JR'S Free Thought Pages
                                                                       No Gods  ~ No Masters    ~ No Bullshit


                                                         Are Free Will and Morality Convenient Fictions?

A Few Thoughts on Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and Raoul Martinez who wrote a brilliant first book: Creating Freedom: The Lottery of Birth, the Illusion of Consent and the Fight for Our Future

By JR, March, 2024

All we are is Dust in the Wind – Kansas

In the shadow of every life led are all the potential lives not led – Julian Baggini


A man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he wills – Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

If you are among these lucky very, very few, [who are privileged enough to have success in life that was not your own doing, …if your town…[ isn’t] now filled with shuttered factories and no jobs, [if] you didn’t grow up in an neighbourhood where it was nearly impossible to “Just say no to drugs,”…[etc. ] the ultimate implications of [biological/neurological determinism] don’t concern you. – Robert Sapolsky, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will

*Note: Professor of biology, neurology, neurological sciences and neurosurgery at Stanford University, Robert Sapolsky takes great diligence to demonstrate in his latest book that belief in free will is a choice, likely a necessary one against all evidence that a phenomenon such as free will actually exists. [1]

Regarding the long-standing philosophical debates on ethics and meta-ethics, perhaps rather than asking “What is the good?” or “Why be moral, we should be asking “Why do we create systems of ethics and moral rules at all?” Many begin discussions of ethical behaviour by appealing to dubious conceptual premises about free will and human nature that also include confused notions of evolutionary theory and innate genetic factors. Our DNA is important, but as anthropological studies have shown, morality and ethical behaviour are very pliable, adaptable ideas. As for free will there is the initial conceptual problem and as philosopher Galen Strawson claims, a self-defeating causal infinite regress which he writes is “an infinite regress of choices and principles of choice”, not unlike the inane and clearly fallacious arguments for the existence of Gods.[2] This contention can be traced to Immanuel Kant who wrote, “If our will is itself determined by antecedent causes, then we are no more accountable for our actions than any other mechanical object whose movements are internally conditioned.”For centuries, many philosophers and especially theologians have claimed that society and civilization as we know it depend on a widespread belief in free will and that not holding to this belief would be catastrophic for accountability and ethical responsibility. Most scientists and mathematicians such as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the late Stephen Hawking and many of those of the recent past such as Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein reject free will and are dedicated determinists. I suspect that most humanists are at least sceptical of freedom of the will. One of my intellectual mentors, the great philosopher, mathematician and humanist Bertrand Russell’s views on determinism and moral responsibility can be gleaned from his Elements of Ethics which are worth citing at length. Russell claims that:

”The grounds in favor of determinism appear to me overwhelming, and I shall content myself with a brief indication of these grounds…The question I am concerned with is not the free will question itself, but the question how, if at all, morals are affected by assuming determinism. Among physically possible actions, only those which we actually think of are to be regarded as possible. When several alternative actions present themselves, it is certain that we can both do which we choose, and choose which we will. In this sense all the alternatives are possible. What determinism maintains is that our will to choose this or that alternative is the effect of antecedents; but this does not prevent our will from being itself a cause of other effects. And the sense in which different decisions are possible seems sufficient to distinguish some actions as right and some as wrong, some as moral and some as immoral. It would seem, therefore, that the objections to determinism are mainly attributable to misunderstanding of its purport. Hence, finally it is not determinism but free will that has subversive consequences. There is therefore no reason to regret that the grounds in favor of determinism are overwhelmingly strong.”

At the onset of the Humanist Enlightenment there were a few determinists  such as Spinoza, but the response of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers was that free will and morality are not only beneficial, but necessary for the foundation of any civil just society. Although unlike mathematics and science, there are no deductive or inductive verities in ethics; in the interest of the common good of society we embrace necessary delusions regarding ethical norms and free will, thus at least mitigating our seemingly natural predisposition to selfishness, egoism and narcissism. With the exception of certain morally obtuse and psychopathic people like the jerk who lives across the street from me, the most obvious are those members of the capitalist classes which would include corporate executives and lawyers, conservative politicians, bankers, hedge fund managers, real estate developers, most of us even as pre-schoolers are imbued with a seemingly innate sense of justice, compassion and caring for our fellow-humans. Surely if you don’t think activities such as rape, torture, war, genocide, wanton exploitation and racism are morally wrong, you would be either a liar of psychopath. After all, without those dispositional qualities, we’d be cast into a chaotic state of nature and survival mode with every person for himself.

