free will

the day before your birthday is actually more interesting in some ways than your birthday, i mean the day before you were born. there was a version of the world in which you didn't exist (and there will be again). in my case the last day on which this world existed was exactly 63 years ago. wouldn't it be more interesting to celebrate the anniversary of the last day that there was a world without you in it? humans are much too focussed on their own existence and this leads to existential crises and personality disorders. perhaps we could start a tradition on the day before our birthdays of lamenting the passing of a world in which we didn't exist, where we consider how thin our existence actually is and how slight the difference is between a world in which you apparently exist and one in which you don't.

the people in the house i live in have been trying to extract the date of my birthday from me because they feel obliged to celebrate it but i am uncomfortable with obligatory birthday celebrations and wishes. one dear friend in australia who is 84, relying purely on his unreliable memory, sends me birthday greetings on some random day during the year and i love it but i am more inclined to think lamentations rather than celebrations are the appropriate response to one's birthday because it is one's birthday that marks the beginning of the Situation which you either do or do not begin the Work of trying to unravel at some later point, many years later. so there is an idea : maybe each year we should celebrate the anniversary of the day on which you started the Work, if you remember the date — that is if you have begun doing the Work, and if not, why not?

the odious oliver burkeman recently stopped publishing his regular dull and irritating columns in the grauniad/observer for which i was immensely grateful but then he pops up again with a long read about the never-ending 'free will debate' such as it is featuring the usual suspects, sam harris, daniel dennett and so on, but there is a new name : saul smilansky, a professor of philosophy at the university of haifa in israel, who is an advocate of what he calls “illusionism”, the idea that although 'free will' as such doesn't exist, it’s crucial people go on believing otherwise:

“On the deepest level, if people really understood what’s going on – and I don’t think I’ve fully internalised the implications myself, even after all these years – it’s just too frightening and difficult,” Smilansky said. “For anyone who’s morally and emotionally deep, it’s really depressing and destructive. It would really threaten our sense of self, our sense of personal value. The truth is just too awful here.”

the problem with the hypothesis that there is no free will is that it doesn't go far enough, not only is there no free will, you have no control over anything, other than hopefully over your bowels and bladder and over what comes out of your mouth (hey verbal hygiene now there's a concept!) but i guess our new friend from the university of haifa is also in favour of illusionism there.

and last but certainly not least, the idea that you don't actually exist at all and i can easily guess what an illusionist (oh wait) would say about that.

blue pill anyone?

which brings me to your question, dearest L., upon which i shall ruminate on my morning walk but let me assure you that it is not because you are a baby. 🙂