"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Randomness, Chance, And Genes–Who Said There Is Any Such Thing As Purpose?

In the opening lines of Woody Allen’s Match Point, the narrator and main character of the film says:
The man who said "I'd rather be lucky than good" saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn't, and you lose.
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Chris Wilton murders his lover and her landlady, and later tosses the old woman's stolen jewels into the Thames.  All but her wedding ring make it over the railing.  It is found by the police in the pocket of a dead drug derelict, conclusive evidence that he not Wilton was the murderer.

At first the police suspect Wilton whom they assume killed his lover and murdered the landlady to suggest robbery. Yet because the wedding ring was found on the addict, they close the case against Wilton.  He, by sheer luck, has avoided capture, conviction, and prison.

Most of us believe in purpose.  The myth of free will, propagated by Christianity, is very hard to ignore; and although Christ intended it to be the faculty by which we would choose between right and wrong and be credentialed through correct choice for admittance into the kingdom of heaven, we have inflated its value.  Nietzsche said it best when he averred that the expression of will is the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world.  Most of us , however, are neither Nietzschean Supermen nor men and women of absolute faith; and have simply and facilely assumed that individual choice is unique, specially valued, and insuperable.

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Where on earth did this notion come from?

Tolstoy put The Great Man Theory of history to rest in his Epilogue to War and Peace.  Napoleon’s defeat at Borodino was indeed due to the cold that he caught because of wet, cold feet which resulted because of the forgetfulness of his valet who had been distracted by his wayward wife and neglected to put out the Emperor’s gum boots.   Individual actions count for nothing as such.  Resulting from millions of random antecedent actions, who can reasonably say that any one act has a unique value let alone a distinct purpose?

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Many world leaders who find themselves atop great empires, do not believe they are there accidentally. During the era of The Divine Right of Kings, European monarchs never challenged their divine anointment, and inferred that every action they took would be sanctioned by the God that placed them on the throne. The Catholic Church believes that the Holy Ghost has a hand in the election of the Pope; and although the College of Cardinals may vote for a successor, only God has the final choice. 

George W. Bush at the time of the Iraq crisis, confirmed his belief in divine intervention:
Nabil Shaath, who was Palestinian foreign minister at the time, said: "President Bush said to all of us: 'I am driven with a mission from God'. God would tell me, 'George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan'. And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq'. And I did."
Mr Bush went on: "And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me, 'Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East'. And, by God, I'm gonna do it." (The Guardian 10.05
 Deranged serial killers like The Son of Sam claim purpose:
I am deeply hurt by your calling me a wemon hater. I am not. But I am a monster. I am the "Son of Sam." I am a little "brat". When father Sam gets drunk he gets mean. He beats his family. Sometimes he ties me up to the back of the house. Other times he locks me in the garage. Sam loves to drink blood. "Go out and kill" commands father Sam. Behind our house some rest. Mostly young — raped and slaughtered — their blood drained — just bones now. Papa Sam keeps me locked in the attic, too. I can't get out but I look out the attic window and watch the world go by. I feel like an outsider. I am on a different wave length then everybody else — programmed too kill.
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Purpose and conditioning are muddled in today’s response to crime, violence, and anti-social behavior. Progressives claim that the disaffected black youth in Anacostia had no say in the matter when he robbed, raped, and murdered.  Persistent racism, the lingering effects of slavery, and the consequential dismissal of the black experience by white America are the reasons why they commit crimes.  They use Tolstoy’s deterministic argument to avoid assessing responsibility.  There is no such thing as crime, they say; only reaction to past conditioning.

Conservatives harken back to Jesus Christ, the Temptation in the Desert, and the cardinal principle of free will.  These youths, although influenced by their environment and susceptible to the influences  of the past, are  still human beings with a God-given sense of right and wrong and a divine injunction to act righteously.  Nothing can excuse murder.

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For most of us the issues of free will, conditioning, and purpose have little salience. Métro, boulot, dodo – the oppressively routine existence of life- is far  kinder than Hobbes’s description of human existence as  “"solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".   All of us muddle through, unconcerned about or unaware of these existential thoughts.  If we ever wonder why we are here or where we are going, such thoughts are quickly dismissed by the priorities of the assembly line, marriage, and family.

All these weighty philosophical considerations mean little, says Woody Allen.  A lot of brainpower wasted in the face of obvious purposelessness.  The ball either goes over the net or it doesn’t.
De Maupassant is a master of coincidence, luck, the unexpected, and the distortion of purpose.  The Necklace and other stories tell of couples who intend one thing which results in another – tales of good intentions gone wrong because of chance, circumstance, and unfortunate fate.

The stories are entertainments, much like many of those of Somerset Maugham.  Red, like the tales of Maupassant, is a story of luck, timing, circumstance, and serendipity – a love story gone right for some, badly for others.  A romantic episode like all others conditioned by happenstance.

Image result for images somerset maugham

Either the ball goes over the net on one side or the other – all a matter of inertia, trajectory, parabolas, and pure chance.  We may be purposeful and deliberate, but no matter what actions we take; no matter which roads we choose, our ends and destinations are a matter of both chance and history.  We may arrive at Frost’s fork in the road, but it would be foolish to assume that we have any say in the choice; and even if we did, there would be no assurance of the outcome we hoped for.

What does this all mean? Should we all become nihilists, unconcerned about whether to take this road or that; or to fret about the consequences of our actions? Nothing of the sort. Life in the random lane is the most satisfactory, for it is the path of least resistance.  We needn’t worry about right and wrong, intended or unintended consequences, possible or probable outcomes.  Chance has a way of discombobulating the best laid plans; so it is better to choose arbitrarily, i.e. in self-interest, than to worry about collateral influences.  Morality, after all, is relative; so decisions have no intrinsic value per se.

What? Me Worry?


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