Reading for Thursday, June 25

Well, here we go – Tolstoy delves even further into free will. Sadly, having left this since last week, it’s now even harder to pick up the thread, but I’ll do my best.

Basically, he’s talking about how we have this dual tension between seeing that the world is run by immutable laws (assuming that you’ve bought everything he’s said so far) and thus we have no real free will. However, we perceive we have free will . . .

…depending on how much we know about our relation to the external world, time and causes.

1. External World – so if someone grows up in external circumstances (such as you grow up in a rough neighbourhood with drug addict parents), then we’d say you have little free will if you became a criminal. If, however, you grew up in the good part of town – then we’d say you exercised free will in deciding to be a drug pusher.

2. Time – If you committed a crime a long time ago, we can kind of see the events that led to it. If you did it 5 minutes ago, it’d seem completely out of the blue.

3. Causes – if we understand all the events that led to something, we don’t attribute it to free will. If we do, then we are less likely to say someone had a choice about something.

Does all this make sense? What he’s really saying is that, in his view of the world, while it might seem like we have free will at any particular point, or it might look like someone else did, the more we understand about their environment, the more distance from the events, and the more we understand the causes behind things, the more we can explain everything away as being inevitable.

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One thought on “One-Year War and Peace E2.9 – External World, Time and Causes

  1. As always Matt, it’s good to have you back – and you’re right: it can be a lot harder picking up the flow of these chapters when you have a biggish break in between them. But, as I recall my reading of this chapter a few weeks ago, I thought at the time that here Tolstoy was getting to the crux of his explanation for te dichotomy between the freedom we think we have, and the scientific laws that in fact govern the way history unfolds. I guess, like so many theories and ideologies about humanity and the world, this is one that can sometimes seem a bit hard to take when we think of it in its extreme. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t have a strong point to it which, even if you don’t accept the full argument, makes a lot of sense – and that is, when we view events too subjectively, then we will always be at risk of not understanding them properly. To understand how human beings really grow and change and act and behave, we need to place ourselves at a distance, and we need to study them, and their history, in its totality. Even if you believe that free will is more than just the illusion that Tolstoy descriobes it as, his argument for the bigger picture is a pretty compelling one.

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