Authenticity and Ecology

I often take what you could call an ecological approach to problem solving. I don’t believe in forcing a solution on a situation except when it’s absolutely necessary (which it sometimes is). Instead I would rather harness the natural forces in the situation to take care of the problem. And I would take a hard look at what I or other people are doing that might be creating the problem in the first place.

This is definitely the way I look at achieving authenticity. The path to yourself consists largely of getting out of your own way and then following your natural desire for awareness. These two steps are trickier than they sound, but the solution still comes from within.

The alternative is the force-fit. I think that that way of solving problems is emblematic of Western thinking. It can be very powerful, but sometimes it makes problems worse. For example, children who don’t want to go to school are routinely made to, sometimes kicking and screaming. That’s the force-fit. But at the English school Summerhill, no child is forced to do anything (beyond obeying certain elementary safety rules). Many stay away from classes at first, sometimes for months. But eventually their desire for learning and the atmosphere of trust that has been built up motivates them to go.

When I worked as a Big Brother at a Youth Service Bureau back in the early 1980s, I took a course in parenting. It advocated never using punishment (the force-fit), but instead using natural and logical consequences. If your child refuses to go to bed at bedtime, let him go to school sleepy the next day so that he gets it. If he doesn’t come home for dinner when called, don’t let him go out after school the next day. He can try again the day after. This is an approach to child rearing based on causality (the natural ecology of the situation) rather than on duty (the force-fit).

Adult examples abound as well: heart surgery is the force-fit. Healthy eating and exercise are the ecology. I know some readers are going to bristle at any positive mention of ecology, but if you look at the situation dispassionately, you can see the merits of what I am saying. The idea of a self-correcting free market is a kind of ecological system, and government intervention is the force-fit.

When it comes to authenticity, the force-fit, which simply doesn’t work, is to “express your feelings” and to try to act earnest. The ecological approach is to stop acting like anything, go into yourself and shrug off the hype until you are centered. Then just be yourself.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. You will probably need to identify some bad concepts and habits in your life and check them against reality. However, doing this in a centered state is a whole lot easier than in a hyped up one.

And I don’t mean to imply that the Good Life can be achieved by purely psychological or spiritual means. Philosophy is also essential. In Killing Cool I write about the importance of the concept of the Primacy of Existence, which is the principle that says that reality is independent of the mind. A lot of inauthenticity comes from trying to shape the world purely by one’s wishes.

A good philosophy can help one achieve authenticity in many ways. But that philosophy must be lived from the inside, as it were, and not something forced onto one’s life.

New York Times Review of Sam Harris’ Free Will

The July 15 New York Times Book Review ran a review of Sam Harris’ Free Will. Reviewer David Menaker spends most of the review summarizing and quoting Harris’ book and then at the end, after many paragraphs of neutrality, tells us what he thinks.

What Menaker thinks is that Harris is probably correct. He thinks that’s sad, because determinism will no doubt damage virtues like courage and leadership. He opines that we may need the illusion of control in order to get on with our lives.

This is a common package, which we might dub the Humanistic Fatalism. It consists first of all in letting the latest scientific obsession roll over one, because after all science knows best (as it did about the cause of ulcers, right?). Next the victim sees all the negative consequences of the scientific belief. Later still, it is concluded that we have to pretend we have free will (or aren’t beasts, etc.). Lastly, depression, a longing for lost confidence.

There is something disturbing about resignation in the face of claims that are little better than sheer nihilism. It’s as if the so-called leaders of our culture had simply lost their nerve – or indeed their minds. Another chapter in the Decline of the West.

Fortunately, we do not have to let science (or more exactly, science-influenced philosophy) roll over us. There are champions of free will out there, for example Raymond Tallis, who says that man is more than an animal and we are more than our brains. (And he is an atheist, as am I.)

On a smaller scale I would add myself to the list of free will’s defenders. I wrote a response to Sam Harris in which I addressed his philosophical, neurological and introspective arguments against free will. I charge Harris with unwitting dualism – not of mind and body, but of conscious and unconscious processes. I discuss the category of action in which free will most resides and which Harris utterly neglects: actions involving deliberation. And I conclude with a sketch of what free will is actually like.

I don’t claim to have proven that free will exists – that cannot be done any more than you can prove that you are conscious. But I do point out where it operates. Right now it operates in you, as you focus on my remarks and choose to follow them.

I don’t get into this in the essay, but I am increasingly disturbed by Harris’ worldview. He wants everything to be safe and blame-free. He wants brain-scanners to tell us what would make us happy. If there is to be a Brave New World, he will have been one of its Founding Fathers.

Free Will Defended

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A new essay defending the idea of free will.

In this new essay I defend the idea of free will against Sam Harris, leading atheist, who claims that we are the puppets of the unconscious forces. He makes arguments from philosophy, neurology and introspection, all of which can be shown to be flimsy and even unfair to the other side. Harris problem, I conclude, is that he is in the thrall of religious ideas still ambient in our culture.

This is a book of interest to anyone who cares about human hope and dignity, especially those who are concerned that a secular worldview puts those things in danger.

Available in a Kindle Edition from Amazon.

The Marionette Who Cuts His Own Strings

Another project I have been working on, which should be ready to publish on Kindle in May of 2012 is called “Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris.” This long essay is an answer to Harris’ short book on determinism, also entitled Free Will.

I very much disagree with Harris’ examples and arguments. His biggest problem is that none of the examples of choice that he deconstructs involve using reason to any serious degree. They are just examples of selecting something off the top of your head. I agree with Ayn Rand that our reason is our free will, so this seems to me to be a striking omission on Harris’ part. It’s pretty easy to say that we don’t have free will in situations where all you’re doing talking about is letting an idea come into your head.

Anyway, I address Harris’ examples, the neurology experiments he cites and the philosophic presuppositions his case rests on. Then I give an account based on Ayn Rand’s, Nathaniel Branden’s, Leonard Peikoff’s and my thinking on the subject.

When Rand described our choice to use reason, she used the metaphor of focus. By entering into a rational state of mind we make the world clearer and can really start “seeing,” i.e. knowing. I think this is an excellent metaphor, but we need to remember that it is just a metaphor. An interesting exercise might be how to vividly describe conceptual level attention to a blind person.

I have a suggestion, which is from the essay. It might also make human volition a little clearer (⇐ note the optical metaphor!).

I would liken coming to attention to — coming to attention, i.e. standing up straight. It takes an effort to stand up straight but ultimately it reduces effort. When you stand up straight you are ready for action. Your joints and muscles are in their optimum relationship. You can move briskly and pleasurably. And you “define” yourself.

All this is true of coming to conceptual attention as well. It takes an effort to sustain but it makes everything easier as you go along. You are ready for action when you enter into a deliberative state of mind. Your inner environment starts to sort itself out as soon as you focus and can be further sorted out if you care to put in the work. It makes life clean and bracing. And you “define” yourself.

This metaphor does not settle the free will issue, of course, but I hope it does make it more intuitive what Ayn Rand meant when she spoke of “focus.”