Monday, January 5, 2009


Michael Michalko wrote an inspirational article on choice, how we can choose our attitudes deliberately and consciously.

I’ve been reflecting on the nature of belief lately. Belief in a God, or not. Belief in a caring Universe, or not. Belief in personal power to do good, or not. Belief in free will and the ability to change outcomes, or not.

It strikes me that many of these questions are unanswered and unanswerable. Nobody can prove to me that free will exists. Nobody can prove to me that there is a power in the universe that cares about my well being. Nobody can prove to me that consciousness is more than a set of electrical impulses in the mechanical system of my brain. Philosophy is the study of that which cannot be proven, we are unable to know truth in some areas, we have to cast about to find that which we believe in. Belief is a choice, is it not? And what you believe is the bedrock on which you form your attitudes and outlooks upon life. So if you have a choice, choose that which gives you the most happiness and allows you to be most effective in your life. Unexamined belief can lead to foolishness. Purposeful belief that improves effectiveness by shaping your lens on life can be very powerful. What do you want to accomplish and what beliefs would help you get there?

I saw a study in which people were given the choice to cheat or not in a simple game. The reward for cheating was a few extra dollars at the end of the game. The price of cheating depended on a personal belief system, on whether they could feel good about the choices they made. Before the game began, half of the people were given information that refuted the possibility of free will. Once they started playing, the people who had been told free will did not exist were much more likely to cheat. If they could not be responsible for their actions then why not make a little extra cash? This doesn’t prove anything about free will, and if you think about it you’ll understand why, but it illustrates how our beliefs and preconceptions influence our actions.

I choose to live in a universe in which I have free will, my actions matter, there is a loving force that cares about my well being and rewards that which is good (perhaps it's my wife :)). I believe I can make a lasting impact if I choose to.

Its worth asking yourself, what kind of a universe do you choose to live in?


dallyup52 said...

Is free will important enough to sacrifice one's honor/soul?

How much "free will" do we have? What is the limit of our free will if we do have it?

We can't change the color of our skin but we might be able to change the time we get up in the morning.

Do we have as much free will as a dog chained to a tree? How long is our chain? Can we change the length of the chain?

aspiringgeek said...

This post resonates deeply with me. "Choices" is one of the memes of my life. I was recently privileged with the opportunity to give the commencement keynote at the local ITT campus. Choices was the theme:

I'm a believer.

JS Mill said...

"Philosophy is the study of that which cannot be proven"

It is this sort of view that seems to give business-minded admin people the wrongheaded idea that philosophy (and the arts more generally) is superfluous and thus the one of the departments at most risk of getting funding cut. Just look at how much our universities are now geared towards business-related junk.

I consider philosophy to be mostly about being able to think and write critically; thus a better definition is "the science of reasoning."

Regarding free will: yes this is an area where philosophers have not "proven" anything in the sense that they have not come to a conclusion on the debate. But the subject of belief goes very deep and "progress" has most certainly been made there. I don't have much to say about free will here, but the sort of radical view you seem to suggest sounds a bit solipsistic ("Its worth asking yourself, what kind of a universe do you choose to live in?"). I think that many beliefs are not chosen but imposed on us; finally, I think that they are more of a social matter and not an individual one.