On Free Will, Or Temperance, and Mindfulness

On little free will.  There is a sense of free will that is large and metaphysical, the religious and philosophical sense.  The sense of Sartre’s terrifying freedom.  I don’t think that exists, for the most part I think our choices are determined by nature and nurture as they used to say.  Small freedom is having options.  Small freedom springs from self control.  The more self control you have the more freedom you have, but it’s a small freedom, not the larger, “I choose my destiny” freedom.

When you get angry, you want to lash out.  With little or no self control you can’t help yourself.  As you learn self control, option begin to slip in:  I can count to 10; I can kick a can instead of the person; I can take a breath; I can think it through before I act.  This kind of freedom can be taught.

I’m hungry and there’s ice cream in the freezer.  If I don’t think about it, I will eat it if I think I want it.  If I can slip a little self control in there I can find options.  I can eat a carrot.  I can drink a glass of water first.  I can distract my hunger by reading a book or taking a walk.  I can choose to eat nothing and experience the hunger.  Maybe by doing that I can see whether it is true hunger or not.

I want to believe that we can learn this kind of freedom/self control, and it can become a habit.  The first step, I imagine is to put a little time between the urge and the action.  Practice mindfulness for a moment:  STOP, Stop whatever action you are doing or about to do; Take a breath or three;  Observe what you feel, think, see, or hear: Proceed, one hopes with renewed freedom to choose what you are going to do.

Oddly enough, this doesn’t work every time.  Sometimes the urge wins.  It is going to happen, often.  Don’t shoot yourself, just observe it with the attitude that you can learn something.

This is also called the virtue of temperance.



On Spinoza

Spinoza describes philosophy as arising out of an existential dissatisfaction with the way human beings ordinarily live their lives. It is ‘experience’ which has taught him ‘that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile’, a realization making him resolve to discover ‘whether there was anything which would be the true good [verum bonum], … something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity’. Spinoza gives no indication of being interested in philosophy as such; his concern is the enduring well-being of the individual. He says that searching for such a supreme source of joy entails the risk of losing the imperfect and limited but real goods of wealth and honour. Further consideration reveals these ‘goods’ to be de facto evils. Existential doubt leads to anxiety; Spinoza compares himself to ‘a man suffering from a fatal illness (veluti aeger lethali morbo laborans)’ and foresees ‘certain death unless he employs a remedy’. Descartes had sought an answer to epistemological doubt; Spinoza seeks a cure to a deadly disease. This language sounds quasi-religious, as though one of Spinoza’s Catholic or Protestant contemporaries might have expressed it upon an overwhelming awareness of personal sinfulness. ~ Brad S. Gregory, in the Introduction to Samuel Shirley’s translation of Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Leiden 1991

Murakami, from Kafka on the Shore

“But there’s one thing I want you to remember, Kafka.  Those are exactly the kind of people who murdered Miss Saeki’s childhood sweetheart.  Narrow minds devoid of imagination.  Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems.  What I absolutely fear and loathe.  Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong.  Individual errors in judgement can always be corrected.  As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around.  But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form, and continue to thrive.  They’re a lost cause, and I don’t want anyone like that coming in here.”

Regression toward the Mean

Trying to explain this to Nick I discovered that I don’t understand it as well as I thought.  What it means is that exceptional occurrences will tend to return to  average when any luck or chance is involved.  For instance, a student pilot executes something extremely well and is praised, his next attempt at the same thing will be worse.  Another student executes poorly and is criticized and his next attempt improves.  An instructor might think this means criticism is more effective than praise in teaching.  What is more likely is that the first performance in either case was an outlier.  Believe this?  Maybe not 100%.  Would it apply to test scores?  How about politics?  How about moral action? Another instance of this would be the question that was going around for a while:  why do smart women marry men who are dumber than they are?  The human mind examines this and looks for the causes; fear of competition or the belief that they will feel more secure this way, etc.  The statistician would say any smarter than average person will be more likely to marry someone less intelligent simply because they meet more people who are less intelligent.

Musa Al-Gharbi, On Conservatism

I read this short essay on the philosophy of conservatism in the April/May 2016 edition of Philosophy Now and found that I didn’t agree with it, and felt “negative emotions” towards some of it, so here I am going to try to analyze it and see why I have these emotions as well as what I agree with and disagree with.  I thought I spotted straw-man and perhaps other fallacies.  Let’s start from the beginning and see where we go.

First he asks what conservatism is and states that it is popularly thought of a “clinging to tradition and resisting change” which, he says has an element of truth.  Conservatives, he says, do so, after Edmund Burke, out of the conviction that traditions have been proven over generations and that change is likely to be “ill-fated”.  I find that I almost agree with this.  I wouldn’t say that tradition has been proven if that implies that it is necessarily good because it is traditional.  I think that tradition, like change, is neither good nor bad for society per se.  However, tradition is deserving of our respect and should be trusted until we can see that it is “bad” or unhelpful.  He also says  that change is “typically ill-fated”.  Isn’t that just an impression some have formed?  Is there any rational basis in it?

