Tuesday, May 4, 2021

On Stephen Fry and Free Will


In regard to the Fry interview (Stephen Fry would like to remind you that you have no free will") by David Marchese, I have in the past read, or been in, a great number of debates about the issue of free will.  Here in this country, our English forefathers if we have ancestors settling in New England in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, were probably for the most part Calvinists who would have put Fry's arguments in those terms.  We didn't have free will because God chose those whom he would save.  Calvinist preachers, however were in short supply and were later on replaced by Baptists and Methodists who were Arminian, that is, they believed we had in all things Free Will.  We could thereafter choose to accept God, rather than the reverse.

Yes, Scientific knowledge has advanced to a point where we can declare without qualification that we are not created equal, and Fry mentions some of the reasons that is so.  But I did a double take when I got to the part where in past arguments God would be mentioned, and here find him presenting the "collective unconsciousness of the people" in God's stead.  I at one time read a lot of Jung and liked his idea of the group mind which I take to be equivalent to Fry's "collective unconsciousness."  But I was surprised that Fry would simply assume this as accepted fact. 

I did wonder to what extent Fry believes that his genes determined his homosexuality.  I have in the past read interesting arguments advancing the idea that "circumstances" influence some to become homosexual.  There was a study years ago with rats allowed to increase in a confined area.  As the rats became overcrowded they engaged in all sorts of deviant rat-behavior including homosexuality. 

It would be unacceptable today to describe homosexuality as deviant human behavior, but it would in the absence of a given gene, seem equally plausible (and hopefully, politically acceptable) to conjecture that societal circumstances might be the cause of homosexuality.  Thus, someone caused to be homosexual by circumstances in early childhood would have this matter decided for him (or her) as much (perhaps) as if the cause was genes.

Fry's actual words were "But we can't choose our brains, we can't choose our genes, we can't choose our parents.  There's so much."   So Fry is probably including the force of societal circumstances.  I came around to giving Fry the benefit of doubt on everything here except for the "collective unconsciousness".  Not that I disagree with the idea exactly; although I wouldn't claim it to be an accepted fact.  I still like Jung.  But I wouldn't have thought the idea widely accepted. 

David Marchese doesn't comment on Fry's words directly, but Fry commented on a great number of things in this interview and Marchese selected just one:  "Stephen Fry would like to remind you that you have no free will."   I'm reminded of Joan Didion's saying that a reporter always betrays the person she is interviewing.

Fry's interest, if one reads the whole article, seemed something else entirely.  He wanted to know if we like Prometheus could give fire (enlightenment) to creatures with artificial intelligence, and how that might work out.  Perhaps though, Marchese is right, and we like he will ignore Fry's interest in artificial intelligence and concentrate on the degree to which we have free will -- and by inference, the degree to which Fry's homosexuality was determined by agencies beyond his control.

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