© 2018 by MADELINE MCNEILL

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DELVING INTO DETERMINISM



When I was young, I learned about the idea of fate--the idea that all things are meant to happen, for good or bad. In my young mind, I imagined fate as a something, a mystical force choosing my course like a big invisible hand. Fate seemed to grandly inhabit the adult world. Then I grew up. Now that I'm an adult, I think differently about fate. Fate, it seems, is an adult way of thinking like a child, which is probably why it made sense to me as a kid. I imagine myself as a toddler, holding the hand of a knowing parent pulling me in some direction. I have no idea where I'm going, but my parent does. I have no choice, but I'm not smart enough to know where to go anyway. I think my experiences as a child provided the context to understand the idea of fate, though as an adult, I now acknowledge fate as just an idea, and not a real thing. I think fate reflects a human need to trust that we don't know everything, and it reflects a human need to hope that someone else does.

Why am I thinking about this now?

I recently had a conversation with an artist friend who believes in determinism--a variation of fate--based on his study of quantum physics. Determinism--let's call it "particle determinism"--is the idea that everything we do has been predetermined by the mathematical behavior of subatomic particles. We, along with everything else, consist of subatomic particles that move according to certain rules understood through the study of physics. We are, according to this idea, energy. Our consciousness is a pure mathematical exercise of energy movement, like a long algebra equation rationally playing itself out. Everything we think results from a natural unfolding of cosmic events at the subatomic level. This idea of determinism is a form of fate, rationalized by physics and mathematics.

When I learned about this idea from my friend, I was viscerally put off, but it's taken me a little while to figure out how to articulate my rejection of this kind of thinking.

First, I reject a premise of the particle determinism argument: the idea that human consciousness is an exercise of subatomic particle movement--let's call it "subatomic consciousness." By disproving subatomic consciousness, I aim to challenge the validity of particle determinism. Right away, I want to bring attention to the fact that human consciousness is a perceived phenomenon. This I follow with the idea that the body cannot perceive activity at the subatomic level. Subatomic particle movement is outside the scope of sensory perception. We can visualize a conceptualization of subatomic movement. We can create tools to measure subatomic particles. We can imagine symbols and equations to reason about subatomic movement, but we can't perceive it. With that in mind, I would like to present a different view of human consciousness. I describe human consciousness as a macrostructure process of an intact body that requires big structures--i.e. senses, brain, core muscles--to generate and perceive the process. Just like the pumping of blood through the body is not possible without a heart, consciousness is not possible without senses, brain, and core muscles. The perceived process and functional mechanism of human consciousness therefore, is a macrostructure body exercise, not a nanostructure particle exercise. Sure, these sensory tissues and organs are made of atoms, but without these sensory macrostructures of body, no consciousness process can be generated or perceived.

Admittedly, my friend knows much more about atoms and quantum physics than I do, but because I've concluded that consciousness is a macrostructure sensory process of body, knowledge of quantum physics is largely irrelevant to understanding consciousness. More important to understanding human consciousness is body awareness and particularly, core muscle awareness. From my analysis, human consciousness is a process of self-generating sensory experience followed by acknowledging that experience with the core posture of 'yes'-- the core posture of 'yes' being a core muscle exercise. Developing a detailed inner awareness of core muscle activity enables a person to analyze the 'yes' as a macrostructure movement of body. With training, a person can learn how the core posture of 'yes' is a essential player in the consciousness process.

Why is it important to make these distinctions? Understanding consciousness as a macrostructure body process clarifies how we exercise consciousness to make decisions. We perceive the world as bodies. We have limited sensory information about our environment. It is because we have limited information about the world, that we exercise consciousness in the first place. Humans evolved consciousness as a tool to make choices in a world we could not possibly know everything about.

As if in childish opposition, it appears to me that determinists sense their lack of knowledge, but do not want to acknowledge their lack of knowledge, and furthermore, they don't want to be responsible for their actions. They believe in subatomic consciousness. They acknowledge that they have no control over subatomic particle movement and therefore no independent agency for making decisions (basically avoiding responsibility), while, at the same time, they revel in delight that they have a conceptual knowledge of subatomic consciousness, which justifies their superiority, as well as endows them with power of being a detached observer of a cosmic consciousness.

