“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” —Jean-Paul Sartre
I didn’t ask to be born, and neither did you. Despite this, in what has to be the most selfish act that a pair of adults can undertake, a decision was made for our existence, and as a consequence, life was suddenly and spectacularly thrust upon us.
Given that we didn’t choose to be born, we could be forgiven for assuming that the decision-makers in this messy process would be responsible for everything that happens in our lives. But as it turns out, even though mother and father plotted and conspired to establish our fleshy form, the responsibility of our own lives falls to us. I’m hard-pressed to find a comparable event of such cruel and heartless discrimination. If this were hauled before a respectable judge, she would smash her decisive gavel in our everlasting favour. Those utter, utter bastards.
I jest, of course. I’m thankful for my meagre existence and the responsibility that comes with it, I just wish it wasn’t so bewilderingly complicated. Not only are we faced with a million bamboozling choices throughout our lifetime, we’re also expected to make the right one. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t given any How To Make Great Life Choices classes at school. Socrates didn’t teach at my woeful establishment. I just got yelled at a lot by adults who seemed to have spent their earlier years being broiled in a harsh, bitter liquid. None of them ever cooled down enough to offer me a map of life and some orientation instructions.
The problem that we all have is freedom. If you’re currently incarcerated in some god-awful prison with nightmarish, grime-ridden shower blocks, I apologise. But let me explain – freedom is simultaneously the most wonderful and awful thing that we have. It’s wonderful because it offers us the ability to make our own choices, and it’s awful because those choices can be so painfully difficult to make. As the beady-eyed French philosopher Paul Sartre said: we’re condemned to be free.
“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”—Jean-Paul Sartre
Freedom oh-so generously breaks our heavy shackles, while at the same time crushing us with the obligation to choose from an endless catalogue of options. Do I quit my woefully boring day job and study to be a mechanic? Will breaking up with my girlfriend make me happier in the long run? Should I accidentally trip this screaming, satanic child? These important choices, and an uncountable number of other choices that we’re faced with, can cause us a great deal of anguish. Modern society, with its dazzling and seemingly endless plethora of choice, can make freedom even more debilitating. There’s unlimited choice, and no information on how to choose.
Then there’s the accurate nihilistic notion that life is meaningless, making the responsibility of freedom even more miserable. Why decide to do anything if it doesn’t mean anything? It’s ideas like this that have led philosophers to the prospect of suicide as a serious consideration. Is life worth living if it’s just pointless?
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Thankfully, most of us are too cowardly to place our heads in a makeshift noose, or much too attached to our lives, even though it’s often intolerably bewildering. Though we’re relentlessly faced with a freedom that presents us with important, demanding choices, we love too much about our ridiculous lives to even consider throwing it away.
If we must go on, what we need is buckets of courage. The shackles of free choice must be smashed with audacity and determination – storming into the fray of our decisions, polished, hardwood shield raised and glistening sword unsheathed. Battle wounds are inevitable, but the alternative is distanced cowardice, in which we recoil from our lives, too frightened by the perplexity of freedom to tackle it.
The courageous hero takes full responsibility for her decisions, making appalling mistakes, as well as achieving stunning, air-punching victories. Her life isn’t perfect, but who wants perfection anyway? Even if it was attainable, a life of perfect sublimity would fast become boring, because without negativity as a contrast, we cannot understand positivity. They exist as a single, unbreakable scale of experience.
“Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.” — Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
Facing the chewy, sour parts of life without giving into the desire to escape – whether through alcohol, drugs, social media, or anything else – is heroism beyond measure. It’s affirmation, not negation, of our lives. A deafening, resounding yes. Though life is unquestionably meaningless, by choosing to participate thoroughly, and by acting decisively, we’re creating our own meaning. Our role is of the sculptor, starting his long artistic process with a huge block of marble, resolutely chipping away until something evident and meaningful appears.
We may be condemned to be free, but we still possess the ability to choose our attitude. Should we play the dismal victim, crippled by the deluge of freedom, and the terrifying responsibility that we all possess? Or should we strap on our armour, accept our immutable freedom, and charge headfirst into the world with a battlecry so hectic that it’ll inspire poets? I know what William Wallace would have done.
“Time is a game played beautifully by children.” – Heraclitus
Life has a tendency to grind us down over the years. Slowly, relentlessly, our limited stay on earth becomes ever more serious, carving deep-set, knitted lines between our once-smooth brows. Our muscles take on a steady tenseness, only able to be softened by the skilled hands of a Thai masseuse. The near-constant anxiety that racks our exhausted brains zaps the dazzle from our once vibrant hair.
