Nerd Bait’s Prof Paul pointed me to an interesting article the other day. But before we get to that, here’s a track he wrote that has apparently been generating a lot of hits in Japan:
We’re not entirely sure whether this is because we’re getting hits from real people, or a Japanese robot. Nor are we quite sure which which would be cooler. (Spoiler: the answer’s at the bottom of the page….)
Anyway, about that article from The Atlantic…
…which is about a bloke who suffered a stroke and had to give up the office job in which he had been stern and serious, and – frankly – a bit chubby.
Ricky Jõao did was, retrain as a writer start selling french fries from a street cart. Except, he didn’t always sell them. If someone asked, he’d often give them away for free. He’d buy sweets for the street kids who passed, too.
After suffering a health crisis in 1990, at age 49, [Jõao] wanted to live differently. “I saw death from close up,” he would often say. “Now I want to be in high spirits.”
In fact, Jõao became “pathologically generous”. So much so, that he ended up having confrontations with his brother-in-law, the co-owner of the cart. His family would berate him. “[Even when] the cart went out of business,” Sam Kean writes, “and he was reducted to living on this mother’s pension, João refused to stop. Giving simply made him too happy.”
So, what was that all about? The natural result of looking for salvation after running the human resources department of an insurance company in Rio? Well, that would make sense. Particularly after a health crisis. That sort of combination is just the sort of thing that would inspire a few changes, right? Is this the answer to recent blog investigation, Can/do people change?
Well, yes, but…. In the course of Jõao’s brain injury, his frontal lobe had been damaged. Long story short, Jõao’s doctor reckons that the part of his brain that should have helped him with his social reasoning and the weighing of the consequences of his actions had lost its ability to act as a balance against his impulses. Neuroscientists have performed experiments that show that being generous stimulates production of dopamine.
[G]iving is roughly on par with eating fudge or getting laid.
So, really, Jõao wasn’t really being generous of his own free will, as it’s generally understood. On the contrary, one might say that he was subject to a particularly observable form of determinism. The contrasts among free will and determinism usually run in the background of our thought processes, unless we’re philosophers. For me, it just sparks up when Arcadia‘s in revival. Or maybe if I walk past the statue of David Hume in Parliament Square.
There’s a particularly good conversation about the history of thought on free will and determinism and compatibilism – and how randomness and indeterminism don’t help us establish free will at all – in this, the 500th episode of In Our Time. In post-election week, wouldn’t it be lovely to think that when I went to Vote Match and lined up (what I think were) my generous responses, then went off to the polling booth, I had exercised my free will in the exercise of my franchise? But no. It’s just that this stroke survivor has a more damaged frontal lobe than the average ‘Kipper.
Twenty-three years after hearing Arcadia for the first time, I want to believe in the ordinary, common-sense version of free will, but I’m little closer to squaring the circle. As is posited in the podcast linked above, there’s no way to prove determinism true or false. But Galen Strawson presents an interesting summary of his father’s attempt to pull everything together. We have primitive personal feelings like gratitude and resentment towards other people. If free will doesn’t exist, these feelings make no sense. They rely on free will. They presuppose free will, so we can’t help believing in it. Simon Blackburn notes that his requirement to live under what philosophers suspect is an illusion is quite irritating to them.
The thing to do, then, is to move the consideration of the issue back into the background, and maintain the illusion of free will.
Look! A dancing Japanese robot! That’s cool!