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Neuroscientist Sam Harris on Our Misconceptions About Free Will and How Acknowledging Its Illusoriness Liberates Us Rather Than Taking Away Our Freedom

“Understanding this truth about the human mind has the potential to change our sense of moral goodness and what it would mean to create a just society.”

Neuroscientist Sam Harris on Our Misconceptions About Free Will and How Acknowledging Its Illusoriness Liberates Us Rather Than Taking Away Our Freedom

“When you come right down to it, how much of that was free will?” teenage Sylvia Plath pondered as she looked back on her life-choices in reflecting on what makes us who we are. “Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on,” Hannah Arendt argued a quarter century later in her intellectually exquisite 1973 inquiry into what free will really means, “we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration.” Another generation later, cosmologist Janna Levin captured our confusions about free will perfectly in her conversation with Krista Tippett: “If I conclude that there is no free will, it doesn’t mean that I should go run amok in the streets. I’m no more free to make that choice than I am to make any other choice.”

The nuances, complexities, and misconceptions surrounding the question of free will are what neuroscientist Sam Harris examines in his book Free Will (public library) — an elegant case for why, rather than disempowering us by taking away our freedom, letting go of the idea of free will liberates us from the weight and pressure of the ego, thus expanding our capacity for compassion and our sense of what Diane Ackerman so poetically called “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

Sam Harris (Photograph: Bara Vetenskap)

Harris writes:

The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment — most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.

This wonderful cinematic adaptation of a talk Harris gave based on the book synthesizes the challenge and the payoff of relinquishing the illusion of free will:

The illusoriness of free will is as certain a fact as the truth of evolution, in my mind. And, unlike evolution, understanding this truth about the human mind has the potential to change our sense of moral goodness and what it would mean to create a just society.

The question of free will touches nearly everything people care about: religion, public policy, politics, the legal system, feelings of personal accomplishment, emotions like guilt and pride, and remorse. So much of human life seems to depend on our viewing one another as conscious agents capable of free choice.

[…]

The fact that our choices depend on prior cause does not mean that choice doesn’t matter. To sit back and see what happens is also a choice that has its own consequences. So, the choices we make in life are as important as people think, but the next choice you make will come out of a wilderness of prior causes that you cannot see and did not bring into being.

[…]

Losing a belief in free will has not made me a fatalist — in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn’t draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn’t do so on a basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past. A creative change of inputs to the system — learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention — may radically transform one’s life. Becoming sensitive to the background causes of one’s thoughts and feelings can, paradoxically, allow for greater creative control over one’s life.

This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet, of course, but it also allows you to grab hold of one of your strings.

In Free Will, Harris goes on to explore the unconscious origins of free will, why we have such a hard time relinquishing it, and how we can begin to think about choice and moral agency after letting go of free will. Complement it with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what Plato teaches us about free will and negotiating our capacities for good and evil and C.S. Lewis on what it means to have free will in a universe of fixed laws, then revisit Harris on spirituality without religion, the paradox of meditation, the need to demolish the boundary between science and philosophy, and his reading list of 12 books he believes everyone should read.

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Susan Sontag on How Photography Mediates Our Relationship with Life and Death

“We no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures; but all eyes, at rest, contain that knowledge. The body knows. And the camera shows, inexorably.”

Susan Sontag on How Photography Mediates Our Relationship with Life and Death

“Life is a movie. Death is a photograph,” Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) wrote in The Benefactor, her 1963 debut novel. That year — the year she turned thirty and began writing her masterwork Against Interpretation — she met the photographer Peter Hujar (October 11, 1934–November 26, 1987). The shared sensibility Sontag instantly intuited was further affirmed three years later when Hujar showed her the extraordinary photographs he had taken in the Catacombs at Palermo, which impressed themselves upon Sontag’s imagination so profoundly as to become the landscape of the final scene in her second novel, Death Kit.

In 1976, a year before she published what remains the finest, sharpest, most prescient thing ever written about photography, Sontag agreed to write the introduction to Hujar’s slim, stunning coffee table book Portraits in Life and Death (public library) — a collection of his Palermo photographs alongside uncommonly soulful portraits of people in his life, including John Waters, William S. Burroughs, Fran Lebowitz, John Ashbery, Candy Darling, his partner David Wojnarowicz, and Sontag herself.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar
Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar

Sontag’s introduction examines how photography mediates the relationship between life and death, and has only swelled with significance and cultural relevance in the decades since, as we have shuttered and pixelated our way into this life-as-commemoration-of-itself age of ours. She writes:

Photographs turn the present into past, make contingency into destiny. Whatever their degree of “realism,” all photographs embody a “romantic” relation to reality.

I am thinking of how the poet Novalis defined Romanticism: to make the familiar appear strange, the marvelous appear commonplace. The camera’s uncanny mechanical replication of persons and events performs a kind of magic, both creating and de-creating what is photographed. To take pictures is, simultaneously, to confer value and to render banal.

