Some Differences Between Swedish and English

Also published as a Facebook note.

Having studied the Swedish language diligently for seven decades and the English language for almost as long (close to six decades), I cannot help noticing some of the differences between the two languages. Here are a couple of examples:

First, the concept of “evil”. The Swedish word for “evil” is “ond” (or – depending on the grammatical context – “ont”). So if I want to say that the Devil (or Ellsworth Toohey, or that weird philosopher from Königsberg whose name I kant remember) [1]is evil, this is the word I will use. Or, if I simply want to say “That was evil”, it becomes “Det där var ont”.

But if I say “Jag har ont”, this doesn’t mean, as one would suspect, that I have something evil in me, but that I have an ache, or simply “It hurts”.

This, perhaps, is not so odd – for, as Ayn Rand points out in “The Objectivist Ethics”, our first contact as children with the phenomena of good and evil is through the sensations of pleasure and pain. Pain is I signal that something threatens one’s life, i.e. of something evil.

But take another example. If I say that “jag är ond på någon”, this doesn’t mean that I am evil to someone, but that I’m angry with someone. Perhaps not so odd, either – since anger might be a reaction to something one regards as evil. (Also, the more common Swedish word for “angry”, which is “arg”, in older times was often used as a synonym for “ond”.[2])

But here is another expression: We often say “Jag har ont om pengar (eller tid)”. The literal meaning of this is “I have evil about money (or time)”, but this simply makes no sense in English. The actual meaning is “I am short of money (or time).” (Conversely, “I have plenty of money/ time” comes out in Swedish as “Jag har gott om pengar /tid”.)

Well, being short of something is a bad thing – and “bad” is a fairly close synonym for “evil” (in many cases just a difference of degree[3]).

Still, we might ask whether this means that we Swedes have a very profound understanding of “good” and “evil” – or that we are terribly confused about those concepts?

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The next example concerns the virtue of justice. Objectivists make a big deal about the fact that we deserve what we have earned. For example, if a man has earned his money by honest work, he deserves his money; if he has acquired his money by theft, or fraud, or levying taxes on the productive members of society, he does not deserve his money. Or if a man has earned respect or admiration by his actions, he deserves this respect or admiration; but if he merely clamors for those things, he doesn’t deserve them.

But in Swedish, this distinction between “earning” and “deserving” doesn’t exist. We use the same word, “förtjäna”, for both. And this makes it quite cumbersome to translate this point about justice into Swedish. The translator has to get around it by saying something like “we deserve such things as we have made ourselves deserving of” – but that is pretty self-evident, isn’t it?

The question here is whether we Swedes really have to be taught or preached to about this aspect of justice, when the point is already built into our language?

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The third example concerns the virtue of pride. Proper pride is the expression of genuine self-esteem – and is obviously a good thing in the Objectivist ethics. A different kind of “pride” is an expression of pseudo-self-esteem – and, for lack of a better word, we may call it “pseudo-pride”. (An example of it is a braggart.)

But in this case, the Swedish language does make a distinction. Proper pride is called “stolthet”, while improper pride is called “högmod”. So the expression “Pride goeth before a fall” in Swedish is “Högmod går före fall”, never “Stolthet går före fall”.

We Swedes understand the distinction! It is built into our language.

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There are of course umpteen such differences between Swedish and English. (The Swedish word for “umpteen”, by the way, is “femtioelva”, literally “fifty-eleven”.) The ones I have mentioned here have some philosophical significance. (Not much, admittedly, but some.)

Footnotes:

[1]) The joke is off-topic, but I kant resist it.

[2]) As in the expression ”argan list”, which means literally ”evil cunning”.

[3]) Not in all cases, though. If a man does something bad by mistake, or out of ignorance, it does not mean that he is evil.

Ayn Rand on ”Organized Objectivism”

There is an ongoing soap opera called “Objectivist Schismology”, and it has recently come to the fore again, when a prominent Objectivist attended a funeral no right-minded Objectivist should attend, and then had dinner with an old friend no right-minded Objectivist should be friends with or have dinner with.[1] This has been widely discussed on Facebook lately (probably in other fora as well). And this has led to a discussion whether there is some organization that can be said to truly represent Objectivism and has the authority to decide who is and who isn’t an Objectivist.

