Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Assumptions of New Year's Resolutions

by Tibor R. Machan

So, often people think they are free of philosophical assumptions. Many think they are just practical people and look with some disparagement at the heavy thinkers, as if they were useless eggheads. Yet, all of us go around with various assumptions about the world which could use some exploration, analysis, and verification.

Take this business of making New Year's resolutions. It is at least widely held that we could do this, no problem. Of course, some of us think we need no change in our lives and some are too committed to our bad habits and it would be too much trouble to fight them. But most of us think we could, if we wanted to.

Now, behind this conviction lies one of the most controversial ideas in human affairs. This is that people are free to act as they will, that their will is free and not compelled by impersonal forces. In the modern era, especially, although by no means only then, it has been a widely promulgated notion that our actions are fully determined by such forces, some hard-wired in us, some surrounding us in our environments. The idea that we are fully determined to act as we do, to be as we are, is widely championed when people talk of alcoholism, drug or sexual addiction, inherited habits of thought and action, and similar matters that plague us. Genetics is studied often with the explicit goal of finding the genes that make us do this or that, have this or that trait, even produce this or that institutional setup in human affairs. Of course, genes are thought to be responsible for a great many maladies as well as advantageous attributes in people.

Now it is obvious, I think, that if we are fully determined to be and act as we do, talk of making New Year's resolutions, of changing some habit, of reforming ourselves some way is pointless. It's no more than a fairy tale, like ducks composing music or mice reciting poetry. Sure, it can occur to us, but it's all fantasy.

Some determinists have even advanced theories about why we entertain such fairy tales. Why do so many of us believe we have free will? Why are we clinging to such an irrational, unjustified notion—an illusion, actually? And they have produced theories to the effect that such thoughts have certain evolutionary functions, although it is a mystery, then, is it not, why we do not all share them? Just like those atheists who claim that belief in God must have some biological or psychological explanation, determinists think the same about the widespread view that human beings are free to direct their lives as they choose, that they are, in fact, a major cause of what they do.

Those not involved in the age-old debate about these matters, however, tend to assume that people are free to act as they will, that they are not compelled, and that they have a will of their own. Yes, some might consider it a bit strange—after all, most other things in the world happen because something else made them happen, so how is it that we, human beings, aren't simply subject to being pushed and shoved about? But despite these occasional puzzles, most of us are confident enough that individual, moral responsibility is part and parcel of the human condition.

It is not enough, however, to simply assume such a thing. There are too many formidable challenges to the idea—indeed, there have always been, since back when the ancient Greek atomists advocated determinism—and they can put a serious dent in one's confidence in self-determination. Parents, for example, often find attractive the idea that their children suffer from learning disabilities and aren't just lazy or inattentive. Others are told that their upbringing or cultural background has produced in them various feelings and propensities to act one way or another. Those accused of crimes are often defended by their attorneys on the grounds that they couldn't help themselves, have some mental dysfunction, etc., etc.

So I would suggest that even if it appears to be a daunting project, most of us need to consider the issue: are we free or not? Is the assumption that we can just up and resolve to do this or that, change a habit or acquire one, well supported?

It is a good idea, all around, to be grounded in truth rather than falsehood.

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