But the above is a “feature” of conservatism, not its essence.  The essence of conservatism is in reaction or response to progressism.  This is a point I thought worth pursing.  But instead of doing that he goes into what I think of as a straw-man argument that progressives view mankind as essentially good (or rational) and that mankind is on a trajectory towards perfection or utopia.  He then refutes his straw-man with “What would constitute progress on an infinite line?”  This may be a point worth considering, but I don’t accept the view that progressives see this utopian telos.  He says progressives view government as a means of achieving this telos, adding “often by means of some presumed superior mode of social arrangement.”  He then identifies “progressism” as the impulse behind the Enlightenment, Marxism, and other revolutionary movements, stating that conservatism acts in negation to that.

This is the point I where felt somewhat irritated.  I’m not sure why, but it’s still irritating to me.  Perhaps because he lumps the Enlightenment with Marxism and “other revolutionary movements” without clarification.  I shouldn’t fault him here, he only has so much space to work with.  This “lumping” puts anything aimed at improvement in one barrel. But let’s be charitable:  there may be an logical underpinning among them.

Under the heading “Classical Conservatism” al-Gharbi says:  “Given their rejection of political perfectionism, conservatives envision a much smaller role for the state.”  While conservatives currently do enshrine small government, that does not follow from a rejection of perfectionism.  One could say that since the arc of mankind is imperfect, the state needs to take a larger role.  Either way, the next idea is that conservatives, as opposed to libertarians, emphasize community over the individual.  The community, rather than the government, in a conservative society would provide the bedrock of social and political stability.  Civil rights and liberties and private property are what is essential.  The state should not advance ideals or political agenda.  The purpose of the state is to enforce agreed upon rules, provide a forum for the solution of disputes, and protect communities from other countries.  It seems to me that he is saying that the community would enforce rules within the community (that is, between individuals or between individuals and the community)  and the state between communities.  That seems like an idea that may have worked 100 years ago, but the state (and the world) is too large and diverse now.

Next he criticizes modern “conservatives” as not true conservatives because they don’t call for restraint and/or realism.  Paleo-conservatives seem to believe that minorities have a duty to conform to the dominant society.  Neo-conservatives seem to believe that it is the duty of governments to promote or advance and protect the values of the dominant culture.  Here is a passage from the article describing the neo-cons:  “These (the neo-con ideas of the purpose of government) include forcibly spreading liberalism around the world: destroying incompatible political economic systems and institutions: surveilling and disrupting internal dissent by means of pervasive law enforcement and security apparatuses; and by deploying oversimplified ‘good vs evil’ narratives that portray any skepticism of or resistance to their agenda as dangerously naive or even outright traitorous.”

Finally here is his description of the classical conservative’s utopia:  “a legally pluralistic system which empowers groups of like-minded citizens to arrange themselves as they see fit — thus including radically different economic, legal and political processes within their domains — ensuring that all citizens can live in a society which reflects their own interests and values, rather than being forced into the secular zero-sum pluralist game over who gets to define the supposedly neutral position.”  Visualize a country consisting of groups (communities) with “radically different legal and economic systems” with a government that ensures their autonomy, could it work?  I am doubtful, especially given the interdependent nature of  the modern world.








Society has, and always will, consisted of a small group of “royalty” relying on the many, the serfs, to provide for their well being, their opulence their culture.  The job of “royalty” is provide the serfs the least amount of reward or punishment for the greatest production.   The choice between reward and punishment is not moral, it is economical.  Whichever is easier and cheaper will be employed.  The costs of employing punishment rather than reward are not just physical, they are also emotional.  There is a cost to the “royal” individual when the punishment is severe.  We have developed with a conscience.

The “royalty” may be hereditary, it usually is, but it can also result from luck or physical or mental ability.  I think that ability is overrated and luck underrated in the creation of a society.

Perhaps the great fault of our modern society is that we have convince the serf that it is one’s own failings that keep one in serfdom, rather than luck.  I include the luck of being born with exceptional abilities.

This is neither good nor bad.  It is the way things are.  If you want to be happy, learn to enjoy your position in this hierarchy.

Take-aways from “The Marshmallow Test” by Walter Mischel

It was a good book.  Maybe a little more of a self-help book than I thought it would be — which may be a good thing.  One idea which stuck out for me was the idea of hot and cold decision making:  the quick decisions we make when our emotions take the lead which tend to impetuous, habitual and intuitive.  Cool choices are those made after thought.  This is similar to the Stoic assent to our impressions.  It also seems related to the System 1 and 2 ways of thinking.

To motivate yourself the basic principle is to cool the present and heat the later.  (Cool the present action and heat the goal.)

Basic ways to achieve self-control, according to Mischel:

  • Create if-then plans:  if I am tempted in X way I will respond with Y.
  • To create the if-then plan the first step is to locate the “if” — behavior triggers.
  • Find precommitment plans that work
  • Cognitive reappraisal:  imagine the desired object or behavior as something else (chocolate is moldy, computer game is ??)
  • Self-distancing:  imagine you are a fly on the wall looking down on yourself