edit 16.02.14: the last point should have been removed has I did not write the paragraph on this idea. Now that it is here, I leave it
In the last few week, I have been asking myself what should I do in life. As I could not easily find an answer, this led me to the ask myself what are the reasons to do something, and how can we justify these reasons.
The question is not just to choose between different possibilities in life, but also between doing something and doing nothing, so at the end to have a really “good” reason to do a thing for itself, not just rather than something else.
Disclaimer: I have not been following the field of cognitive science recently, but I assume that this problem is quite different than the usual problem of volition, which (seems to me) investigate the question of how people make a choice between several options regarding some preferences, some underlying rules or a strategy to optimize.
Why do we do what we do?
As a preliminary approach to tackle the problem, I ask myself how I have been making life choices so far.
At first, it looked like most of my choices were made through some kind of rational thinking on what I knew from the different options, and some personal preferences.
example: going to medicine rather than “classe preparatoire” because of my dislike for being told what to do, and the idea that I would not want to become an engineer.
edit 16.02.14: what one “like” (or not) is encompassed in its preferences (like can be consider as the preference of something rather than not this thing, and dislike conversly)
However, these arguments quickly appear as flawed:
– in most case I did not investigate deeply the consequences of each choices, and rather rather based my choice on preconceived idea and preferences toward them;
-> therefore preferences are in fact the main contributors to choices.
What make up these preferences? In my case I can say with good confidence that my preferences are the fruits of the imprint that other people left on my memory (the largest part being my education, the imprints of my family).
example: as my parents are doctors and most of their friends were, I probably had the idea that doctors are decent and interesting people; I probably met some engineer that did not let an admirable image in my mind; my socialist education made me think that private companies are working for the only sake of money, and are therefor immoral.
The characteristic of these imprints are defined by:
- previously defined preferences;
example: my socialist education made me think that private companies are working for the only sake of money, and as a teenager I used to find immoral any idea related to liberal economy.
- the emotional context;
Someone angry because of some different events will probably have a tendency to reject some new concept. Though the nature of the influence might differ, it seems obvious that our “state of mind” influence the way we think about new idea.
- qualities associated to the other person.
The same idea given to us by a person we find very charismatic and a person we despise probably leave very different imprint on our memory.
Nota Bene: I personally think that the last point is the most influential (ie the credit we give to people we meet).
Based on these ideas, I would conclude that even if we make a choice of action between several options, this should be seen less as the expression of one’s free will, but rather of the consequences of influences and interactions with other peoples. We can compare our decisions to the movement of object in classical physic: one is put in motion by some forces, and the collision between different object change their trajectories, depending on the physical characteristic of the objects, the context in which they meet and the angles by which they collide. Our mind meet new idea and get influenced by those depending on some cognitive and psychological laws.
Nota Bene: This idea might rejoin some idea of the memetic theory; I did not have time to study it more.
Nota Bene: All the idea I have expound previously were based on my personal experience and my personal interpretation of it. I have shared this idea only with my wife Yana Komarnitskaya, and she rather agree with it regarding her own experience.
I did not ask other people agree that the idea apply to my experience in their eyes to correct for personal interpretation biais.
I did not make a survey to see if this idea seems to apply to other people experience, and if they agree with this interpretation for themselves (maybe I am just very suggestible and have very week will).
Theology and finalities as reasons for action
After accepting the theory I expounded, I was still wondering if one could “really good reason” to do some action and make a “good life choice”. We would like to find a final answer to the question “why doing so?”, which would not requires further justification.
So far, I found 3 final reasons that I have heard people use (not saying that I find these good reasons):
- preferences, pleasure or similar;
Putting preferences and pleasure as an end seems obviously vain. Also as stated before, it is clear that preferences are molded by our life history, and are therefor completely relative.
edit 16.02.14: to “feel good” is part of this group (I would actually say that pleasure is the emotion of feeling good). There can be different kind of pleasure, not necessarily negatively connoted (like gluttony or lust).
- mystical and theological reasons (laws coming from some higher entity to fulfill the purpose for which we would have been created);
Reasons of this kind are problematic because they rely on faith, and therefore can not be shared with someone who does not have the faith.
- survival of the species;
Although this won’t be an interesting justification for most people, it seems to me that it has been a justification in some scientific and intellectual field recently. This modern theological reason seems to me even less justifiable than the existence of an higher entity.
So what should I do?
As expected I did not came close to an answer to this question. I did however came to the following conclusion:
- justifying choice through preferences leads to the negation of any free will (as one let himself be carried away by purely contextual events and physico-chemical survival reactions);
- one who believe in god and absolutely sure of this belief is lucky (or wrong and happy);
- in general no rational justification seems possible.
I might be wrong with the last point, but so far I do not find any argument against it. Maybe the problem is asked in a wrong way, or maybe rational thinking is not the appropriate way to tackle the problem. Or maybe this problem should just not matter.