CategoryFree Will on Steroids

NFC Podcast #5: C1 Cycling and Free Will

In this podcast, we pose the question: should athletes be allowed to consumer PED’s to make athletics more fair?

Performance Matching Drugs


We don’t want to be too self-congratulatory in these posts, but I’d like to take the chance to give you some ‘mad props’ for a well-written piece of prose. The free-will continuum you outlined is an insightful idea that may be an effective way to gradually shift society towards a more ego-free, contextual understanding of human behaviour. That said, I’m still convinced that the fundamental insight that we do not possess free will does not, and should not, lead to a dystopian society.

Take, for instance, your average Joe. You say he will blame himself less for committing a crime, and I agree, as he should! For certain psychopaths (the severely broken clocks) this may lead to a feeling of complete freedom (ironically): they can commit whatever heinous crime they want to because it’s not their ‘fault’. But these are exactly the type of people we should lock away! Good ol’ average Joe is not going to do this, and if he finds himself ‘at the wrong time, at the wrong place’, his reduced feeling of guilt may actually lead to a speedier recovery and a smoother transition back into society.

Further, an important point here is one you bring up, but then sweep under the rug: practicality. The free-will shift you outline would be incredibly hard to implement practically. How can you possibly understand and categorize all the different factors that affect an individual’s actions? Clearly we can’t have separate entities that deal with different classes of people. Imagine: ‘immigrant courts’, ‘courts that deal with the top 1%’, ‘athlete courts’, ‘IQ > 120 courts’ etc.? Clearly, lumping people together like this has serious ethical repercussions. I think simply acknowledging the fact that all humans have a questionable amount, if any, ‘free will’ is a much more egalitarian and digestible way to effect change in the justice system.

Finally, I come to the reason we started talking about free will: doping! How deliciously ironic is it that taking ‘performance enhancing drugs’ can actually level the playing field for athletes! Kudos for finding this quote: it’s quite obvious in retrospect. Instead of continuing the never ending cat-mouse game of drug testing vs. drug masking, perhaps sport federations should simply use drugs to standardize a certain level of blood chemistry for all athletes: ‘performance matching drugs’ if you will.

Let’s push this further: imagine a world where all athletes are identical, a world where weight, height and muscle mass are all standardized. A perfectly fair, equalized world. This is the inevitable conclusion of this type of reasoning, isn’t it? Yet I can’t help but imagine this world as a bleak, depressing Orwellian dystopia. Should we then forget about levelling the playing field, and regress back into the comforting world of motivational speeches and inspiring quotes? I don’t think so. Perhaps in the sporting world, your ‘free-will shift’ would be most useful. Officials need to be more open to other types of ‘unfair factors’ that could provide clear advantages to athletes (apart from simply chemical compounds). They need to better characterize individuals and create more finely structured levels of competition (similar to those found in boxing, for instance). Can we do this without crossing too many ethical lines? I think this certainly stands a better chance than the justice system.

The world is confusing and unfair: if sport can be a true respite, we need to be more honest about our own understanding of what it means to be an individual, and what parts of our life we are truly ‘responsible’ for.


The Continuum of Free Will

Mr. Valentin. Lots of points to discuss. Let’s start with the big one.

Fundamentally, we can never know whether or not free will exists or not. It’s why it is primarily a philosophical discussion, and not one rooted in science. We’ve chosen to narrow the focus on this topic to a particular societal problem (performance enhancing drugs) and the implications that result from a world with free will or one without it. This conversation illuminates the  word practicality. My argument is that by taking into account the way human beings have grown up evolutionarily and the “illusion” of free will we believe to possess, we cannot practically function in a society that operates under no free will. We need to feel that we can accomplish goals as a result of our decisive actions, that we can imagine and compose art by the use our creative mind, that we choose to love our wives or husbands, and that our children are ‘special’ in their own way. A lot of these very basic emotions and behaviours that we cherish as a species are rooted in a non-binary free world. (I’ll get to the non-binary part in a bit). If we assume there is no free will whatsoever, we cannot and should not take active ‘pleasure’ from positive experiences. And moreover, people will tend to hold less responsibility for their negative behaviours. Yes, there may be rules and governance set up to ‘fix’ these people — in extreme cases, sending them to a jail, or in less extreme cases, maybe cognitive-behaviour therapy. However, an average Joe will blame himself less for committing a crime, because “I didn’t choose this. It happened to me”. Now, he will still face consequences to his actions, but Joe himself, can he evolve, or improve his behaviour, without an active involvement? A society set up this way feels like every other failed attempt at an imagined utopia.

