Sunday, July 22, 2012

Happy holiday

It’s summertime now (as you see, I live in the northern hemisphere), so everybody is on the move, at least in Europe, or at least in the Netherlands. And those who haven’t yet gone will go during the weeks to come. There is a name for this mass migration: holiday. In my country, hardly anybody stays at home during the summer, and if you belong to the 20% that stays at home you have to explain why. You are too old or you are ill, or you don’t have the money for it. Or you prefer to travel in a quieter season (but then, you do go, albeit in another time of the year). Or you have to take care of someone. Anyway, you must have a reason not to go and not a reason for going.
But why do we go? Actually, what we do not say is that we go because everybody goes, for we are one of the herd, like cows. No, we go, we say, because it is good for us to smell another atmosphere. Or because we want to take a break from our boring job. Or we go in order to see other worlds or worlds that are a bit different; of course not too different for then we can get ourselves too easily into unpleasant situations or it can even be dangerous. An adventure is nice but not too much of it. And because the Netherlands is a small country, most of my compatriots have at least some adventure, for most Dutch spend their holidays abroad.
Back home from a tour, not too adventurous but a little bit, or after a few weeks spent in a holiday home, in a hotel, or on a camping site, far away from the daily worries, it is too be expected that we’ll feel relaxed. Fresh for a new start with enough energy for bridging the time till our next holiday, which can be already as soon as two or three months later for some. Alas, reality is different. For many people holiday is the basis of a depression. After a few weeks away from home, people often have problems to find back their normal routines, the so-called post-holiday syndrome. It would be normal if it would last only a few days, for haven’t we left a situation of happiness behind us and exchanged it for a state of unhappiness? But things are not as simple as that. For some the post-holiday depression can last for weeks, forgetting the happy things they also experienced before they went away (and there were a lot of them). Moreover, the depression is pure. It’s is not because of a looking back at the happy time they had on holiday, remembering the new things they have discovered, or how they had been taken up by local people. It’s not a depression caused by a paradise lost they remember. No, they are depressed just because they are depressed, which in the worst cases goes together with physical complaints. And some people that, when still on holiday, had taken the decision to change their lives just don’t do it when back home. They have forgotten their idealistic plans, they do not have the courage for it, or they are absorbed again by the daily routine. Oh no, this is not entirely true: some people decide to divorce. After each summer the number of divorces increases.
In view of this, one wonders why so many people go on holiday, year after year. Why they plan a depression, by way of speaking, for they can know that it will come, from experience. It is as if they see only one solution for ending it: taking another holiday. And so the cycle goes on.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The illusion of the free will problem

In the free will discussion – the discussion whether man is substantially free or whether his/her actions are determined in some way – generally man is seen as free when two conditions apply. The first one is that I must have several options to choose from, and the second one is that the choice I make must also be really my choice, in the sense that I am not determined to choose for one of the options I theoretically have. The extreme case of determination is that everything happens as it happens, including men’s actions, from the Big Bang onward: it’s impossible that the world and everything in it would have developed differently once it has started.
Much has been said about whether we have or haven’t a substantially free will, but now I don’t want to talk about that. Let’s just suppose that man is free in this sense and that the two conditions apply. As for me, I think this is so, at least to a certain extent. But what does it mean to us? I see here an analogy with what Wittgenstein wrote in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and what I quoted already in another context (see my blog dated August 2, 2010): “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life have still not been touched at all.” (id. 6.52) Here we see the same: If man is substantially free and if this freedom is not, for instance, an illusion, as some say (like Wegner in his famous book), does this involve that man is also free in the concrete situations s/he is in? As the case in my last blog makes clear, even if we can say that we are substantially free, even then the practical question whether we are actual free has not yet been answered. For although in the abstract I am as much or as little free as my neighbour, in practice there is a difference. In reality our freedom is enlarged or limited by the factual options of the situation plus our personal psychological make-up. Also in case we are free in the substantial sense and in case this freedom is not an illusion, it doesn’t imply that we are free in our actual actions, even if we feel so. Free will is a multilayered concept, and at the moment that all our substantial questions have been answered, our practical questions remain. That’s what life is about (and some other philosophy, too).

