Tag Archives: free will

Freedom of choice?

20110330 Smiling windows 150x150 Freedom of choice?

The question of free will is one that has been done to death by others and more eloquently than I ever could, but most articles I have read often delve into abstract philosophy.  I do like abstract thinking, but as a practical man I tend to think of the issue in terms of physics and tangible concepts.

Newtonian physics is governed by laws.  Every action has an equal and opposite reaction: cause and effect.  This is the nature of a deterministic universe and my job as a Structural Engineer is based entirely on this premise.

Every decision you make is based on a series of sensory inputs resulting in hundreds upon thousands of electro-chemical processes inside the brain, presumably operating on Newtonian principles.  Assuming this is the case, every heartbeat, every breath, every blink and every decision is the result of cause and effect on a microscopic level.  If every state of every atom in your brain and all sensory inputs were known, it would theoretically be possible to determine the outcome in very much the same way as weather systems are modelled by crunching stupendous quantities of numbers with supercomputers.  Furthermore, if all the states (position, energy, etc) of all the atoms in the entire universe were known, we could calculate what would happen in the future.  The present, it seems, was inevitable – the future written into the fabric of the universe.

This is a rather unsatisfying and unsettling premise and no-one likes the notion of having free will taken away from them, except possibly masochists…  So if you do make conscious choices, does that mean there is an external influence?  Is this evidence for the existence of the soul?  Not exactly – it depends on what you mean by that in any case, but I think it is merely a corollary of the fact there is much to physics and the mechanics of the brain that we don’t understand.  Maybe the answer lies in quantum mechanics.  Then again, maybe not.  To be fair, I know le Jacques merde absolutement about the subject.

Freedom to choose?

Free will or not, there is another issue of freedom of choice versus the freedom to choose.  What good is the freedom to choose when there is no choice presented to you?  Does that still constitute free will?  Henry Ford famously said you can have any colour car as long as it is black.  The only choice you are left with is to buy or not to buy, but that wasn’t the question.  The question was, “Would you like black, black or black?”  In other words, we might have the ability to make a choice but what if our environment doesn’t give us that choice?  On analysis, the most basic parameters of (human) life are not chosen.  As I stated briefly in a previous article, there are many things you don’t have any control over whatsoever.  You don’t choose your gender, your sexuality, your parents or your country of birth.  You don’t even choose to be born in the first place. (Not that we are aware of, anyway.)

Not being born severely hampers your future academic achievements and job prospects, to say the least!  When I was 21 I would often meet up with a close friend of mine and towards the end of our fourth year at university we would regularly talk about our post-university plans, jobs and, invariably, “woman trouble”.  One time we came out of the Odeon cinema in Broadmead, Bristol and made our way home and came across a lady in her early 40s.  She suddenly fell to the ground, against the wall of the Bristol Eye Hospital in the city centre in a flood of tears. “I’ve been raped,” she cried.  My friend and I talked to her, comforted her and called the police.  After a lot of commotion it transpired that she had fabricated the story.  In reality she had come out of the Bristol Royal Infirmary around the corner, having been diagnosed with breast cancer moments earlier and was understandably upset about it.

Making sense of events

Despite describing myself as being down-to-earth, I like to believe some things happen for a reason.  I know it’s not logical, but human emotions aren’t logical and it’s a way of making sense of events in my mind, I suppose.  In the above example the paths of my friend and me crossed with that of this lady, perhaps to put our problems into perspective.  Looking back, it certainly did and it made a lasting impression.  We have come a long way in the last [mumbles] years – let’s call it splodgety years: an unspecified number.  (By the way, this has inspired a new feature coming soon – watch this space!)  Sometimes things don’t happen as you would like and may in some cases ultimately lead to better things.  Sometimes things aren’t meant to be – perhaps the time isn’t right just yet, for reasons unknown.  Sometimes it pays to wait.  Incidentally, I received a new disc from Toshiba but they sent me the wrong one again…

I know perfectly well that it is a case of retrospectively rationalising events that have made an impression, or things that are hard to deal with at the time.  Whichever way you look at it, you can only do so much and despite what many a motivational speaker will tell you, the future is not entirely in our hands.  In the words of Baz Luhrman and Mary Schmich before him, “Your choices are half chance and so are everybody else’s”.  Mathematically speaking this is not strictly true but it illustrates the point poetically, if nothing else.  But don’t let that be an excuse to stop trying or to walk away from something.