The idea of ultimate responsibility and accountability is buried deep in the foundations of our long standing carrot stick Christian traditions of praise and punishment, political ideologies, education and legal systems. These beliefs are implicitly accepted and internalized by the masses but rarely explicitly stated by our capitalist institutions and their countless so-called “think tanks” such as the Chambers of Commerce that spew out endless streams of marketing, indoctrination and propaganda. Their existence is implied by unchallenged toxic ideas such as reward and punishment, just deserts and the myth of the “self-made man”, heaven and hell, sin and eternal damnation, the latter which are core beliefs of Christianity and Islam. But this cosmic world order of censure, guilt and salvation only makes sense if people deserve the conditions bestowed upon them. And it’s not just the horrific vile philosophies of the two primary monotheisms. There are the Hindu and Buddhist concepts of karma that impose similar conditions. Despite the dubious idea of free will and our choice of birth these vile ancient religious doctrines still play powerful roles throughout the majority of people in the world perpetuating the accountability myth while justifying all manner of cruel and vicious punishments in this life and the mythical afterlife. But these religions are really business enterprises that invoke fear and control to maintain their nauseating philosophies and superstitions.

Crude formulations of the religious mythologies also occupy a prominent position in popular culture. It has been given a huge boost by the ever-growing quasi-religious gibberish of capitalist economics and the “invisible hand of the market”, the “self help” positive thinking movements that can be traced back to the 19th Century charlatans whose blend of materialistic values and pseudo-spirituality has spawned a multibillion-dollar industry. One of its innumerable exponents is the clownish New Age kook Deepak Chopra who perfectly exemplifies the pseudoscientific nonsense and silly hocus pocus. Chopra claims clients from Oprah, Madonna to Hillary Clinton as his mystical message appeals primarily to the affluent and those money hungry entrepreneurs, budding huckster capitalists and con artists looking for fast money. After all, Chopra tells us, “People who have achieved an enormous amount of financial success are inherently very spiritual and affluence is simply their natural state.” Bullshit!

Perhaps the most successful self help happiness cult for the credulous arose with “Help Me Rhonda”* Rhonda Byrne’s hugely popular book and equally idiotic film The Secret (2006). In both the book and film we are introduced to what Byrne claims is a universal natural law – the “law of attraction” which without explanation informs that “like attracts like” and that we can change our situation merely by changing our thoughts. This pseudoscientific gibberish has been spun off from another scam, the 1952 still in print pabulum called the Power of Positive Thinking, the notion that desirable outcomes such as good health, wealth and happiness will automatically come to those with “positive” thoughts and feelings. And, by implication, undesirable outcomes come to those with “negative” thoughts and feelings. This differs little from blind faith, an idiocy of illogic peddled by mainstream religions. Even natural disasters costing thousands of lives, the book claims, can be traced back to the negative thought patterns of the destroyed devastated communities. Byrne likes to quote the huckster self help Guru Dr. Joe Vitale, “If people believe they can be in the wrong place at the wrong time…those thoughts of fear, separation, and powerlessness, if persistent, can attract them to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Many take this intellectual rubbish to be the ultimate profundity; am I missing something here? [3]

*Apologies to the Beach Boys

Sadly, even a cursory examination of capitalism, particularly the current sordid mutation of neo-liberal ideology referred to by many critics as gangster capitalism or techno-feudalism which has become a calcified global dogma whereby power, profit and the accumulation of money which have in the past been deemed degraded behaviour and deeply immoral. The corporate elites have no problem with this vile system being implemented whereby any means will be invoked to achieve the end of profit that includes labour exploitation and destroying all life on the planet. Traditional liberalism has now been confined to the freedom to make money in any way possible. The so-called “free” market iterations of boom-bubble-bust-bailout systematically fail and are handed golden parachutes on a regular basis with trillions of dollars of costs incurred and offloaded onto the public and the corporatist boot licking nanny state. Moreover, we have thereby placed every species but our own on the extinction short list. But once we have destroyed every ecosystem and lost biodiversity, we will be facing our own demise. Capitalism should have been ended after the Great Depression which was ample proof of its systemic abysmal failures.

