Pre-Chores Thoughts

There is universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labour. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it can not be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.

The consequences of these attitudes both in theory and in practice are, of course, extremely far-reaching. If the ideal with regard to work is to get rid of it, every method that “reduces the work load” is a good thing. The most potent method, short of automation, is the so-called “division of labour” and the classical example is the pin factory eulogised in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Here it is not a matter of ordinary specialisation, which mankind has practiced from time immemorial, but of dividing up every complete process of production into minute parts, so that the final product can be produced at great speed without anyone having had to contribute more than a totally insignificant and, in most cases, unskilled movement of his limbs.

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.

From the Buddhist point of view, there are therefore two types of mechanisation which must be clearly distinguished: one that enhances a man’s skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave.

E.F. Schumacher, from the essay “Buddhist Economics,” also found within his book Small is Beautiful (1973)

I’ve just finished reading Small is Beautiful. It is prophetic and full of wisdom, speaking directly (I think) to the most urgent issues of our time, over 50 years later. I highly recommend the book, and especially the 1966 essay “Buddhist Economics” linked above. I can see clearly that Schumacher was a great influence on Wendell Berry.

I’ve blogged often about the value of work and the challenge of automation. I won’t go into that again this morning. On that subject Mr. Schumacher’s quote provides plenty of food for thought for one day I think.

But, as it’s a dreary rainy morning and I have a little time to spare, I’ll open a different can of worms instead.

I thus come to the cheerful conclusion that life, including economic life, is still worth living  because it is sufficiently unpredictable to be interesting. Within the limits of the physical laws of nature, we are still masters of our individual and collective destiny, for good or ill.
E.F. Schumacher, from Small is Beautiful

Schumacher says that life is worth living because it is unpredictable. The implication of this sentence is that life would not be worth living if all actions and events were causally determined and predictable. His claim that we control our destinies is, however, a statement of faith, not an empirically provable fact (well, not yet at least).

The free will vs. determinism debate has been raging since the dawn of civilization. Is the world unpredictable? Do humans have free will, or does it just seem that way to us? If every effect has a physical cause, then with enough information and a sufficiently powerful computer, couldn’t we accurately predict every event? But if every event, including every human action, is the result of some preceding physical cause–predictable if we have enough data, then how can we claim to have free will? So can free will only existence if the world is in some sense arbitrary and unpredictable? Einstein went to his grave refusing to believe that there was an inherent uncertainty and randomness in nature. “God does not play dice,” he famously said.

I’m not going to try to unravel the free-will vs. determinism arguments this morning. There are enough philosophical and scientific ingredients in that stew to feed our minds for the rest of our days. But for those of us who prefer to believe that we humans have free will, it is a little disquieting to see scientific discoveries painting us into a ever shrinking corner of the room.

I’m sure that most of us will insist on the existence of free will, notwithstanding the counter-arguments of many scientists and religious traditions that it is only an illusion. I consider myself fairly open-minded, but I don’t think any amount of evidence could ever convince me to give up my belief in free will, and my guess is that most people would agree with me.

For an empirical claim to be valid, though, it must be falsifiable. That is, if a claim is based on facts, then we must admit that contrary facts would refute it. That’s a fundamental basis of what makes science, science. If we make a supposedly empirical claim, but deny it is falsifiable by contrary facts, then in reality the claim we are making is religious, or quasi-religious, whether we realize it or not.

So when we say something like “I don’t care what the scientists say. I have free will,” we’re making a religious claim, even if we are atheists.

I’m fine with that. There are certain things we have collectively chosen to believe that, at least for now, we’ve set up on a shelf marked “not falsifiable.” Some examples are human equality, the superiority of democratic government, and free will. Those are foundational beliefs for most of us. Whether we consciously admit it or not, we wouldn’t abandon those beliefs even if scientific data seemed to refute them. The social and psychological consequences would be too great. And we don’t just do this with the big “ultimate” questions. I can think of a couple of current public policy positions, one on the right and one on the left, where empirical counter-arguments are simply off the table. We’ve chosen to hold those positions no matter what the evidence, even though we likely wouldn’t admit it. It seems to me most of us are more “religious” than we realize.

OK, that’s enough for this morning. Time to put on my rain jacket and go open the coops, put wood in the stove, and feed the goats. By the way, doggone it, I’m going to do those things because I’ve freely chosen to do them, not because they were predestined or inevitably determined by prior physical events.

And for any who made it this far–Happy New Year!


