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Damn Right Honey!

In UrW forums there's a thread about the free will. Basically, if we are made of atoms, and all the movements and interactions of atoms are guided by cold, mechanical rules of physics, then we are mere machines, and all of our emotions, thoughts, decisions and actions are predetermined, right? In the mentioned thread I was asked of my personal opinion on that matter. So, let's take a closer look. But, instead of diving straight into theoretical / existential / philosophical discussion, I start with examining my own daily experience of making choices. This might feel trivial at first, but there are philosophical reasons hidden in this. Those familiar with Western philosophy might recognize a phenomenological approach here - but heck, for now I deliberately try to avoid technical and academic language, as I try to keep my line of thinking accessible for those who haven't studied academic philosophy. (As a side note, I've also promised to write in more detail about my views of 'knowing', 'truth', and 'agnosism'. So it seems like a more philosophical and theoretical posts are going to follow.)

A friend of mine is a professional musician who plays in several bands and projects, including Saimaa. Saimaa is a rather interesting project, their latest album has covers of Finnish classics, with an epic orchestration and a lot of improvisation. About a month ago I checked their tour dates, and saved a date "26th of February / Tampere". Later on I learned that it is not a gig by Saimaa alone, but kind of a mini-festival, with a bunch of interesting bands. So, for an affordable ticket price it would offer a whole blast of good live music. Great! When the time got nearer, Sami said that Urw Steam launch will take place on 26th of February. And I felt that it would be nice to witness the initial reaction at home, reading reviews and following stats live. But that, obviously, I can't do if I go to see the Saimaa gig. So I had to choose.

Now, I was completely free to choose as I wish. No punishments, no rewards. No-one was trying to affect my decision. So it was just me, weighing the alternatives. I reasoned that since there is a little I can contribute to the moment of actual Steam release, I can be away from the keyboard. And that there will be a lot of interesting Steam times ahead, after the launch day. On the other hand, if I miss this Saimaa gig, I don't know when will be the next one I could go to see. So I bought the ticket and drove to Tampere, first meeting some of my friends and my son.

At Tampere, as I was visiting a friend, he asked if I'd like to have some coffee. "Yes, please". He made the coffee, and asked if I'd like to have milk with my coffee. "Ah, it doesn't matter. I usually drink coffee without milk, but I also like it with milk. Both ways are good." Apparently, my vague and unclear answer was not enough for him, and he encouraged me to just say what I feel like. But, honestly, I felt "either / or, it is pretty much all the same for me, I can't decide!". So, he made the decision on my behalf, and poured some warm milk into my coffee.

I feel that I was completely free to make the decision "milk or no milk?". And I used my freedom to pass the decision for him to make. Well, what made it so hard for me to decide? I think it was lack of emotional preference. I like the taste of black coffee, I like the taste of coffee with milk, I like the taste of espresso, and I like the taste of caffè latte, they are different but equally good to my taste. So, since my emotional side didn't lean towards any direction, my rational apparatus alone was trying to figure out a solution. "Are you going to heat some milk anyway? If not, then you don't need to that for me. But in case you are anyway going to heat milk, then you can pour some for me, too." - that kind of reasoning is complicated, and takes a long time to reach any solid conclusion. So, I was free to do as I wish, but I had no strong wish nor preference towards either option. But there is a reason to that, and that is largerly because of a conscious decision I made a long time ago.

It was one sunny winter day, early March or something. I was about 12 years old, and we went for a winter hike with my father. We took a trail up a rocky hill, and settled for a nice spot on the sunny side of the slope. We started a fire, I ate sandwiches with berry juice. My father cooked coffee. Some little birds were already singing for the spring was about to come, the world was nice and beautiful. And then, suddenly, my father started to curse and swear. His mood seemed like completely ruined in an instant. He had forgot to pack sugar and milk. And apparently, he wasn't happy about having to drink black coffee. Watching that show, I silently decided to myself: "OK, I don't want to ever face that kind of situation, ruining my mood for some such a minor practical detail. And if I someday start to drink coffee, right from the beginning I'll drink black coffee to make myself familiar with the taste of it." And that was what I did. Nowadays I usually drink black coffee, but sometimes I enjoy a latte. So, that one decision I made 30 years ago has an effect on the way I feel today. But, comparing to my father's situation, apparently he couldn't just use his rationality to decide to instantly start liking the taste of black coffee. If you have been drinking coffee with milk, it will take some time to learn to like the taste of black coffee. So, in that given moment my father was not free to choose "do I like the taste of black coffee or not", because his emotional reaction was based on his earlier habits. Of course he could've chosen to ignore his feelings, and just force himself to drink coffee which tastes bad in his mouth. But to me it seemed that he had no way of choosing to resume his good mood - his mood was ruined, and he used his free will to express his emotions by cursing and swearing.