As I stated before, I think subatomic consciousness is an inaccurate conceptualization of the consciousness process. Therefore, I reject the particle determinism argument. But I'm not quite done with my criticism. I would like to further challenge the particle determinism belief for its societal applications. I think that believing in particle determinism builds a destructive intellect. People who believe in particle determinism are essentially fatalists: they assume that everything is "meant to be." I dislike fatalist thinking; frankly, I think it's immoral. If the formula that everything is "meant to be" is true, that means that any horrific act, any person that dies needlessly, any act of violence, any injustice, is also "meant to be," and we have no personal agency or responsibility to change it.

I think some people who believe that everything is "meant to be," whether as fatalists or determinists, simply lack the mental dexterity to think beyond their own circumstances. In other words, they lack the empathetic imagination to apply their belief system to the full range of human experiences (poverty, war, etc.) that may be different than their own. I am somewhat forgiving of these people because it's often a lack of education of suffering outside their immediate life that enables them to think this way. I am much more critical of people who are aware that their belief system justifies extreme suffering, but choose to believe it anyway. These are smart people, who dance around the knowledge of human suffering in a variety of ways--they rationalize it, or willfully ignore it, or detach from it, but in the end, they always excuse themselves of responsibility for it. "It's meant to be." I argue that these people cultivate within themselves a destructive way of thinking, which in turn creates a dysfunctional society.

Now back to my artist friend who, in my estimation, is a nice guy. He believes in particle determinism, not because he is a sociopath, but because his education and analysis, which includes his belief in "subatomic consciousness," formed an argument that satisfied him enough to conclude that particle determinism is true. He thinks particle determinism makes logical sense, and in order to reconcile his belief with the implication that others' suffering is "meant to be," he openly declares that he is a cynic. In other words, he thinks the entire play-out of the cosmos was set up from the beginning for people be beaten, raped, blown up, not educated or fulfilled, as part of a mathematical unfolding of cosmic events. Viscerally, he still feels bad that this is the way it is, but ultimately, he accepts things as they are. It's an unpleasant system. He doesn't like it, but it's not his problem.

Damn.

He's a young guy too. And not the only one.

I disapprove of this way of thinking, and the culture that emerges from it. I begin my response by reiterating that I think particle determinism relies on an inaccurate conceptualization of human consciousness (subatomic consciousness). Additionally, I think people who believe in particle determinism generally possess a combination of immature personality characteristics: they don't like to acknowledge their lack of knowledge about the world; they don't want to feel responsible for problems in the world and/or in their own lives; they want to feel an existential superiority over other people. In application, I argue that this way of thinking cultivates a destructive intellect. In my artist friend's case, he owns up to his destructive thinking by declaring himself a cynic. In a way, I imagine he feels like he is taking responsibility for himself, but I would counter that his honest declaration still harbors irresponsible motivations, whether he is aware of it or not. Specifically, I think the industry rewards artists for being cynical and for creating work that moves people toward a mindset of cynicism. The industry, driven by money and consumption, thrives when the masses exercise destructive thinking. In my opinion, my friend is feeding a destructive industry that rewards cynical thinkers. Cynical thinkers, who capitalize on the industry, rationalize their ways of thinking with inaccurate philosophical ideas like particle determinism which reinforce a destructive mindset complicit to an industry that thrives on human dysfunction and suffering. My friend's belief in particle determinism includes scientific ideas, but I think it's fraught with inaccurate reasoning. To him and other artists, I say: examine how you think. You don't need to feed a destructive industry to be an artist.

From here, I want to begin articulating a point of view that I think more accurately frames human consciousness and how and why we make choices, which could be loosely defined as free will. I imagine that human bodies exercise senses to make decisions to keep the body intact as they interact with events of the world. The entirety of world events are too numerous, nuanced, and complex for human beings (with our finite and parametered senses) to fully be aware of. So, we make decisions as we can, with our limited knowledge, based on our own changing needs from moment to moment. Body awareness, I argue, trains the exercise of human consciousness toward the sustainment of self and others as bodies. Stay tuned. That will be another essay.

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