15 comments on “Pre-Chores Thoughts

  1. avwalters says:

    I have my mother’s feet and ankles. With them come certain proclivities and weaknesses. I suppose if you tracked down each and every one of my features, they all come from somewhere in that crooked family tree–each with its physical attributes and limitations. Even, to some extent, personality traits are heritable. Does a Northerner’s predisposition for seasonal depression arise out of genetics, or merely a stubborn geographical bent, a sense of place, combined with the tilt of the planet? Do all of these pre-wired DNA features diminish free will? I don’t go there.

    I try to believe that my liberal outlook and my penchant for critical thinking are my own. I don’t want to be just the logical genetic extension of my particular DNA jumble. And, especially, I don’t want my creative adventures–writing, cooking and craft–to be the predictable result of my genes and my station in life. Naturally, like most everyone, I want the “me of me” to be unique; I want my contribution to it to express some measure of choice, of skill, into the mix. So, maybe not dice, but would you consider poker?

    Happy New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I’m with you. As I said, I’m planning to hold onto my belief on that regardless of what the studies show. If everything that happens is determined, then life would seem essentially pointless.

      I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to know that researchers have been able to show that whether a person is likely to be politically conservative or liberal can be determined by testing how children respond to patterns–those who favor ordered patterns grow up to be conservative, those who favor more abstract patterns grow up to be liberals. They’ve also shown that identical twins raised separately tend to be of the same political persuasion, again strongly suggesting that we’re pre-wired for our political beliefs. And now geneticists say they have even pinpointed the specific gene that determines whether we break right or left. Is nothing sacred?? 🙂 But ever since I heard a scientist talking about this on an episode of On Being last year I’ve become a lot less bothered by people whose politics don’t line up with mine. It’s hard to blame them if our political opinions are just part of the personality we’re born with.


    • avwalters says:

      I agree with the premise that, if there is no free will, then life would seem essentially pointless. Yet, millions crowd to theme parks, at high prices, to partake of a “reality” that is completely artificial, and entirely predictable. Would those standing in line at a roller coaster still board if part of the ride included the potential that the car would careen off the tracks and out into the air? Then, is the objective of this life to enhance the experience of it, regardless of outcome? Is there room for a deeper experience of the human experience, if only we’ll open our eyes to see it? Could that be a step towards the universality of thought and human experience. It hardly seems the case when so much of our culture seems designed exactly to cater to entertainment that draws us further and further away from the authenticity of living. Perhaps, like the mystical traditions of so many religions, living fully in the present is exactly the task, but only for those who take the time, and make the effort, to think about it.

      Democracy, human equality, and perhaps the concept of free will, are values–not currently demonstrable facts. There may well be systems of civil organization that are more efficient, but better? Better/superior is a judgment call that encompasses a number of factors. Those factors will include whether you prefer order over creativity, hierarchy over individual rights. It will likely break on exactly the lines between left and right. Like you, recent science indicating that traits are inborn has relieved me of some of my angst and judgment, at the same time that it makes me even more concerned for the prospects for the planet.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. BeeHappee says:

    That book has been on my list for a while, thank you for reminding about it again, Bill.
    Determinism vs free will is as endless an argument as chicken and the egg. After your previous post on AI, I had been thinking about free will, and ironically, no matter how much I wanted to get rid of those thoughts, they kept creeping back in. 🙂

    Walter Russell, who was a contemporary of Einstein, and saw Universe as perfectly musically balanced unfolding, wrote this:
    “Verily has man freewill to control his actions. That my Father-Mother has given to man as his inheritance. But the control of the reactions to those actions man has never had. This my Father-Mother holds inviolate. These cannot become man’s except through modifying his actions until the reactions are their exact equal and opposite in equilibrium.”. Perhaps we feel that pull towards that equilibrium, working individually and as a single unit. In a way, all affects all. You can call that complete absence of free will or nothing but free will. ??
    Kiddos and I are reading “Julie of the wolves” by Jean Craighead George, about an Eskimo girl lost in tundra and living with a pack of wolves. Her father taught her: “when you feel fear, change what you are doing.” Something points us to the disbalance, and we change our actions. With free will or not?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      On my very long list of books to read, it was number one. Not because it was my highest priority, but because it had been on my list so long. Some of it seems dated now (the section on energy, for example) but most of it is amazingly relevant today. I think you’ll enjoy it.