One should therefore recall what Ayn Rand herself said about this.

In her statement on the “Branden split” in 1968, “To Whom It May Concern”, she writes:

I never wanted and do not now want to be the leader of a ‘movement’. I do approve of a philosophical or intellectual movement, in the sense of a growing trend among a number of independent individuals sharing the same ideas. But an organized movement is a different matter.

And in “A Statement of Policy” in the next issue of The Objectivist, she uses even stronger words:

I regard the spread of Objectivism through today’s culture as an intellectual movement – i.e. a trend among independent individuals who share the same ideas – but not as an organized movement. [...] I want, therefore, to make it emphatically clear that Objectivism is not an organized movement and is not to be regarded as such by anyone. [...] I shall not establish or endorse any type of school or organization purporting to represent or be a spokesman for Objectivism. I shall repudiate and take appropriate action against any attempt to use my name or my philosophy, explicitly or implicitly, in connection with any project of that kind or any organization not authorized by me.

But after March 8, 1982, she has not been in a position either to endorse or to repudiate any organization using her name or purporting to use her philosophy.[2]

Sarcasm aside, the fundamental issue here is that everyone has to speak for him- or herself. Only Ayn Rand can speak for Ayn Rand, only Immanuel Kant can speak for Immanuel Kant, only I can speak for myself, etc., etc. Pretty obvious, but often overlooked.

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The best analyses I have seen on “Objectivist Schismology” have been written by Robert Tracinski:

Anthemgate (on the “McCaskey split”).

The 1980s Called, and They Want Their Objectivism Back

And I have written a few posts on “Objectivist Schismology” myself. And some years ago, I made an attempt to untangle the subject (hardly the last word, though).

As to my own role in this soap opera, see My Life as a Translator and the English section of my website.

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[1]) Deliberate sarcasm on my part – but I think you understand that.

[2]) This is not to say that The Ayn Rand Institute is not doing good work on disseminating Objectivism – but so do others, as well. (There are quite a few Objectivist blogs and websites nowadays, and some of them are good.) But it is not any kind of “final authority” on what is and what is not Objectivism. Neither is The Estate of Ayn Rand.

Evil Thoughts?

In Atlas Shrugged Francisco d’Anconia says to Hank Rearden:

There are no evil thoughts, except one: the refusal to think.

Nit-pickers may object to this that the refusal to think is not a thought, but the absence of thought. But that is nit-picking. It is quite common that people refuse to consider some issue that they should consider. I do not think it is even possible for someone to refuse to think altogether; but it is certainly possible – and happens quite frequently – that someone refuses to think about this, that or the other issue. Sometimes, it is even justified – if the issue is too unimportant to think about – but mostly it is impermissible. If an issue is important and you refuse to think about it, it will land you in trouble (do I need to elaborate on this?). – And refusing to think is of course the same as “evasion” or “blank-out”, which Ayn Rand identifies as the basic sin or vice, lying at the bottom of all other sins or vices.

But I have to ask myself how this statement is to be reconciled with the statement that Immanuel Kant was

the most evil man in mankind’s history. (“Brief summary” in the last issue of The Objectivist.)

Does this mean that Immanuel Kant consistently refused to think? If so, how did he manage to write his book (or hold his lectures at the University of Königsberg, for that matter)? I, myself, cannot write a single sentence without thinking, let alone this blog post and let alone a whole book or a whole philosophical corpus. So how did Immanuel Kant perform this feat, if he consistently refused to think?

I was impertinent enough to ask this question in a thread on Facebook, and the answer I got was that what Kant was engaged in was not thinking at all, but something entirely different. Let me quote:

Some people have asked me how I can take the position that irrationality in one’s own mind is immoral when Miss Rand said that there was only one primary vice and that was not to think. But there is no contradiction here at all. Running obtuse verbiage through your mind is not thinking. In order to be thinking you have to go by the evidence in a non-contradictory manner, even if you are the only one aware of what is going through your mind. Put another way, thinking is a very specific process, it is not any ole thing that passes through your mind. And because of this, one has to consider Kant to be evil because Kant was not engaged in a thinking process. So, what was he doing, say, when he wrote Prolegomena to Any future Metaphysics?

