“My first act”

Yesterday’s CoPhi topic, free will, blended pretty seamlessly into the “molecules of emotion” in Happiness. I posed a question as to whether our ease and familiarity with the language of chemical contentment – dopamine, serotonin, oxytociun, re-uptake inhibitors and the like – didn’t signal some sort of surrender to a model of mind that wouldn’t sustain belief in free will.

Does it bother you to think of your happiness being governed by the “molecules of emotion”? Is this an objectionably reductive way of understanding subjectivity and the mind, or merely a strategically useful handle on one’s state of well-being? Does it over-objectify experience, or imply a deterministic worldview at odds with your notion of free will?

I couldn’t find anyone who admitted to any unease of this sort, or who really even understood the question. That might indicate excessive and misplaced concern on my part. Or, it might just be a feather in the cap of neuroscience, and more evidence of its success in planting a paradigm of inhospitality to indeterminism.

Turning to a less abstract approach, I solicited practical advice for how to trip those happy-making molecules at will, as it were. We must believe that, at least, to be a reasonable aspiration. Why else study the conditions of happiness, if not to learn their application in everyday life? What other “inner work” could we be talking about, when we talk about choosing happiness?

No one really came up with anything much beyond pharmacology, which again reinforces the model of mind I find problematically reductive. So we moved on to discuss “rumination” and how it differs from healthy reflection. We chewed on that, most of us, while ambling about campus in the rays of late afternoon: always the best medicine.

The key, it seems to me, remains the old concept of attention. When William James “just about touched bottom,” then pulled himself up by his and Charles Renouvier’s bootstraps, he was at full attention.

“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” 

Is free will an illusion? I too assume it need not be. But let’s assume the choice is yours.

6:30/6:39, 67/74

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