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On Illness, Bodies, and This Weird Free Will Thing

Caduceus_largeSo for the last week or so, I’ve been dealing with some health issues. Nothing serious, and I’m dealing with it, so don’t anybody worry. That’s not why I’m telling you this.

Here’s why I’m telling you this. I spent much of last week pretty well flattened: in serious discomfort, occasionally verging into real pain. And I was struck — as I always am when I’m sick or injured — by how fragile I am.

I don’t just mean my body. I mean my… well, me. My selfhood, my identity. What I would call my soul, if I believed in that.

409pxglassofwaterThis is what I mean. So many of the things that are central to my identity, things I pride myself on and think of as central to my self — my optimism, my cheerful disposition, my compassion, my ability to cut people slack, my energy, my libido, my hard-workingness, my consciousness of others — all of these were shot to hell last week. I was irritable, I was lethargic, I was self-absorbed, I was whiny. I was everything I don’t like.

All because of pain.

Computer_keyboardWorse — for me, at least — I got almost no writing done. Partly because I was having abdominal pain and had a hard time sitting up, but largely because I just didn’t want to. I didn’t even want to read. I simply didn’t have it in me. I didn’t have it in me to do anything except lie flat on the sofa with a hot water bottle and watch TV.

And I started thinking: What if this were chronic?

What if I felt like this all the time?

Who would I be?

FrameI have a tendency to be a bit smug and self-righteous about my optimism and cheerfulness and whatnot. I have a tendency to see having a good nature as something you can choose. Because most of the time, that’s how it is for me. I see a situation, and I see in front of me the way of looking at it that’s suspicious and gloomy and pessimistic, and I see the way of looking at it that’s generous and hopeful… and when it’s reasonable and not obviously deluded to do so, I opt for the latter. I see optimism as a choice, a conscious way of framing your life and the world that not only makes you feel better in the short run but makes actual external things in your life better in the long run. And I get truly baffled by people who can’t or won’t do it.

SeesawaaBut when I’m sick or injured, I get a lot more humble about it. I realize that a huge amount of my ability to choose optimism is balanced on some very precarious teeter-totters: good physical health and financial stability being the most obvious. (It doesn’t help that I’m reading the new Oliver Sacks book, “Musicophilia,” and thus am reading all this stuff about the freaky ways that brain injuries can radically change the things most central to a person’s self and the things that connect them with the world. Eep.)

Hot_water_bottleI just kept thinking last week, as I got up to refill the hot water bottle for the twentieth time: If the pain I’m in became chronic, would I adjust and find a way back to my native optimism and energy, sucking up and dealing with the pain the way I suck up and deal with the other things in my life that are crummy? I’d like to think so; but I really don’t know. I know some people can. I honestly don’t know if I’m one of them. (Ingrid says there’s a large body of research on chronic pain and its effect on people’s selves and lives and freedom; and not surprisingly, that effect is Not Good.)

And would I even have developed my native optimism in the first place if I hadn’t spent most of my life in pretty good physical health? Again, I’d like to think so; but I really don’t know.

HandsI think this is important stuff for atheists and humanists and naturalists. This is the thing that was really striking me when I was on the sofa with the hot water bottle. If there is no God and no soul, and everything we are is comprised of physical things and the relationships between physical things… then when you change those physical things, the self changes as well. Our selves are not in our own hands nearly as much as we like to think.

Skinner_boxI’m not saying that we don’t have any responsibility for ourselves and the choices we make. I think we do. I’m not quite sure what, if anything, this weird free will stuff is — I don’t think anyone does at this point — but I do think that we have something resembling free will and moral accountability. And unless a preponderance of evidence piles up showing that human beings really are just elaborate stimulus-response machines, I’m going to go on holding myself and others morally accountable for our choices. If I’m not responsible for how I manage my pain, then nobody is responsible for anything they do… and in the absence of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, I’m just not willing to accept that.

Light_switch_insideWhat I am saying is this: Whatever free will is, it seems to not be a simple matter of either/or, a light switch that’s either on or off. (See the excellent On the Possibility of Perfect Humanity at Daylight Atheism for more on this.) Things happen in our lives that can limit or expand our freedom, that can broaden or diminish the choices that are available to us. Some of these are things that we can do something about; some of them really, really aren’t. And I think those of us who have a lot of choices need to remember to have compassion for people who don’t have as many.


