Thursday, October 28, 2010

Will Thinking in Pop Culture

I have felt pushed into a prison of disconnect with pop philosophy. This can lead down paths so promising, only to be destroyed by pseudo-science, superstition, and religiosity. Most obviously this is “The Secret”, that best seller of self delusion, and Deepak Chopka, the man most responsible for teaching the world the the words quantum mechanics, without having the slightest idea of what he is talking about. I know that I, and thousands of bloggers, make this complaint so often that we have become like street corner preachers, who are unheard even though they boom their voices through megaphones and amps. This blog however is not about this, but rather about signs that American culture may be as polarized as American politics. This is actually a relief to me, as I have not heard scientific reason applied to popular culture in any major way in a long time. The practitioners  of the movement I mention above I will refer to as the willful thinkers. They tie various unrelated elements in science, which they don’t understand, into a basic theory that puts free will in a more powerful place in society than it has ever been historically. Never before have people connected neuro-science, physics, and free -will in such broad ways as this. This type of self determination likely has some commercial motives, like convincing people to use a lot of credit on useless books, because they are capable of earning enough money to pay it back. Or it could be politically motivated in order that people feel they are never stuck in despair, but instead vote for candidates that promise that they will change things. It basically puts the responsibility for happiness and success on the individual by some spiritual connection with a universal energy. The reasoning goes that even if your individual energy is limited, your will can allow you access to a larger life force that can aid in success. This is a lot of science-like talk which really is just explaining free will the same way it is explained, rather unconvincingly to me, in the Bible.  

There are books that I consider rational alternatives to this thought, but they have significantly less readership. Just this week though I had two examples, one light of substance but entertaining, and the other much more profound. "Fringe" last week had this compelling plot line, where (in a parallel universe, but that is not so important) a man was on a drug trial designed to increase the intellectual range of very low IQ people. The trial worked better than expected, and this particular man ended up being hundreds of times more mentally capable than other humans. I know that already it seems hypocritical for me to blame the will thinkers for scientific faking, when the entirety of “Fringe” is so clearly unscientific. This is the case with this episode, as I don’t feel that there is a superpower capability of the human brain, but still this provided a nice metaphor on free will. The character was not only smart, but extremely proficient in probability, so much so that he could predict the future of events. In other words he understood the deterministic nature of existence and to connect the dots from the past and present out into the future.  This is more thought provoking than the average prime time sci-fi episode. It makes us think about a relevant question: how much information would we, or a computer, need to have in order to statistically know future events? That then leads to the question of whether, if such events can be mathematically predicted, there is any role for free-will.

The other deeper look at free-will, is the large, and brilliant new novel “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen. It is  the story, through various perspectives, of a woman, a family and the the ideals of recent generations. There is too much here to talk about, other than to refer back to the title “Freedom” where we see Franzen’s characters forever unable to escape the past in order to create an independent future. They are, like all of us, trapped by causality, and therefore freedom itself alludes them.

It may be that the answers, such as will thinking, are the most satisfying, which is why they may always remain in society. That said, a slow enlightenment seems to have risen on the horizon of mainstream culture, at least enough to start making us all question what it means to be free.