the U.S. presidential election next November.
I would foretell whether Iraq will descend into all-out civil war during the coming year (or wait a little longer).
I would predict whether the euro will still exist as a recognized currency a year from now.
I would foresee whether reality-TV executives will finally take the format to its logical conclusion—a show in which the contestants swim through vats of liquid excrement to scoop up $100 bills with their teeth. (As Terry Southern so presciently predicted way back in 1960; now, there was a prophet for you!)
I would look into my crystal ball and find out whether the secular-liberal gene will finally be successfully isolated. Now, that would be a useful bit of information to have—imagine the demand a breakthrough like that would create for a new gene therapy (not to mention the killing you’d make if you knew which of the Big Pharma companies to invest in beforehand!).
I would . . . well, you get the idea.
I guess there’s nothing really wrong with making these sorts of predictions, as long as it’s understood to be pure entertainment—a particularly stupid parlor game—and nothing more. Making predictions is just the punditocracy’s answer to Powerball.
But what got me thinking about the subject was not just all the silly New Year’s predictions I’ve been seeing in the newspapers for the past few days, but the fact that no one talks about New Year’s resolutions anymore. At least, you never see or hear the subject mentioned nowadays except in jest.
Of course, it’s true that resolutions are notoriously hard to keep. But just because a thing is difficult to do is no reason not to make the attempt—assuming it is worthwhile to begin with.
The real reason that New Year’s resolutions have fallen out of favor and been replaced by predictions—with the pundits and the public alike—goes beyond mere cynicism. It is a reflection, rather, of the fact that predictions seem more in keeping with the spirit of the scientific age we live in.
If you think about it, a resolution is the opposite of a prediction. Or, at least, taking resolutions seriously means not taking predictions seriously, and vice versa.
Why? Because taking predictions seriously means believing that the universe is deterministic and that the future is inevitable. But if you believe that, what would be the point of making resolutions?
Conversely, making a resolution means resolving to exercise one’s free will more strenuously in the future according to one’s rational understanding of the good—the unspoken assumption being that the future is not foreordained, and that it is within your power to change the future by first changing yourself.
Once upon a time, all of this was taken for granted. But now we are all wised up to the fact that we are nothing but lumbering robots controlled by our selfish genes, which manipulate us by hard-wiring our neural circuits to do their bidding.
As a wise man once said: Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie.(2) He sure got that one right!
So, since we are now wised up to all of this, where do I get off denying determinism and talking about such old-fashioned ideas as free will?
It’s a large subject, and this is hardly the time or the place to go into it properly.(3) But, here is the problem in a nutshell:
I know I am free from extensive, direct, first-hand observation. I am well acquainted with what it is to choose one course of action rather than another—and I know I could have chosen otherwise had I wished. Every day of my life, I make many decisions that affect the future course of the world. For example, I know it is up to me whether or not I stop at a red light. I can run the red light, if I choose to do so. That is clearly within my power. And equally clearly, running the red light may lead to a very different future from stopping at it—both for me and for whoever may be coming the other way through the intersection.
In short, a lifetime’s experience assures me both that what I do is under my own control and that my actions have consequences.
The determinist will answer that all this first-person evidence is beside the point, because science teaches us better. We now know that everything that I think, and do, and am, is the result of electrochemical activity in my brain; that my brain activity is determined by my genes and my environment; and that at the end of the day all of this just boils down to physics and chemistry—matter in motion. All of which shows—so say the scientists—that my experience of being in charge of what I do is just an illusion.
Who is right?
Well, first I would like to ask the scientist: Are you in a position to predict what I will do? From first principles, I mean, not just from knowing me personally, or from simple common sense about human nature and motivation.
He is bound to admit that he isn’t. But that doesn’t matter, he will say, because he certainly could in principle—meaning if physics and chemistry and evolutionary biology and neuroscience were advanced enough. And if he had a big enough computer to crunch the data.
So, basically, the scientist is telling me to forget about my resolutions, not because he can actually predict what I will do today, but because he believes he will be able to do so in the end of days—at the scientific Rapture, when all will be revealed and the rationalist sheep like him will be separated once and for all from the superstitious goats like me.
I can’t help wondering when the burden of proof in the free-will debate got shifted off of the determinist’s shoulders and onto mine. It seems like my first-hand knowledge that I am in control of my own actions ought to count for at least as much as his pious faith that someday science will be able to predict everything about everything down to the last detail.
Nevertheless, if you wish to believe the determinist, be my guest. I have no knock-down argument to prove he’s wrong.
Just be aware that both sides in the free-will debate are operating on the basis of faith—I, out of faith in my own experience; the determinist, out of faith in the future progress of science.
In the meantime—while we’re waiting to see if the determinist’s faith is well founded—if you should feel the urge to make some New Year’s resolutions, go ahead and do so. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by the false prophets of the religion of science, and their loyal acolytes in the media.
Making resolutions is a good idea, anyway. We all should make a lot more resolutions than we do—and not just on New Year’s Day. Though, of course, when we do, we must also make an honest effort to carry them out.
But if we succeed, the payoff can be great. Because the more we practice doing better, the better people we become—as another wise man once noted.(4)
Which amounts to saying: The more we resolve to do better—the more we exercise our free will—the freer we become.
So, do not be embarrassed to make your New Year’s resolutions. Sincerely resolve to do better, to the best of your ability, and you may find you have it in your power to change the future course of the world.
Happy New Year, everybody!
(1) Terry Southern, The Magic Christian (Random House, 1960); better known, perhaps, from the 1969 film of the same name starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr.
(2) “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Brunschvicg ed., #206. First published posthumously in 1670.
(3) I will be arguing against the “hard determinist”—someone who claims that the future is completely determined by the laws of nature and who for this reason denies that free will exists. Arguing against the “compatibilist”—someone who says that physical determinism is compatible with enough free will to anchor moral responsibility—is more challenging. I will attempt to lay some groundwork for a physically plausible “agent-causation” position in my upcoming column, “What Is Life? Part III.” For an accessible primer to the free-will debate, see Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (Oxford UP, 2005).
(4) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II.1.