Monday, July 09, 2012

Choice and freedom

Suppose that I am a poor man; or rather, I am not really poor, but a car is beyond my means. When I want to go somewhere, I always use a bus, the train or another means of public transport, or I take my bike or I simply walk. I have no problems with it, for walking or riding a bike is good for my health and taking a bus or train is better for the environment than using a private car. Now I have to go to a town nearby, because I want to go to a lecture in a conference room near the central railway station. I take the train, which brings me within fifteen minutes to this station, and from there it is just five minutes walking to the conference room. All in all it takes me less than half an hour to attend the lecture.
My next-door neighbour is a rich man. He is quite an arrogant person and I don’t like him much and he doesn’t like me, so we never exchange more than a greeting. My neighbour has an expensive car and never takes a bus, the train or another means of public transport for going somewhere. The bike in his garage has become rusty, because it is already ages ago that he used it. Moreover, he is the type that likes it to drive around in his car so that everybody can see that he can afford such an expensive one. When I have taken my seat in the lecture room, to my surprise I see my neighbour a few rows in front of me. I had not thought that he is also interested in a lecture on the free will. Anyway, I am happy that there was no chance to meet him in the train, because I am sure that he has taken his car. Undoubtedly he has an aversion against taking the train. I guess that it has cost him an hour or so to come here: About half an hour to drive to the centre of the town. Once there he needed, I think, another fifteen minutes to look for a parking place, and then he had to walk, say, ten minutes to the conference centre.
When the lecture has finished my neighbour sees me, nods as a greeting and walks outside, while I take the door to the passage that connects the conference room with the railway station.
Which man is freer: My neighbour or I?

Monday, July 02, 2012

Our situational mind

In my blog last week we have seen another instance of how important the situation is for what we do: In a certain sense it is the situation that steers the mind and so what we do. Of course, I do not want to say that only the situation steers our actions, but to a certain degree – and maybe to a high degree – it does. I think that most of us have an image of man, and especially of himself or herself, as a rational being finding his or her way through the world by his or her own choice as long as s/he isn’t hindered by other persons or by physical obstacles and the like. But is that a correct picture? If it was, why then would I have a creative block sometimes, for instance, that I can push away by changing my physical environment for a moment, for example by taking a cup of coffee or walking a few minutes in my garden? If I really had my creative actions in my own hands, why then couldn’t I reshuffle the data in my head or see them from a wider or more abstract perspective on my own, while just staying in my study? No, sometimes we have to change our environment for being able to go on. I think that this is just one instance that shows that the situation guides our actions and doings, at least for a part. Saying it succinctly: It’s not we who find our way through a situation but it is the situation that finds the way for us.
In my blogs we have met more instances that support my thesis. One of the most extreme ones has been described and analyzed by Philippe Zimbardo. While not denying that everyone is responsible for his or her own actions, Zimbardo showed that we do many of the cruel things we do because the situation makes us act that way. But the opposite is also true: Most heroes are not heroes by heart but because the situation made them to behave like a hero (more in my blog dated March 14, 2011). We get the same “situational effect”, as I could call it, when we place a person in a dull, non-stimulating environment. The most extreme case of such an environment is a room with white painted walls and without a window but only a single bulb on the ceiling. When a person stays long enough in such a room, s/he becomes mad. In other words: We need stimuli from the environment, anyhow, in order to survive but once they happen to a lower or to a higher degree these stimuli guide also the way we survive, so the line our actions follow, for the better or for the worse. The logic of our actions follows the logic of the situation. However, as I explained at the end of my last blog, once we are aware how creativity works we can create creativity. Here we have an analogue case. Once we are conscious of the way the situation influences us, we can employ this for influencing the situation and for avoiding the pitfalls the situation has dug for us, and bend the situation to our wills … as far as it goes.