Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Free will and all that

(This is the 9th post in the one-month challenge series)

Ya, I know I am back on the boring philosophy track. I don't know why I am a big fan of philosophical questions. Maybe because of this (-that comic was just awesome!)
But anyway. Getting to the topic.

Think about what makes you do what you do. If you never thought about it, it might be a hard question. For eg., I know I love coffee. But why do I love it? I might say it's because all the adults in my family drink start every single day of their life with coffee. So much that, in my mind, waking up is inextricably linked with smelling coffee and hearing the tap-tap on the filter. Followed by a family ritual of drinking coffee and discussing different things. If I think back, some of my earliest memories involve morning coffee. I remember it used to be quite a tantalizing thing in my childhood because my mom wouldn't let me have it and yet all grown-ups could. But I digress. My point is that I can trace my liking for coffee to something in my childhood- Positive reinforcement* from people I implicitly trust as a kid and a lot of Pavlovian conditioning.

Au contraire, I could ask my myself why I am an atheist. This might be the millionth time I am mentioning this but I grew up in an orthodox household. Religion is everywhere in our home. God is mentioned about a million times daily. And I was never sufficiently disappointed with my life to give up on God (like many atheists I know did.) Considering I think of life on very promising, cheerful terms, it is a wonder I ever changed my mind. In fact, I distinctly remember arguing with my atheist friend on why believing made sense. Also, almost all of my friends are theists. Not particularly religious. But theists. Almost all the people who have inspired me- my parents, teachers, relatives, famous people- are again theists.So, you see- almost nothing in my environment could have led me to stop believing. And yet, with some help from the 'God Delusion' (and myself) , I changed my mind at some point.
But if you look closely, you might say it's because I used to read a lot (not so much these days) and am influenced by good books. I am also quite interested in science and biology and debate. For each of these I could again go down a track of why I am interested in that particular thing, but you get the idea. You can pretty much nail down my supposedly contrary behavior to something in my environment.

"Wait", you tell me. "Not everything I like can be traced back to the past. It is too naive to do that. Taking your own example, there are many households with a morning coffee ritual but not all their kids become coffee addicts. Surely there is something innate in me that makes me like some things and be good at some things". Obviously. There is your genetic makeup which plays the other big role in making you who you are. Kids who grow up in the same family often turn out to be complete opposites. (Though there might be SOME influence on environment also there!)

Fine so far. Most people would agree until this point that most of their behavior comes from the genetic makeup or their environment. And as you might have guessed, the real question is- is there something beyond all that? (I am not even going into the argument of religion here- even when I was a theist, I never thought God would bother with the everyday minuscule details of trivial human lives.) If there were another individual who had the same genetic and environmental conditions as you, might he/she act differently? Or, as individuals, do we act completely based on these two factors, or is there something we can choose to do randomly beyond all of our past? In short, is our fate predetermined or do we have free will?

I hate to end abruptly, but because this is a long topic for discussion, I leave you today with just the question and a small note- I used to be a big fan of free will before. However, a course with one of my Top 5 teachers ever, a book by Baum and this amazing man made me change my opinion...

Hope to continue on that later..

*I use the term loosely here.

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