Friday, March 18, 2011

How much freedom do we have?

It's encouraging to see new books on, and new approaches to, topics that have long engaged the minds of thinkers. One of these fundamental issues is the question of free will: how much choice do we have in life? How are our choices related to happiness?

I recall a student in my freshman Honors course fifteen years ago who announced, with the intellectual arrogance that sometimes accompanies gifted students in special programs, that free will is a delusion. I responded with the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer: "You've got to believe in free will; you have no choice."

The class laughed politely; my arrogant student did not. Modern science, it seems, would support Singer's idea.

Sheena Iyengar, the American daughter of Sikh immigrants who lost her sight as well as her father, would agree with Singer's paradoxical remark. She is uniqely well suited to wrestle with this question, using psychology and other fields in a remarkable study The Art of Choosing.

She also relies on her own life experience, concluding that chance might be one way to account for the tragedies in her life but she finds it "much more promising" to think in terms of choice, and about what is still possible, about what she can make happen, given her circumstances.

This type of daring optimism in the face of catastrophe reminds me of Victor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning: it was his chosen response to the Holocaust, his refusal to give up all hope, that saved him.

Iyengar examines how people makes choices and how much control we have over our everyday decisions. Using the social sciences rather than philosophy or theology, she shows that her view of freedom is true: if we believe we have a chance to survive a catastrophe, that feeling of choice, of being in control, is what saves us. So, unlike caged animals, we humans are able to create choices by altering our interpretation of the world; thus we are shaped by the choices we make. "We make choices and are in turn made by them."

So, she concludes, we can't opt out of choice because it's everywhere in our life-world; we must, in that paradoxical language used by Singer, continue our complex relationship with choice, which with its uncertainty and ambiguity, remains ultimately a mystery, like all really important realities.

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

Stephen Covey bases the first of his Seven Habits (Be Proactive) on the principle of free will, which separates humans from animals.

We have the option of using the space between stimulus and response to decide about our response; animals don’t. In his workshops, “I had to,” is not an acceptable answer for why a person did what they did. The responders really mean that they didn’t want to accept the consequences of not doing the action.

But they want to leave themselves off the hook; they do not want to accept responsibility for their conscious decision.

Another catch phrase he uses is that we need to “carry our own weather with us.” That means even on rainy days that make us feel sad or powerless or sluggish, we have complete control over what actions we take. And we can’t blame the weather.

Sometimes I hate to admit it, but I think he’s right.