Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why Our Decisions Don't Matter by Simon Van Booy

Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter
by Simon Van Boo

We’ve covered love, we’ve covered fighting; now let’s get to the business of futility. Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter spans works from Kerouac to Sophocles to existentialists Camus and Sarte. In essence, the book argues that, while we may be able to control our reaction to the world, we cannot control the world itself.

Remember: The things within our power are naturally at our disposal, free from any restraint or hindrence; but those things outside our power are weak, dependent, or determined by the whims and actions of others. Remember, too, that if you think that you have free rein over things that are naturally beyond your control, or if you attempt to adopt the affairs of others as your own, your pursuits will be thwarted and you will become a frustrated, anxious, and fault-finding person.
— Epictetus, from The Art of Living

Word to all the meddlers out there, the overbearing parents, spouses, partners and friends — Others may take your reaction into account, but that person is ultimately in charge of their life.

That idea extends to several of the fiction offerings in the book. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus knows it is inevitable that his ship will encounter the evil monster Skylla. They cannot avoid it, but they can take measures to reduce the amount of harm that comes to them. Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure finds a man who, no matter what he does, is a disappointment to his ill-tempered wife. In Camus’ The Stranger, a priest becomes angry when he cannot convince a prisoner to accept God into his life, and the prisoner becomes angry when he cannot convince the priest to just leave him alone already.

In other matters of theology, the excerpt from Ian Barbour’s When Science Meets Religion was an interesting take on how the views of God’s involvement within our natural world have changed over time. It also takes into account the modern practice of genetic engineering and the study of DNA in general:

I suggest, however, that differing views of genetic intervention do not represent a conflict between science and religion as systems of belief, but rather a conflict between differing ethical judgements about the applications of science. Instead of rejecting all forms of genetic intervention, we need to make distinctions among them.

When one takes God out of the discussion, decisions regarding scientific advancements come down to human decency, respect, and exploration of possible consequences. One’s sense of decency may come from a place of religion, but to argue that point with someone whose own beliefs do not come from the same place will not necessarily advance the discussion. That’s not to say it’s pointless to debate each other — of course not, we do it all the time and with some effect — but in this case, it may just be a matter of re-framing the discussion.

The God-talk isn’t all in relation to science — In Voltaire’s Candide, Doctor Pangloss “believes that ‘we live in the best of all possible worlds,’ and that the world is perfect because God is perfect and would not make an imperfect world. Therefore, everything that happens is for the best.” How often have we heard others, after suffering some misfortune, say that it will be a learning moment and that the purpose of that misfortune is all part of a greater “plan?” I don’t subscribe to that belief entirely (Learning moment? Yes. Mysterious grand plan? Eh...), but there are plenty of people who derive comfort from it, and I don’t begrudge them that.

I enjoyed most portions of the book, with one exception. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein is about as impenetrable as it sounds. His introduction is understandable enough, especially considering that the man suffered from several psychological disorders, but the work itself is structured like this:

1. The world is everything that is the case.
1.1 The world is totality of facts, not of things.
1.11 The world is determined by facts, and by these being all the facts.
1.12 For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.
1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.

And so on, and so on. Maybe some people like to read things outlined in such a “logical” manner, but my brain isn’t inclined to process things that way.

Of the three books in the series, perhaps Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter is the one that would lead to the most chin-stroking in a university course, sending over-eager students into heated arguments that (irony alert!) won’t matter in the long run. But hey, as long as we’re here...

We’re fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.
— Japanese Proverb


Full disclosure: This book was sent to me along with four others for review purposes from Harper Perennial. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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