Thursday, March 3, 2011

Wer kann solch ein abgekartes Spiel nicht spielen?

(Or, loosely, "two can play at that game.")

I believe the citation is to be found in Robert Kane's introduction to free will, which is not with me at the moment: Nietzsche once called free will the greatest self-deception of all time. Nietzsche, as you may or may not know, wrote a lot about "self-deception" and its role in normal human behavior. By normal, of course, Nietzsche meant only dubious convention, the socially triangulated willfulness of some to control and shame others. Free will is a self-deception partly because it sunders, in Nietzsche's eyes, the eternal unity of each of us with everything else. "Die Lehre von der Freiheit des Willens," Nietzsche asserts, "ist eine Erfindung herrschender Stände" (Werke I - Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, "Der Wanderer" 9, 6. Aufl. Frankfurt/M u. a.: Ullstein, 1969, S. 877 (II, II)). ["The doctrine of the freedom of the will is an invention of the ruling classes."]

Recent experiences had me pondering the dubious motives behind that other great self-deception––if we're going to play the "philosophy by suspicion" game, I mean––, namely, determinism. For, if we can treat all viewpoints as but fragile shells of rhetoric placed over deeper, self-serving motives, how can we not see determinism––the denial that one has freedom to form one's own character in certain instances––as the peak of self-serving rhetoric? How convenient it is to be able to say, "It was not I, but my genes, not I, but my upbringing, not I, but my environment"! I know a retired lawyer who now believes the entire legal-penal system is just a social sham, a power game, and should be radically reformed, if not totally scrapped, in light of the truth that humans lack free will. Awfully convenient: the legal-penal system is a scandal only after one has completed one's very lucrative career in it. Fortunately, of course, not even that bit of self-deception is blameworthy, since our man had no choice but to be a hypocrite.

My critique is not, I believe, a very novel insight, but it is something worth keeping in mind. The usual slant in these debates is that hard determinists are actually more compassionate, more reasonable, more cutting-edge, and the like, since they seek to dissolve musty old conventions like "morality," "guilt," "responsibility," "law," "punishment," etc. with more humane ideas like "reform," "acceptance," "quarantine," and so on. It's always hip to be Buddhist, and, allegedly, the Buddhist thing to do is simply to accept everyone's so-called failings, without adding punishment and social rage to their already pitiful fate (cf. this Wiki link and this essay [PDF!] for some corrective data). The problem, though, is that even this tack resolves back into the schema of praise and blame, since compassionate determinism is proposed as the morally praiseworthy course of action. The self-deception does not stop there, however, for another major benefit of compassionate determinism is that one is granted a pardon for all one's failings. Adultery? No problem! We know you didn't mean it: we know you could not have done otherwise. Fraud? Same pass. Murder? Pass. Holocaust? Er, well, uh….

This ambivalence about "forgiving oneself" and yet making just condemnations of "truly evil people" (like Hitler) ran through Einstein's life. Consider these quotations from Einstein:

"An Freiheit des Menschen im philosophischen Sinne glaube ich keineswegs. Jeder handelt nicht nur unter äußerem Zwang sondern auch gemäß innerer Notwendigkeit. … Schopenhauers Spruch: 'Ein Mensch kann zwar tun, was er will, aber nicht wollen, was er will', hat mich seit meiner Jugend lebendig erfüllt und ist mir beim Anblick und beim Erleiden der Härten des Lebens immer ein Trost gewesen und eine unerschöpfliche Quelle der Toleranz" (Albert Einstein, Mein Weltbild. Zürich: Ullstein, 2005, S. 9).
["By no means do I believe in human freedom in the philosophical sense. Everyone acts not only from external compulsion but also from internal necessity. … Schopenhauer's dictum: 'A man can certainly do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants', has (ful)filled my life since youth and has always been a comfort in the face of suffering the hard things in life, as well as being an inexhaustible source of tolerance."]

Never mind that Einstein also vocally condemned the Nazis during and after the War for their moral wrongdoing. Somehow, "our" lack of free will is a pitiful fact, while "their" misuse of freedom is an onerous truth. Either way the polarity is a useful fiction for those who wish to be among the morally ruling class ("ist eine nützliche Erfindung der, die dem sittlich herrschenden Stände gehören möchten").

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"Unser Handeln sei getragen von dem stets lebendigen Bewußtsein, daß die Menschen in ihrem Denken, Fühlen und Tun nicht frei sind, sondern ebenso kausal gebunden wie die Gestirne in ihren Bewegungen."

["Our behavior is borne by the always living consciousness that humans are not free in their thinking, feeling and doing, but rather are as causally bound as the stars in their motions."]

–– aus Einstein sagt. Alice Calaprice (Hrsg.), München/Zürich: Piper, 1997, S. 177.


An related addendum, c/o a reader:

1 comment:

Martin said...

Mark Shea posted this you tube video worth 1000 words