It’s my party, and I’ll cry if the laws of physics permit me to.

One of today’s most pressing philosophical questions is: a) Do human beings possess free will and the capability to exercise it?  My recent readings have allowed me to arrive at a sort of answer,* the short version of which is, No, but effectively yes.

It is easy to get depressed by reading neuroscience books like William Hirstein’s Brain Fiction or Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will, which seem to break us down into the automata described by Descartes, whose intentions are merely illusory.  “…[P]eople experience conscious will quite independently of any actual causal connection between their thoughts and their actions,” writes Wegner (64).  Well and good if you’re sitting in a classroom vying with your peers to seem the most scientifically-minded, but different altogether when, say, your boyfriend professes his love in terms of choice (you), and you didactically disclose that it wasn’t his choice at all, in the traditional sense, but merely a fortuitous combination of circumstance and cascades of chemical reactions beyond his conscious control.  In fact, this sort of talk can really ruin the mood.

In part, popular media are to blame.  Their oversimplification of scientific findings creates a backlash against science as a whole, particularly among the religious right, but more broadly w/ anyone (everyone) who has ever entertained any kind of higher/abstract thought process.  In his recent article for The New Yorker about secularism, James Wood laments that, “These days, one is continually running up against a crass evolutionary neuroscientific pragmatism that is loved by popular evolutionary psychologists and newspaper columnists.”  Studies are reduced to something less than the sum of their parts, and the result are easily digestible but wholly unsatisfying data bytes.

“They can make mice gay now,” my boyfriend said, in an effort to further rile me after the delivery of a diatribe similar to the previous paragraph.

“See!  This is exactly what I’m talking about!”  I cried, taking the bait.  “ACTUALLY, they reduced serotonin levels in the mice’s brains to such an extent that they became less selective about partners, thus displaying a higher frequency of sexual behavior towards other males.  That’s not the same thing as creating a homosexual preference.”

Still, alarmist headlines about the findings’ implications for human sexuality abounded in the blogosphere, and evangelical counselors no doubt started doling out SSRI’s in addition to prayer, in hopes of reforming their queer clients.  While it is perhaps true that the simplest explanation is likely the correct one, it does not do to ignore elements for the sake of elegance.  To paraphrase Einstein, a theory should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.  Contrary to popular belief, science does not seek to diminish the complexity of the human animal, but to illustrate it.  We should not treat a new finding as a stand-alone datum, an all-encompassing explanation, but rather as a small piece of a vast and vibrant puzzle that contributes to the overall picture w/o defining it.  The gaping holes that remain are perhaps frustrating for those restless, doubtful individuals who believe that being provided with a sort of explanation for the world will ease the strife of their lives, and religion does offer a completed puzzle…but many of the constituent pieces are a murky black, so that while the picture is entire, it is no more clear.

A false dichotomy has been created in the collective consciousness: that one must either be a) an unthinking machine, or b) the mysterious, soulful creation of some omnipotent deity whose laws and ways we will never fathom.

Here’s where the delightful book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow comes in.

“While conceding that human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of nature, it also seems reasonable to conclude that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible to predict.  For that one would need a knowledge of the initial state of each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body and to solve something like that number of equations.  That would take a few billion years, which would be a bit late to duck when the person opposite aimed a blow” (32).

There are underlying physical laws that dictate human behavior, but they are so intricate and numerous that they are of negligible use when it comes to everyday life.  Thus, it behooves us to rely on an “effective theory”–rules that do not necessarily hold true at the physical level, but whose application is useful in making extrapolations given limited time and finite resources.  “In the case of people, since we cannot solve the equations that determine our behavior, we use the effective theory that people have free will” (33).

Just as we cannot predict the future, past behavior cannot be imputed to a simple instinct for survival either.  Admirable traits like altruism and empathy perhaps arose because they were conducive to self-perpetuation, but that is not why they continue to occur.  As eminent primatologist Frans B. M. de Waal states in an essay, once a tendency evolves, “it is not essential that each and every expression of it serve survival and reproduction….The behavior follows its own autonomous motivational dynamic.”  Because of the practical impossibility of calculating the exact conditions per individual that led or could lead and individual to certain behavior, it is much easier to say that he or she chose to do it.

So no, you do not have free will, as such…but can–indeed must–behave as if you do.  It’s sort of like having money in the bank.  You don’t have the cash in hand–it really doesn’t exist but as a number on a screen–but can still enjoy spending it on nice things.

*As with most non-religious “answers,” it creates more questions than it resolves.


Stylistic Devices: An Illustrated Primer, Part VII

Emphasis continued.

Happy Valentine’s Day, gentlefriends!  To me, Valentine’s Day is just another day that isn’t my birthday, but I understand that for some people it inspires a treacly sort of sentimentality.  As a nod to the holiday, today’s examples will all treat on the theme of romance.  XOXO.

Epixeuxis: A word is used both first and last in a sentence.