Photograph from the Catacombs in Palermo by Peter Hujar
One of Hujar’s photographs from the Catacombs in Palermo

This dual function, Sontag argues, renders photography a vehicle of mythmaking, embedded in whose claim to immortality is the pulsating awareness and even fetishizing of mortality:

Photographs instigate, confirm, seal legends. Seen through photographs, people become icons of themselves. Photography converts the world itself into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for esthetic appreciation.

Photography also converts the whole world into a cemetery. Photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also — wittingly or unwittingly — the recording-angels of death. The photograph-as-photograph shows death. More than that, it shows the sex-appeal of death.

John Waters by Peter Hujar
John Waters by Peter Hujar

Reflecting on Hujar’s subjects, who “appear to meditate on their own mortality,” Sontag considers the strange and rather delusional defiance that defines our relationship with death, that most natural and inevitable of experiences — a defiance that has only grown more vehement and belligerent in the decades since, with only occasional beacons of lucidity. Half a millennium after Montaigne observed that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Sontag writes:

We no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures; but all eyes, at rest, contain that knowledge. The body knows. And the camera shows, inexorably… Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death. I am moved by the purity and delicacy of his intentions. If a free human being can afford to think of nothing less than death, then these memento mori can exorcise morbidity as effectively as they evoke its sweet poetry and its panic.

Peter Hujar
Peter Hujar

Hujar died in 1987 from AIDS-related pneumonia. He was fifty-four and had outlived many of those he photographed, also taken by the Plague. The book’s dedication, emblematic of Hujar’s largeness of heart, reads simply: “I dedicate this book to everyone in it.”

Portraits in Life and Death is, lamentably, so out of print that there appears to be a kind of black market for it — but is very much worth the used-book hunt or a trip to the local public library. Complement it with Sontag on aesthetic consumerism and the violence of photography, how the camera helps us navigate complexity, art as a form of spirituality, and what it means to be a moral human being, then see Italo Calvino on photography and the art of presence.

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Chelsea Clinton Reads James Baldwin on the Creative Process and the Artist’s Role in Society

“The war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their spectacular and searingly timely 1970 conversation about race. But how are we to be clear-headed about our fellow human beings, much less capable of being one another’s hope, if have ceased seeing each other clearly, or seeing each other at all?

That tragic paradox is what Harvard art historian, writer, and former Museum of Modern Art curator Sarah Lewis set out to resolve in guest editing a visionary special issue of Aperture magazine titled Vision & Justice — a photographic inquiry into the black experience in America, fusing the luminous and the lucid, celebration and lamentation, by extending a wakeful invitation to reflect on our shared pursuit of dignity and justice through the lens of visual culture. Inspired by Frederick Douglass’s influential 1864 speech “Pictures and Progress,” the issue became the first in the magazine’s 64-year history to sell out completely.

Shortly after its publication, the Ford Foundation hosted Aperture for an evening of readings and reflections curated by Lewis, starring beloved writers and artists like Carrie Mae Weems (whose recent School of Visual Arts commencement address remains one of the most moving speeches ever given), Margo Jefferson (whose memoir Negroland was among the best books of 2015), and Sarah Jones (whose extraordinary one-woman play will challenge your most elemental assumptions about the fabric of society).

Among the performances, excerpted here with exclusive permission from Aperture, was Chelsea Clinton’s beautiful reading from James Baldwin’s 1962 classic on the creative process and the artist’s responsibility to society, found in the altogether indispensable Baldwin anthology The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library) — please enjoy:

There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

[…]

It is for this reason that all societies have battled with the incorrigible disturber of the peace — the artist. I doubt that future societies will get on with him any better. The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic. And we see this panic, I think, everywhere in the world today, from the streets of New Orleans to the grisly battleground of Algeria. And a higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.

The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society — the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists — by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.

I seem to be making extremely grandiloquent claims for a breed of men and women historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead. But, in a way, the belated honor that all societies tender their artists proven the reality of the point I am trying to make. I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist’s responsibility to his society. The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own. For the truth, in spite of appearances and all our hopes, is that everything is always changing and the measure of our maturity as nations and as men is how well prepared we are to meet these changes, and further, to use them for our health.

[…]

The dangers of being an American artist are not greater than those of being an artist anywhere else in the world, but they are very particular. These dangers are produced by our history… This continent now is conquered, but our habits and our fears remain.

[…]

We are the strongest nation in the Western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World. But the price of this is a long look backward when we came and an unflinching assessment of the record. For an artist, the record of that journey is most clearly revealed in the personalities of the people the journey produced. Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.

Watch the full event here and find reprints of Aperture‘s groundbreaking piece of media history here. Complement it with Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the artist’s struggle for integrity, and his forgotten conversation with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, then revisit W.E.B. Du Bois’s spectacular letter to his teenage daughter about earning one’s privilege.

Aperture is the product of a nonprofit foundation, supported by donations and devoted to championing the power of photography as a force of art, integrity, and cultural change.

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