So what is this non-binary free world I mentioned? This is what our society currently operates under. Specifically in regards to the justice system, in most cases, we consider the do-er responsible for their actions, with a few exceptions to this rule: people with a severely low IQ, young children, and as mentioned earlier, the insanity plea. In these cases, and others as well, we deem the person operating more reactionarily to their environment. You can argue that they still have free will, but with the given inputs they live under,  the probabilistic range of actions they can choose from are inherently broken. And therefore, they cannot be held responsible for their actions. Taking to more extreme cases and ones that are more concentrated in time & context, we can make the argument that the individual only could have reacted in a certain way given the inputs, and had no free will. In certain cases, we deem people to possess free will and in others, we do not. So what does this all mean? It means that we operate under a spectrum of free will, with the same grey area that our society is pervasively befuddled with. And in this grey area, I believe, practically, it is best to live in.

What I do contend to you is making a shift on this grey scale of free-will. For example, a young man, Jerry, who lives under overtly worse socioeconomic conditions than an another fella, Bill, should be treated differently under the justice system. If Jerry is malnourished, grew up in a world with inputs much different and much worse than Bill’s then, and consequently committed a crime, society should make an attempt to “fix” him, as you suggest, rather than put him away. The same may not be true for Bill. This whole idea speaks to the one of the few things I retained from my learnings of psychology in university: the fundamental attribution error. We place too much emphasis on a person’s internal characteristics to explain their behaviour, rather than the more-likely correct, contextual circumstances.

Where does this all fit in with sports? I came across a fantastic article on the topic by Malcolm Gladwell. Give ‘er a read. It speaks to a lot of your points and has honestly shifted my thinking on the topic. To summarize briefly, Gladwell speaks about various natural beneficial genetic mutations that have arisen in the world: iodine enriched coastal regions boosting IQ, Eero Mäntyranta, a red-blood cell rich Olympic gold medalist, baseball players with 20/10 vision, to name a few. He further makes the point that, in the case of Lance Armstrong, his US Postal service team, and cyclists of his era, by injecting themselves with EPO and their own blood, they were “levelling” the genetic playing field.  Tyler Hamilton, one of Lance’s teammates in his run, says in his book The Secret Race:

“EPO granted the ability to suffer more; to push yourself farther and harder than you’d ever imagined, in both training and racing. It rewarded precisely what I was good at: having a great work ethic, pushing myself to the limit and past it. I felt almost giddy: this was a new landscape. I began to see races differently. They weren’t rolls of the genetic dice, or who happened to be on form that day. They didn’t depend on who you were. They depended on what you did—how hard you worked, how attentive and professional you were in your preparation.”

You’re right when said I used the word “shortcut” unfairly . The drug, rather than a shortcut, enabled the individual to work their hardest and push their potential. So instead of letting random chance be in the control of this genetic lottery, you can argue that Armstrong, Hamilton and other competitors were taking genetic fate into their own hands, shifting the grayscale of free will into their own hands, and ultimately testing their particular range of will-power.


Free Will and Prince Charming


Let me elaborate on three things you brought up: ‘fake trophies’, ‘chaos without free will’, and ‘shortcuts.’

1) Fake trophies:

While I agree with you that perhaps society doesn’t follow mathematics or science with the same scrutiny as some sports (for reasons that we partly discussed in our sport series), I don’t agree with you that there aren’t as many ‘fake trophies’ in math. There are tons! Fields’ Medal, Abel Prize, De Morgan Medal, Wolf Prize etc, the list goes on and on. Most of these even come with monetary rewards. So should these awards check for doping in all candidates? Perhaps the ultimate goal in science is a collective push towards ‘truth’, but in the same way you could argue that sport is a collective push towards ‘human potential’.

2) Chaos without free will

Chaos would only ensue under the most basic reading of what it means to not have free will. Just because ultimately we submit that all of our actions have causal relationships, doesn’t mean that we should just ‘sit on the couch and do nothing since nothing matters anyways.’ In some sense, many people believe in some weird, hybrid version of ‘no free will’ called ‘fate.’ Somehow people can reconcile the fact that they were ‘meant to be with someone’ with the numerous arbitrary decisions they made that lead to that actually happening. In the same way, if we believe that we don’t have free will, it doesn’t mean we should just give up and wait for our metaphorical prince charming. No, life goes on just as it did before. With some important distinctions, however. The most notable of these being how we structure our justice system. Instead of assigning ‘responsibility’ to people (which is meaningless because ultimately no one is responsible for the fabric that makes up their brain and body), we treat people the same way we do wild animals, or broken clocks. Is a bear ‘responsible’ for attacking someone in the woods? On the most fundamental level of the word ‘responsible,’ yes, of course it is, it is the thing that did the attacking. But would we characterize it as murder? I don’t think so. We would take the appropriate action to either prevent similar circumstances in the future, or if the bear is simply too aggressive, we can lock it away somewhere where it can’t do more harm. In the same way, our attitude towards people breaking the law should not be assigning blame and ‘punishing’ behaviour, but instead should focus on finding solutions for fixing the broken parts within the person that caused this to happen.

3) ‘Shortcuts’
One man’s shortcut is another man’s treacherous path. Steroids and other drugs are not magical drugs that give you special powers overnight. Some people cannot get any benefits from them: so should we still reward those that can? What if someone was born with some genetic mutation that made them grow superhuman muscles whenever they eat chickpeas? Would we ban chickpeas in all sporting competition?

