Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Ultimate GPS

It is self-evident that we are born with a genome package. It is also self-evident that we are born into a pre-packaged culture. What heredity and culture have in common, is that neither of them is in our control at birth. There is one other, less acknowledged, primordial part of us: free will. Many do not accept the existence of free will. However, by definition, determinism invalidates the absolute distinction between volition and the inanimate laws of physics that cause water to boil, evaporate, or freeze.

Contrary to Salvador Dali’s claim, we have no memory of our prenatal life and little memory of our infancy. Even if memories like ‘passing through a window’ at birth are authentic, they tell us nothing about our unique individuality. (Ah, now there’s a word that has come to considerable disrepute during the last fifty years or so!)

Of course we do have some memories of our childhood, especially when they are vivid. In my early childhood, a physician whispered to my father that it would be very dangerous—perhaps fatal—for me to cry when he was to administer a serum into me by injection during a violent episode of coughing due to diphtheria. Having heard what the doctor whispered, to which he added that the family should distract me with action and noisy toys while he punctured my skin, I decided that no matter what, I would not cry. I ignored the family’s ruse, and simply ‘willed’ myself not to cry.

Though this was an example of will, that particular experience has little to do with the most significant function of will: that is, the will to understand, adjust, and consciously assemble a personality that rises above the chance factors of heredity and the pre-packaged society in which you happened to be born.

The extent to which you can rise above those factors varies according to the society into which you are born. For example, if you have the misfortune of being born in a militant communist or theocratic country, or any other prison nation, there are severe limits to your quest for individuality. Millions of people experienced that in Nazi Germany. Millions of women are experiencing that in Iran.

Public show of individual perfection of character is not possible in the fog of political coercion. Morality becomes irrelevant at the end of a gun. Yet, a plethora of stories are told about underground heroism under all forms of national prisons. Having said that, I should like to focus on free will in free nations.

Early in life, there is a critical fork in the road that separates those of us who are active from those who are passive. The latter are in the overwhelming majority. Consciously or unconsciously, they passively follow the safe beat of the societal drum. The drumbeat is at its most hypnotic from their early twenties to their early thirties.

Later in life, they strongly identify with that decade (or so) of their lives—“I’m from the sixties,” “I’m from the eighties,” and so on. Almost imperceptibly, they are frozen into ‘their’ decade in every way that is significant. They may change their wardrobe from season to season, prefer different foods and cars as they age, move about constantly from event to event, but the layers of their opinions remain as rigid as permafrost. Virtually every significant aspect of their lives is based on their decade.

I’ve lived through enough decades to observe this pandemic pattern. Perhaps its most tragic form is perpetuated in academia. It is replayed when parents who are frozen in their decade, pass their ignorance unto their children. When the children are of age for their decade, the parents are perplexed by what appears to be the new generation’s rebellion. At about that time, the parents pay lots of hard-earned money to send their children to college. There, the children believe that they are enlightened by what they are taught by professors who dazzle them with socio-political ideologies. Some of their professors are old; others are about the same age as the students. Either way, the ideologies are devastating to young minds.

In recent years, I’ve seen a very young professor on television whose ideology is as old and flawed as that of Karl Marx. He is still mired in the decades of the early twentieth century. He is a ghost of one of my old professors at New York University. I see these ghosts everywhere. He is at Harvard. He is at Cambridge. He is also part of that overwhelming passive majority, the walking unborn.

The predominant characteristic of the majority is imitative. Without guidance, their lives are embedded in pop culture; their music, their major interests, and their everyday conversations are almost exclusively current. For them, it is almost as though nothing happened before they were born. When their decade has past, it is almost as though nothing happens after it. Having been stifled early in life, their will quickly atrophies during their childhood and is snuffed out by their mid-twenties. They may continue to hear well, but can no longer listen. The profound nourishment to the soul that only the arts can provide may be closed to them forever. By early middle-age, they are left with a life that is little more than habit and nostalgia.

What separates the minority from the majority is not a difference in formal education, intelligence, or experience. The difference is that whereas the majority passively accepts Heredity and Environment as an individual’s totality, the minority actively creates an individual fashioned predominantly by Free Will.

Free will is not subordinate to genes, society, and other forces of chance. It resides within, and resists the ‘disconnect’ imposed by place and time, including one’s age. It is also our exclusive birthright and immediately accessible at all times. We have only to claim that right!

As we cultivate exquisite ethical standards principally derived from honesty and compassion, we are increasingly able to understand the essence of events, others, and ourselves like a gyroscope in a turbulent storm, and steadily maintain our course in life.

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Trigger Happy

We have all witnessed the instantaneous shifting of directions during the flight of a flock of birds. Triggered by the leader of the moment, the birds instinctively follow the leader’s instinct. The same is true of other animals. On the other hand, humans come up short on instinct. Our major engine for survival is mind.

Yet, we are not free from the herd instinct. How else can we explain one-and-a-half-billion hits on a single day for a glimpse of a Bantam Style video. Subsequent to that event, another demonstration of instinct was massively celebrated by a homemade video of an infant who—yet unable to walk—simulated the sustained jumping up-and-down of the adult Bantam Style performers. That’s as basic as herd instinct gets.

For animals, the herd instinct sometimes misfires, as in a stampede that drives them off a cliff. At other times, it saves the herd from certain extinction. So, for them, stampede results are something of a wash. But I never trust the herd instinct in humans. The larger the herd, the greater my mistrust, especially of political herds. 

An unthinkable event in a school occurs. One of the immediate results is a stampede for the abolition of the Second Amendment. Celebrated politicians and entertainers rapidly surface online, on radio, and on television. More often than not, they embarrass themselves with feelings about issues rather than reason. Political celebrities dust off cliché talking points; debaters argue in circles; and entertainment stars reveal their profound ignorance about history and politics. Chris Rock tells us that President and Michelle Obama are our ‘mama and papa,’ and that we should do what President Obama judges we should do about gun ownership. Tony Bennett cites the Nazi hordes as proof that guns should be banned. When we break down their remarks to fundamentals, we find that Chris Rock advises us to revert to the seventeenth century notion of “Mon Dieu et Mon Droit”; Tony Bennett is unaware that the Nazi regime banned guns whenever and wherever necessary to suppress insurrections, especially from Jews.

Both those celebrities spoke to their flocks. Many others have made pro and con statements about gun control and ownership. Virtually all of them lack a sufficient knowledge of history and the discipline of logic to support their views. The imperative public demand for celebrity appearances and their opinions, coupled with severely brief time allocations between commercials, is infertile ground for significant thoughts on major issues. Senators aren’t doing any better. Worst of all, for a species whose primary tool for survival is the mind, we are dangerously relying on political demagogues to lead the flock.

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