Monday, March 01, 2010

Free Will vs. Determinism: The Answer Lies within Gheorghe

There once was a man who said, ‘Damn!’
It is born in upon me that I am
An engine that moves
In predestinate grooves,
I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram

by Maurice Evan Hare

Because I am the G:TB official meta-correspondent, it makes perfect sense that the impetus for this piece and the accompanying song was generated mainly by another G:TB post. This is scary in so many ways, and someone from outside this circle might comment on the insular nature of blogging, the absurdity, in a medium so large, free, and wild, to get caught in a small self-reflexive circle of mustache commentary, Mask jokes, and William and Mary basketball coverage. On the other hand, this might be a perfectly logical defense mechanism when confronted with an infinite space. Perhaps the internet is TOO big, and this is the only sane way to approach it

The topic I am addressing here is one that philosophers have batted around for thousands of years: free will versus determinism. Do we make choices or are our actions purely pathological? Are we a bus or a tram? Do we slide along a predetermined track, regretting our "choices," which were actually simple cause and effect? Or do we somehow transcend the laws of physics, does our consciousness ever give us the ability to come to, as William James called it, to make a "genuine choice"-- one that is live, forced, and momentous-- and then actually control which road we take into the woods? Or-- possibly the scariest scenario of all-- are our brains quantum machines, that simply express the chaos, probability and randomness inherent in the universe? Does (to Einstein's chagrin) God play dice? And if this all played out again would it be completely different for no reason at all?

I was plodding through a rather dull philosophical book tangentially on this subject, when I realized that G:TB had the answer. Specifically, Zoltan's G:TB post about being a Bills fan; it is called "A Bills/Browns Preview, otherwise knows as a study in self-loathing," and it details his "abject misery" as a Bills fan. Why is he a Bills fan? Sports are supposed to be fun. Rooting for your team is something one does in their leisure time. It is an avocation, a hobby. A choice. You can choose to do it or not, and you can choose who you'd like to root for. You CAN do this if you wish. But most people don't, and they don't exercise this choice.

The book is called "Ethics of the Real" by Alenka Zupancic. Its purpose is to formally reconcile Emmanuel Kant's rather dogmatic moral philosophy with Jaques Lacan's obtuse theories of "the Real." One of the few things I actually understand in the book is this summary of Kant: "man is not only much more unfree than he believes, but also much freer than he knows." Zupancic then goes on (with some ridiculously complex diagrams) to explain that what Kant means is that our actions may be purely pathological, but once we can examine them as such, once we can look at them in such a way in retrospect, then we arrive at some higher level of freedom. Though we had no choice in the past, that's just the way we behaved, we can now regret those actions, and determine what we ought to have done, and thus we begin to have some control over our future.

If you think too hard about it, the idea disappears in a cloud of its own self-reflexive smoke, but the important thing here to remember is that Zoltan continues to root for the Bills. In fact, there is a certain moral cachet involved in rooting for a terrible team, in sticking with them through thick and thin. They are having trouble right now in Haiti relocating people to shelters. These people can choose to move, they would be better off if they could move, but they won't move. I heard one Haitian man on NPR remark, "You can't force Haitians to do anything." Obviously, you can't force Zoltan to do anything either. At any time during his tenure as a Bills fan, he could have defected, bought some new bobble head dolls, switched his trash can, and made up a creation myth of fanaticism: his favorite uncle is from Dallas, his birthday is the same day as Eli Manning, whatever . . . people don't question the crazy voodoo shit people invoke when they say why their allegiance is to a particular team. But he didn't. For some reason, the path he chose was the one he started on (when you write about philosophy, it's really easy to end sentences with prepositions . . . something up with I will not put).

I was lucky to be born a Giants fan. I have enjoyed four Super Bowl appearances and three wins (for Zoltan's sake, I won't mention Super Bowl XXV). I was also born a Yankees fan, which is ridiculously good luck, such good luck that I actually gave up rooting for them. How did this happen? Why didn't I end up a relatively miserable Jets/Mets fan? The only explanation that I have is that my Sicilian grandfather, a barber in New Brunswick, preferred a close shave. The National League players were fond of facial hair and my grandfather thought this was a disgrace to the uniform (though he died when I was young, one of my earliest childhood memories is him criticizing Dave Parker's beard). The Yankees were generally clean shaven, until the Bronx Zoo era . . . Chambliss, Munson, Lyle, Martin, Jackson . . . those were some mustaches.

