I spent an evening with a man I recently encountered. A notorious self–talker, but not entirely without good reason. He was born in a faraway slum to a drug–dealing father on the run from the police. He used to have brothers. He no longer does. As a youth he used to teach children. Now most of them are dead.
Thirty years later he made it to Europe, started a family and built himself a legacy. Whatever could be considered commonplace circumstances where he is from are anomalies to the core in this society. He knows. But he has never let that define his sense of self. Look at me. Look at where I came from. If I could start out there and still be sitting here today, a million miles from the shacks and drugs and crime in that place, then anyone can do it. Anything else is sheer inexcusable nonsense.
So what does the free will debate have to say about that? Here’s the difference between practical and theoretical philosophy for you. This man has no university degree. He hasn’t read Hobbes or Hume or Harris yet perhaps he knows more than all of them combined. Intellectuals can argue all day long about the illusion that we hold authority over our decisions but in reality we all act as if we have free will. We celebrate the heroes who defy their unfortunate conditions and we shun the people who don’t pick themselves up by their broken ragged boots.
He chose self–mastery. We grant him that and we applaud him. But what of the argument that some people are born with a certain disposition towards persistence, willfulness and assertive problem solving? Doesn’t matter. It’s all excuses. I did it. So why can’t they?
Go ahead, keep meandering off into your complex, winding thought experiments and high level abstractions. I don’t disapprove, those things are of the most interesting adventures that I know. But I cannot help but question. If a philosophy really is as far away from real experience and conviction as this one is, can it really be true? Or is that actually the very reason it must be true? If the answers to these questions were straightforward, would they really have haunted us for millennia?
So perhaps that is the most straightforward answer one can give. We have no straightforward answer. This man has literally battled his way to the life he leads today. Blood and bruises and a broken neck are no exaggerations. But it doesn’t matter. I’m not staying here, he concluded. Why?
There comes a time when what you once so desperately wanted is no longer important. I am done. I have achieved it all. I want to go home.
I want to die in Rio.