Well, back to Friday the 26th. I had decided (ie. made a choice. Choices, choices everywhere!) to drive back home after the concert. So instead of alcohol I drank a mug of black coffee before the first band started. And when it was Saimaa on the stage, I was convinced that I had made a good decision. They marched about 20 musicians on the stage, including string and horn sections. They combined jungle rhythms with groovy improvisation, all kind of surprising elements which just blend into a joyous flow of music. I did dance. And couple of times my son sent me a SMS-update on UrW stats in Steam. The ratio of positive / negative reviews seemed promising, and UrW peaked third on the list of "popular new releases". All of which contributed towards by mood of celebration. The last band of the night was Olavi Uusivirta. I haven't seen them live before, and they were way more wild, raw, physical and rocking than I had expected. I'll pick this song, Tiet etäisyyksiin, which translates roughly as the roads to distance. In the lyrics it says "Something big and wild is sure to happen!". Sure, I did dance. (That youtube version sounds kind of a neat and mainstream. Compared to that their live performance was stunningly wild.) After the concert I drove back home enjoying the afterglow. At home I checked UrW forums and Steam stats, replied a couple of emails and crawled to the bed.

Smooth going with these decisions of mine. Well, mostly. As, from now on it starts to get more interesting. But first a little background story. It was mid-October, I posted a silly video in youtube. In the comments Mr. Polecat suggests me to check two bands. I checked them both, and especially liked the one called The Hillbilly Moon Explosion. At first I automatically assumed that they are from USA, but after listening to them for several days I wanted to see if they have albums to sell. And it turned out that the band is currently based in Zurich, Switzerland. The lead singer Emanuela Hutter is Italian-Swiss, and I must say that I quite like her charm and the whole band. I even checked their tour dates, but seen from the continental Europe, Finland is behind the Baltic Sea and might not be easy to fit into a tour route / schedule. So I thought that I would probably never see them live.

Well, about a week ago I ordered two of their vinyl LPs via Bandcamp. Less than hour after my purchase I got a confirmation e-mail telling that my order has been shipped. And it came with a personal note from the guy handling their merchandise. He told that The Hillbilly Moon Explosion is going to throw a gig at Hämeenlinna, Finland at 5th of March. He asked if I'm coming to see them. For a moment I was so excited that I got kind of knocked off the balance. Damn Right Honey! This is something special!. I tried to calm down, in order to think practically. I checked the event - again, it turned out that it is a theme happening with a bunch of bands playing. There is some association organizing the event, it takes place in a hotel ball-room, and they sell both ordinary tickets, and tickets with a hotel room. Damn Right Honey! For an unknown reason I was momentarily hit with a feeling that it kind of a would be nice to go together with a woman, and to order the ticket with a hotel room.

Huh? A woman? No surprises here, I have plain ordinary straight heterosexual male identity. But this is one of the topics I have decided to keep outside the blog. To protect some areas of my private life - especially when it involves the privacy of other persons. But, for the purposes of this blog, I guess it is enough to speak in general terms. Besides, at the moment I have no idea who would "a woman" be, in case I'd like to ask someone out for a date. And that has been the way I prefer it to be, so now I was surprised to find myself even half seriously feeling like "if I should ask someone out for a date, hmm?". Maybe it is the rapidly increasing amount of daylight =) OK, today the association organizing the event sent a message telling that their cheaper pre-odred period ends today at midnight, and that the event is very likely to be sold out, so there might not be tickets left for those who arrive at the last minute. So I'd better decide today what I'm going to do. Here I'm facing a far more complex situation, there are more options to choose from, and there are more things to take into account.

