Posts in: Relatedness

A few days ago a friend sent me this interview with Robert Sapolsky on free will. It was well-timed. I had already been thinking about the impact of my ancestor’s varied experiences on my own life and the two together clarified some ideas.

First of all, I believe in free will. I’m aware of the scientific arguments against it, both in the form of the interview above and in Sam Harris’ book that I read a few years ago. But my purpose isn’t to argue against those ideas per se—not least because I’m unqualified. I just want to develop a few ideas of my own here.

I grew up believing in what I would call a naive version of free will. In this version, a human makes wholly independent decisions that are thoughtful and purposeful. In such a view, a person might take into account other views or influences but does not necessarily need to. It’s a sort of radically free-floating free will. Homo economicus, in short.

This idea didn’t survive very far into my adult years. Buddhist ideas of interrelatedness, Wendell Berry’s ideas about community, and scientific ideas I learned from Sam Harris made it nonsensical to me.

Yet while I understand and appreciate the scientific arguments against free will, I don’t accept them—primarily because I don’t share the materialist assumptions behind them. Why should we believe that consciousness (a nonphysical phenomenon) bubbles up from sufficiently complex arrangements of neurons (a physical reality)? Far smarter folks than me have asked this question and have come to no satisfactory answer (see: the hard problem of consciousness).

I’ve said before that I think a person is a nexus of intersecting forces—parents, ancestors, friends, environment, culture, etc. There is no person apart from these forces. Nevertheless, it still seems apparent from human experience that free will remains, to some extent.

We often talk about free will as if it is an absolute possession—humans either have it or they don’t. What if, instead, it is a quality that has degrees?

I’ve been thinking about this recently in connection to my ancestors, particularly my dad’s side of the family. While I don’t know a lot about them, as far as I can tell they were–for at least two generations and very likely more–poor, unhealthy, uneducated, and addicted to various substances. Dad’s childhood was hell for him and everyone else in the house—including the ones perpetrating the horrors, I’m sure.

Based on what we know about these patterns in families, it’s hard to imagine that this hell was created ex nihilo by my grandparents. For people in such situations, how much free will do they have? Sure they have some choice, especially in the mundane details of daily life. But how free are they in a larger sense? Not very, in my opinion. It is typical in these situations that the trauma is passed on, generation after generation.

Yet there is not zero freedom: my dad got out. He left that town and, for many years, his family of origin also. Nevertheless, some demons followed him out and he was not always successful in beating them back.

And so some of that intergenerational trauma lives in me. I hope now that my daughter, two generations from hell, will inherit still less of that trauma.

What makes the difference between being entrapped in circumstances and moving beyond them? I don’t know. I’m entirely unsatisfied with any variation on the boot-strap theory, which feels derived from the naive view of free will. I’m also uninterested in moralistic takes on these matters, so eager to assign blame that compassion is forgotten.

What if the key to a greater degree of free will is something like interior spaciousness? (That phrase is from Attuned by Thomas Hübl.) Again, how some people in the worst circumstances manage to attain that interior spaciousness while others do not is a fearful mystery. Nevertheless, it happens. Some people manage to cultivate a sense of curiosity and inward development. Some manage to see other possibilities than the ones immediately before them and the will to pursue them.

I agree with Sapolsky’s desire for a more compassionate world—but I do not agree that we reach that goal by denying free will and framing humans as biological machines. Interior spaciousness has the salutary effect of greater clarity and compassion. What if we arranged society in such a way that more people had the ability to cultivate it?

Good talk by Lyla June, a Diné woman and scholar, presenting the lessons her ancestors have to teach us about living with the land. Her crucial point: humans were meant to be a part of this world. We evolved here; we and all the species of the world are children of the same Mother. The solution to our environmental problems is continually bringing together humans and the natural world. Indigenous people around the world have living traditions handed down by ancestors who flourished alongside other beings. Let’s listen to them.

Clive Thompson says there is a biophilia paradox—and I could not disagree more.

The problem is that while we moderns desperately need exposure to nature, it sure doesn’t need exposure to us. … We humans should be living a little more densely, to give nature more space away from us.

It goes without saying that humanity is the single most destructive force on earth. Nevertheless, ideas like this only serve to reify the human-nature divide—the very divide that led us onto the path of destruction. Our current way of relating to the world is not the only way.

Our problem is that we are out of relationship with the world. This problem will only be exacerbated by further separating us from it. Thompson’s vision is a carceral environmentalism. We are not dangerous felons who must be isolated from the natural world. We are children of the same mother.

Dougald Hine:

The fossil economy breaks the possibility of such a cycle [of human reciprocity with other living things]. How many million years of dying in the forests and seas of the ancient world go into one generation of living the way we have been doing around here lately? How could our lives ever be worthy of so much death? What could we possibly give back? And what would giving back even mean, when all that dying happened in the deep past of geological time? Committed to dependence on these vast underground reserves of death, the only response that remains is to silence such questions, to extinguish the ways of living which embody them, to make them unthinkable.

It’s as if we’ve discovered some powerful necromancy and we now we need a taboo on the practice. How is such a taboo established? How is it taught and enforced?

Jay Owens

More-than-human thinking isn’t just about recognising the near-to-human cleverness of certain animals, but recognising agency and interdependent relations across every kingdom of life, from the single-celled extremophiles known as archaeans, to fungi, animals and plants.

The article mentions several books that have been on my reading list for some time now. This needs to be the year I finally read them.

The most important book I read this year: Wild Mind, Wild Earth

David Hinton’s new book is an exploration and treatment of the wound deep in our culture—the illusion of separateness from the natural world. Our Greek and Christian cultural inheritance tells us that we are spirit-centers standing outside and above our fellow-travelers on the planet and our truly important kinship is with the divine, immaterial world. The result has been climate change, deforestation, pollution, mass extinction, and the malaise within humans themselves.

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Moving from human-centeredness to a land ethic

David Hinton: Within the West’s epochal cultural transformation, [Robinson] Jeffers held a crucial place. Although caught in the terminological limitations bequeathed him by his pantheistic forebears, he was a radical step beyond them. His vision was fundamentally post-Christian, for it was not at all human-centered. He valued wild earth in and of itself, for its own self-realization—not for how it can benefit or inspire humanity. And from this came Jeffers’ earth-based ethics—that we should love the whole, not the human alone—an ethics that led him to say “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.

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Wendell Berry: from saving the planet to local care

Wendell Berry, “Word and Flesh” in What Are People For?: The question that must be addressed, therefore, is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others. Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence—that is, to the wish to preserve all of its humble households and neighborhoods.

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A Fragment of the Creation Story

… And the Mother of All gave to another of her children the gift of storytelling. “With this gift, you will be able to remember me and your siblings to your own children. You and your children will dream whole new worlds. With the skills that come with your gift, some of your children’s dreams will become real and they will make things never before seen in this world. “But your gift comes with unique dangers.

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