Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Limits of Freewill

One of the recent discussion again turned towards the classic worry about how unnatural human-life is. This line of argument wonders why humans suprisingly don't figure in any of the food chains. They are always at the top of the food chains. It also means that nobody depends, ecologically speaking, on the existence of humans, because humans really donot produce anything that's useful for other species. What tidings does this carry about man's chances of surviving as a species? Is it possible that it's hinting towards an impending disaster? No other species really seems to care whether humans exist or not. No other important inhabitant of the planet would stand to lose anything were the humans to be completely wiped out. The only relation we share with other species is that of a predator-prey (we being the predators), or parasite-host (we being the parasites in most cases). Men don't seem to be involved in significant degree of symbiosis with any other species.

But really, the above passage is more of a context setting. I think we don't have to pretend to know very well how much chances we stand that we as a species will survive to the end of the Universe. We don't know. It was the following argument given in support of these apprehensions which led to an interesting musing. This piece is about that.
The other argument was about the complexity of our lifestyle. Men have been able to locate a certain pattern in all other species' lives. Members of other species seem to resemble each other much more than humans do. That could be taken as an indication that humans, as a species, have no clearly defined ecological role that characterises. This, again, labels them as some kind of ecological outcast.

Here, we leave aside the question of man's survivability (mostly because it's more or less beyond us), and turn towards an interesting idea that the above argument gives: What would happen if humans did succeed in characterising themselves as a species? What would happen if we all suddenly came to know what the ecological role of our species is? Looking at the other side of stage: Do the other species have a chance of ever discovering the patterns that we have been able to locate in their behaviour? And finally, in general, would ever a species stick on to the patterns that it discovers about itself?

Take a very simple example: A dog. Try getting into the shoes of a dog. We find those doggies running rather restlessly from Faculty club to Gym Cafe. From Gym Cafe to Tea Board. They are always trotting. Never walking in the relaxed manner as we do. What's the state-of-mind of the dog, when he does such acts? For him, it might be a volitional act. From whatever findings we have, we know that the part volition plays in the acts that a dog does is much less compared to what it plays in human acts. Humans think more consciously, and hence elaborately, than species like dogs in making decisions. The acts that beasts do, be it for seeking food, affection, sex or security don't appear to be designed so much by volition than other biological forces. But, would the beasts ever be aware of these forces? I doubt. With whatever self-consciousness a dog has, his act might appear perfectly volitional to him. Would he ever accept that he's a beast who's acting completely under the natural forces? No! If dogs had had that intellect, they would surely have employed a part of it to blame themselves that they break natural laws by acting wilfully.

Now Humans. To them, what they do is wilful, volitional. And hence, often unnatural. The question is: had we indeed been acting completely under some natural forces, would we every have been able to detect its presence? Well. I doubt.

We do appreciate the possibility of such presence. And have fought tooth and nail to catch them. Two forces have, I think, figured top in the suspect list: ego and sex.

Biologists try tracing down our ego to our evolutionary instinct of competiveness. They might be right. But as far as I understand, even they would accept that it's a hypothesis. There's hardly a biological method to verify the neurological equivalence between the instinct which drive people to achieve unimaginable feats, and those which drive a tom-cat to fight till death to preserve its territory from other tom-cats.

Spiritualists, on the other hand, have an altogether different take on ego. There treatment is a more sensational one, and we must have heard and read a lot about that too. I won't go into that here.

Whether ego is a manifestation of a completely beastly quality, or it has mystical connotation, is not clear. One thing that is clear is that we understand it very little. And what we understand about it is hardly enough to explain the powerful effect it has on us, and the complicated way it governs our actions. Perhaps, ego is one such natural force that sits on top of our volition. But we can see that to develop any appreciable understanding about it is very difficult, and currently, way beyond the collective capability of our species.