Should I go or should I stay [at home]? The Hillbilly Moon Explosion is a band I would like to see, and if I miss this opportunity, it might be that there won't be another chance for years. Somehow, not getting an automated notification but a personal message from the merch guy (who will also be there selling records and stuff), the question feels like it is more framed as "do you decide to decline this invitation?", as if the defaults feels like "yes, I'll go since I was invited", and then the decision is to say "no". I mean, it feels a bit different when there are no other persons involved, if I'm alone at my home, and just taking a look at all the concerts and events out there, and then deciding which ones to go. In such a situation I feel more like the default being "I'll stay at home, unless I make a special effort and decide to go see a gig." Still, in both cases, in so many ways I'm free to decide. Ultimately, I can't ask anyone to decide for me, and it is me who will carry the consequences of my decisions. If I'm going alone, that is.

But suppose I'd ask a woman out for a date, to go see band with me. (Ah, as a side-note; no, I don't think that going to see band together with a female friend automatically means a date in a romantic sense. On the contrary, many of my best friends are women, and there doesn't need to be any romantic wishes under the surface. We can meet, talk, and go to events together, because we are friends. I think the difference lies in the emotional side of it. And this time, for some reason, I felt that if I'd go to dance Hillbilly Moon Explosion together with a woman, it would come with some sort of romantic vibe from my side.) In that case it won't be just up to me to decide, and the possible consequences would be a result of an interaction. It would be about communicating feelings, wishes, fears, attraction, intentions, and ultimately - decisions. Hehe, on the practical level, the first decision would be "Who will I ask? Someone I already know? Or someone I just met once in some other event, and would like to know better?" And from that on, nearly infinite amount of decisions would follow.

OK, now I can understand that it is somewhat stupid to even think about "asking a woman out for a date", if I don't have a special person in my mind. I mean, isn't it more natural that first there is a sense of attraction, and then you decide to act according to that attraction; to do something to get the attention of the person you find so very attractive. And, interestingly enough, I have heard some people kind of a admiring such a strong mad love where you feel that you left with no choice - you just desperately want to be with that one person, there is no room for doubt, no way to resist the desire, and then you only wish that you could fulfill that desire. I don't know, since for so many years I've mostly just preferred my solitude, which allows me plenty of time to just make my own decisions without too much balancing with the needs, wishes, values, fears and feelings of another persons. And I know that the moment I'd open my personal space for any sort of romantic interaction, I can't any more just decide for myself, as for me the nature of a healthy relationship is mutual respect, listening and adjusting to the needs of the other. And I have felt that I'm not yet quite ready for that kind of relationship, so better just enjoy the solitude. But, maybe this The Hillbilly Moon Explosion sparked a hunch that the time might come when I have had enough of my solitude =)

Since the actual topic of this post is the free will, and not the romantic relationships, I'll take a moment to look at this in more detail. One of the traditional ideas in Western tradition is that the human mind has two major forces; the passions and the reason. The philosophers have been debating about the actual and the ideal relationship between these two. Are we driven by the passions? Should we control all of our behaviour with the reason? Things like that. But to me it seems that the human mind is much more complex and multi-layered. In my above example, rationality and reason has a little to say. It is a lot more about different aspects of "passions" having a discussion with each other.

Life says: "Hey, soon it will be spring, better start to look for a partner, just like the rest of nature does at this time of the year!".

Heart says: "Nah, you are talking about 'someone', but I'm not interested. If I go, I'd like to go with a special one, someone I feel attached to, someone I want to adopt as a part of my life."

Fear says: "Calm down, both of you! We all know that so far we have been just avoiding to share our life with anyone, and we have been doing just fine. Why risk this peace and stability we have established?".

Guts says: "So you ask 'why risk?' and the heck, all the good things in our life have come because of taking risks, going out for an adventure, and then finding unexpected stuff. So how long are we going to stay inside the relative safety of our home? Don't you remember how good it feels to dance wildly when the music plays loud?"

