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Shiny boots

Have you ever experienced a moment when you feel that your existence if worthless? That even though you might be a good at your profession, and good in this and that roles of your life, yet fundamentally you are inferior as a person? Have you been disturbed by a feeling that even when all of your life goals are rational, in the bottom of it all everything is existentially void and without any meaning? If so, have you considered getting shiny leather boots?

The heck what? Shiny leather boots don't have anything to do with the existential void! To have or not to have boots doesn't make one better or worse as a person. There is no way ones inner worth of existence would depend on those boots. Right? Well, I don't know, but when I was a school-kid, I remember a teacher telling an old story about a man named Pauno who constantly complained that he feels himself as a worthless piece of cow manure, and if he only got a pair of shiny leather boots then he would be considered A Real Man, then his personal existence would be justified, his dignity restored. (And, thinking of it in this way, there seems to be hints of that kind of thought pattern in some aspects of our consumerism culture... Buy this, it will boost your self-esteem!).

Seen from a more general point of view, would say that there are two kinds of questions. Empirical ones, and existential ones. Empirical ones can be answered by empirical evidence. "Ilkka has shiny new leather boots" is an empirical statement, and can be verified by taking a look at Ilkka, observing him on different days walking around wearing those shiny new leather boots. Well, existential questions are bit more tricky, because they deal with non-tangible things like "the meaning of it all", "the worth of my personal existence", or "dignity". These are felt inside ones own personality, not observed in the external reality. But, quite often, these two layers get mixed. Existential questions are very tricky to grasp, to comprehend, and to express. It is easier to wrap them into tangible symbols. And now we can see that for Pauno the shiny leather boots had become a symbol of dignity and self-worth.

So, what do you think? Was it really so that Pauno's life was worthless because he didn't have those boots? Or would you suggest Pauno to reconsider the symbolical value of leather boots? In any case, I'd guess that for Pauno it won't be humanly possible to see the leather boots as mere items without any symbolical meaning - unless he first finds that same symbolical meaning elsewhere. But things like these, they can't be quickly and easily changed by a simple rational decision. Typically, if one sees a strong symbolical meaning in X, no amount of rational reasoning is going to convince the person that X is a 'mere thing without that symbolical value'. So, existential questions can only be answered on the level of symbols, spiritual experiences, or by slow but steady process of inner change - things like that, which take place in human life, but yet they can't be proven by a line of rational argumentation.

And, I think this pretty much frames the question of The Free Will. Once it becomes an existential question, it isn't very effective to try to provide a dust-dry theoretical solution. Rational arguments do only so little to convince the existential soul on the quest for Meaning. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, me thinks. But, since I've been asked about my personal opinion, I'll do my best to express my views, both on the empirical level and on the existential level. Let's start with the empirical level. If human body is entirely made of atoms, and all the movement of atoms is determined by laws of physics, then in the fundamental sense of the word we don't have a free will, but we are just a piece of machinery, right?

In an earlier post I used an example of rolling a dice. If I cast a dice, I can't say what side will end facing up. The result is random, and there is 1/6 probability for any given number to occur. This is the way it works, on the level of daily reality. Although, we might think that since the dice is made of atoms, and all the movement of atoms is determined by laws of physics, it would be theoretically speaking possible to calculate the result of the roll, if we knew all the necessary values, measured in exact detail. It is just that on the practical level this makes no difference, since it isn't possible to take all those necessary measurements, and even if it was, it would still take complex calculations for a super computer to reach a solution - which would still be likely to fail if there is a 0.0001% error in any of the measured variables. OK, can we agree on this? I hope so. But does a dice have a free will, then? That if we rolled a dice down the slope of Mount Everest, it would be so incredibly complex calculation to estimate the outcome - yet no-one assumes that somewhere in that complexity hides a free will of the plain ordinary dice. And I agree with that.

But a human brain, it is not made of isolated dices. It is a complex network of neurons, processing information on multiple levels at once. (And if you ask me, it is very likely that it is not the brain alone, but other organs participate in the vital information processing.) I know a computer is a bit risky metaphor - but still, we usually think that what happens inside the microprocessor is determined by laws of physics. And the processor is so constructed that it processes just a series of ON / OFF stuff, streams of 1 and 0, performing logical operations on those. Yet, with this relatively simple infrastructure it is possible to build a system which runs a complex algorithm. For example, a path-finding algorithm examines different options, and based on certain criteria makes decisions that which direction to take the next, when trying to find a path from the origin to the destination. So, the question is, if we'd keep on adding more and more complex layers of information processing, would the system at some point start to display behaviour typical of The Free Will?