Fig. 4.5 Epixeuxis

Epanelepsis: The  repetition (often successive) of a key word.  For reference, see pretty much any song by Rihanna.

Fig. 4.6 Epanelepsis

Expletive: Not the use of profanity, but rather the insertion of a superfluous word or phrase for rhythmic purposes–most notably to slow the reader’s momentum and imbue the words/clauses on either side of the Expletive with special emphasis.

Fig. 4.7 Expletive

Litotes: A assertion is expressed through the refutation of its opposite: an indirect and elegant device whose effectiveness rapidly diminishes with overuse.

Fig. 4.8 Litotes

Rhetorical Question: The positing of a question to which the logical answer is obvious.  A good way to establish a rapport with the reader and leave them predisposed to agreeableness.

Fig. 4.9 Rhetorical Question

Anantapodoton: The conclusion (main clause) of a sentence (Syncresis) is implicit, rather than stated.  Ensure there are enough hints for the reader to make the desired inference!

Fig. 4.10 Anantapodoton

Stylistic Devices: An Illustrated Primer, Part VI


IV. Emphasis

“De toute éternité, le Beau est plus rentable que le Bien.”–Amélie Nothomb

If Syntax provides the framework for an idea, then Emphasis highlights and beautifies it, adding color and vibrancy to what otherwise might be a bland and monotonous argument.  Emphatic devices often augment and complement already-present cadences that the reader instinctively inserts into their interpretation of a text.  They are also among the most fun, encouraging creativity and wit.  Ideally, the use of Emphasis controls and guides the reader’s aesthetic experience although, as with any form of ornamentation, its judicious use is recommended; it can be quite hard to draw your audience’s attention to the blue if you are also bombarding them with purples, greens and reds.

Aporia: A decisive statement is leavened with doubt or uncertainty.  Useful for undermining assumptions and subtly underscoring the multiple facets of an issue.  A good way to introduce an argument.

Fig. 4.0 Aporia

Climax: A list is ordered in such a way as to build suspense, beginning with the least important and ending with the most dramatic element.

Fig. 4.1 Climax

Asyndeton: The deliberate omission of conjunctions.  Though the actual number of words is reduced, their continuous flow gives the impression of overflowing and bounty.

Fig. 4.2 Asyndeton

Polysyndeton: The antithesis of Asyndeton, this device involves the insertion of conjunctions wherever possible; they act as a sort of drumbeat, giving the sentence a slow, methodical rhythm, and help to ensure that each clause is given due consideration.

Fig. 4.3 Polysyndeton

Adianoeta: The disingenuous/sarcastic use of a word or phrase that appears to mean one thing, but is also subject to other, even opposing, interpretations.

Fig. 4.4 Adianoeta

Stylistic Devices: An Illustrated Primer, Part V

Post 3/3 on stylistic devices related to syntax.

A. Zeugma

I’m awarding the zeugma its own personal section w/i the “Syntax” chapter, as this device has various subtypes, all of which involve different ways of connecting two or more words or clauses with a linking word that is stated only once but implicitly applies to all subjects.  This helps avoid tedious and unnecessary repetition, allowing one to say “Jack and Jill went up the hill,” rather than “Jack went up the hill and Jill went up the hill.”

Diazeugma: A single subject is used to link multiple, sometimes disparate verbs.

Fig 3.1a Diazeugma

Prozeugma: The word linking subjects is a verb.

Fig 3.2a Prozeugma

Mesozeugma: The linking word/phrase appears in the middle of the sentence.

Fig. 3.3a Mesozeugma

Hypozeugma: The linking word/phrase appears at the end of the sentence.

Fig 3.4a Hypozeugma

es muss sein.

A follow-up to my last entry.

All day today I was thinking about what I wrote last night, and not just in the usual finicky way I go over grammar.  It is a piece that, I think, betrays my feelings of being unmoored and adrift, something which is reflected in nearly all aspects of my life.   Last year at our house, no one really wanted to put up the Christmas tree.  The v. idea of it was exhausting and onerous, and I thought, Why bother? It’s not like the day holds any particular significance for us, and my sister and I are too old for Santa Claus now anyway.

Immediately afterwards, I felt a sort of loosening, as if something once deeply lodged inside my head had been exposed and was ready to crumble away into nothingness.  I realized then that giving up such rituals is dangerous, for if the Christmas tree no longer matters after 20+ yrs, what would be sacrificed next to indifference?

In the end, we put it up, and were the gladder for it.

I said before that I don’t like religion–or rather, I don’t like the forms it has taken.  Many of the values are fine; I can do w/o the fear-mongering, mysticism and misogyny.  I have this idea that if I read enough books and watch enough movies, then I’ll be able to patch together that acquired knowledge into an Answer, and I’ll know what to do, based on the work of so-and-so and such-and-such and what’s-her-head.  I don’t have one yet, but maybe once I finish reading Le Deuxième Sexe, I will.