As the eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins argued in The Selfish Gene, Darwinian natural selection operates at the level of the individual and even at a more base level that of the gene. Genes seek their own replication whereas individuals are out for themselves as survival may be as much in competition with other members of one’s species as in cooperation with them. Human beings are scarcely unique among animal species in perpetual conflict and killing their own kind. That most humanists and scientists such as Dawkins are determinists doesn’t mean that they deny freedom and responsibility. Despite the realities of our nurture, upbringing, socio-economic status and other environmental factors that include pure luck have a huge impact on what kind of person we are and how we behave we can still accept free will, even if justified by an intuitive necessity. We don’t even fully understand consciousness, so the fact that free will remains enigmatic ought to be of no surprise. Debating the existence of free will and supernatural entities and phenomena such as gods, angels and souls makes little sense if we cannot even agree on a meaningful conception. We invoke the notion of free will to justify a system of rewards and punishments for people and create police, prisons and other horrible anti-social institutions. This carrot stick morality is a Western hangover from Christianity and its many barbarisms in the Dark Ages when such unjust authoritarian institutions ruled and as they continue to rule today with corporate finance capitalism (aka neo-liberalism).

Along with the myth of free will is the quite obvious hypothesis that the universe itself has any will, purpose or teleology. The universe doesn’t give a damn about you. The notion that free will is very likely an illusion - and there's nothing in contemporary  science or logic to suggest that is not – is the non-existence of supernatural entities controlling the universe - is fundamental to human rationality and existence. Although the acceptance of some variation of free will provides some advantage in survival and reproduction, as societies would function very differently and likely worse if the illusion didn't persist. The fact that free will probably doesn't really exist (despite any clear comprehensible conception of either “freedom” or “will”) is sometimes a comfort when one reflects on past unwise and horrible decisions by apparently intelligent and moral humans to choose injustice, greed, violence, genocide and war. Among many mythologies is the bullshit and deceit regarding the origins of war (always a conspiratorial racket and great for business) that are especially endemic to our imperialist capitalist system and pervasive among the wealthy, is the “self-made man” fantasy who attribute their success mainly to their own lofty attributes and choices. The choice of living homeless under a viaduct never arises for these people. Most likely, these individuals have not carefully examined the chain of events that have led to their “success”– contingency of birth (the infamous genetic lottery) who they meet and get to know or exploit, family and socio-economic environment, class status and sometimes just plain bullshit luck.

Our systems of ethics, the “inventing of right and wrong”, as Australian philosopher J L Mackie called it, is based on a more or less complex game of reciprocation and as such it would hardly seem to justify Kant’s lofty reverence for the “moral law within us”. Philosopher John Mackie defended his “moral error theory” by criticizing a widely held conception of morality called “moral realism.” Moral realism is the belief that morality is something real, that moral rules can be deemed true and discoverable like the laws of physics rather than something we have conjured up. Mackie called his own view “moral scepticism,” but he was sufficiently provocative to open his 1977 book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong with the assertion that “there are no objective values.” This relativist approach to ethics routinely dismisses the notion of religiously based divine command ethics grounded in authoritarianism, a rejection that began with pre-Socratic philosophers who argued that it reduced morality to mere prudence. We create moral rules to create boundaries for decency, fairness and civilized behaviour, the Golden Rule being what I would cite as a minimalist imperative that would surely rule out the greed and exploitation of capitalism carte blanche.