From a programmer's point of view, I'd like to emphasize that the central feature of human information processing is self-regulation. We store memories. We form opinions. We judge and we reason. We examine different options based on our previous experience, based on our fears and wishes, hunches and guesses. In a fundamental sense this is different from the complexity of a single dice rolling down a mountain. As, what happens to that dice, affects only that dice itself. But what happens inside the neural network of human brain, it constantly affects other areas of that network. It is all about connections between neurons, and they create self-regulating circuits. And, if you ask me, they are complex enough that eventually those information processing circuits just form a sense of "I am here, and my personality is like this", and that "Now I have options A, B, and C to choose from, and no external entities are forcing me, so I am free to decide." And even "Woops! I don't know where this came from, but suddenly an option D popped into my mind. I don't know if anyone has ever before heard of this! Maybe I am an genius, and I invented something completely new!"

So, am I saying that "The Free Will" is just an illusion, a mere feeling created by a machine made of neurons? And this, I think, is where we start to drift from the empirical level to the existential level. That is indicated by words like "illusion" and "mere", which aren't strictly empirical, but carry an existential evaluation of "worth" or "meaning". Namely, that "mere" is something less, inferior, not worth that much. Like a pebble of sand, mere matter with no soul, no dignity.

Ah well, for me, this is the core of the problem. If I look at a pebble of sand, for me it is not "mere", in no way is it "inferior", or "worth less". For me, a pebble of sand is a miracluous mystery expression of the deep essence of The Universe. Just like everything is. Everything is awesome, great, and full of meaning. Yeah, I know thins like these are beyond rational argumentation. And in no way I am telling that my way of experiencing the world should be universally adopted. I'm just trying to express in words something about the way I feel and think, but of course everybody is free to feel and to think in their own ways =)

So, I think we humans are special in the sense that we are capable of complex and detailed cognitive reasoning. (Although, just reading the youtube commments of UnReal World trailer makes one feel that so many people use their Free Will to avoid using their rational and cognitive capabilities, and prefer to put into words what hormone-driven rams do physically when they fight in the autumn mating season... I've seen those animals fight to death just trying to find out that "who is the boss here, who is superior and who is inferior". We humans seem to be no special in that way. A lot of the time we seem to be doing the same, just using words (and sometimes considering using the nukes, just because that is so cool, so cool man!) But in my world, we humans are not special because of some assumed Free Will which would set us apart from the material machinery of nature. And I don't know which way it is. In a way, I think that if a human brain is capable of making free decisions, then most likely also a horse is, and also sheep, ravens, frogs, pikes and burbots. And probably also amoebas and leycocyte cells. If those organisms are complex enough to evaluate sensory data and to adjust their behaviour to approach favourable conditions and to avoid unfavourable situations, then I see no reason to assume, that some of that information processing might fulfill the conditions we typically think of "The Free Will" - ie. "being able to choose the other way, not being forced to just railroad down a predetermined path". Moreover, a leycocyte cell seems to act on purpose. Some of those cells are specialized in destroying other micro-organisms considered malicious. A leycocyte has a purpose to fulfill. It's actions contribute towards the overall health of the whole body. And, I think this is the kind of a deep existential sense of Meaning we humans often seem to look for. Having a deep unquestioned feeling that our personal existence and our actions carry on towards something bigger and transcendent. (I'm assuming that from the point of view of a single leycocyte the whole human body appears as some kind of transcendent entity, too big to comprehend, yet somehow affecting and taking care of everything.)

Now let me guess. My explanation is not satisfying. I'm just saying "somehow" and "complex" and "maybe" - am I trying to ignore the simple basic question? Do I pretend that a machine made of atoms is not a machine? So, let's go back to the empirical side of it. I think it is helpful to remember that the whole paradox of The Free Will is a moral one, and in the western tradition it is greatly affected by Christian theology. In its Christian from the question is: "OK, so after you die, you are taken to God, who then will evaluate your actions. If you have done bad things, you go to Hell, but if you have done good things, you get to Heaven. Then, at the same time, we also teach that The God is omnipotent, has created everything, and knows everything, and sees the future. Logically, doesn't this then mean, that God already knows what you are going to do and to choose? That you can't choose to do something which The God didn't already plan for you. And what kind of God is that, who first creates a bunch of bad people and a bunch of good people, and then pretends that the actions and decisions of the said persons warrants them eternal time in Hell or Heaven?" - and in the modern version The God is replaced by entities like The Big Bang and the Laws of Nature. But, if you ask me, we are back to the shiny boots.