Sex seems, on the face, a much simpler and purely biological force. We can claim that we see its image in other species. And it's believable that the human version of it is not naturally so different than the beastly version of it and hence our understanding of it is also much closer to complete than our understanding of ego. But again, it doesn't get tamed the way we would expect anything else. Sex is an act of procreation. It's a joyful experience to both participants. We all understand it better now than we did anytime earlier. And yet, it remains, quite mysteriously, a source of tremendous social tension. First of all, it's as unavailable as it was ever. Marriage-institution is gradually breaking down, prostitution is rampant in both sexes. All sorts of social changes. But sex remains as scarce as ever. Frustrations related to sex are as prevalent now as they have ever been. While we understand that sex is a simple act of two bodies copulating, we ourselves have instincts that prevent it from getting reduced to that state. Marriage may have started giving way as a vehicle of monogamy (or monoandry). But the instinct of feeling possessive about the partner is no less now than it was before. Despite all our understanding about sex, we don't seem to understand why we are only partially polygamous or polyandrous. There lies the dark-side of sex. It's not sex that we don't understand. There seems to be something else behind sex that makes it such a strong agent of creation of tensions. That's what is again completely beyond our our collective comprehension. Again, the way mystics handle the problem of ego, romantics handle sex. They have taught us to get stimulated by every part of the beloved's body. Thereby giving sexual attraction a divine stature. A bond that transcends birth and death. A bond that's created in heaven. I doubt, that it could be another way of saying that sex is too strong a force to understand. Or rather, the instincts that lie behind sex are beyond our comprehension.

Perhaps, sex, or that which causes it, sits beside ego as two of those forces which by and large control our volition. People who have achieved even a partial success in conquering these have sacrificed much else in their life, indicating what a momentous thing it might be to contemplate conquering these. By and large these two forces are way beyond our understanding, let alone control.

Similarly, there might be many many more incomprehensible natural forces sitting on top of our volition which we can't even have a glimpse of.

It's the nature of humans, or perhaps of all species, to try manipulating the instincts that it develops complete understanding of. For example, our understanding of hunger and sleep is rather complete in some sense. Correspondingly, we have devised methods of controlling them to a significant degree. Biological details of course remain to be worked out. But there's hardly any risk of their sources tracing away to something supernatural before we start understanding them well enough that we will gain complete control over them. We have been involved in a continuous struggle to gain similar understanding and control over the phenomenon of ego and sex. Our success in that has been dismal in comparison.

Here, I would like to come back to the original point of the discussion where our inability to find patterns in our life was cited as a possible sign that we lead a very unnatural life. To summarise, this apprehension might not be factual. The above cited inability doesn't directly indicate our being beyond the natural laws. Had there been any such force, it would be awefully difficult, if not impossible, to completely understand its effect on us. There are two examples to support that. One, the example of the dog whose acts might be wilful to him but are governed by natural forces which we seem to understand better than he does merely because we have superior intelligence. Had the dog been able to comprehend those forces, its behaviour would have drastically changed. Second example is of ego and sex being two possible examples of such a force acting on us. The magnitude of power they possess on us is inexplicable on the basis of our understanding of them. There inexplicability has a direct bearing on the degree to which they control us. The greater our ignorance of them, the greater the power they will have on us. In the limiting case, a natural force which we understand so little as to be oblivious of the its existence, would also have an infinite control on us.

We, as a species, seem to be doomed to be perennially oblivious of the natural forces which overrule our will. Probably, our inability to spot the point where our freewill ends, and nature's reign starts, is nature's way of perpetuating our slavery to its laws.


Pritesh said...

A very thought provoking article Sujit. I have read references to this before. There's this book by Amitav Ghosh that talks about a particular cult that believes in "To know something completely is to change it". I think now I understand the full impact of it.

True indeed that things that we have little knowledge of, we have little control over. The point of human behaviour trends is driven home in as many words! I really like that perspective. I don't think I ever gave it any thought..........all in all, a very good article that made me think and rethink...........

Anonymous said...

A very beautiful thought! :) And, an undeniable truth on how nature binds us with her laws. Hmmm,..

beepbeepitsme said...

RE: Issues of freewill

Freewill - "Turn or Burn"