German philosopher, mathematician and polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) one of the iconic figures of the Enlightenment, declared that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” Contrary to the sanguine Leibniz, another German philosopher and pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) feared that Leibniz might be right which implies surely we must live in one of the worst conceivable. He would concur with one of the characters in a Woody Allen movie who said “life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering - and it's all over much too soon”. Schopenhauer, too curious and intelligent for religious mumbo jumbo, became an atheist in his teens, convinced that such a world as this could not have been created by an omnipotent infinitely benevolent deity. “Life,” he was to declare is, “a wretched business; I’ve decided to spend my life trying to understand it.”

Not surprisingly, Schopenhauer had little regard for men such as Leibniz who he considered pious and delusional – “a miserable little candlelight” he described him. He regarded optimism as not merely absurd, but also as a delusional irrational way of thinking, and as a “bitter mockery of the unspeakable suffering of humanity.” But this condition was not exclusive of humans, but also of all animal life. If Kant restricted the domain of ethics to rational creatures, Schopenhauer, for whom rationality was only a thin veneer concealing an essentially animal nature, stressed our mutual capacity for suffering and in his ethics of compassion he included animals , dogs being his preferred companions. Unlike many other philosophers of his day such as Kant and Hegel, the latter who he considered unreadable and a charlatan, he wrote in a polished yet admirably lucid style, preferring a philosophy of life and living, rather than abstruse and arcane technical treatises or utopian salvation plans for humanity. He saw one of the primary tasks of philosophy as providing his readers with consolation in the face of despondency, psychological pain and ultimate death, although without what he considered the manipulations, delusions, false hopes, cruelties, vulgarities and barbarisms of Christianity.

In contrast to Aristotle and most other philosophers, Schopenhauer did not consider human beings as pre-eminently rational creatures; rather he stresses how enigmatic and superficial consciousness is, what he called “the mere surface of our minds.” Not unlike Sigmund Freud he stressed the unconscious motivations of most of our actions, claiming that “We are often entirely mistaken as to the real motive from which we do or omit to do something, till finally some accident reveals the secret to us.” Rather than inherently rational beings, we are the unwitting slaves of the universal will that works within us, often ending in self-deception and delusion, asserting that “The real self is the will to live – the blind striving for existence and reproduction.” Here he is not only a precursor of Darwin and Freud but, more particularly, that of Richard Dawkins. Schopenhauer’s blind will and the selfish gene of Dawkins create a similar narrative. Moreover, the moral is strangely much the same: what’s good for the will, or good for the genes, is not necessarily what’s good for us as individuals. The dubious doctrine of free will, Schopenhauer tells us, is “ready to let the individual fall… maintaining the species.” As for Schopenhauer and Dawkins, our best hope is not to necessarily comply with an equally dubious human nature but to compete against it to the extent that we are able to escape what appear as our built-in biological nature for which geneticists and others in new sciences such as socio-biology teach. But a central conflict in his philosophy arises in that if we are determined by the will, how can we deny it? This is perhaps what Schopenhauer says we ought to do? If we are, indeed, able to turn against and deny the will then it must be that the will is not as powerful as he claims. This is not merely an academic dilemma since it is crucial to the notion of free will and the future of humankind. In today’s terms it could be posed as the question whether reason, that accidental offspring of evolution, can prevail against the negative irrational instincts such as lack of self-discipline and self-control which also are the product of Darwinian evolution. For example why is there an epidemic of obesity when for the vast majority to avoid resembling a hippo, it requires only two demands: eat less and exercise more. Big Pharmaceutical behemoths have now invented a pill for the morbidly obese and weak willed; like the online gambling on pro sports, it is peddled relentlessly on idiotic disgusting TV ads. Even "the great one" and multi-millionaire bone head Wayne Gretzky flogs this idiocy.