The Christian mythology carries the symbolical meaning that 1) "There is Omnipotent Law which Knows Everything and Which Determines Everything". And 2) "That Law is God". Then, the vulgar interpretation of scientific world view preserves the 1), and replaces 2) by "That Law is The Laws of Physics, and the Initial State of The Universe". Which, to me, seems just another mythology which isn't very well rooted in empirical evidence. No, I'm not saying that science is all just fairy tales. I think that the empirical scientific method is very good. It is just that Western science is so very young - and that science is all about the method, not about a static collection of facts and beliefs. By definition, any scientific belief is subject to change, if future evidence shows that old theories have to be overhauled. I'm not a physician, but to me it seems rather plausible to assume that The Universe in itself is a lot more dynamical and alive than the old mechanical view claims.

But, then again, in my personal view, this isn't that much connected to the Free Will. Personally, I don't care that much if the workings of my internal organs are somehow physically predetermined (a lot like I don't judge my self-esteem based on boots I have or don't have). And, ultimately, I think that we can't know for sure if there is a free will or not. So, strictly speaking, I'm not taking sides in this dilemma. In the end, yes, in my eyes the whole question is just some kind of unnecessary by-product of trying to fit the Universe and Existence into descriptions of a mechanical mythology. For me, the answer is not a theoretical explanation of how material body and freedom of will are compatible - for me, the answer is a change of mythology which makes the whole question to vanish away. And yes, I know, at this point we have pretty much exhausted the capability of language to deliver mythological and existential viewpoints =)

So, enough for today. It is 1 am, and tomorrow is a full day of work. I choose to go get some sleep now. And I feel comfortable about not knowing for sure what kind of mysterious wonderful stuff is working there to enable my conscious experience of deciding to crawl to bed. I like things which are mysterious and wonderful, I'm happy to dwell with them. Good night, everybody!

338 users have voted.


Whew! I am not smart enough to respond to this.

Except that yeah, I think it is a shame that many folks feel like science and spirituality are mutually exclusive. Personally I think that they operate within entirely different spheres of the human experience and (if one can think of some things as metaphor rather than literally) can coexist just fine. :D I mean, maybe in the end everything that we "know" (or think we know) is a metaphor within our consciousness anyway, so maybe it is really all the same....

Ok, now I am having an existential crisis. Time for shiny boots. :P

My cat is my shiny boots. Or I mean, hmmmm, I would not make poor kitty into a pair of shoes, even if I may threaten to sometimes when she is bad. XD Just that some kitty-snuggles and purr-pettings are nice for turning off the analytical part of the brain for a while and just relaxing with happy thoughts. :P

Hmmm, now I want to go have a beer and pet Ms Kitty. Talk to you later!

Cheers! I like that kind of replies =)

(yeah, I'm aiming towards the bed. I still need to fill the water container for the horses.)

Wow, a lot to think and digest there... I have started my Philisophy course BTW, but still feeling too stupid to coment anything that makes sense. Anyway, love reading you. ;)

Studying Philosophy, at moments it can feel like just memorizing names and opinions. Like a long list of "This is what Aristotle said", "This is what Descartes said" and so on. And then the advanced stage is just to go deeper into details; "This is what young Wittgenstein said, and this is what he said later on, let's see if and how his opinions changed", or "this is how old Husserl compares to Kant" etc. But, I always felt that hidden in that is the core of studying philosophy; ie. trying to follow the paths of the other thinkers, trying to make sense of their line of thought is a good way to expand ones own cognitive and conceptual horizons.

I hope it is the same with reading my writings. I'm not expecting the reader to agree on everything. This is more like fuel for the fire of thought. Sometimes trying to understand how an another person sees the world, also helps to clarify for oneself the ones own personal way of seeing the world. Sometimes interaction and exchange of thoughts sparks new ideas, opens up new pathways to explore.

Hehe, since I was recently asked also about the TaruPaja interactive story-engine, here I'm now bit kind of thinking that actually TaruPaja could also work for philosophical dialogue. Instead of a pre-defined linear dialogue, I could try writing a dialogue tree, where the reader could make different choices which then lead to different paths of the philosophical dialogue. That might be a lot of writing, but sounds like an interesting idea to me =)

You could make one that uses string theory to explain why every cat that exists, ever existed, or will ever exist, is/was/will be the best cat in the universe. :3

Because cats are awesome. :3

Also, maybe with a little reasoning it can be proven that the entire human race evolved to offer food and shelter for cats. Because that makes the cat lives that much more comfortable! (ie. in case of existential crisis; feed your cat!)