The short answer is that Kant was not thinking — he was not being rational. He deliberately wrote long tracks of obfuscatory verbiage in an effort to undercut your mind’s connection to existence, but he was not thinking. Thinking would have required him to point to evidence that what we observe is not real, and he didn’t do that. He wrote and wrote many passages that cannot be grasped by a rational mind just to confuse you into thinking that you have no access to existence either with the senses or via a process of reason. He was not thinking, he was irrational, and even if he had only written that down for his own amusement and never showed it to anyone, he would have been thoroughly irrational and therefore evil.

But this explanation, I have to say, is “obfuscatory”. The guy who wrote this is running obtuse verbiage through his mind.

(Those sarcasms will not be posted on Facebook. I have no desire to start a “flame war” on Immanuel Kant.)

Sarcasm aside, I have actually read Prolegomena (in a Swedish translation), and I am perfectly capable of refuting it myself without much help from others. Yes, it does require an effort to grasp what Kant is saying, and it does require a further effort to see what is wrong with it. But it is impermissible to dismiss it merely on the grounds that he is obtuse.

What is the alternative to thinking before one formulates one’s thoughts (be they clear or obscure)? The only alternative I can think of is speaking in tongues – in which case one’s thoughts are dictated, either by God or by some demon. Was Kant speaking in tongues when he wrote his books and delivered his lectures?

And it is not possible even to write obtusely without thinking. Even obtuse writing requires the use of words – and how does one grasp the meaning of words, except by a process of thinking?

And it is not possible to abandon the use of reason entirely. Even the philosopher who attacks (or undermines) reason has to use reason to formulate his attack. – A case in point is Martin Luther, who called reason “the devil’s highest whore” (”Des Teufels höchste Hure”) . The same Martin Luther performed the incredible feat of translating the whole Bible into German. How did he do this without consulting this whore?

And on a non-philosophical level, even a bank robber has to use reason to plan and execute his robbery. His aim (to get rich by robbery rather that by productive work) is certainly irrational. But his means does require some amount of rationality, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to rob the bank. (And you can probably make up your own examples.)

So what is my point in writing this? Certainly not to defend Immanuel Kant – who might very well be the worst philosopher in the history of philosophy (with the reservation that there are many philosophers that I haven’t even read). But it is true about every philosopher that if one wants to refute him (or her, as the case may be), one first has to thoroughly understand what the philosopher is trying to say. Merely pointing to his (or her) obtuse language will not do the trick.

If Kant’s philosophy is unimportant, then one may safely refuse to think about it. But if it is so important that one has to declare him, not just the worst philosopher in the history of philosophy, but even the most evil man in mankind’s history – then one has to think really hard about all of the main points in his philosophy. And, first of all, one has to read him.

 Footnotes:

1) There are at least two factual errors in the quote that I have to point out:

First of all, Kant did not say that what we observe is not real. This is a misunderstanding that he clears up in Prolegomena.

And secondly, he did not doubt the evidence of our senses. On the contrary, he defended the senses. This is taken up in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View.

2) For Scandinavian speaking readers, I have written a Prolegomenon to Kant’s Prolegomena in Swedish – plus a whole slew of other blog posts on Kant. For non-Scandinavians, I mention Prolegomena in my blog post Rand Debating Kant.

I should also mention that Wikipedia has a good summary of Kant’s Prolegomena. (It will confirm that Kant’s reasoning is obtuse.)

PS. I just discovered that the full text of Prolegomena is available in an English translation.

A Short Note on Independence…

…and on the virtues in general.

The following is probably nothing new to you – you may have figured it out for yourselves – but I think it is worth mentioning and elaborating on.

Quent Cordair (the proud owner of an art gallery and of a dog named  Mollie) recently posted this on Facebook:

The man who needs you to know how independent he is, isn’t.

True enough. The truly independent person has no need to talk about his/her independence.

One commenter asked this rhetorical question:

Now I’m thinking about a man telling me how independent he is, or demonstrating how independent he is. Is purposeful demonstration of independence the same as declaration of independence?

