Tuesday, July 8, 2014


Maybe there’s no such thing as free will. What if every decision we think we make is actually controlled by our genes? What if free will is an illusion?

I turned 68 last week and that’s what I’ve been thinking about. I’ve been wondering how I got where I am. About how anyone gets where they are. About how much control we really have over any of it.
What if we are where we are and we do what we do for reasons that are totally out of our conscious control? Perhaps everything important about us has been predetermined by the luck of the DNA we inherited. What if it’s all Darwinian fortune?

Are we really so different from the rest of nature? Might human behavior be genetically programmed as tightly as the instinctive acts of animals? Does a bird, for instance, ever sit around contemplating which direction it should head for the winter? Does the neighbor’s cat wake up and make a thoughtful decision about whether to chase birds after breakfast or take a nap? All of nature is driven by genetically-coded instincts and by learned behavior that also is delimited by genes. How can it be that humans are free to control their own destinies? Are we somehow unique in nature?
We have no say in whether our genes made us smart or dim, with a skinny butt or fat one, white skin or red, beautiful or ugly, tone deaf or prodigy, gay or straight. Why should qualities of our character be any different – honest or dishonest, disciplined or scattered, timid or adventurous, religious or atheist – those features that define the essence of who we are and what kind of life we live?

I’ve somehow managed to get from zero to 68. For most of my adult life I’ve considered myself lucky – blessed with reasonably good health, better than average intelligence, and the discipline to avoid having done anything dramatically stupid like going to jail or to war. Well, except for maybe one or two things. In any event, now that I’m living my ideal retirement, I’ve got to ask myself: What’d I do to deserve this good fortune?
It certainly wasn’t because me and God have been such good buddies; I can’t see how He would do me any favors. Although I will admit that I’ve always been secretly grateful for family and friends who tell me, “I’m praying for you.” My thinking is that it can’t hurt, and maybe all those good vibes being sent into the vibisphere are responsible. Who knows?

& & &
Fifty years ago, my high school senior class voted me and my ex-girlfriend the two in our graduating class most likely to succeed. I’m pretty sure I voted for myself, although I couldn’t for the life of me have pictured how that success would play out a half-century later.

The last time I spoke with that ex-girlfriend, Karen, was 25 years ago during our 25th reunion. I couldn’t attend but called the reunion in Michigan from a pay phone in a little French restaurant in Las Vegas. I was living at the time in nearby Bullhead City, Arizona, and working as a land developer. From the distant banquet, several ex-classmates got on the line with me. Karen was the last and we chatted for several minutes. Sadly, I neglected to ask her if she felt her life had been “Success All the Way” like our yearbook predicted. Now I’ll never know since she died last year.
Shit! She was about my age.
That’s the thing. Once you pass 60, birthdays force you to think more than ever about mortality and the meaning of life. Especially with all the people dying who are no older than you.

Through Facebook, I get regular notices of obituaries of former high school classmates. The latest one was for a guy in the class a year ahead of me. I know nothing about his life except this one thing I learned. He was 68 – my age – when he died.
I looked up his picture in our yearbook, but it didn’t ring a bell. Next to the guy’s senior picture they had included this aphorism: “Heaven sent me down; Heaven knows why.” Well, whatever Heaven’s intent may have been, I’ll bet the guy in that Class of ’63 picture never thought he would die when he was only 68. Who does?

Take actor Matthew McConaughey’s father, who died in bed from a heart attack at the age of 64 – while screwing Matthew’s mother. It probably wasn’t fair to his wife, but if you got to go, I suppose you could do worse. (As Howard Stern noted, “He came and went in the same breath.”) Still, 64 (“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”) no longer sounds that old to me.
A few days back I saw on Facebook that a friend had turned 74. She claims she no longer thinks of anyone in their seventies as old. That’s encouraging. Because recently I attended my grandson’s kindergarten graduation. When that kid graduates from high school (class of ’26), I’ll be turning 80. Hopefully. If my genes will let me.

& & &
The Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” That’s how it’s supposed to work. You graduate from kindergarten, grow up, and learn to act like an adult. For most everyone, that means you have a job: You get up every day, you go to work, you pay your bills. Everything else follows.

Some otherwise normal people seem incapable of following such simple rules for life. Can genes explain – and maybe justify – the drifters among us, those self-defined victims floating through life without direction, waiting for their big break, the big score?
If we really have free will, how then can we explain self-destructive choices? Do any of us really choose to become alcoholics, perennially unemployed, impulsive, or obese? What is it that can make seemingly intelligent adults act like children?

External circumstances, of course, can truly be out of one’s control – disease or war, for example. But what about internal circumstances equally out of one’s control – such as bipolar disorder, ADD, or depression? At what point on the mental health scale do such genetic issues override free will? Always? Never?
How can such people ever find a comfortable place in the world? How do any of us? Especially if the invisible influence of genes on our behavior is what’s in control.

Could it be that thinking we can change who we are by force of will is delusional? That would mean that the assholes, morons, and criminals among us really can’t help themselves. To say nothing of fat people.
Here is one of the few points of agreement I have with religion: transcendental experience – whether from conversion, meditation, or drugs – can change who people are. Yet even there, perhaps our genes determine our compatibility to experience out-of-body experiences of whatever ilk.

& & &
So why my good fortune and my neighbor’s poor fortune? Is it something different that we did? Or something different that we are? Was it preordained?

I’m guessing that there are philosophers who spend much of their lives with my question: Is there free will? Perhaps one of them, or an otherwise enlightened soul, will read this and conclude:
·        “The fool! Here’s the obvious answer…”

·        Or, “The fool! There is no answer.”

·        Or, “The fool! The question is the answer.”

& & &

1 comment:

  1. Our good fortune, like the past and present, is fleeting so enjoy it. The future is new dilemma entirely.