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Does our 'inner animal' drive the bus?

February 25, 2007|by ALLAN R. POWELL

An oft repeated aphorism might be in need of revision. "Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them." A pessimistic revisionist now asserts that "The lesson of history is that we don't learn the lessons of history." Would we be justified in an angry outburst of, "you're wrong - you're just dead wrong!"?

Such a retort could only be made on the assumption that we, as intelligent beings, can exercise the will to alter events as the consequence of informed judgment. Do we have "free" will or is such a capability an illusion?

Philosophers, seers, prophets, psychologists and politicians have been apologists for freedom or determinisms of one variety or another for ages without agreement. The intuition of the "average" person is that each individual is "free" to choose the course of action they think proper for the situations they face. This, of course, is not the case when in court and great pains are taken to prove they were totally devoid of another choice.


In any case, is the sense of "feeling free" an adequate proof that we are actually free agents? Arrayed against this popular perception is a host of bright and informed persons who have doubts - doubts that are grounded upon in-depth studies of human behavior.

Maureen Dowd, in an excellent article in the New York Times (Jan. 6) quotes several learned writers who are convinced that our confidence in the reality of this trait is an illusion and that "the more you scrutinize it (free will), the more you realize you don't have it."

Indeed, one authority quoted went so far as to assert that "a bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control."

If this should turn out to be the human condition, we can expect a troubled future.

Supposing this debate to be taking place in philosophy 101, we could go back and forth ad nauseam and no settled conclusion would be demanded nor expected. However, we are faced with a national decision as to what the most rational, humane and ethical choices should now be made in an ill-conceived war in which there are few, if any, good choices.

If we reflect on the relevant past we recall that a president (Johnson) gave a deliberately distorted report of a minor event in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify a sad misadventure in Vietnam. A "surge" to "victory" failed and we effected a humiliating withdrawal.

We are now repeating this scenario in Iraq. Again we were presented flawed and extremely exaggerated information to justify a war of choice. To follow the parallel further, we are again asked to permit a "surge" to "victory." In all probability we will not get the result we want, while the people of Iraq will bear the burden of death and destruction.

If we had the professed "free" will that we so fervently defend, would we not decide in favor of ending a behavior that is visibly self-destructive, hurtful and irrational? How many American and Iraqi people have to be sacrificed before we alter a pathological course of conduct?

On the social level, the view that individuals are governed more by their animal id than by their rational ego leads to the conclusion that, collectively, we are a mental institution with the inmates in charge. This gloomy analysis is not palatable to a more sanguine temperament.

Maureen Dowd, with good reason, has expressed doubt as to whether our leadership in Washington is endowed with "free" will. They do indeed appear to be actuated like puppets by unseen strings - helpless to alter the sequence of the drama of which they are a part. Maybe Sartre is right. We are all akin to the three hapless creatures that are trapped in the run-down mansion from which there is "no exit."

These three misfits represent all mankind who relentlessly insult, abuse and hurt each other with no apparent ability to refrain from their depraved conduct.

Sartre concludes that hell is not a future event of fire and brimstone. It is now, and "hell is other people." Do you really think we are in charge?

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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