  1. konrad_arflane says

    “I’m not quite sure what, if anything, this weird free will stuff is — I don’t think anyone does at this point — but I do think that we have something resembling free will and moral accountability. And unless a preponderance of evidence piles up showing that human beings really are just elaborate stimulus-response machines, I’m going to go on holding myself and others morally accountable for our choices.”
    I always find it amusing when people argue that since free will is an illusion (and it may very well be), holding people accountable for their actions doesn’t make sense.
    This ignores that if free will is an illusion, it follows logically that we don’t get to decide whether or not we hold people accountable. Quite frankly, I don’t think very many people truly, in their heart of hearts, don’t believe in free will – at least their own.

  2. Donna Gore says

    Greta, I hope you are feeling better now. I’ve had similar thoughts when I’ve been very sick of “What if I had this all the time? There are people out there who have to live with chronic pain, 24-7, how do they do it?” I just don’t know what I would do — I have not yet walked in those shoes.
    After hitting 50 I developed arthritis. Most of the time it is manageable, but sometimes it really hurts. There are times the pain wakes me out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night. I roll over, and OUCH. Or sometimes I’m not even MOVING. I’m lying perfectly still, and I wake up in pain.
    I remember a woman, a friend of the family, who had severe debilitating arthritis. She was only in her 30s and had adopted a toddler, who I sometimes baby-sat. I began to see that woman in a whole new light, with deep empathy and respect. How on earth did she do it??
    I am generally upbeat, good-natured and optimistic. However, being in pain does change me. It is very hard to stay positive sometimes.
    I start wading into the pool of self pity, thinking, “Well it’s all downhill from here. It’s certainly not going to get BETTER. Is that all there is?” (like the old Peggy Lee song).
    But – when I see all the advances that are being made in the medical field, that’s when the optimist comes back. I put my faith in SCIENCE. Science gives me hope, not just for myself but for all of us human beans.
    And yeah, free will does come into play here – I can sit on my ass and whine, or I can DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. The physical therapist taught me some exercises, and I have the big plastic strap thingy to help with that. It really helps. So that’s what I do when I’m sitting there starting to feel sorry for myself. I pick up the tools I was given, and I get to work. I cannot control what is happening to my body, but I CAN control how I respond to it.

  3. says

    I hope you’re soon feeling better.
    Thanks for the reminder not to take the good things in our lives – health, security, shelter, loving relationships – for granted.

  4. freakingdork says

    This post really makes me really happy…in a way that’s hard to describe. I’m obviously not happy that you’ve been in pain recently, but rather, that such an introspective, thoughtful post has come out of it.
    I’ve suffered from chronic depression since I was a child (mostly, but not entirely genetic). I’ve also suffered from chronic abdominal pain due to IBS since I was in high school. About once a year since I started blogging in 2002, I’ve had a similar post, but from the opposite view point. Who would I be without chronic pain and sadness?
    But I am generally happy with who I’ve become. Empathetic, bisexual, teetering between atheism and unconventional Christian, smart feminist.
    And I often call myself a cynical optimist or even a realistic optimist because I know that my version of optimism doesn’t exactly fit what most people would define as optimism.

  5. newbie atheist says

    I think the difference is that your illness represented a CHANGE from your normal routine. Such a change is stressful and hard to integrate into your usual life. Like others who’ve commented, I cannot say for certain whether chronic pain or another disabling condition would change me.
    However, as a doctor, I have seen patients I already knew well who went through such a long term problem have a period of time when they were adjusting to the CHANGE and were not the same people I knew before. However, once enough time passed and their chronic condition stabilized, they were back to their old selves; just with the new and chronic problem they’d developed. They seem to just integrate it into who they (now) are, and they get back to their lives.
    Some people do indeed have a negative outlook (though it may not be obvious to those around them) and will never accommodate such changes. (Or, at least, they’ll be just as negative with the new problem as they were before)

  6. LRO says

    Very astute observations in the face of difficulty. Maybe free will, like so many other things, is a matter of degrees or even maturity. We all have different thresholds for pain and/or mental anguish. Maybe my threshold would eventually lead me to accept chronic pain and get back to my previously optimistic self, or maybe I’d go down in flames. What I really took away from your post is that I need to cultivate more compassion for those whose suffering makes them difficult to be around.

  7. says

    Greta, I usually agree with you, but I certainly can’t on this.
    Firstly, as I see it, there are extremely powerful arguments against free will – for an introduction to some of them see “Think” by Simon Blackburn. (The most serious argument is that the idea of free will is incohorent: either our behaviour is caused, which means it isn’t free, or our behaviour is random, which also means it isn’t free. There doesn’t seem to be a third possibility).
    Furthermore, even if people are determined, we can still reasonably hold them responsible for their actions. (On utilitarian grounds).

