Friday, October 26, 2012

Liberating the Whale Within

I've made a number of bad choices in my life and have regrets to match. Sometimes the weight of my guilt feels like that famous whale with my old name (although I used to spell it "Willie" rather than "Willy"). I was socialized to accept the burden of free will (oh the irony!) and pay the consequences for any mistakes that were made.  We blame people for their faults, their errors in judgment.  But sometimes there are causes other than willful blunder when things go awry.

This was an important and anxiety-provoking issue during the years of dealing with my son's alcoholism.  What was the degree of his responsibility for the bad choices he made that ultimately killed him?  Did my absence as a father play a role, or his mother's addiction to valium and wine?  Were chemicals in the brain the prime culprit, or was it insufficient nurturing by parents who missed the cues provided by his youthful druggy misbehavior?

Guilt has long been viewed by our modern generation as an unproductive emotion, but it is not so easily abandoned.  In retrospect, our memories are rarely clear of it.  We all believe that had we done something else, somewhere, sometime, things would have turned out differently.  Free will is a cornerstone of our self image and the basis for morality and the law.  Without it, we lead lives directed by conditions and circumstance.  And if our choices are a mixture of determined and free, as some "compatibilists" in the field of neuroscience now believe, how are to we choose between them to apportion blame and praise?

A dilemma only for philosophers, you say.  And maybe you are right.  I've been stimulated by the revival of a group of Bangkok expats calling themselves "BuddhistPsychos" to explore connections between the latest psychological theories and Buddhist teaching.  This month the topic for our meeting was thinking, and I dove into a pile of online research to discover current thoughts about, well, thought. On the face of it, thinking is a mysterious process somehow related to the brain (which one  writer called a "meat computer").   How does sensory input, converted into electrical signals in the brain, become mental food for thought? I am quite familiar with the discursive chatter that goes on in my head (or my heart, as Thais would say), but it may be quite different from your experience.  A monk in our group claimed that he was able at will to replace ordinary thinking with thoughtless awareness, but I suspect he was playing with definitions.  Thinking, it seems to me, is coexistant with consciousness.

My friend Jerry echoes my wife who often says "you think too much."  He's a thinker as well but not about such lofty intellectual topics.  The subjects of the current book he's writing are "whore lovers" and this weekend he's attending a ladyboy volleyball tournament in Pattaya.  While I puzzle over the relationship between the brain and free will, the topic for next month's BuddhistPsychos meeting, he's thinking about the pleasures of the flesh.

The conflict between determinism and free will may simply be a category mistake, a misuse of language to speak about incompatible domains, an apples to oranges error.  This explanation is unlikely to sit well with those who cling to the belief of a "ghost in the machine," a homunculus who sits in the head (or heart) and drives the vehicle of our body.  For these believers, an eternal soul is obvious. Buddhist blogger Stephen Schettini posed the question "What if everything doesn't happen for  reason?"  This leads to some very interesting conclusions, such as a psychological chaos theory that eliminates humans as the center of creation.

It's the doldrums now between school terms so I have the time and inactivity to ponder such questions.  Despite a vow to withdraw from an obsession with U.S. news, I've timed my days to coincide with the campaign debates.  And I engage in Facebook disputes over the trouble caused by Israel in the Mideast and the tragedy of Burmese Buddhists killing Muslims in retaliation for Islamic violence against Buddhists across the border in Bangladesh.  I've been labeled an anti-Semite for my criticism by an old friend from high school as well as someone I once worked with in Hollywood forty years ago.  Another one-time friend blocked me after I wrote that it was nonsense to believe Jews and Arabs had equal rights in Israel.  Here in Thailand, cautioning against revenge and urging compassion for Muslim terrorists is not always welcomed.

The persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma is a good example of "otherisation," a term for the demonisation of the other proposed by Kathleen Turner in her book on cruelty which she discusses in a new three-part British TV series with Richard Dawkins, "Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life." Dawkins was at his best in the first program when arguing for a secular morality based on the human disposition of empathy.  We don't need a god and eternal reward or punishment to ground morality, Dawkins says, because humans are hard-wired for kindness.  All it takes is a widening of our circle to include empathy for others beyond our tribe.  The old tribal exclusions can be abandoned in a secular world.

Perhaps.  But I never thought the conflicts today were primarily about religious differences.  It's mostly fighting over land.  The establishment of the state of Israel was done at the expense of the previous owners and the residents of Palestine have struggled for 60 years to right this fundamental wrong.  At the last presidential debate, Obama and Romney argued over who loved Israel more.  Just as in the first debates, no one mentioned the poor, in the final debate no one defended the occupied and oppressed Palestinians, perhaps the key to why the Middle East remains a powder keg and Americans are universally hated there.

But that's the news junkie talking.  Here in Thailand the rainy season is almost over without any signs of the devastating floods of last year when Nan and I were forced to escape to Phayao for several weeks.  My wife has completed the internship required by her BA program and has only to submit a dissertation to graduate.  The ceremony will be sometime in the new year and family members from upcountry will come to Bangkok to celebrate with gifts of flowers and stuffed animals.  Nan was invited to participate in another ASEAN student exchange (she went to Brunei last December), but was bumped from the Bali list and then told that accommodations could not be found for the next choice in Penang, Malaysia.  So we have a month to gather warm clothes together for our Christmas trip to Seoul, Korea.

It certainly seems like I can choose from among the alternatives life presents.  Granted, the last divorce was not my choice, but probably my misdeeds made that inevitable. And the result was certainly favorable for me.  I chose to visit Thailand back in 2004, to move here permanently five years ago, and to marry the woman with whom I now share a life that is wonderful beyond my wildest dreams.  That our age difference has upset my children to the point where they no longer wish to stay in contact was beyond my control.  I cannot fathom why they fail to share my joy.  Choices that I made to neglect my knee and teeth are coming back to haunt me.  In general, aging is a downhill slide and it's futile to fight it.  It must be enough that I swim several times a week and that my wife feeds me healthy meals.  Living forever is not an option.

Nevertheless, I lean toward the view that will and the mind are imaginative byproducts of a brain that developed because humans who told satisfying stories of explanation were more fit to survive.  Plato was wrong.  It's the poets and storytellers (and we're all scribblers) who make life worth living.

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