Well, if one’s purpose in taking an action is to demonstrate one’s independence, then I don’t think the person is truly independent. A truly independent man, or woman, would simply feel no need to demonstrate his/her independence, neither to him- or herself, nor to others.[1]

The same holds true of the virtue of honesty. An honest person has no need to talk about his honesty. If someone has to speak about his own honesty, he/she probably has something not quite honest to hide. Likewise if he/she has to demonstrate or make a show of his honesty.

There is a good example of this in literature. If you have read Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea (Les Travailleurs de la Mer in the French original), you will recall that one of the protagonists works very hard to acquire a reputation for being completely honest; but he does so in order to commit a theft which no one will suspect him of, since he is perceived as such an honest fellow. (It does not end well for him.)

This is of course an extreme and stark example – an artist stylizes reality, as Ayn Rand writes somewhere in The Romantic Manifesto. But I am sure you can find less extreme examples in real life.

One could make the same point about the other virtues, as well. For example, a productive person does not talk about how productive he/she is (unless it is necessary when writing a CV); he/she just goes on producing. And the man/woman of pride and unbreached self-esteem has no need of talking about it or making a show of it. The person who does most probably is trying to overcome some self-doubt. (Parenthetically, I don’t think Quent Cordair talks a lot about how proud he is of his art gallery; I just assume he is; and he should be.)

Humble people, on the other hand, seem to have a need to talk incessantly – not about their own humility, or even about the pride they take in being humble – but about how humble the rest of us should be.[2]

There is also a good literary example concerning the virtue of courage. In Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, one of the protagonists thinks of himself as a coward and is ashamed of his own fear; so he performs brave acts just to prove to himself that he is, after all, not a coward. This does not help him overcome his fear. When the other protagonists find this out, they all tell him that they, too, are very frightened when they perform their courageous acts. The moral sense of this is that fear by itself is not cowardice; succumbing to the fear is.

And I cannot withhold from you a great quote from Aristotle:

It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good. But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become  good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy. – The Nicomachean Ethics in David Ross’ translation, Book 2, Chapter 4; italics mine.

In other words: one does not become virtuous by thinking or talking about virtue (or even writing treatises on the subject), but only by practicing the virtues.[3]

And whether I myself am a truly independent person, or an abject second-hander, who just repeats what better thinkers have said before – that is a closely guarded secret. The same goes for the question whether I have a sense of humor or not.


[1]) Someone truly independent might write a novel featuring independence versus second-handedness. I have a vague memory of having read such a novel.

[2]) The exception to this rule is Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield – and if you have read the book, you know where that ends.

[3]) For Scandinavian speaking readers, I have written about this here.

Is the Universe Expanding?

Well, so the scientists say, or at least the vast majority of them – and if you doubt it, you are likely to be

1. ridiculed

2. bombarded with ad verecundiam arguments.[1]

But what does it mean for the universe to be expanding?

If a city is expanding, it is expanding into the surrounding  countryside, which means that the surrounding  countryside is correspondingly contracting.

And if a country is expanding its territory, the territory of another country (or countries) is correspondingly contracting.

And if the money supply is expanded, the value, or purchasing power, of the money is correspondingly contracted.

And if my knowledge is growing, the extent of my ignorance is correspondingly shrinking.[2]

But into what surroundings could the universe expand? Is it expanding into nowhere, i.e. into an area of nothingness? That would mean that this nothingness is correspondingly contracting, so that there is less and less nothingness in the world, as the universe is expanding. This does not quite make sense… The essence of nothingness is that it is nowhere to be found. And where is the nowhere? Outside the universe? But to be outside of something is to be, at least, somewhere.

According to the Wikipedia article on the Big Bang, is not quite accurate to say that the universe is expanding, but that the space in which the universe exists is expanding:

The Big Bang is not an explosion of matter moving outward to fill an empty universe. Instead, space itself expands with time everywhere and increases the physical distance between two comoving points.

So into what is this space expanding? Into a vast area where there is no space, an area that is constantly contracting as the universe grows bigger and bigger? That does not quite make sense, either. Being “surrounded by”, after all, is a statement about a spatial relationship. How could there be a spatial relationship between space and the absence of space?[3]

This is just one of the conundrums that abound in cosmology. What is outside of space? What existed before time, and what will exist when time has finally come to an end? There is something wrong with even asking those questions.