It wasn’t always like this. As kids, we had a propensity for joy. We were able to just live in the moment. Young kids have no concept of past or future – they seem to understand, intuitively, that the only tangible thing that exists is now. You’ll never find a young child wracked in anguish about yesterday’s mishap at play school. Nor will you find them frantically worrying about the upcoming visit from their distant, straw-eating, hillbilly cousins.
Kids don’t have any responsibilities, of course, and while this is certainly a factor in their carefree attitude, it’s far from the whole story. Children just seem to have an unwavering commitment to their lives – they never hold back. When a young girl builds a sandcastle, she builds the absolute shit out of it. When she straps on her wellingtons and jumps in a freshly formed puddle, she jumps as high as her legs will allow. When she gets upset, she cries her heart out. There’s simply no time to worry when you’re so busy living.
Why are kids able to become so effortlessly engaged, and how can we imitate the joyous little bastards?
Curious, mindful sensing
“Children see magic because they look for it.”― Christopher Moore
An uncountable number of mothers across the globe have, at one point, dashed across a room to prevent their child from putting something disgusting in their mouth. Kids love to use their senses to explore the world. What does that mud-ridden, juicy worm taste like? How does this delicate, floral-covered vase feel when I run my fingers over it? What will happen if I squeeze this ginger cat’s tail?
As we become familiar with the sight, texture and taste of the world around us, it somehow becomes less special. We stop paying attention to the stunning, sun-kissed majesty of our city. Our minds are elsewhere while we wolf down salt-covered, freshly roasted potatoes. The small, thoughtful, love-filled gestures from our partner begin to go unnoticed. We start to take everything for granted.
Young kids find magic and novelty in the world because they pay attention. Their Magellan-like exploration of their surroundings aren’t accompanied by an endlessly buzzing smartphone that yanks on their attention. They aren’t conjuring plans for their next activity while delicately picking a ruby-red geranium in the local park. They do one thing at a time, and they do it wholeheartedly. Kids are the embodiment of mindfulness. They stare so intently that it can make you blush, absorbing every single blemish on your face, and giggling afterward.
“The soul is healed by being with children.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky
The fact that everything is new and shiny to a kid does make things more exciting, but we can recapture a little of this magic by being more mindful and curious about the world around us.
Instead of just glancing at something, really look at it. Consider its shape, texture and colour. If it isn’t a human who’ll get offended, touch it. Contemplate how it feels against your nerve-packed fingertips. Notice the sound waves that are hurtling and ricocheting their way through the world, which by chance, happen to reach your meticulously evolved ears. Though you may experience the same thing every day, you’re probably still missing a great deal of delightful detail.
Our world has profound depth and boundless beauty, and we just happen to have the right equipment to experience it. Kids know how to use this equipment properly – they’re the masters of their senses. As we grow older, we live more inside our own heads – an existence of imagination, projection and worry, with no concrete reality. The antidote is simply, and wholeheartedly, to pay attention to the world once more. Put your fucking phone away and spend some time absorbing your exquisite, improbable planet.
“How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvellous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?” —Alan Watts
Even something that you don’t want to do can become intriguing if you pay attention, from a position of open-minded curiosity. Like a caterpillar in its cocoon, curiosity has a way of transforming the mundane into something beautiful and extraordinary. By withholding our judgment and becoming a little more inquisitive about the daily activities of our lives – scrubbing the dishes, making the bed, brushing our teeth, etc. – they become a little more pleasing. Curious attention turns us into participants, rather than spectators, in our own lives. Kids do this naturally, and this is one of the reasons why they’re so joyful.
Pledge yourself fully to each and every moment, as a child does. If you’re sad, be sad. If you’re irritated, be irritated. Kids don’t try to escape their emotions the way that adults do; they seem to understand that soon enough, whatever is bothering them will be over. Our emotional life is a never-ending rollercoaster ride of peaks and troughs – the highs can’t exist without the lows.
“Look at children. Of course they may quarrel, but generally speaking they do not harbor ill feelings as much or as long as adults do. Most adults have the advantage of education over children, but what is the use of an education if they show a big smile while hiding negative feelings deep inside? Children dont usually act in such a manner. If they feel angry with someone, they express it, and then it is finished. They can still play with that person the following day.”― The Dahai Lama
Be content with what you have
“Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.” — Lao Tzu
As we mature from teenagers to adults, responsibility bears down on us like a truck with a sleeping driver. Suddenly, we’re no longer able to freeload from our parents, and the obligations that we’re burdened with make life much more serious. Kids don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or the security of their job after a recent company takeover. Their basic needs are fulfilled, often thanklessly, without question.
