Are “Big Life Decisions” Not Really Decisions, After All?
I’m listening to Cat Stevens right now—he’s one of my fiancé’s favorite American singers. I’ve also spent many a lazy afternoon listening to Cat Stevens with one of my best friends, Kati, because she’s got him on vinyl and we like to use her record player. And Marvin Gaye just came on next on this mix I’m listening to. Of course everyone knows Marvin Gaye. For me, I’m a fan probably because I remember listening to Marvin Gaye in the car on a really fun school field trip to Virginia in 8th grade, and, more recently, an old boyfriend put a great cover of “Sexual Healing” on a mix CD for me, turning me on… To that song. A song by Beirut is next up on this mix. Cute guy at the local record store told me about them, like, before anyone else listened to them. Anyone. I swear. And record store guy was so cute that I had to buy the CD; I had no choice. I had no choice—or did I?
Consider, for a moment, the myriad of influences that go into creating your personal musical taste. There are the pop radio stations you’ve surely been exposed to, the clubs and bars you go to, what your parents played around the house when you were young, the music your friends told you oh-my-God-really-you-have-to-listen-to-this. Where do you come in? It looks like, when it comes to our musical tastes, we’re pretty much just empty vessels floating around the world waiting to be filled up. Who knows why my fiancé loves Cat Stevens, but I’m pretty positive that, whatever the reason, it wasn’t that he proactively told himself: “Ismail, you’re going to go out, find an artist named ‘Cat Stevens,’ and you’re gonna love him.”
What I’m getting at is the idea of free will versus determinism. Our musical tastes, it seems, are mostly determined for us by the people and institutions around us—we as individuals play very little part in defining for ourselves what our musical tastes end up being. One would surely hope that I wouldn’t be listening to this God-forsaken Jason Mraz song if it didn’t have extremely happy connotations for me (hey, my fiancé doesn’t speak English… He can’t tell how completely idiotic the lyrics are! I blame him for making me kind of like this song).
Is it only our musical tastes that are shaped by forces beyond our control? Well—we didn’t pick our parents, or where we grew up. Our parents and where we grew up played a big part in determining on where we went to school, the kids we got to pick from as friends, etc. In addition to that, there are variables that were set in place before we were even born. Grandma’s having been pale and Irish, Grandpa of was no-less-pale German stock. So you never went to the beach as a kid because it sucked—you always got sunburned. Genetics, in obvious and in subtle ways, are also exerting their influence on us.
I read a philosophical argument the other day that made me start thinking about all this. The author, Galen Strawson, was talking about morality, but of course the question of free will versus determinism is applicable to every aspect of our lives, not just our moral (or immoral) actions. The argument Strawson made went like this:
(1) One does what he does at a given moment because of they way he is at that given moment.
(2) So if one is to be ultimately responsible for his actions, he must be ultimately responsible for the way he is, at least partially.
(3) But it is impossible to be ultimately responsible for how one is in any respect. Why? Because (a) the way one is initially is the result of his genetics and early life, which he cannot be held at all responsible for. Therefore (b), if he attempts to change how he is later on in his life, his success or failure will be determined by previous experience and genetics.
(4) So one cannot be ultimately responsible for what he does.
Is this completely depressing? It seems like it should be: an argument is being made that you have no control over who you are or what you do—there is no free will, it’s all predetermined. I wrote my last column about my friend who was agonizing over where to live; she chose Boston. Wait, what I mean is, of course she chose Boston. People, actions, strands of DNA, phone calls from Mom, cool breezes on Commonwealth Ave—all that made it absolutely impossible for her to not choose Boston. However… Does that matter?
As post-graduates are making their big life decisions, this determinism argument doesn’t seem like it can serve as an aide or a reassurance—the fact remains that whether or not one has free will, she will, either way, feel as though she has free will. However, the argument makes for wonderfully satisfying food for thought, and can be expanded into the realms of religion or science (or can be developed further philosophically). You can read Galen Strawson’s complete column here.
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