Monday, September 26, 2011

Freedom of the will and your career

In the Netherlands (and not only there) a lively debate is going on about the question whether man does or doesn’t have a free will. On the one hand there are those like the brain researchers Dick Swaab and Victor Lamme who deny that we have a free will; on the other hand there are philosophers like Daan Evers, Niels van Miltenburg and others who reply that present research does not substantiate that view. I have discussed the views of Swaab and Lamme before in my blogs and rejected them with about the same arguments as used by Evers and Miltenburg. However, whichever side may be right, both views lead to intriguing questions. Suppose that there is no free will, does this mean then that our will is determined in the sense that if I know the present state of the body and the world around us that we can deduce what this person wants after ten years? If such a “deterministic” determination does not exist (as is defended by some philosophers), what determines then our choices and our criteria for choosing? And “who” applies them? (of course, we can ask the same questions for the birds and other animals in my garden).
But if the will is free, how far does this freedom go? It certainly is not without limits for we are bound by our bodily constitution and the world around us. Freedom of the will can only be a freedom within borders, or, more positively formulated, it is the freedom to choose from a certain number of possibilities according to a certain number of criteria.
The most intriguing question is, of course, whether all this has sense. I mean: either there is a free will and the view that there isn’t cannot change that; or there isn’t a free will and this determines that some people think there is although there isn’t. For would any philosophical idea have an influence on “real life”? Aren’t philosophical ideas just epiphenomena like the other products of our mind, as many neuroscientists and philosophers (Churchland, for instance) tend to think? Maybe they are, but even so, there are indications that the function of the mind is a bit more complicated than just this and that the mind has an important function in steering what we do.
It is not a proof, but that it can be so is suggested in a study by Roy F. Baumeister and others that suggests that certain beliefs can be advantageous for you. For what did they find: “possessing a belief in free will predicted better career attitudes and actual job performance. The effect of free will beliefs on job performance indicators were over and above well-established predictors such as conscientiousness, locus of control, and Protestant work ethic.” (quoted from the abstract on In other words, actually it is not so important whether the will is free or not. Even if it is not free, you can better believe it is, for it is good for your career (and who knows, maybe for other important facts of life as well). And it is better not consider the question of the free will as an interesting academic question, for if you deny that there is a free will, you are less well off than your colleagues who think that there is. So you, readers of my blog, be warned: now that I know this I do no longer defend the idea that the will is free because I believe in it but because it is better for me (supposing that I am free to choose this position, of course). And the already excellent careers of Swaab and Lamme would still have been even more excellent if they had used this information.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Some thoughts on evil in war

Evil is in the eye of the beholder and if we do not see it we create it in our mind, in order to justify why we took action. These are two lessons that one can learn from Roy F. Baumeister’s book Evil. Inside human violence and cruelty. Of course, the second part of this thesis is not true under all circumstances and Baumeister does not say that. Moreover, there are some kinds of behaviour that objectively can be qualified as evil, even when the perpetrator may have a different view. Intentionally murdering innocent people like passersby; the Holocaust... But here I do not want to discuss that. What I do want to discuss is that it often happens that what is evil is constructed in the mind. This can be seen in war, for instance. Wars are fought for many reasons, but it is often difficult to make these reasons clear to the people who have to fight them, whether your reasons are good or whether they aren’t (and whether your reasons are really good is often a point of discussion). But you need the support of your people for you need soldiers. Then there is a simple solution: Depict the enemy as evil. If your enemy is seen as pure evil, you do not need further justification for your war. Success is guaranteed. Undecided loyalties are won over to your advantage.
“Perhaps the most famous example of this in the twentieth century”, as Baumeister calls it, was the British propaganda for getting soldiers in the First World War. And the same approach appeared to be effective in Australia and the USA, for instance. The Germans were depicted as cruel Huns and the allied forces got their troops. That most atrocities ascribed to the “Huns” were extreme exaggerations or simply false seems then an irrelevant footnote for post-war historians, as long as those who became soldiers believed in it. In view of this, it is striking that this image of the Germans as devils almost disappeared, as soon as the soldiers were there, at the front. This is at least the impression, when one reads autobiographic novels and soldiers’ diaries about the First World War. The Germans are often called “Huns”, it is true, but the picture one gets from the novels and diaries (and I have read dozens of them) is not that the French, British, Americans and so on shoot at the Germans because they are evil but because they are the enemy and because, once you are there, you have to defend yourself and kill those on the other side in order to survive. Only German soldiers operating machine-guns and snipers are seen as evil, because they kill so many people and because of the way they do (forgetting that there are also machine-gun operators and snipers on the allied side). Enemy soldiers that flee are not shot down because they are evil but because they can become a future danger, because they are the enemy, and because it is your task to do so (again a case that shows that the situation influences to a large extent what you do). Snow, the soldier in my last blog who killed his first opponent, did it only because he was there to do that, and he got remorse. Reflecting on the incident, Lynch, who describes the situation and who stood next to Snow, calls him even the murderer and the German soldier the victim. Later in the book (and not only in this book) German soldiers killed on the battle field are often called “poor guys”. “Is that civilization?”, one of Lynch’s comrades sighs when seeing all the victims of both sides. Was such a remark to be expected if the enemy was really seen as evil?
All this shows, I think, that evil in a complex situation has different levels of construction. What is considered or presented as evil on one level (in my example: the level of the government) may be reversed on another level (here: the level of the soldiers). Evildoer and victim change positions, so it seems sometimes. “C’est la guerre” (That’s war), Lynch concludes. But is that a sufficient justification?