As adults, we’re always going to feel the squeezing pressure of earning a living, but we can minimise that pressure by learning to be content with what we have. How happier will an extra few thousand dollars a year really make us? Is it worth consistently working until the small hours of the night, and depriving yourself of sleep to get it? Most of us intuitively know the correct answer to this question, and yet we do it nonetheless.
“Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.” —Pearl S. Buck
While playing with a toy, young kids aren’t putting plans in place to get a bigger, better toy. They’re too busy living and experiencing what’s in front of them. Ambition is just a foolish concept pursued by grown-ups. Why strive for more when you can’t appreciate what you already have?
“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” —Socrates
By learning to be content with what we have, our greedy desires for more will lessen. We won’t need a promotion in order to buy that enticing, V8 sports car. Our financial responsibility, and the pressure that comes with it, are reduced to something much easier to handle. Like kids, we can begin to fully appreciate and become involved with what’s in front of us.
Psychology has shown that keeping a daily gratitude diary is a great way to become more content with your life, because it forces you to focus on what’s good, rather than what’s lacking.
“[The world is] an arabesque of such stunning rhythm and a plot so intriguing that we are drawn by its web into a state of involvement where we forget that it is a game. We become fascinated to the point where the cheering and the booing are transformed into intense love and hate, or delight and terror, ecstatic orgasm or screaming meemies. All made out of on-and-off or black-and-white, pulsed, stuttered, diagrammed mosaiced, syncopated, shaded, jolted, tangoed, and lilted through all possible measures and dimensions. It is simultaneously the purest nonsense and the utmost artistry.” — Alan Watts
Unless you’re religious, you’d probably agree with the fact that life has no ultimate meaning. As such, it’s our challenging and enduring task to imbue it with meaning that’s wholly personal to us. We decide what makes life meaningful, and while this absolute freedom can swing between being crippling and liberating, it’s an undeniable and staggeringly beautiful fact.
Life doesn’t have to be so serious. Hindus believe that life is a game, born out of creative play by a divine god. Games are supposed to be enjoyed, not played to be won and conquered, like an empire-builder with stunted self-confidence. A game is played for the enjoyment one experiences while playing; there’s no end goal in sight – it’s the playing that counts. One doesn’t dance in order to reach the end of the song, we dance because we enjoy the process. The end game is a fool’s game.
For children, their whole existence can be described as a game, and their unremitting investment in playing through the good and bad parts of it are what makes them masterful participants.
Our existence is only serious because we assume it to be. By treating life as a game, it becomes more nonchalantly light-hearted, and our petty little worries are destroyed by a fresher, brighter perspective.
Do what you love
If a child is drawn towards something, they’ll use whatever means necessary to get it. There’s no need for them to rationalise why their heart is set on certain toys, activities or people, they just want them and enjoy them. Not much changes with the approach of adulthood – certain things just happen to intrigue us, which is why settling into a personally appealing career is so critical to our happiness. Kids don’t usually do things that they don’t want to do – why the hell would they? They’re motivated intrinsically, solely by what interests them.
Of course, gaining and maintaining employment isn’t quite as simple. It’s doubtful that we’ll work jobs that we love all the time. This seems to be an increasingly common assumption that should be expelled for the sake of our mental health – a utopia-like job, perfectly suited to you, is highly unlikely to exist. Even if it did, it’d be almost impossible to find. Instead, we should focus our efforts on finding employment that is good enough; on a role that fulfils us for the most part, but will probably still irritate us at times.
We all lost something on the way to becoming adults, stolen by an education that equipped us for survival, but robbed us of our enthusiasm. Though the responsibilities of life will forever be a burden, they don’t have to drag us to dark and depressing depths. As difficult as it can be to recognise, our existence contains much that we should be grateful for.
Anxiety doesn’t have to be the most familiar emotion in our arsenal. Our passion for life can be rekindled by imitating the kids, those masters of existence, for which time is a game played beautifully.
If a man molests a child because of a tumour in his brain, can we say that he freely chose to do so? Is he responsible for his actions?
This is a true case from the American state of Virginia back in 2000, in which a tumour in a man’s orbitofrontal cortex – an area that regulates social behaviour – created strong paedophilic urges, causing him to molest his stepdaughter. When the tumour was removed after being discovered by doctors, the desires vanished. Some years later the tumour returned, along with his sexual urges towards children. Its removal once again caused the paedophilia to disappear.
This dark situation is a question of free will – should he be held accountable for his actions, given that they were caused by his brain tumour? Was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?
Wikipedia defines free will as “the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.” Philosophers have been musing about the existence of free will for centuries, with three major standpoints emerging from their perceptive brains. We’ll consider this situation from each unique philosophical stance.
