Saturday, January 23, 2016

Tolstoy on Free Will & Necessity

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy

Germane to our last confab.

I abandoned my belief in the feasibility of the "free will" proposition some years before I picked up B.F. Skinner and found in radical behaviorism a developed and articulate theory delineating the general situation. Skinner helped to clarify and codify the conviction, but the metanoia that begat the conviction was an earlier occurrence.

When precisely did I stop believing in free will?

I guess it's one of those things that curious or reasonable people wonder about for a period, but either commit to noncommittal wishiwashiness on the issue or eventually affirm their belief in free will. Our culture actively encourages such an outcome: the rhetoric of Western society extols "freedom" as a crowning virtue; our historical/mythical/entertainment narratives are frequently constructed so as to be deconstructed as "freedom versus tyranny" allegories. Most conceptions of "freedom" become meaningless unless free will is axiomatic. Free will can't be called into question without shifting the sands on which the foundations of most of our cultural "truths" have been erected. It's much more comfortable to leave it alone.

The Back to the Future films (which I so loved as a child) conclude with Doc Brown's epiphanic declaration that the future is whatever we make it (implying a human agency uninfluenced by incident and circumstance). That did stick with me for a while. As a brooding teenager I found a compellingly delivered counterpoint in the Soul Reaver games (which, let's face it, were Back to the Future with vampires), whose in-world metaphysics were saliently deterministic. I must have gave the matter some further thought while trying to sort out the antinomies of Paradise Lost, but those efforts were more an examination of whether the poem actually succeeds in pinning a QED ribbon to Milton's thesis. (I guess I had neither the curiosity nor the savvy to look to philosophy or science for answers back then.)

After many years of neither fully believing in nor abjuring the existence of free will, what finally and irrevocably titled the scales was Tolstoy's War and Peace (1869), particularly the culminating synthesis of the epilogue. I think it's very cool that Leo would write a 1300-page story pullulating with characters and subplots through its fifteen-year arc—and then cap it off with a little epilogue wherein he closes the narrative curtain, comes onstage alone, and says a few words about what's been on his mind lately, explains what he's been trying to get at with this thing he's made. (I wonder if the new BBC miniseries will address the epilogue in some way; concomitantly I have to ask if transferring War and Peace to any other medium is really worth it.)

The second part of War and Peace's epilogue (of course there are two epilogues) is an essay on history; it is as much a repudiation of the "great man" theory of history (we can adduce the veneration of modern hero-figures like Steve Jobs to demonstrate its historiographical persistence) as a disproof of free will. (In the context of the novel and of Tolstoy's argument, these angles are complementary.)

I'd like to share with you some words from the final pages of War and Peace, taken from the 2005 translation by Anthony Briggs (who neglects the Oxford comma and is very wrong to do so). By transcribing it here I hope to better internalize its points; I always wish I could summon this stuff verbatim when I find myself speaking to an incensed believer in unconditional human agency. (We usually end up talking in circles until he or she is too angry to continue.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

City as Sculptor: Some Thoughts on Environmental Psychology

Victo Ngai, Clockwork City

A few years ago I had an idea for a short story and began scribbling it out on a whim. When the initial draft was completed maybe four months later, the thing was well beyond the novella milemarker, so at that point it seemed to make the most sense to drive it the rest of the way into novel territory. It was self-published last March to as much fanfare as one could reasonably expect. (I still think it's pretty darn good, though.)

The domino-field dimensions of the plot required that a character have a preoccupation with human psychology, so I perused Freud and Lacan to better figure out that character's conceptions of people and how they think and operate. It was obviously a wrong turn; such an extraordinarily left-brained person would be much less interested in mentalistic hermeneutics than in rigorous empirical analysis, so I shelved the psychoanalysts and picked up B.F. Skinner's About Behaviorism and Science and Human Behavior.

To my own surprise, Skinner converted me to radical behaviorism. (In fact we've visited Dr. Skinner and flirted with his ideas before.) It is not a popular school of thought: most people reflexively object to the "no free will" premise and feel that such a perspective robs humanity of its dignity and of the significance of its actions (an aspersion famously cast by Dr. Chomsky). But after Freud and Lacan, who read more like literary criticism than scientific analysis, the material practicality of Skinner's model won me over with its straightforward plausibility (however many of the obscure particulars he glosses over, trusting they are either unimportant or certain to be solved/verified by the anatomists of the future).

Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Caribbean Lesson in Courtesy

Agostino Brunias, Free West Indian Dominicans

So. I have a job now. I'd prefer to leave its description and duties unspecified here. It's enough to say it's in customer service (which I am resigned to never escaping), and it isn't particularly glamorous or lucrative. But it is allowing me to make rent, so for the time being I'll be keeping to myself any grievances I may have.

The setting and gist of the gig is a space where visitors browse about, and if they would like to procure any of the merchandise on display, they speak to me (or my cohorts). A procedural remnant from my days at the Caribbean coffeehouse and the hip grocery store chain (heck, and probably from my teenage years jollily upselling at the mallcore superstore) is my tendency to greet people when they come within a certain distance of my person. Usually I dispense with the "hello how can I help you" crap. Rather: Hey. Hi. How's it going. What's up. Wassup. Sup. Wass. Namaste. Om namo bhagavate vasudevaya. & cetera. Actually, what I most often say is "good morning" or "good afternoon," but we'll get into that in a moment.

Sometimes my greetings' recipients will say hello back. And every once in a while we'll indulge in some light chitchat that doesn't leave a bad taste in my mouth.

But I think the most frequent answer I get when I say "hello" is "just looking." Or: "No thanks."

I'm used to hearing this. I've heard it ever since I was accosting bewildered-looking parents surveying the Nightmare Before Christmas swag display at the mallcore superstore in search of holiday gifts for their teenaged progeny. But until recently I haven't found it as disrespectful and offensive as I do now.