Monday, September 12, 2011

The banality of war

Australian Memorial, Pozières, Somme region, commemorating the heavy
battle fought by the Australian soldiers when conquering the hill here.

I just finished reading Somme Mud by E.P.F. Lynch. It is an autobiographic novel about the author’s experiences as a soldier on the Western Front of the First World War (so in France and Belgium), although Lynch denied that the novel was about himself. Lynch, an Australian, served voluntarily as a member of Anzac, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. His penetrating descriptions of the fights and the battle fields can be compared with those by Ernst Jünger in his Storm of Steel. You feel yourself in the skin of Lynch, to the extent that such a thing is possible, of course, for you miss the stench and the noise, for instance.
We follow Lynch from his departure from Australia to his first battle on the Somme and then to the other battles he participated in – including the heaviest ones like the battles on the Messines Ridge and near Passendale – till the end of the war, when the front begun to move, the armistice and Lynch’s return to Australia. Lynch became five times wounded but surprisingly, in view of the many very dangerous situations he got through, he survived it, as did his little inner group of comrades, with the exception of one.
I can write a lot about the book, and I can compare it also with other novels of the First World war and with other soldier’s autobiographies, but here I want to bring forward one thing that is related to what I wrote already about in these blogs. The more I came to the end of the book, the more it made me think of what Arendt wrote on the banality of evil and of what Zimbardo wrote on the being situated of what we do: that it is the situation that makes you a devil or a hero. You can see this also in this book, although the situated behaviour did not develop as quickly as it did in Zimbardo’s prison experiment (Zimbardo had to break off his experiment already after six days; see my blog dated March 14, 2011). Here it was a matter of months and years. I read the book in a Dutch translation, so I cannot give verbal quotations, but somewhere at the end, Lynch makes a comparison between civil life and army life: A man does not enter a pub, so he says, in order to become drunk, but once he is there, he does the same as the others do and in the end he becomes smashed. In the army it is not different. A man does not come into action with the intention to kill his fellow man, but with a grenade or a bayonet in his hands he will do exactly the same as his comrades do and he will use them fully. Isn’t there a better description of the fact that the situation makes us do what we do? Of Zimbardo’s conclusion that it are not psychological dispositions that make people behave in an evil (or heroic) way but that it is the situation that brings people that far? Of the banality of evil in Arendt’s sense? (Arendt stressed the wrong side of what we do, but as Zimbardo made clear and as can be seen in Lynch’s book, too, the same is true for heroism).
To take another example, in the beginning of the book, Snow, one of Lynch’s comrades of the inner group, sees a German soldier walking to his line with a pack on his back. It is the first enemy they see. Snow shoots him down but gets pangs of conscience. Later in the book, and especially at the end, all feelings of remorse for killing have gone. Every German who has not surrendered is killed, if possible, including Germans who have left their positions and flee; who want to surrender but haven’t done it quickly enough, and so on. It is no problem to shoot them down. Seeing the killings and the heavy mutilated bodies on the battlefield, one of Lynch’s comrades says: “Is that civilization?”
Yet, most soldiers were conscripts or volunteers – some very young, some older, some already relatively old. They were ordinary civilians, before they went to this war; people who before the war probably never would have  thought that they would be able to participate in such mass killings, or, on the other hand, to run forward into the bullets of the machine guns of the enemy, just because they “had to”. Apparently the situation is stronger than your will, at least often, and Lynche’s book is a good illustration of it.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Our identity and our future

The mainstream of the philosophers who discuss the question what makes up our personal identity defend the so-called “psychological view”, which states that our identity is in our memory and our psychological characteristics: a person’s identity remains the same as long as s/he can still remember past facts of his or her life or as long as s/he remained unchanged in other psychological respects between some point of time in the past and the present. In short, what makes who we are, our identity, is fundamentally in our past. I have talked about this before in my blogs and I have also criticized this view, putting forward that our bodily characteristics are as much important as our psychological characteristics are (and why else give many people so much attention to their body and their physical appearance?). Others point to the relevance of factors like the group you belong to, your profession and work, and so on  that have a more sociological character and that refer rather to what makes you here and now than to what you were, as the factors mentioned in the psychological view do.
But how about our future? This may seem an odd question, and I do not want to say that what happens with you, say, ten years after today is important for your identity now. Nevertheless, it may be that the future has a role in making you. An indication of this is given in a study by the Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, which was mentioned by Richard Sorabji in his Self (here I make use of Sorabji for a part). Luria followed for some 25 years a soldier, Zasetsky, who had lost a big part of his memory through a shot in his brain during the Second World War. His amnesia regarded both parts of his episodic memory and abilities like reading and writing. Since he got the injury Zasetsky, spent all his time to regain his life and what he had lost, to rediscover who he was, and to write his efforts down in a diary. This had become his life’s project.
Does this tell us something about our personal identity? Your memory is important for you, that’s clear, but probably more important for you is what to make of your future. Anyway, as Luria comments here, those of his patients that had lost their ability to plan their future disintegrated far more than those who had lost their memories. At least in order to keep your identity intact, apparently more important for you is making plans for the time to come than preserving what you lived through. An orientation to the future may be more relevant for our identity than being conscious of our past, as the psychological view states.