Enough cosmological musings for today, and maybe for the rest of my life. An earlier cosmological musing here.

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Update 22 March 2014: George Reisman also comments on the Big Bang theory. (Maybe he has read this blog post; but it is more likely that he has figured out for himself long ago.)

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And I have to add that the only difference between the Biblical creation story and the Big Bang theory is that the former says that God created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing), while the latter says that the universe created itself ex nihilo (out of nothing).


[1]) None of this in the comments section – please.

[2]) The extent of my ignorance will always be vastly larger than the extent of my knowledge: life is simply too short to get anywhere close to omniscience. And if an omniscient god were to observe me, he would hardly notice my growing knowledge – and if he did notice it, he would punish me for having eaten too many fruits from the Tree of Knowledge. Just saying…

[3]) Hard core Objectivists may consult The Ayn Rand Lexicon. – Well, soft core Objectivists and non-Objectivists can consult it, too.

Was Saint George Virtuous?

That unselfishness is a virtue and selfishness a vice is such a firmly established fact that only a dyed-in-the-wool Objectivist would ever be so presumptuous as to challenge it. So let me put it to the test by giving just one concrete example:

A dragon is holding a princess captive in a tower. Along comes Saint George: at considerable risk to himself he fights the dragon, manages to slay him and liberates the princess. Was this a virtuous act on his part or not?

This is a question of motive. Let us say, simply, that he wants to marry the princess and get half the kingdom in reward. That, of course, is a selfish motive, so his act wasn’t virtuous.

But let us say he does not care a hoot about the princess, because she is ugly and not terribly nice, and neither is she a good cook; and he already owns half the kingdom and is not particularly keen on getting the other half as well. Yet he risks his life to liberate her, because it is a categorical imperative that captive princesses should be liberated. Now, his act would be truly virtuous.

(There is of course a third alternative: that he marries the princess despite her ugliness and her bad cooking, just to get half the kingdom. That would be “selfish” in the bad sense of the term. And the marriage would be unhappy.)

So why bother about this now? We live in a world where most dragons have been exterminated and where monarchy is on the wane (except for North Korea and Cuba).

Well, my Facebook friend Stuart Hayashi is reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and quotes this line on Facebook:

You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. [Italics added.]

How can it be “mutually unselfish” to “pursue our interests”, given that we have those interests in common? – I answered as follows:

The line of reasoning is quite simple: There is only one way to be selfish, and that is to prey on other people. We should not prey on other people; therefore, we should be unselfish.

Next question: How do we know there is no other way to be selfish? Well, we have observed many instances of selfish behavior, and there is one common denominator, and that is preying on other people.

There might be a flaw in this reasoning …

Someone suggested that this is an example of the “naturalistic fallacy” – the idea that if something is in our nature, it must be good, and that bad things are bad because they are against our nature. But I disagree with this. Clearly, it is in our nature to have a capacity for evil as well as a capacity for good; and it is in our nature to be capable of acting unselfishly as well as acting selfishly.

No, I think the flaw is that the reasoning is circular or “question-begging”. It is simply assumed beforehand that “selfishness” is bad and the word a term of opprobrium. Thus, a person who reasons this way will see “selfishness” only in acts of preying on others. And he would, if he follows his own logic, see Saint George rescuing the princess as a bad act, simply because he want to marry the princess; and if the princess also wants to marry Saint George, that would be “mutually selfish” and thus “mutually bad”. Not that anyone is prepared to draw this conclusion, but it is still the only possible conclusion. (We should have a “logically consistent conversation”, shouldn’t we, Mr. Pinker?)

But certainly, there is such a thing as “predatory selfishness” – although it is just the other side of altruism’s false coin – and unfortunately, we see far too much of it, when we look at the world. Altruism says that we should sacrifice for others, and “predatory egoism” says we should sacrifice others for ourselves. And the sad thing is that altruists very seldom actually sacrifice themselves (if they did, we would soon be rid of them). But predatorily sacrificing others is a far too common thing.