  8. debbyo says

    “I do think that we have something resembling free will and moral accountability”.
    Perhaps your illness taught you that under some conditions it might be a lot harder to be a cheerful and optimistic person. Perhaps even the belief in a free will (and therefore moral accountability) is more dependent on circumstances than the lucky ones (health-wise and socially) imagine. A child in sweatshop in a third world country is less likely to be able to exercise his free will to the extent that you and I can. And I imagine that someone with severe schizophrenia is not always accountable for her actions. I am a cheerful type too, but then again I have a lot to be cheerful for. Sometimes sad people are whiny and self-centered, and sometimes a pessimistic disposition is a natural response to a hard life. I also read somewhere that temperament is inherited. So there’s no free will story there either. Those that can overcome their misfortune with a sunny disposition might have just been blessed with happy genes.

  9. the izz says

    Thanks for doing this post. I actually am living with vulvodynia, which is chronic vulva pain. And I’m an atheist. I can tell you that vulvodynia touches almost all aspects of my life and it has changed many things about who I thought I was. But on the other hand it is remarkable how much you can just get used to. It’s a little like when you enter a room with a bad smell in it. At first the smell is terrible, but if you stay in the room you start to not notice the smell as much. I never thought I could deal with the pain that I am currently in, but I do because I really have no choice. And when you are sick for a long time you use your ingenuity to come up with novel ways to change your life to remain true to yourself and manage your illness. For example, I used to do performance art, and now that I’m less mobile, I do more painting and collage art. I can’t have all types of sex any time I want, but this has actually lead to some terrific experimentation. In terms of how it relates to atheism, when I was more spiritually inclined I would feel in a way responsible for my condition. But as I embraced materialism I faced that I could be dead or in pain and that there wasn’t some ideal form of me living out there without pain. It really helped me to accept that this is the only life I’ve got and a life in pain is better than no life at all. And I’ve become very involved in my medical treatment as I know there is no mystical something out there that will help me. So there is one way to deal with chronic pain.

  10. says

    Years ago I decided that the issue of “free will vs. determinism” is irrelevant to questions of ethics, and untestable with respect to matters of science. Since then I have tried to avoid wasting time on it. But it comes up every now and then in Freethinker circles, and many people are lured into arguing at length over it.
    Our ordinary practice is to ascribe “free will” to beings which are conscious and intelligent. “Conscious” meaning that they have an internal (“mental”) model of the external world, which they use to anticipate the consequences of different “imagined” courses of action. “Intelligent” meaning that their model is complex and sophisticated, and their imagination likewise, so they can find courses of action that will serve their purposes even in novel situations. “Free will” in such cases means that the great bulk of the IMMEDIATE causes of their actions lie inside their “skin” rather than outside, AND that their actions are not easily or reliably predictable by an outside observer.
    This use of the term “free will” does not require denying the
    hypothesis of “universal causation”, nor does it depend in any way on whether “causation” is always a single-valued function (i.e. whether the same inputs always produce the same output, or whether instead the output may be any of several values with some statistical probability for each.) In other words, this use of the term “free will” is fully compatible with “determinism”. Beings with “minds” sufficiently sophisticated to have “free will” may operate their “minds” deterministically.
    We assign “moral responsibility” to beings with “free will”, we
    assign praise and blame, rewards and punishments, to such beings, because that is the easiest (often the only) way we know to intervene in the causal chain. We want them to behave in one way rather than another, so we initiate some causes that we hope will have the effect of modifying their behavior. We hope they will include in their “mental” model that we will respond to their actions with praise/blame, reward/penalty, and that they will therefore “choose” a different course of action. The hypothesis of “universal causation” is irrelevant to this.
    If we gain some ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE of the causal chain affecting their actions, then we may intervene at a different place. For example, if we find that childhood exposure to high levels of lead in the environment leads to neurological damage that results in a lack of ability to control impulses, i.e. their ability to control their own behavior by “rationality” is impaired, then we may seek to reduce crime by banning leaded gasoline, lead-based paint, lead solder in water pipes, and so forth. But this is not the same as “determinism”, considered as a philosophical hypothesis.
    “Determinism”, the hypothesis of Universal Causation, says that “all events have causes; there are no uncaused events”. This is a universal claim. The critic may offer as a counterexample some event with no apparent cause. The believer in Determinism will reply “the cause may be unknown at present, but there must be one”. This is not something that can ever be proved or disproved, by any amount of evidence, short of complete examination of the entire Universe throughout all of Time. It is a starting assumption, a working hypothesis. Some have claimed that it is a NECESSARY assumption for the practice of science, but I don’t think so. Science can be practiced perfectly well under the assumption that many/most events have causes.
    So: I see no reason to spend one more second debating the question of “free will versus determinism”.

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