A few weeks ago, I was an ersatz Jets fan; I went over a neighbor's house and watched the Jets beat the Chargers, and I was struck by how much phoning back and forth there was as the game went on-- Jets fans calling each other in disbelief, sarcastically claiming they would blow it, but also excited that they might win. I don't remember doing this as a Giants fan-- you expected them to figure out a way to pull out the game, because (usually) they did. But I could have been born in Cleveland, fondly remembering the Bernie Kosar days.

Even if I was born a few miles to the south, in the wilds of South Brunswick, the home of this guy, then things might be different. I might be an Eagles fan. The Mason Dixon line of Central Jersey is between North and South Brunswick, and although Jerry is a traitor to his town and Giants fan (I'm sure there's a story there), I feel like South Brunswick is where the predestinate groove of Eagles fanaticism starts. No choice in this, it's a matter of birth. I didn't hate the Eagles growing up-- it was fun to watch Ron Jaworski and Harold Carmichael, but I was detached. And though it doesn't rival the Confederacy and the Union, there is certainly some animosity between North and South Brunswick ( we always beat up on them in sports, and Jerry occasionally goes into an obtuse rant about North Brunswick, which goes something like this: . . . after we mangia on da zeppolis at da Carnivale Italiano letsa go to da Bruswick square mall in our Irocs and buy some a da chains and den we gotta playa do golf at Tara Greens).

Anyway, this was long winded and confusing, so I've boiled it all down to a Greasetruck song. It's called "Stuck," and I'm going to call it the final word on this debate and move on with my life. It's pretty much a straight blues number, but I'm proud of the lyrics. Not only do I mention several famous philosophers, but I also include the housing crisis, genetic disorders, autism, infidelity,and how short Rob is. Enjoy.

There are things you could do.
You could be someone new.
There are choices you could make.
There are roads that you could take.
You see a glass half full.
Your eyes obscured by wool.

Son, you better thing again.
Son, you better be a man.
You're stuck.
There's nothing you can do--
you might as well give up.
There's nothing you can do.
You're shit out of luck.
You're fucked.

Stuck in your time and place.
You'll never fly in space.
You'll always have that face,
so just listen to the bass . . .

Stuck with the stuff you did,
stuck with your autistic kid,
stuck as a Cleveland fan,
stuck with your spray on tan.

Stuck with the color of your skin
and your stupid bank card PIN.
You'll never grow no more.
You're stuck at five foot four.

Stuck with that house you bought,
and with that lousy shot.
You'll never own a yacht,
your blood, it likes to clot.

Stuck with your losing team
and your lupus gene,
by the time the Browns have won
you'll be dead and gone.

Stuck with your smoker's cough,
your body's getting soft,
and if that's not enough,
your wife is running off.

But look on the brighter side.
At least you can say you tried.
No one will know you lied.
Life's a just a downward slide--
Hobbes and Hume both decry
free will, so take their side.
Embrace life's one way ride,
your fate is bound and tied.

Or take Emmanuel Kant,
embrace his German chant.
Once you know, you're not--
you see you're stuck, so stop,
look back, regret your path.
Recalculate the math.

But that's no way to live.
Best to forget and forgive
yourself for all your acts
calm down, try to relax.

Do not look in the cracks.
Do not think on the facts.
You know what's at our back.
Maybe have yourself a snack.


zoltan said...

Now I can add "Greastruck muse" to my resume.

Geoff said...

Apparently Rob and Mayor Bloomberg have more in common than just a closet full of suits from the Boys Department:

"Look, I love going down and having one of those hot sausages like anybody else" -- NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg (I), announcing NYC "will scale back the number of street fairs held this year" ("Daily Intel").

Whitney said...

Immanuel Kant was a real piss ant who was very rarely stable.

rob said...

whitney's been waiting 6+ years to find a reason to drop that line into a comment.

Whitney said...

Predetermined destiny is who I am
You got your finger on the trigger like the Son of Sam I Am

zoltan said...

Mad at my desk and I be writin all curse words.

Dave said...

i know the first one but where is the second one from?

Dave said...

i know the first one but where is the second one from?

rob said...

double daves, parallel determinism. minds are being blown all up in this piece.

TJ said...

I'm expressing my aggressions through my schizophrenic verse words.

zoltan said...

