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’?
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