Friedrich Nietzsche was probably the first philosopher to seriously consider and assimilate Darwinism in his philosophy and consider its moral implications. For Nietzsche, there are no moral facts and nothing intrinsically valuable about nature - including human beings. Not unlike Baruch Spinoza before him, Nietzsche was a humanist, naturalist and determinist. Although two centuries apart, both philosophers replaced the god delusion with the laws of nature, viewing human beings as a mere incidental component of nature within a deterministic universe, reducing good and bad to biological human needs and denial of freedom of the will. For Nietzsche, human beings hold no special place in the universe or on earth over other living creatures. Rather, like them, we are part of “a causal web that comprises the whole universe” which reduces inanities such as the contingencies of nationalism and patriotism to useless vacuities. Moreover, unlike other philosophers who write of the freedom of the will, Nietzsche informs us that the will is neither free nor un-free, but rather strong or weak. The alleged special place we humans have in the universe and the notions of good or evil are manufactured human fairy tales and fabrications - lies we tell ourselves that we find necessary to get through the day, the need to “supplement reality by an ideal world of our own creation.”

Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals is an exercise in “animal psychology”, studying, in Nietzsche’s own words, “the physiology and evolutionary history of organisms and concepts.” In a number of other key works Nietzsche embraces science as providing access to what he sees as “the real world of nature”, whereas our religious, moral and aesthetic sentiments belong only to the surface of things. Through our egoistic need to see the universe as existing for the sake of human beings, in effect we merely create a perceptible world, which for Nietzsche is “the value-laden world as error.” (Human, All Too Human) To what extent we can live in truth and not delusion and error is for Nietzsche one of the most important questions of our lives that permeate his writings, not the least of which is the illusion that we are rational creatures.

In sum, ethics is in essence an exercise in self-deceit, in the sense that we are self-programmed by our DNA to believe in an illusion. There is really no epistemological basis for moral truth or objective systems of ethics. At least I have not encountered one so far. But we wisely choose to invent moral rules to avoid injustice, chaos, selfishness and evil. Notwithstanding Nietzsche’s compelling arguments and the existence of psychopaths and sociopaths, we are systematic value laden creatures who regularly make moral judgements. But how, one might ask? Explanations lie in our genetic makeup and the influence of societal norms. Even pre-school toddlers seem to have an innate sense of fair play and justice. Just observe a group of them at play.

Following Darwin and Freud, our moral codes are grounded in preconscious, perhaps subconscious, feelings of disgust with those who intimidate, harass and inflict harm on others, cheat, lie, are disloyal, unfair and selfish, violate generally accepted societal norms, do not keep promises, defy legitimate authority and violate long standing social taboos such as incest. Many of these moral sentiments support progressive Enlightenment ideas of morality that would include slavery and racism, while others conflict with current liberal values of egalitarianism, gender, economic and social equality, tolerance, anti-authoritarianism, individual rights, freedom of thought and safeguards against persecution from both religious and secular tyranny. By clarifying the ways in which our value systems are formulated by pre-rational impulses, we can make more conscious choices about how to build a fair society and practice the civic virtues of justice and engaged citizenship. In psychological studies, particularly in the study of game theory, cooperation, as opposed to conflict and competition, has been shown to not only promote a more ethical society, but have demonstrated greater utility as well.

As mentioned previously, studies have shown children to have innate moral sensibilities, particularly with regard to “fairness”. These intuitions can also be observed in our simian cousins. When chimpanzees and human children are set up in dilemma and ultimatum situations, they invariably display a seemingly built-in understanding of fairness and a willingness to sacrifice rewards and to punish cheaters is the same manner as within ethical societies with laws against such moral offences. Even human infants under two years old react negatively when they observe unequal rewards given to others. According to Paul Bloom, one of the leading researchers on the moral life of infants and the author of Just Babies, infants exhibit four primary moral sensibilities:


Moral judgment: some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions.


Empathy: suffering at the pain of those around us and wishing to make this pain go away.


Fairness: a tendency to favour those who divide resources equally.