      A while back I asked Siri (the virtual assistant on my i-phone) “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” She answered, “I got 99 problems but a causality dilemma ain’t one.” Recently I asked her, “What do you think of artificial intelligence?” She answered, “I think therefore I am. But let’s not put Descartes in front of de horse.” I suppose it’s good to know that our future overlords will have a sense of humor.

      I’ve been pondering this: “all affects all.” Maybe our “free will” problem exists because we’re thinking at the individual human level rather than at a more universal level (there’s that subjective consciousness problem again!). If we’re all subsidiary parts of some larger being, working individually and as a unit, “You can call that absence of free will or nothing but free will.” I like that.

      Happy New Year to you and yours. I’ve enjoyed following along on your journeys.

      Liked by 1 person

      • avwalters says:

        I keep bees. I observe, first hand the group-think that exists when thought occurs “at a more universal level.” That’s not free will, at least how I see and experience it. But I do like very much that Siri has a sense of humor. I’m not possessed of such high tech diversions, so I’m glad you brought that to my attention.

        Liked by 1 person

      • BeeHappee says:

        Siri sure sounds funny. Do you consult her about potato planting times, about garden pests and when is a good time for us to slow down? There is some knowing that just goes deeper than our learned logic sometimes.


      • Bill says:

        I don’t use Siri very often. This evening I asked her what time sunset was today. She’s helpful when my hands are muddy or when I’m driving and need directions. I asked the 2 questions I mentioned while I was deer hunting and bored. It’s amazing technology and it cost me nothing. Siri comes with the phone at no extra charge and with my service plan the phone (which is not the latest version) is “free.” The service plan was initially courtesy of my law firm and now has replaced our land line.
        Cherie uses Siri more often, especially when driving. With her more recent model she doesn’t even have to touch the device. She just says out loud “Hey Siri” and the device recognizes her voice, comes on and answers her. She can then say, “Text Bill and tell him I’m running late” and Siri does it. Or she can say “Please read me my text messages (or emails)” and Siri reads them out loud to her while she’s driving (my phone does this too, but I don’t use it for that). My son works for Microsoft so he has their version of it. At some point in the day he can say something like, “Remind me to defrost the meat when I get home” and when he gets home the device says, “Will, don’t forget to defrost the meat.” I guess it uses GPS to know when he’s home. It seems like Star Trek to me and experts say that in just a few years the current iterations will be like the old Pong video game that we all thought was so high-tech and now looks so silly and primitive. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, wow, this conversation is a lot to digest. I never was to very good at understanding abstract ideas. It’s good once in a while to rip open one’s beliefs and ponder on why do I believe what I believe? I would say that religion has been the biggest effect on my life’s decisions. So to some degree free will has been curbed. As I look back on all my years of life, those guide lines have saved me a lot of grief and despair so I count it as a good thing. I would say that I do not have total free will but it’s still a choice that I have made.

    I have pondered the fact that every decision has a path toward a destiny. I chose to attend a mechanic school in St. Louis for one year. During that time I met my first wife. Not only that but my sister met her husband because of my decision to go to St. Louis and attend a mechanic trade school. I also started a 41 year career in telecommunication industry. None of that would have happened if my decision wasn’t to go to school in St. Louis about 175 miles from my home town. I knew no one there and lived in a boarding house. I based that whole decision on a desire to work on cars and a trade school magazine ad. Was that all predestined? A change in that one little decision would have sent me down a very different path in life. Every decision in life has its own destiny. Some decisions are not made by choice. Some would argue that many health issues are from food choices over many years that cause heart attacks and strokes. Birth defects and genetic disorders are definitely out of the realm of free will.

    So what do I believe about free will. In my case, I believe I do have free will with self imposed guide lines. But then growing old with joint issues is not a free will choice. I can’t say that it’s an either or kind of thing. In my very out of my realm opinion, it’s a blend of both.

    Nebraska Dave


    • Bill says:

      Great comment Dave. My life has also had some unlikely and (to me at least) unpredictable turns. It’s just too hard for me to believe that those events were inevitable based on the things set into motion at the Big Bang. Thanks to an unlikely event or two in my life I met my wife. If that hadn’t happened our children wouldn’t exist. I just have to believe that while we don’t get to choose everything that happens in our lives, we’re not just along for the ride either. When all is said and done, our lives end up being what we make of them.

      I didn’t even get into the religious angle, but I’m amazed at how often cutting-edge science overlaps with what has historically been considered “religion.” I am reminded of this quote, “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

      Happy New Year Dave! I’m very thankful for our conversations through the years.


  4. Happy New Year! 🙂 ❤


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