'What I Want is Self-Determination'

A Chinese writer contemplates what lies between the philosophies of determinism and free will.
2012-11-16
Email story
Comment on this story
Share story
Print story
  • Print
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Email
liu-di-305.jpg
A file photo shows Liu Di at her home in Beijing.
AFP

Beijing-based writer Liu Di, known by her former online nickname "Stainless Steel Mouse," rose to fame in 2002 after being sentenced to a year in jail for blogging about China's Internet restrictions as a university student. Since then, she has continued to write online about Chinese society. In a year where it has proved easier for a Chinese woman to orbit the earth than to enter the male preserve of the Communist Party's elite Politburo standing committee, Liu, in a recent commentary for RFA's Mandarin service, ponders the mystery of self-determination:

On the question of free will, the commonest area of error is the assumption that free will and determinism are like fire and water. If we believe that [they] are absolutely opposed to each other, then either we believe that there is no such thing as free will, or we are forced to believe in a predetermined fate independent of cause and effect, like a spirit hidden in matter.

Some people use theories from the randomness of quantum mechanics to resolve this paradox, but such explanations run into two big problems. Firstly, is randomness the same thing as free will? If our actions are totally random, then where is the will exercised? They would be better described as free action without will. At the quantum level, what is the difference between a piece of wood and a human being? Why do humans have free will and pieces of wood do not?

Actually, free will and predetermination aren't thought to be in total opposition to each other by philosophers ... There is a third choice that lies between [them] ...

When I hope for free will for myself, I am not hoping for freedom from any sort of determination; what I am hoping for is self-determination ... If I have self-determination, then there is no longer any conflict between determinism and free will.

So what is this "I"? If we believe in Descartes' separation of mind and body, and if we discount the existence of a spirit residing in our brains, then we must believe that we are constituted by a collection of nervous impulses in our own brains.

But that isn't all "I" am. The human brain is a complex set of systems, out of which emerges a distinctive set of phenomena which cannot be explained reductively, because the whole cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts. The "self" is such a phenomenon, because it is an attitude that results from these parts. It can't be described at a neurological level. In this complex set of self-organizing systems, the whole cannot be decided by one of the parts. On the contrary, the whole decides on the actions of its parts. Therefore, the "self" is not decided at the neurological level, and it determines the actions of its neurological roots.

This is why we can conclude: I decide, therefore I am. I have free will.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.