During the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, many people post about the things they are thankful for. I have been stewing over just how to say what it is I’m thankful for, because it’s a little bit different than most people’s ideals.
There are two major concepts that I am thankful for. Number one is free will. Number two is an objective universe. These two ideas are not unrelated. I am thankful to know that my thoughts, my actions, and my decisions are mine, and belong to no one and nothing else. At the same time, the consequeses of my actions are mine, and only mine to bear. I am my own master, and I am under no obligation to serve anyone else.
The thing is, the world is not a static place, and events happen outside our control that force us to make decisions that we don’t necessarily want to make. The thing is, these events aren’t inherently good or bad, we label them as good or bad depending on whether the outcome, or the effect, will be positive or negative on our lives. In fact, the same event can be both positive and negative at the same time. For example, your favorite team wins the championship game. That is good for you. You’re happy and joyous and generally in a good mood. Meanwhile, fans of the opposing team see this as bad. In reality, this event just is. It’s the outcome of a game where both teams played their best, and the winning team happened to play better on that night. We can find all sorts of causes to this effect after the fact, but we could only predict it from a known (or unknown) probability distribution.
When things happen to us, a common response is to say “It was meant to be.” It’s meant to be a statement of comfort. It’s the less extreme verson of “God wills it so.” But what does that really mean? If it was meant to be, then the world or universe (or God) intended it to happen. Intent implies cognitive will. Can non-living entities really impose intent? Does matter and energy really care what happens to you? If it was “meant to be,” then it was determined to happen from the start, and if that’s the case, we really don’t have any free will, do we? How is that comforting to walk around knowing that something out there is out to get you?
Instead, we can take another approach. This objective approach suggests that events in the universe are simply neutral. They have a cause and an effect, but they don’t happen specifically to target you. Instead, they are “good” or “bad” depending on what we make of them. When an earthquake hits a city, it’s not because some transient being wants to wreak havoc. It’s not to punnish people. It’s because the earth’s crust is broken into fragments that float on a semi-liquid mantle. These pieces move and crash into each other causing earthquakes and volcanoes that can set off other chains of events, and we just happen to be in the way. These events happen with some predictability as we gather data about our planet, but predictability does not translate into determination. Instead, there are tons of confounding variables that impede our ability to determine with 100% accuracy just what the oucome will be. Instead, we can predict a range of outcomes and their probabilities of occurance.
So what is it about an earthquake that makes it effectively neutral? For one, the earth’s crust is not a conscious being making cognitive decisions. Earthquakes happen wherever tension along naturally occuring fault lines builds up. This happens somewhat randomly and can occur away from centers of human activity. When this happens and no effect is felt, it goes unnoticed by the general public and can be dismissed as a neutral event. Of course, these very same processes that cause destruction and mayhem in our lives are the processes that allow us to be alive in the first place. If the earth’s mantle were to cool down and solidify, the climate would change, our atmosphere would collapse, and life would cease to exist.
Of course, I’ll stop here because, as it turns out, Neil DeGrasse Tyson can explain the objectivity of the universe a lot better than I can.
To me, this idea of a random and objective universe is a lot more comforting because I know when things happen, it’s not specifically directed toward me, and all I can do is choose to dwell in the negative or find the positive. And for that, I am thankful.
Oh, and also for my wonderful wife.