Catch twenty-two

by david on September 20, 2010

Catch twenty-two

“It don’t matter to me…” these words from an old song bug me to no end because much to my consternation it does matter; life that is. Why in the world if there is nothing we can do about anything do we still grumble about what others and we do? Why should we even care about a life without free will that makes robots of us all? The answer is quite simple. We have no say in the matter. The belief in the illusion of free will is a product of evolution. Its unquestioned acceptance was essential to the construction of societies and the rule of law that gave us the stability for survival. Knowing the answer to this question, however, changes nothing.

Its maddening knowing we cannot act, but only react to our unrelenting goddess, circumstance. I would imagine this is the great advantage of the so-called lower animals. They react without remorse, because they do not suffer the guilt of the illusion of free will.

Even when we are aware we are reacting in a way that damages our own self-interests, our very well being or even our survival we cannot take willful control over our behavior and move ourselves in a more productive direction. If we had free will, why in the hell wouldn’t we use it at least when it was to our advantage to do so? Instead we are constantly hurled forward by a tidal wave of large and small events that are only remotely connected to our lives, most of which we are not even aware exist. Yet we continue to mercilessly curse the ineptitude of our behavior and pound our heads against that unyielding wall of guilt.

Even more frustrating is the sad fact we cannot act to be better human beings to those we love. We hurt our loved ones again and again with our reactions and then step back in shame, angry at ourselves and as stubbornly and as hopelessly as Don Quixote we swear we will not make the same mistake again. James Blunt has this very insight in one of his songs when he says, “ Give me reason, but don’t give me choice. Cause I’ll just make the same mistake again.” The frustration of repeatedly making the same mistake makes us sullen and poor human company to others and ourselves.

Without free will we simply cannot act on what we know, only react to it knowingly or unknowingly. This catch twenty-two is a cruel joke that should only be found in a Sartre play. So what do we do? At times we grin and bear it. At times we pull our hair and curse our very existence. I suggest instead we take solace in knowing the pain we cause others and ourselves is unintentional and not our fault and at the same time remember the pain others cause us is not their fault.

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