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The Mixed Messages of Modernism: Caused to act

Over the last two centuries, science has progressed to the point where, if something can’t be explained, we have faith that it is simply a matter of time until it is. Science has made us healthier and more secure. It has given us ground-shaking new media. We often forget that there was a time when the best possible means of understanding distant happenings was either an engraving or word of mouth. Now we can now transport actual sensory information across tremendous distances instantaneously. Science has made us, more than ever before, in control and in the know. It has been an empowering force; no longer do we need to cower in fear of inexplicable misfortunes.

We now have a readily explainable world. Not much of what we know has taken anything irretrievable out of human life. Perhaps with the gain of so many explanations, we have lost much of the mystery of the inexplicable. But primarily, science has liberated us from the unknown and given us a comfortable security: an empowerment, to be sure. The two disciplines, however, have taken from us this sense of empowerment and replaced it with resignation. Sociology and psychology have taken from us something of immediate gravity: the ownership and understanding of self. No longer can we decide. We can only be caused.

A science of man has been constructed such that our emotions and motivations well from places inaccessible to us. Whether we seek to explain by means of neural connections or subconscious happenings, neither affords the holder any special access to him or her inner self. We are forced to believe that a psychologist can better access us than we can. And even then, it is not from within ourselves that many of our actions stem, but from the webs of influences sociologists seek to discover. Our performance on tests can be reduced or enhanced by the threat of stereotype. We are incredibly suggestible, whether we know it or not.

Worse still, as we have come to understand man better, we have relinquished our access to the heights of goodness and achievement. Our acts of altruism can now be understood to be as selfish as taking the last slice of pizza. Our successes and failures can both be written off as institutional rather than individual outputs.

Our individuality, too, seems at risk. Prone to fits of passion and depression, Goethe? You may be bipolar. Ever eager to fight, Achilles? Maybe your testosterone is elevated — a pituitary tumor, perhaps? His psychiatrist may well tell him he’s sublimating a desire for his father’s love into a quest to prove himself. Either way, we cannot say the desire to battle was truly his. It did not originate in his conscious mind; he has not chosen it. He is not really free to decide. His unique traits, from his friendliness to his aggression, aren’t his own but his subconscious’, his society’s, his hormones’ and his neurons’ connections. His characteristics arise from predetermined causes. He cannot simply be strong or friendly, but must be caused to be so. He is hardly more responsible for his actions than he is responsible for his autonomic heartbeat.

It is a triumph of science that we can say we believe in a universally caused universe, that there are no actions without causes. However, it is also a terrible thing, as now we humans are also caused, and our actions originate in those causes and not in ourselves. The role of the conscious mind has been minimized and the meaningful actions of our lives have been removed from its control. It seems obvious to say that there is nothing about human action that exempts it from the laws of science, but its implications are less immediate. When we truly consider the pitfalls of a causally governed world, we realize that the essential truths that inform our everyday thinking are wrong. Free will, in the sense that we can make decisions independent of causes, may be fundamentally illusory. Agency may be mythical.

This realization doesn’t make it any less useful for us to consider our lives as primarily subject to our own agency. People who believe they own their lives are far more likely to succeed in them. Stanford-ites will know, but outside of our very driven realm, that way of thinking has become rare. In politics as well, we resist ever believing in the free exercise of agency on the part of our population. Every failure and success has a social cause, so much so that the responsibility of people is diminished to nothing. So, I say, have the courage to shape your own life, own it and own your actions. Own your characteristics and shortcomings, bad and good alike. While we may be caused, we have no way of knowing what those causes are, nor the destined outcome. The existence of such causes alone does not justify relinquishing the drive to make one’s life as good as it can be.

Come on, show Spencer you have some free will. Email him at dsnelson “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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