The Elusive Nature of Free Will

A while ago, I wrote a blog post called Ludwig von Mises on Free Will, where I wrote the following:

Take a trivial example: I wake up in the morning with a slightly sore throat. Now I have two alternatives: getting up and go to work despite the sore throat (hoping it will get better during the day) – or to report sick and stay in bed. The sore throat makes it necessary to make this choice; this necessity is determined by the circumstances. The consequences are inescapable: if I go to work, it may happen that my throat gets worse; reporting sick and staying in bed will result in the loss of one day’s pay; those possible outcomes are, at least partly, determined by my choice. The only thing that is truly free is the choice itself. And if someone were to ask me what caused the choice, the only possible answer is that I caused it; I made the choice.

One reader asked me what I think of the following reasoning:

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
1. Every act […]  is caused by a desire/preference.
2. To have free will is to be the originator of one’s desires.
3. Man cannot choose what he desires.
4. Man is subject to his desires.

This is a very common objection to the idea of free will or free choice. It means that the outcome of a choice is already determined by the desires and preferences one already holds. If I have the choice between X and Y, and I choose X and forego Y, this is because I already prefer X to Y, or already desire X more than I desire Y. In the example I gave, it would mean either that I already desire to stay in bed, or that I already prefer going to work rather than staying at home. And thus, the choice is not really free; the outcome is already determined by my desires and/or preferences.

One possible answer is that it is still my desires/preferences that are what determines the outcome of the choice, so it is still true that it is I who makes the choice to stay in bed or get out of bed (or whatever the choice is about). But that is hardly a sufficient answer. (Schopenhauer would retort that I will to stay in bed or get up, but I don’t will to will it.)

But then, desires and preferences are not irreducible primaries. A preference is a value judgment – to say that one prefers X to Y is to say that one values X more than Y. And desires proceed from value judgments – if you value something, you will desire to have it, or to keep it, if you already have it. (For example, if you value a person so highly that you want to spend the rest of your life together with him/her, then you will desire to get married to him/her; or, if you are already married, you will desire to keep this marriage.)

And then the question becomes: do we choose our values? And, if so, how?

Unfortunately, I can think of many counter-examples. If you are hungry, you will inevitably desire some food. Food has to be a value to you, since without it you will starve to death. So if you value your life, you will have to value food, and you will have to desire it. (The only exception here is if you are so tired of and fed-up with life that you don’t care whether you will die or not.) In such a case, I don’t have to make a choice; nature has “made the choice” for me. It does imply other choices: should I go to a restaurant or cook my own food? And what kind of food should I eat today?

But then, what kind of food do I prefer? Sirloin steak? Vindaloo? Or something simpler and cheaper like bacon and egg? (I would forego blood pudding, simply because I don’t like the taste of it.) But I know I like sirloin steak and vindaloo, because I have eaten them before. But then, did I decide to like them? No; I just tasted them and liked them.

Art works are a similar case. There are books, painting and pieces of music I love, others that I like, others that I don’t care much for, and then there are others that I positively detest. But did I choose or decide which art works to love and which ones to detest? No. I simply read the book, looked at the painting and listened to the music and found that I loved it, liked it or detested it. No choice was involved here. It will affect other choices: to read more books by the same author, look at more painting by the same painter, listen to more music by the same composer – just as liking vindaloo the first time I tasted it will make me eat vindaloo now and then in the future.

(Is there any difference between gastronomical and artistic preferences? Only one that I can think of: Artistic preferences reflect one’s own personality; gastronomical preferences say virtually nothing about one’s personality.)

But then there are chosen values. What philosophy one prefers and tries to live by is one example. Some time or another in one’s life, one has to choose between the other-worldly outlook of the Platonists and the this-worldly outlook of the Aristotelians. Valuing the “Austrian” school above other economic schools of economics is another such choice. But here, the choice requires a fair amount of thinking and reasoning. So what determines how one chooses to think and reason? One certainly does not make those choices on the basis of “taste”, much less then by tossing coins.