Justice: a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished


But unless these key ethical values are promoted, rather than stifled, as in our deeply immoral capitalist culture of selfishness, exploitation, authoritarianism, grotesque economic inequality and grand larceny, they can be easily lost as they have been today. Moreover, the fact that the terminal cancerous capitalist system, grotesque global economic disparity, racism, religious and political persecution, imperialistic war, gratuitous violence, torture, cops, prisons and the death penalty still exists throughout much of the world inform us we have a long way to go in creating a civil, just, fair and compassionate world. Democracy construed as “the will of the people” for anyone paying attention, does not exist and never has existed. Wake up people.[4]


[1] In the aforementioned book Sapolsky seems to be talking about very nearly the same thing as many other curious people such as me when he suggests that to unreflectively perceive the environmental and biological determinants of behavior affecting you, frees one from having to realize that bad things happen as a matter of routine to most people on our uncaring capitalist world that prioritizes profit before people and for which money is the quintessential criterion for meaning and success. Moreover, it liberates one from the unbearable realization you are in almost all cases not in control and find yourself clinging to the illusion of control especially when something bad happens to you that induces failure and trauma.  Read Raoul Martinez’s book and the books and many videos of Gabor Mate who I believe properly explain human dysfunction including PTSD disorders and typically addictions to mitigate emotional anguish.

As a brilliant scientist, Sapolsky has taken on the formidable task of trying to convince people to believe there’s no such thing as free will so that they can stop feeling so guilty, vengeful and punitive like our vile monotheisms have promoted for centuries. As an empiricist skeptic and by observing the toxicity of the world, more recently and out of necessity a pessimist, I feel that egotistical certainty is a grand illusion not because science proves it but because of what Sapolsky might well consider mysticism, nonsense and mumbo jumbo. In a global culture of greed, acquisitiveness and exploitation, we have lost the ability for peace, justice, forgiveness, empathy, compassion and caring for the other. Our punitive so-called criminal “justice” system is an archaic religiously inspired abomination. Police, prisons and laws designed by people of wealth and privilege to serve their vile interests must be abolished.

Proponents of free will and blame are not disinterested bystanders, especially the deluded believers in a supernatural omnipotent, omniscient caring deity that created all that exists. But the notion of free will absolves their apparent benevolent all-powerful demented god of responsibility for whatever his deeply flawed creatures do, even as he/she/it knew what the psychopathic Jack the Ripper, Adolph Hitler, Charles Manson types would do before he created them. The Christian Hitler of course avoids the eternal tortures of hell fires that punish empiricist sceptics and disbelievers. But there’s a paradox with which we are all apparently compelled to accept. Despite the myth of free as all determinists believe, we must lead our daily lives as though we do have free will – otherwise, whence moral responsibility? Our deeply flawed and unjust capitalist world order functions on the dubious basis that whatever happens to us, it’s our own fault due to bad choices, ignorance or stupidity. In order to demand and expect trust, reciprocation, mutual adherence to promises, compassion and empathy which are the essence of relationships between couples, family, friends and others in market exchange, government and all else. We are compelled to do this while at the same time realizing free will is a fairy tale.

Ultimately, all of these comments consider the subject free who could have chosen otherwise - as if responsible for his own behaviour. But surely the determinist at the intellectual level must realize that no matter the moral transgression or crime, is not responsible for whom he is but yet accountable - and therefore helped - not punished and despised.

[2] Consider that a choice or free action must be done for a reason to be non-arbitrary. The reason can be in the form of principles, preferences or values. But if someone is responsible for their actions, they must act in accordance with principles, preferences or values they themselves have freely chosen: that is, one must be responsible for the preferences upon which one acts. The question must then arise, where do these preferences come from? In order to be responsible for our preferences, they too must be chosen in a reasoned and conscious fashion. But for this to be the case, one would have to exist prior to that choice, with a certain set of preferences about how to choose one’s preferences in a reasoned and conscious fashion. And so on it goes. It seems then that being the sort of person one is, having the desires and beliefs one does, is something over which we cannot have ultimate control, that it’s merely the result of our parents, upbringing and cultural influences. After all, bad and often traumatic experiences happen to us as a matter of routine in our uncaring exploitive immoral capitalist world that cares only about money and profit as meaning and what we mean by success. Rejecting freedom of the will liberates one from the unbearable realization you are in almost all cases not in complete control and yet find yourself clinging to the illusion of control especially when something bad does happens to you. I once again urge the reader to consult not only the books and videos of Gabor Mate, but the brilliant book by Raoul Martinez called Creating Freedom: Power, Control and the Fight for Our Future and his web site Creating Freedom | The Book and Documentary.