It all starts with feline predators making human lives dangerous, and humans invent agriculture - which lures rats to raid grain stores, and then the cats appear as saviors, providing pest control. And human groups with agriculture + cats soon overpower hunter-gatherers, and so the evolution is driven by the cats, for the cats, because of the cats. Cats are awesome!

I see studying Philosophy rather like a theraphy, instead of going to "cure" my depressive thoughts by going to a psicologist, theraphist or taking medicine. My professor even said today he will tell us about the philosophers and about what they believed and how much they contradicted each other, but he won't tell us his own opinion on them for now. This way we are supposed to have or form an opinion of who we are in the end, and why we have the thoughts we have, how our mind operate etc. Fascinating and cheaper then going to a psycologist really.

That sounds great!

In reading this I'm being lead to think you want to break away from traditional rationale to find a more well rounded perception of "desire." Or perhaps an answer that better fits your needs?
I think it's helpful for me to categorize desire: Intrinsic, Stronger v. weaker, Good-based v. Pleasure-based, Learning-based, Attention-based, or even Action-based. Then there is Occurent desire which feels a lot like naval gazing.

Anyway, if I understand you correctly you perhaps believe that if you can lose some desire then it brings you closer to a spiritual goal perhaps? Perhaps this is what sparks your deep questions?

When I was a teenager, I read couple of books by a Finnish prof. Matti Bergström. He had been studying the brain / psyche relationship, and I found his theories very interesting and detailed. He saw both our brain and psyche involving at least nine spheres, which roughly correspond to the evolution of brain. Bit simplified, the ancient part of brain is concerned with immediate survival, and it is not very good at logical reasoning. And on top of that there are more and more elaborate layers, which have developed later on in the line of evolution. They deal with social relationships etc, until finally, the top layer deals with conceptual theories and logical reasoning.

Well, why I'm telling this, is to describe the roots of my own thinking. Indeed, I do think that "desires" come in many flavours, and in many layers. There are deep, archaic primitive desires - which we basically share with snakes and frogs etc. And then there are social desires, which we pretty much share with other mammals living in herds. And our cognitive mind comes with some desires of it own. Or, to rephrase myself; think of curiosity. To me it seems that there is already some primitive form of curiosity functioning on the primitive level of the brain / mind. Then the higher layers of brain / mind are just adding on top of that - we are socially curious to get to know new herd members etc. And we are intellectually curious to work out a solution to a theoretical question.

And, personally, for me I don't that much label desires as "bad" or "good", "low" or "high". They are different, and have different functions and different roles in our lives.

But, if I think of my father losing his nerve when he found that he had forgotten to pack milk and sugar - to me it seemed somewhat pointless to rage about such a little practical detail. Maybe he had a desire to taste the sweet aroma of coffee with sugar & milk, and then it seems like a natural reaction to get angry when you find out that you can't fulfill that desire. Well, personally, I haven't sought after 'losing some desire', but just seeking other ways of handling my own desires. Nowadays, if I find out that for a reason or another I can't fulfill one of my desires, I don't feel angry or mad about it. I might feel a bit down for a moment, but I contemplate about the situation and see if there is something I can do about it in the future. And if not, then I just go on explore the other areas of my life. Because, personally, I think my own life is easier and more enjoyable if I'm not raging about this and that small things =)

Hmm.. So, basically, to me it seems it goes the other way round. Desires getting re-arranged and transformed is just a natural by-product of walking the spiritual path. What happens, happens by itself. One day I was a quick-tempered ill-habited kid who took pride in being verbally fluent to mock and to ridicule others. Then I realized that it isn't a very admirable mode of behaviour. So I spent more time reflecting on my own emotions, and just kept walking on the inner path. And slowly, I have seen myself becoming more patient, kind, and friendly, and less driven by a mixture of unfocused desires.

It is this what I think about, on those moments couple of winter ago, when I saw myself losing the control into a moments of problem gambling. For me, the solution is not to get rid of a desire to win a jackpot. For me, the solution is not to seek stricter self control. In my way, the solution is to take better care of being present, a sense of being myself. And then, the more deeper I feel present and focused, the easier it is to choose ways of refreshment when being over-tired after a long day of work.

Now, if we take this back to the idea of nine layers of mind / brain - I think I've been seeking better connections and better communications between these spheres. So that primitive instincts and intellectual reflection and everything in between could smoothly co-operate to co-ordinate my life =)

Hey that's pretty cool.
My father loses his cool over little things too. He takes it out on everybody! It might be abusive, but I'm not the sensitive type and I can brush it off pretty easily without going on Oprah's show. I like to think it's the harsh viking blood in my veins. Haha!
Still losing one's cool can seem pretty darn primitive, right?