But thinking or reasoning is not an automatic process – it is a process that has to be initiated and maintained by the thinker himself or herself. And if values proceed from thinking, then the basic choice is to think or not to think about those values. Thinking will tell you which values are actually values and which values to pursue. In Ayn Rand’s words:

… to think is an act of choice … Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct. The function of your stomach, lungs and heart is automatic; the function of your mind is not. In any hour and issue of your life, you are free to think or to evade that effort. But you are not free to escape from your nature, from the fact that reason is your means of survival – so that for you, who are a human being, the question “to be or not to be” is the question “to think or not to think”. (“Galt’s speech” in Atlas Shrugged.)

She even goes so far as to write:

That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character. (Ibidem; emphasis added.)

However, I have a problem with this: I am not introspectively aware of such a choice; I cannot remember ever having chosen not to think, or not to think at all. The choice I am aware of (and this is a choice that comes up regularly) is to think about this thing, this issue, rather than of that thing or issue. (To take an example, while I am writing this, I will have to choose thinking about free will, and I will have to forego thinking about what to have for dinner; when I finish, the reverse is true: I will have to choose thinking about dinner and forego the issue of free will.)

But this may be a nit-picking objection. To think is always to think about something; there is no such thing as thinking about nothing.[1] And if an issue is important, and I choose to evade it, i.e. refuse to think about it, this will have dire consequences.

Or could this regression be taken a step further? Another formulation Ayn Rand uses is that the basic choice is “to focus or not”. To focus is not exactly the same as to think, but focusing one´s mind is a prerequisite of thinking. (A metaphor that is sometimes used is that it is like turning the ignition key of a car, which is a prerequisite of driving the car.) – Speaking for myself, I think every moment I’m awake – but mostly, my thoughts are wandering from one subject to another. But writing this blog post, I have to focus on the issue of free will and try not to think about other things. Or if I am instead preparing dinner, this is what my mind has to be focused on.

If a man does not focus but instead (as I do most of the time) lets his mind wander from one subject to another, this is called “drift” – his mind is merely drifting. But if a man simply refuses to focus his mind, when he should, and refuses to think about some issue, this is called “evasion” – and just as focusing and thinking, according to Ayn Rand, is man’s basic virtue, so evading is his basic vice, from which other vices then proceed.

This is as far as I can go with this issue at present. Every regression has to stop somewhere.

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However this may be, and however elusive free will might be, it remains a fact that every thinking person faces numerable choices and has to make numerable decisions every day. (It may be different for non-thinking persons – how would I know, when I am thinking all the time? – but most people do think.)

To take an example, I have done a lot of translation work over the years. (I used to translated Ayn Rand into Swedish, which I am now forbidden to do; but I am currently translating essays by George Reisman. And I have actually translated one of Ludwig von Mises’ books.) And here, almost every sentence presents we with choices: which Swedish word to pick, and which word order to choose in the translation. (This can be a hard problem, if a sentence is long and contains subordinate clauses.) But all those choices and decisions are guided by a principle: Say what the original says, and say it in Swedish. The exact meaning of the English original should be conveyed, and at the same time, the translation must be such that the reader does not even think of it as a translation.

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Another factor that contributes to the illusiveness of free will and the power of choice is the fact that so much of what we do daily is automatized. For example, it once took an effort of will to first learn the alphabet and then to read and write. But today, reading and writing comes more or less automatically. And this is also true of such a simple activity as walking. As toddlers, we had to exert some will-power to learn to walk, but that time is long gone. If I am taking a walk, I do not need a separate decision for every step I take; I only have to decide to take the walk. – Bodily functions like heart-beat and breathing are automatic by nature; but walking, reading and writing (and many other things, like playing a music instrument or mastering a foreign language – and you can certainly think of other examples – have to be automatized, i.e. made automatic, by ourselves.

Decision-making itself can also be automatized. To go back to my original example – should I stay in bed or get up despite my sore throat? – I gave a slightly complex example (the complexity being the sore throat). Normally, we just get out of bed, make a cup of coffee and then go to work. Those are decisions – but they are decisions we make every day and are at least almost automatic; so we don’t even think of them as decisions.

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And now, there is only one decision to make: To stop writing about free will and start thinking about some other pressing matter. (I could write a lot more; and maybe I will.)


[1]) One might think about the word “nothing” or about the concept of “nothingness”; but if one is literally thinking of nothing, one is not thinking at all.

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