Wednesday, September 7, 2011

We're All Very Predictable

The age old debate over free will and determinism is as relevant today as ever.

If we have significant amounts of free will, then people deserve what they get, now and forever. Punishment and retribution are justified. We may offer forgiveness and second chances, but it will be limited and temporary.

On the other hand, if most of our free will is an illusion and most people's fate is determined by nature, nurture and who they know (as growing evidence suggests), then we have two options. We will either ignore the less fortunate in our society and try to minimize their cost; or we will excercise compassion toward them by establishing economic safety nets, rehabilitation programs or some type of protective custody when rehabilitation fails.

Most of our current political debates, locally and nationally, can be understood using these 3 modalities.

Proponents of free will tend to oppose tax increases that benefit the masses and favor tough enforcement of laws that punish "bad people". The individual is more important than the group and government exists primarily to protect individual rights and individual possessions. War, long prison sentences and capital punishment are acceptable. The powerful (financial, religious and political), will ultimatelty become very skillful in defending this position, and even exploiting it for economic, religious and political gain. A common mantra is "anyone can be successful or 'good' if they choose to be."

Proponents of determinism, on the other hand, are of two types. They may hold the same positions described above, not because they believe people are free to choose, but because they simply don't care or they don't believe there's a solution. Their rule of thumb is "survival of the fittest" and "let nature take her course".

Other proponents of determinism, however, will exercise compassion and mercy. They will support tax increases that benefit the masses and will oppose a criminal justice system that is focused on retribution more than restoration. This third group believes we're all connected and talks a lot about social justuce, human rights, solidarity and mercy. They may or may not be religious.

Here's an illustration of how the powerful exploit the first two groups of people. A rich man, a middle class man and a poor man sat down at a table with a pile of cookies. The rich guy immediately grabs all but one. Then he says to the middle class guy, while pointing to the poor man, "Are you going to let him steal your cookie?"

As a radical old man who identifies more with the 3rd group, I actually believe families would be healthier and happier living on one income at or near the poverty level. I believe "the poor are blessed" and "the love of money is the root of all evil." I believe it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved, but I still believe all will be. I guess I'm a liberal calvinistic universalist catholic with a healthy dose of agnosticism.

Finally, I believe an economic system dependent on ever expanding revenues is unsustainable and will ultimately collapse. Be prepared.

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