My last entry included a lot of quotes by learned men, b/c I don’t know what I think, and am dubious about its worth and worthiness.  So I comb through the literature, pretending to be critical, but all along asking the question, What should I do?  And if I don’t like the response, I turn petulant.  Is that all you have?  I demand, stamping my metaphorical foot and demanding an alternative.  But why should the onus be on others to supply me w/ one?  Is it not more appropriate that I invent my own substitute for the stability and assurance religion brings into life, to find my own raison d’être?  And so I continue “perplexed but not in despair,” doing my best in the absence of answers.  Doing what I can.

muss es sein?

I’ve been worrying lately, gentlefriends.  I think we all have; there is plenty that is worrisome in the world.  Lately though, my worries have begun to shape themselves; heretofore vague anxieties have begun to coalesce into a morass of doubt through which all my thoughts must struggle.  Worse, I have not found anything particularly comforting w/ which to buoy myself up.  I cannot arrive at any kind of satisfactory explanation for the conundrums which I have taken to posing for myself recently, and while normally this wouldn’t bother me so much as arouse my curiosity, I am also at a loss to discover an objective way that I might make what are known as value judgements.

During my freshman year of college, I took a philosophy course called Ethics.  To be honest, I don’t remember much of it, but one thought experiment in particular has stayed w/ me: Imagine that there is a machine that can replicate every experience and individual might encounter in real life, to the extent that a person hooked up to the machine would be unable to tell the difference btwn the ersatz world and the real one.  Their experiences would be exactly the same (What, you thought the Wachowski brothers came up w/ this first?).

The question then posed to us was, would you prefer to be hooked up to the machine, or to live in the real world?  We unanimously voted for the latter option.  Okay, our professor said.  But why?

We didn’t have an answer.  If one was not quantifiably or qualitatively different from the other, why did it matter?  Why were we so sure?  If we felt so strongly, surely there was a better reason guiding us than just that feeling?

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Patricia Marx explores the burgeoning friend market.  Feeling lonely?  You can hire actors to pose as a friend or family member.  If you’re looking for something more permanent, you can buy a robotic companion.

My immediate reaction was one of sadness and dismay.  How did the people availing themselves of these services come to be so alone?  Where were their real friends?  Why hadn’t I thought of charging people for the privilege of basking in my presence?

Then again, I was forced to wonder: would going to dinner or a dance class (two things that Marx says rented companions are often contracted to do) w/ a “real” friend as opposed to a “paid” one be intrinsically better?  Other considerations aside, would I enjoy the specific experience more or less?

While you might be able to purchase a playdate, you obviously can’t buy a relationship w/ someone.  Or can you?  If you have someone at your disposal in whom you can confide, who will offer a sympathetic ear, who will accompany you wherever you want to go, aren’t you still getting the experience of friendship, and reaping the same benefits?  Does it matter if the feelings are financed, if the outcome is exactly the same?  Intuitively, I want to say YES, it matters a great deal…but I am as unable to explain why now as I was five yrs ago.

Last night Stephen Colbert interviewed Sean Kelly, one of the authors of the new book All Things Shining.  In the interview, Kelly quoted Neitzsche’s on sacredness, saying that the things sacred in a society are the things which it unacceptable to laugh at or mock.  (Somewhat confusingly, Neitzsche also wrote, “Laughter I declare sacred: you higher men, for my sake learn to laugh!”*)

What Kelly means is that there is nothing that really binds us together anymore; we have become estranged from each other.  He cited football as one of the few things we have left that allows us to experience connection en masse.  Once he mentioned sports I ceased to pay attention, and as he talked I thought of that scene in Avatar, where all the Na’avi sit together in front of their spirit tree and literally plug themselves in (through these handy wires growing out of their heads) into its roots, in order to participate in a sort of communal prayer.  This connection, Kelly seems to believe, is what is missing from our secular age, and leading to all sorts of unpleasant and pesky emotions, like despair.  The cure for the malaise is to interact w/ other humans, not just on a social level, but to try and think the same hopeful thoughts and embrace the same beautiful truths.

One man’s cure is another man’s kitsch.  In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera write that the “feeling induced by kitsch must be the kind the multitudes can share….How nice to see children running on the grass!…How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!…The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.”  Which is exactly what ecclesiastical doctrine is–a clever amalgam of allegories that use familiar archetypes to inspire a single reaction in a large group.

In a commencement speech delivered in 2005, David Foster Wallace declares that in “the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism.  There is no such thing as not worshipping.”  Furthermore, “an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

Not only is it important to maintain the presence of the sacred, but that which is elevated must be chosen w/ care.  Not to say there aren’t some worthwhile notions in religion, but is this the only comfort the world has to offer?  The best advice of the greatest thinkers of our time?  In the quest for a fulfilled and happy life, is my only recourse to try and seduce myself w/ a pretty story about benevolent power and divine purpose?

But what if I don’t want to embrace religion?  What if I view it as regression, a step away from the light instead of towards it?

*The Birth of Tragedy, 1886.