[3] In today’s anything goes neo-liberal capitalism, lack of self control, excess and stupidity are deemed virtues rather than bad habits that need to be overcome. Morbid obesity is now just fine as gravy laced fried chicken and 12 inch thick burgers are laced with fatty grease and unknown slop dripping with from them. Every advertisement features a hippo like 400 lb person with numerous tattoos and facial ring as some sort of pervasive normalcy. Again: eat less; exercise more - end of story. Today those wishing to control their weight and look like a real woman from a former era, Jane Fonda, are offered a different strategy that healthy diet and exercise in The Secret, “If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect (Jane Fonda) body and feel it…Attracting the perfect weight is the same as placing an order with the catalogue of the universe. You look through the catalogue, choose the perfect weight and place your order, and then it is delivered to you (by Door Dash or Skip the Dishes).” Byrne’s writing verges on the absurdly comical but her message is symptomatic of a dumb and dumber delusional trend. The Secret reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for 190 weeks. This hooey has been translated into fifty languages and has over 20 million copies. Yeah, really!

[4] In contrast to many humanist philosophers and scientists, existentialist philosophy and humanistic psychology have emphasized freedom of the will and human autonomy as inescapable, asserting that choice is one of the defining characteristics of human existence, even if it isn’t necessarily a positive facility. According to Søren Kierkegaard, the sheer extent of our freedom in having to make choices may induce a state of disorientation and dread, and we make our choices “in fear and trembling.” Similarly, the great French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre believed that the freedom to choose courses of action without fully controlling or even knowing their consequences have contributed to human “angst” or anxiety. As Sartre put it in his famous phrase, we are “condemned to be free.”

In the excellent book The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: The Tyranny of Truth, during the events leading to Hitler’s tyrannical rise to power in Germany, Albert Einstein posed the question to Arendt, “What is the meaning of life?” Her response was “throwness” an idiom of her professor Martin Heidegger. This is not unlike Sartre’s condemnation to freedom; we are thrown into the world and are forced to deal with its absurdity, injustices and chaos by making choices regardless of whether free will exists or not.

With the advent of Facebook and Twitter - which since their inception I have avoided like a plague - are internet platforms whereby attention deficit agitated people are now subjected to constant interchanges as choices are made promptly on mobile phones without much prior thought or serious contemplation. This is generally done while engaged in some other activity so the results are usually seriously compromised since most people cannot multi-task and have trouble focusing on one task in our distracted postmodern post truth world. This is called System 1 Thinking by psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his insightful must read book Thinking Fast and Slow and the most common symptom is error.

I’m reminded of a famous n famous line from Jean Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos, characterized as hell (recall his equally famous line “Hell is other people” from No Exit) as the severe unrelenting discomfort of being watched and judged by other people and projecting onto yourself the judgmental characteristics you sense they have perceived. It would seem that multi-billionaire Zuckerberg and his cohorts have gleaned from Sartre’s (remember Sartre is an atheist) metaphorical version of hell on earth on to Facebook’s business model, making every declaration or gesture a form of public speaking. Whenever you compose a post or comment, you do so with the knowledge that someone else whom you are not directly addressing and perhaps don’t even know, might be looking on. And even when no one is paying you any attention, this sense of being overlooked very likely never goes away where privacy is non-existent. But perhaps for some they find enjoyment in the notion that it is they who are doing the spying. 

Long before social media mania and in reaction to behaviorist and Freudian psychology, humanistic psychologists such as Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers have argued that human behavior is not necessarily determined by our past and present experiences, since we always have the capacity to make choices based on our assessments of current situations. Whatever the expression “greatness” and “excellence” entail, it has invariably been happened to people who have in spite of debilitating external influences, exercised their autonomy and self-discipline, even if it means overcoming obstacles and delaying gratification for a greater path to a flourishing life, what Nietzsche perhaps meant by his expression “self-overcoming”.


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