I went to dinner a few weeks ago and after we paid the check the waiter came to take our money and said "Do you need some change up in here?" which was hilarious because he was a scrawny little white guy with meticulously toussled hair, a vest and necktie, a rumpled white shirt with rolled sleeves, and jeans rolled just enough to expose the necks of his engineer boots, which is to say he was your stereotypical LES dude conforming to the neighborhood's alleged non-conformity. Everyone spent the rest of the evening trying to come up with other things he could have said that would have made us laugh harder. "Up in this piece" was the winner, with "Up in this muh" a close second.

Dave said...

"looking down the barrel of a gun."

i should have gotten that.

i have a steak on my head because i got into a fist fight.

cgormley said...

Pat, I'd like to buy a vowel, "O"

Whitney said...

And it's the same tune Z-man referenced up in this piece last week with the homeboys bonanza to beat your ass down.

For those unfamilar with the song, familiarize youself. Lickety-split.

Dan said...

a funny little friend of mine (lynch - rob & whit) ordered a whopper down in the hood of charm city years back...he was with his then fiance who confirmed the story.

lynch: yeah, can i get a whopper, fries & coke...
bk "associate": uhh, you wha cheese wit dat or fuck da cheese?

lynch, who really wanted cheese couldn't pass up the opportunity responded, "fuck da cheese!"

Mark said...


Since we're telling stories:

I locked my keys in my car last week. I happened to be in the same parking lot as an abortion clinic, so I went in and asked to borrow a coat hanger. This did not go over well.

TJ said...

I see what's going on here...

So life for me was tough growing up. My dad insisted on me being in shape. Every day he'd row me to the middle of the pond we had out back and drop me in, letting me know he'd see me at home. Sure, that sucked, but honestly the swim wasn't that was getting out of the burlap sack that sucked.

Emilia said...

"fuck da cheese" is going to be the next greasetruck song.

TJ said...

Geoff, is that you again?

Whitney said...

I'm a little disappointed Jerry hasn't weighed in yet, because his impressions of North Brunswick troglodytes are funnier than Dave's impressions of Jerry doing the impressions.

TJ said...

Perhaps Jerry was sent back to Hotlanta again this week...and if so, someone give him some legit going out recommendations. The city is a ghost town according to him, and having been there before, I agree.

But I'm sure Whit knows a place or two for a PBR.

Geoff said...

Yes, I've added Emillia to my stable of sisterwives and I forgot to log her out before posting.

Whitney said...


Star Bar -- first place I saw the Drive-By Truckers, and it was a dandy,

Atkins Park -- nice place, it's where Chris Chandler made an appearance and signed autographs, so the legend goes.

Smith's Olde Bar -- good live music, cool joint.

Front Page News -- good drinkin spot.

The Famous Pub -- getting a little rougher. Pretty red. NASCAR happy. But good bar games there.

Moe's and Joe's -- decor almost entirely PBR-based, and was so long before the PBR resurgence in popularity.

Most any place in the Little Five Points neighborhood has treated me well. Buckhead . . . eh.

TJ said...

Buckhead is apparently closed for business. The Nique Moose out front shoulda told ya.

Dennis said...

While I ultimately enjoyed this post, when I have to use more than three rotations of the center mouse wheel to get to the bottom, it gives me pause....

zoltan said...

Isn't Atlanta the noodie bar capital of the east coast?

Mark said...

Maybe, but if so Tampa can't be far behind.

zoltan said...

I've only been to Tampa once, and then only for two days, but there did seem to be an inordinate number of noodie bars. I ate at Burns' Steakhouse, to the point of nearly vomiting. Great place. I went to no noodie bars.

Dan said...

"Swingin' Richard's" is a great spot in Tampa

Mark said...

Burn's Steakhouse is great. A Tampa institution, as is Mons Venus.

Dave said...

sorry dennis, we had a snow day and i over-wrote. my next post will be terse.

i was totally trying to bait jerry, but maybe he didn't make it through the seventeenth paragraph, i should have insulted him earlier . . .

zoltan said...

That's why you need to include a yootoob every 300 words.

rob said...

if you can read lips, you could've seen huggy bear just call his team 'motherfuckers' in a timeout huddle after they let georgetown whittle a 25-point wvu lead to 16. good times.

Mark said...

My high school coach played for Huggins in college. I didn't have to read lips to know he was calling me a motherfucker...frequently.