When we deal with both positive and negative actions, the lack of free will should affect our attitude towards other people. If someone is misbehaving, we address the problem. If they win at some competition, they get the equivalent of a J.D. Power & Associates ’Top Rated Human’ trophy. I admit, this feels quite, ‘unhuman’. But is it better to live in ignorance, or face the reality or the world?

Re: Free Will on Steriods

A fresh, topical take on a timeless & riveting philosophical discussion. Don’t mind if I do.

About Mr. Paul Erdos, apparently, he only started taking them at the age of 58 to cope with the loss of his mother, with whom he was very close with. So they may have revitalized his late-mathematics career, but he did not initially take them with intent to perform better. But even if he did do it intentionally, why doesn’t anyone give a crap? I’d say because namely, society doesn’t care about math competitively the way it does with major sports to raise a flag that Erdos was a cheat. It’s also to do with the dynamics of each respective game, where in one, there’s a communal effort to produce truth, and in another, you’re constantly competing for millions of dollars to win a fake trophy.

Now what about free will? In fact, I don’t think it’s much of a discussion within the scope of steroids or anything to do with society and it’s subset of problems.  Society is set up under the assumption that it does indeed exist. We set up laws and rules based on decisions each of us make, that fall on the right or wrong side of said laws and rules. However, I should note, there are such cases where we make exemptions to this notion, where a human being is said to be in a state of no control, and acting reactionarily to their respective environment. For example, defendants often use the insanity plea to escape criminal consequences. But if we are to assume the opposite premise, that there is no free will, then no one would be accountable for their actions (since it’s not up to them), and we would live in an anarchic dystopia. I realize this doesn’t go into the deeper philosophical layer of the discussion, but if we try and practically solve society’s problems sans free will, chaos ensues.

Now, with respect to natural giftedness in contrast with environmentally earned talents, it’s always a balance of both. There are natural talents one is gifted with, such as consciousness, which we all possess, or an inclination to jumping very high, which unfortunately neither of us do. When an athlete decides to give himself an edge in their respective sport, we judge them on this because we operate under the assumption of free will. We realize that he or she is being dishonest (whether you agree with the merit of the use or not, it is illegal nonetheless), and choosing to partake in a ‘shortcut’. The interesting question you raise is with respect to a mother making that decision for the child. Would this ‘super’ child then be able to compete in sports, when the mother had made this decision for them before they were able to object? Does the lack of free will or choice of the child evade them of the responsibility of this decision?

~ R

Free Will on Steroids

So it’s my turn to choose a topic, and I’ve given it some thought. I choose: free will. But wait, no, I didn’t choose free will. I had no control over the ‘background processing’ that lead me to come up with this topic. What does ‘choosing’ even mean? What exactly happened for that ‘decision’ to come into existence? At what point can you say that I ‘decided’ something? And for that matter, who is I? How and why do we form our incredibly strong sense of agency? Atoms. How do they work!? Does the matter that composes our body simply follow a set of predefined rules, acting out an incredibly complicated, but none-the-less, pre-determined play? Or can ‘we’ intervene? But wait, no, that means ‘we’ are something separate from our body, and obviously no one believes that in the 21st century? Or do they?

I think free will is the most fascinating topic in all of philosophy. It seems to be a concept that everyone understands and no one can define. So what about us, Rachit? Just two regular ol’ pals who have just a minuscule morsel of philosophical insight, what are we supposed to add to this discussion?

So we don’t rehash some of the same arguments, I want to spin this in a slightly unconventional route. Let’s talk free will, drugs, sports and science.

Why do we restrict the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports, but not in science? Does taking LSD disqualify you from winning a Nobel prize? Why not? Haven’t you altered your body chemistry in ways that other people have not?

Recently, I was reading about Paul Erdos, one of the most prolific mathematicians of all time. He was known to be ‘constantly’ on methamphetamines (ritalin). A colleague of his once dared him to not use the drugs for one full month. Erdos completed the challenge successfully, but famously said “You’ve showed me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month.” Is Paul Erdos the Lance Armstrong of mathematics?

So what does this have to do with free will? Well, I think the reason we make the distinction is a direct cause of this intuitive notion of ‘free will’. We can alter our bodies, which are just flesh and blood, and that’s just not fair. But our mind? Well that’s spooky and magical. Even if we are on some chemically induced craze when we discover something, we feel that it is still ‘fair’ to call it our own.

Let’s blur the lines a little bit. When we say someone is ‘naturally gifted’, we mean they have some skills that they acquired without their direct intervention, by some external factors or genetic randomness. But what happens if we throw free will out the window? Well then, drugs consumed by the person are as much his ‘own doing’ as drugs consumed by his mom during pregnancy.

To put it another way, if a mom could take a pill which would make her unborn baby taller, stronger and more intelligent, would we consider that to be a ‘performance enhancing drug’?