I think as a result of my fathers reactions I have tried to discipline my desires; perhaps much in the way you have done.
Discipline, in terms of getting "shiny boots" I might covet the boots first, then become disappointed for not being able to get them. To cope with "not getting them" I would conjure up my own reasons for not being able to get them. In part, this was so I would not react irrationally like my father might, but also it helped me break free from a harsh reality that I just might not have what it takes to get shiny boots! Shiny boots being buxom wenches, financial stability or even heaven when I die.

Very though provoking, Erkka. There's a lot to chew on and discuss here. Thanks to your skill at writing I can see that your thoughts work in a similar way to mine, with some exceptions of course.
I think you are really on to something with the analogy to computers and the idea of greater complexity of calculations eventually reaching a sentinent or self-aware state. I think our human brains are in fact such complex systems. The physical world in and around us seem to follow rules which even the brightest minds have not yet fully discerned and never will. The atoms we are made of are mostly empty space but yet here we are as gravity holds us on the planet and holds us in orbit around a star at exactly the best distance and so on. There seems to be an ascending system inherent in the makeup of the universe. Consider that the planet Jupiter is just barely short enough on mass to become a brown dwarf star. It seems that when something reaches enough mass, enough gravity, enough complexity, enough of “X”, it reaches the next phase.
On the subject of free will, I think a good chunk of evidence for it's existence is that fact that we have made such a mess of our world and of the time we have had here. There are murders, assaults, wars, greed, envy, jealousy, etc. This may sound very off-topic but consider that nature has no garbage. Nature left to itself is a perfect system in which there is no waste. Everything is recycled and used for something else, eventually. The fact that we have free will is best evidenced by the fact that we in many cases choose to go against the natural resulting in harm and waste to ourselves, others and the nature around us. There are many other cases I can make for free will, but this is a good starting point. The more you study nature the more you see how very perfect it is at it's inner core. With all this said, I feel that we would be remiss to forget that we are not only physical but also spiritual entities and the two are intertwined. I know this may spark a good deal of debate, but hey, It's what I believe and perceive after my 40+ years of comtemplation.
On the God thoughts you expressed, I feel the need to express an alternate viewpoint. You visioned that , “In its Christian from the question is: "OK, so after you die, you are taken to God, who then will evaluate your actions. If you have done bad things, you go to Hell, but if you have done good things, you get to Heaven.” I think this is partly accurate but it leaves something critical out of the equation. We have ALL done bad things, so God sends everyone to hell? No, he provided a solution for us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to die in our place, taking on the punishment we deserved.
You continued, “Then, at the same time, we also teach that The God is omnipotent, has created everything, and knows everything, and sees the future. Logically, doesn't this then mean, that God already knows what you are going to do and to choose? That you can't choose to do something which The God didn't already plan for you.” I think you have it right up to where you said that you can't choose to do something God didn't already plan. This is where free will comes in. Remember we have engaged in war over our human history. That is one example of going against nature, evidence of free will. Successful organisms preserve their race and their numbers, not exterminate and stifle itself. It points to other supernatural influences at work. A battle if you will, outside our normal perception.
You also said, “And what kind of God is that, who first creates a bunch of bad people and a bunch of good people, and then pretends that the actions and decisions of the said persons warrants them eternal time in Hell or Heaven?” I really do see where you're coming from in a logical standpoint, but God never created anything bad, ever. “Badness” is a cancer we are all born with, which affects even physical reality as we know and perceive it. We are born into it. It's source was supernatural and born of a small seed of jealousy.

Ah, just a clarification from my side: It is not my intention to make any statements about God. Those sentences were more like my attempt to briefly summarize the way the question of Free Will was pondered in Christian Theology and Philosophy in Medieval Times. It is about 20 years since I studied history of philosophy from that era, so I can't remember exact references :(

So, my main point was not to say anything about God, but just to trace how the problem got re-phrased in era of Newtonian science and related philosophy.

My personal opinion is that the notion of Free Will is inadequate to describe The Universe and The Existence. So, I'm not here to prove that there is or that there isn't a free will. I believe the whole problem arises because of applying too simple concepts to describe complex phenomenons. So I briefly try to explore those phenomenons in more detail, hoping that the strict dualism of determinism / freedom starts to blur and fade away the closer we look =)

On my tablet and dont have my login pass handy :p
Hey no worries Erkka, thanks for clarifying and I see what you mean. I've always enjoyed your blog because you think freely and dare to ponder and ask big questions. I can't say that of many, friend. I think this kind of discussion is good, healthy even.


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