Feathers in the ferocious hurricane Nature or creators of our own destiny? Are humans no more than typical scum on a typical plant, as per Hawkings’ reasoning? What about Free Will? Are we puppets or puppeteers? Some thoughts…
Consciousness is always under the sway of the external world; everything happening outside the mind always has and always will influence our desires, thoughts, how we live, who we are, and who we’ll become. Our ideas about subjectivity are ignorantly shallow: the experience of each living person — your experience, my experience — can’t be as simply defined as ‘the product of self-generated thoughts, insights, beliefs, intentions, goals, preferences, tastes, interests, etc’, as we like to believe. It’s far, far more complicated. We are the product of both the internal and the external.
The external is everything you consider outside of You: information, ideas, architecture, plants, people, and so on. By default, the external is the internal’s tyrant. Our internal experience — beliefs, ideas, inklings— is configured, shaped and fed by our external world. If I ask myself, ‘did I make a conscious decision to like reggae music; or, have I grown up around reggae, and therefore today have an ‘unexplainable’ interest in it? It’s hard to give a definitive answer to both questions because the internal and the external are inextricably co-dependant. But the latter seems more correct: if I’d had grown up around punk rock, I’d probably be well into that today.
What are we to make of this? For me, it’s a fact that highlights something absolutely fundamental about our species: that we are conscious beings capable of manipulating our environment, of bargaining with the future, of thought. By default (by nature) the internal of all living organisms (what they think, or want to do) is slave to the external—all living organisms except us humans, that is. The rest of the animal kingdom—plants, bacteria, fungi—don’t seem to have an internal-external dichotomy.1
Whilst humans are indeed influenced by the external, it is a matter of degrees, not slavery. The degree to which we’re influenced is dependant on at least two factors: how consciously we live, and how much responsiblity we take. Absent a conscious (if I have no awareness of my awareness, let’s say ), in what way are we not exclusively products of the environment in which we live? Albeit impossible given the nature of consciousness, if we do not act as agents with free will—aware of our decisions, habits, options, the past, present and future; a belief that we could have acted differently in the past had we decided; and so on—then we are exclusively products of our environment. Do developed humans act as if they do not have free will? No. They act as if they do, necessarily. And they do so despite what they think.
Free Will, consciousness, a conscience—call it what you will: it is The difference between being a slave to the external, and not. This doesn’t mean, however, that our possibilities are unlimited; we’re still limited by a number of environmental factors: the laws of physics, our health, financial situation, ability, knowledge, and so on. But the only one of these factors that cannot be escaped is the first. All others are malleable: subject to manipulation by conscious beings such as ourselves.
Given the significant role of the external world on our consciousness—that is, how it directly affects how we live our lives, by influencing our desires, thoughts, beliefs, actions—and mostly without our noticing (which amplifies its swaying power), it could be argued that we have no business trying to change anything; or rather, that even if we try, failure is the only possible outcome. But this is a mistake, because it omits the fact that we are capable of changing our external world.2
It’s not a framing I like, but if this argument must boil down to the question of whether we are the puppets or the puppeteers, the answer is that we puppets are our own puppeteers.