The muzzle of life

The picture was taken on The Grove near Bristol’s historic city centre and shows a face looking reasonably happy.  It is smiling, but on closer inspection its smile is actually a muzzle.  It can bark but it can’t bite.  It can try its damnedest to achieve what it wants in life but life’s muzzle (a metaphor for external factors beyond ones control) cannot be removed.  Try (try, try again) and if you fail, take solace in the fact that you did the best you could.

“If you succeed in doing this, tell me how…” – Baz Luhrman/Mary Schmich

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Do look back but with a smile

20110327 Motorbike luggage case 150x150 Do look back but with a smile

Today is the day of the British Census 2011 and also the start of British Summer Time (BST).  It marks the end of about five months of coming home from work in the dark and now the clocks have sprung an hour forward.  As a young child I always had trouble remembering which way the clocks went.  There is the mnemonic that says the clocks spring forward and fall back, where fall is used in the American sense.  The only trouble with that is that you can spring and fall in either direction so we’re none the wiser.  I also never knew when the clocks changed, as my young mind was not adept at spotting more complex patterns.  (For the record it happens on the last Sunday morning in March and October.)

So what does it all mean?

1) The clock tower on the Asda supermarket roof in Bedminster, Bristol is reading the correct time again for the first time since October.

2) My oven will now show the wrong time for the next eight months.

3) We lost an hour of our day – nay, our lives – but we usually get it back when the clocks “fall” forwards again – oh the confusion!  This year we may not get it back, as they (the powers that be) were considering keeping BST all year round.  To be fair though, this is mooted every so often and nothing has ever come of it. 

Time is a precious thing and it has the power to heal, to build and, as Albert Einstein said, to stop everything happening all at once.  Every one of us is on borrowed time – time that has been bestowed on us to do whatever we please, if you believe in free will.  Free will is a separate issue and warrants an article in its own right, but for the purposes of this article we will assume it exists and consider time from a human perspective.  There are things you don’t choose, which have an influence on your choices in life.  You don’t choose who your parents are, in what country or place you are born, what race or gender you are, what sexuality you are, how tall or good looking you are…  Clearly we are not born equal but we have equal worth and you can choose to use your time for good.

I was brought up to live life by the principles of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, although this isn’t always straightforward.  In a selfish world you have to protect yourself, look after your own interest sometimes and not let people take advantage of you.  My mother is very giving and she will bend over backwards to do things to help people – even when it is not in her own interest and severely inconveniences her.  On the other end of the spectrum there are people who take advantage of others and seem to go out of their way to hurt others for their own personal gain or satisfaction.  Generally though, I believe there is goodness in everyone and the existence of things like ambulances and charities shows that people really do value others as equals.  Even tax dodgers and burglars love.

The thing is not to bear grudges.  Anger and resentment eat away at you and the person towards whom your feelings are directed is often oblivious to this fact.  Don’t give the other person the pleasure of your pain by not feeling the pain in the first place.  Easier said than done.  I never run to catch a bus.  A minority of bus drivers seem to derive pleasure from not letting you on.  But the majority are decent people.  I was on my way to a Mexican restaurant in Bristol recently and the driver asked for £2.80 for a single, which is extortionate for a 20-minute journey.  I only had £2.50 in change and a £10 note and exclaimed, “How much?!” in disbelief.  What followed resembled a Dutch auction and the driver promptly responded, “Just give me £2,” and then gave me a pound back in change, after deciding he would give me a £1 ticket.

A wise man once told me the best way to respond to an act of kindness is to pass it on to someone else.  Yesterday I was at the supermarket and bought a pack of cooked chicken for the parley pesto I made as part of my food association experiment to use up copious quantities of parsley.  I now have an excess of Parmesan cheese, pine nuts and garlic.  The lady in front of me was unloading her basket onto the conveyor belt and, spotting that I only had one item, let me go in front.  It was a totally unexpected act of kindness and it made her happy; her happiness was the pleasure of giving her time to me.  If I had given her (or the bus) driver a six-pack of Heineken to show my gratitude it would have undone everything.

And so from buses we tenuously make a link with transport and, somewhat arbitrarily, motorbikes.  The picture shows the luggage case on the back of a motorbike.  It is looking back at the road behind and it is smiling.  We have all heard the phrase “never look back”.  But I think the past is a good learning tool, though it is not necessarily a good indicator of what will happen in the future.  One thing it is good for is telling you where we came from and the things we learnt and experienced along the way.  On life’s journey look forward.  Forgive and forget insults, don’t bear grudges and remember the compliments you receive.  When you look back, do so with a smile.  The back of the motorbike says “demonstrator”.  Hard though this can be, let’s emulate it.

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