The Poet says: "Let's take a wider perspective. We have been dancing wildly just a while ago, and it was good. And for a long time we have felt that we desperately need less timetables and more free time at home. To enjoy all the things we have here. After all, we live here because this is our chosen style of life, this peaceful semi-hermithood in the woods. And you all know we love it, too. If we don't go see that band, we will have the entire weekend freely at home. Walk in the woods. Renovate the house. Ride a horse. Write a letter. Code for UrW. Besides, if we'd like to have a date in the romantic sense of the word, then wouldn't it be more beautiful to go walk hand in hand in the woods? Like, to share the central elements of our personality and our way of being in this world?"

And so on. There is no plain right, no plain wrong answer to this. There are just different options to choose from. And each choice made will have different, yet unpredictable consequences. And I can't blame anyone else for those consequences, as after all, I'm free to choose - also free to choose what kind of interaction and communication I will sustain in my life. What to avoid, what to approach. And then, any of these decisions might have long-lasting effects contributing to the way I feel. Like that one decision by a winter camp-fire with my father. What I decide today, builds towards the way I experience the world tomorrow.

Now, I think this is the sense we use the concept of "The Free Will" in the common sense. That no-one is forcing me, no-one is setting punishments or rewards to affect my process of deciding. I'm free to choose which ever way I feel. But I'm not completely free to choose what I feel - the passions they feel like they are arising from the unknown layers of my non-conscious side. Yet, most of the time, we think we are free exactly when we can do what we want. We seldom stop to ask doesn't that mean that we are just puppets of our desires? If we can't control our deepest desired, but we are free to fulfill those desires, why doesn't it mean that we are slaves of our desires?

That, I think, depends on the relations of above mentioned different voices of emotions. And rationality also, to some degree. Instead of inventing a fictional example, I'll just use a personal one. When I was more affected by depression-like symptoms, there were moments when I behaved like a problem gambler. After a long day of work, I logged in to an internet casino, seeking for a brief moment of escape from the daily routines. And sometimes I found myself gambling far beyond what I wanted. Or, to be more precise, it felt like some darker side of my soul took the control, and my daily emotions and my waking rationality were just spectators of the show - helplessly watching my finger tap on the mouse button, betting yet more money although I had already decided to quit playing a hour ago. So, did I have a free will in such moments? Or did I just lack self-control? Well, the way I see it, it is mostly a question about harmony and balance. We usually feel ourselves being fundamentally free, when no part of our soul has serious regrets about what the other parts chose to do.

There is a nuance here. Especially in some of the Christian traditions it has been thought that The Saint is one who has strong sinful passions, but is able to keep them under control, and manages to behave in a virtuous way. In that way of thinking, The Free Will is seen mostly as a device to decide against ones own passions. I don't want to argue against that. But it is not the way I think for myself. I think we feel free, when there is no need for an inner battle. When we don't have to force some deep emotional desires to be silent. On the contrary, I believe that constant silencing of ones own emotions is very likely to lead to some sort of health problems in the long run. I have been more like seeking the coffee way. I mean, to ask myself "what I can do today, which can then contribute towards by emotions reaching a balance, so that in the future there won't be no more need to struggle with conflicting desires?". Well, of course there doesn't need to be a complete perfect harmony all the time, but at least a satisfying degree of harmony when it comes to the central themes of ones own identity, life and personality. In such a way, that one would be free to express ones personality to the fullest.

And this, I think, is the sense in which a metaphysical question of The Free Will makes sense. If the science seems to say that we are made of atoms, and the movements of atoms are purely determined by all the previous events and the cold hard laws of physics, then that easily leads to a sense of contradiction. The emotional side says: "I want to be free, and if I'm told that I'm a mere mechanical machine, I would feel worthless, lifeless, and my personality and dignity would be nullified!", and the rational side says: "OK, well, I'm afraid we can't just alter the scientific facts just because you happen to feel that way. So we have to turn to philosophy and religion to seek for an answer which would restore a balance. So that once again we could feel that you, the deep strongly meaningful emotional side, is not under an existential threat from the proven-to-be-true world view." I'm not to deny that. And personally, I have an answer which is satisfying enough for me. But that will be an another longish post to write it out. So, I'll try to do that in the days to come.

Ps. Damn Right Honey! I don't know if you have already guessed it, but I think I'm not going to see The Hillbilly Moon Explosion. Today I had a free, peaceful day at home, and it clarified my mind. I want more of this!

Saimaa on stage
Saimaa on stage
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