“Life calls the tune, we dance.” —John Galsworthy
Hard determinists believe that the tumour, and the man’s crimes, are a result of natural cause and effect for which the man had no control over. The existence of his tumour, and the uncountable number of causal events that happened prior to the point of his misconduct, were not decided by him. In the world of hard determinists, everything is determined – it was his fate to be the host of a disastrous brain tumour, and to subsequently molest his stepdaughter.
Determinists believe that all events are caused by past events, and nothing other than what does occur, can occur. There’s nothing that could have been done to change the man’s path to paedophilia – free will is an illusion and does not exist. We’re nought but puppets of fate.
This position has deeply troubling consequences for personal responsibility – if there’s no free will, are we really responsible for anything? How could a legal system function under such circumstances?
It’s impossible for us to examine every single causal event that occurred up until this moment, and given that we didn’t choose these events, to what degree can we claim to be free? We almost certainly feel free to make decisions, but at the same time, we had no control over the events that led up to the decision.
From this philosophical standpoint, the man who molested his stepdaughter cannot be held accountable for his actions. The tumour doesn’t change anything, because even tumourless paedophiles aren’t in control of their own decisions.
“We are all just cogs in a machine, doing what we were always meant to do, with no actual volition.” —Baron d’Holbach
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” —Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
Libertarians believe that while the tumour was clearly not chosen as a growth in the man’s brain, he did have the free will to choose whether to molest the child. In this sense, determinism is false to the libertarians – we have the freedom to choose different courses of action, and not giving in to peadophilic urges is one of them.
Libertarians believe in agent causation – our powerful ability to affect the causal chain of the universe, though it’s unclear where those decisions actually come from. Claiming that they come from our brains is accurate, but the causal nature of the universe, and all of the classical mechanics science that supports it, would state that something must have caused our brains to make the decision. Libertarians seem to believe that it simply comes from the ether, that the decisions-making brains of humans are somehow exterior to the concept of cause and effect, as though in a vacuum.
Quantum mechanics supports the libertarian argument, with evidence to suggest that the tiniest, quantum-level elements of our universe are not necessarily subject to classical cause and effect. They can even be in two places at the same time. According to scientists, the measurable properties of a sub-atomic particles simply cannot be predicted based on what happened previously. If the tiniest elements in our brains sit outside the rigid realm of cause and effect, then free will can be said to exist.
Compatibilism (soft determinism)
“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
Compatibilists would agree with the libertarians, as they’re also staunch believers in free will. Unlike the libertarians though, they do believe that everything is determined, which seems contradictory – if everything is pre-determined, how can we possibly be free to choose? If the growth of the tumour was determined by forces outside of the man’s control, was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?
This contradiction is reconciled by the compatibilists belief that, even though the man’s actions were caused by the tumour, it was still him who made the decision. He wasn’t coerced by an outside force, and acted according to his own motivation; the tumour, though unwanted, was still a part of him. As such, and in spite of his tragic misfortune, he should be accountable and punished for his actions.
Degree of control – a new approach
Canadian-American philosopher Patricia Churchland believes that free will should be considered from a different angle. The existence of free will doesn’t matter in this situation – whether consciously decided or not, the child was still molested. Instead, Churchland thinks that we should consider how much control we have in any given situation. The greater the control, the greater the responsibility.
In the case of our tumour-driven paedophile, we would have to understand the man’s ability to resist the sexual impulses in his brain. There’s probably many paedophiles alive today who choose not to commit crimes, because their sense of morality dictates that it’s the wrong thing to do.
To what degree is the man’s tumour affecting his ability to resist his urges? For Churchland, reframing the question in this way helps us to understand how responsible the man is for his crimes, and while it’s an undoubtedly difficult thing to measure, regarding the situation from a philosophical position is even fuzzier.
Until our scientific knowledge advances to a point where we can answer these questions confidently, the paedophile’s ultimate responsibility will continue to be debated by philosophers. The tumour caused his nefarious actions, and according to the libertarians and compatibilists, he should be held accountable. This seems terribly unfair, and yet, the mercilessness of hard determinism is equally as cruel – the outcome is the same, after all.
The seemingly contradictory nature of compatibilism, the freedom-certainty of the libertarians, or the rigid idea of determinism offers little guidance for personal responsibility. From a practical perspective, Churchland’s reframing of free will from a position of control allows us to measure responsibility, determine accountability, and decide the consequences for an immoral action.
While it doesn’t answer the intriguing question of whether free will exists, it does fulfill an important concern – the ability to measure how responsible we are for our actions.