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Friday, September 5 2014

Fitness & Free Will

For the past two and half years, I have been following a path of health and weight loss. Over that period, I've lost over seventy pounds, with at least fifteen to twenty more to go. More importantly, I have acquired the ability to do things I didn't used to be able to do: I have run a mile, a 5k, a 10k, and this October, I will run in my first half-marathon. I have done forty pushups at a stretch; I have even managed a couple pull-ups. These are achievements I could scarcely imagine three years ago; now I find myself thinking even beyond these, to triathlons, marathons, perhaps even an Iron Man triathlon.

All this, because one day I decided that I no longer wanted to be fat and out of shape.

The lesson I learned from this, for perhaps the first time in my life, is that I truly am capable of achieving whatever I set my mind to. I am more powerful than I ever imagined; stronger and more capable than I could have guessed. It is one of the most important lessons I could have learned, one of the most important lessons anyone can learn. It's a lesson, however, that is every day getting harder and harder to hear above the din, one that is getting drowned out in our culture by other voices and other, less affirming, lessons.

Take one example: Within a few weeks of setting out on this path, I came across an article online, which pointed out some devastating statistics regarding weight loss: of all those who lose significant amounts of weight, only a small, fractional few keep it off over the long haul. The overwhelming majority return to their starting weight, or greater, within a fairly short period of time (distant memory is telling me five years). The message of the article was clear: changing your life by losing weight and getting fit is a lost cause before it's even begun; it's wasted effort, wasted energy.

I couldn't have read a more discouraging verdict. Fortunately—and I'm honestly not sure why—it didn't discourage me for long. It just made me angry, that someone would presume to tell me what I could and could not do. I have never been able to stop wondering, though, how many other people on a path similar to mine read that article and came away persuaded to simply give up.

Presumably, the author(s) meant well; perhaps they prefer to see people channel their energies in more fruitful directions, or maybe they see the Fitness industry as a parasite that preys on our narcissistic need to look beautiful. It's also possible they see our collective obsession with one body type over another as an unhealthy social pathology, and wanted to encourage people to be more accepting of themselves. Any of these motivations could reasonably be seen as positive, on their own merits. But what I keep coming back to, the message from the article most indelibly etched on my memory, is this: "You can't do it; you can't change."

What a horrible thing to say to someone. And it's not as if the author of that one piece was alone.

Any Internet search concerning "free will" will turn up dozens of articles, books, and opinions saying that free will is a myth, a neurochemical illusion. This is hardly anything new; for most of human history, philosophers and theologians have wrestled with the question, and a fair number have come to the conclusion—or, if they are to believed, have formulated arguments for a conclusion they already believed, through no fault of their own—that free will does not exist. More recently, scientific research has come to light suggesting that actions which seem to our conscious mind to be choices—"I will lift my finger"—are in fact made in the brain fractions of a second before we are consciously aware of them. This tends to suggest that our conscious mind is an observer, and not the agent of these "decisions."

 If I am intellectually honest, I have to concede the possibility that free will is, indeed, an illusion—as personally repugnant as I find the idea. However, in conceding that possibility, there are a few things I cannot help but notice. The first  is the incompatibility of determinism with any system of Ethics. A number of philosophers have written about why a lack of free will does not obviate a need for a code of ethics, but as many of these as I have perused, I simply cannot wrap my mind around the idea. How may I be held responsible for actions I never willingly chose? Even if Free Will is a myth, it is a necessary one.

Not only that; Free Will is a tremendously useful idea. Look how many amazing things have been done in this world by people operating, ostensibly, under the belief that their actions were freely-chosen. I cannot think of any individual, world-changing achievement that was accomplished by a person who earnestly believed their actions were inevitable. "I had no choice" is not the language of doers, it's the language of victims.

Anyone seeking to achieve anything great faces a daily set of choices between what is easy and what is needful for success. At any given time, one can choose to work just a little harder, a little longer; one can choose to spend a little more time on something unpleasant but necessary. Or one can choose to pack it in, relax, and spend the rest of the day taking ease and pleasure.

In the realm of fitness, too, there are constant choices. Every morning I wake up, I have the choice to get up, throw on some workout clothes, and go for a run—or a bike ride, or to lift heavy things in the gym. I also have the choice to lie in bed for five more minutes, or ten, or an hour. Every time I feel the urge to eat something, I have to choose whether to heed that urge, or not; and if I do eat something, I have the choice to eat something healthful, or something fattening and tasty. Sometimes those choices have not been difficult; other times, it has taken every ounce of will I had in me to make the "right" decision, to eat the correct thing, to eat less than my body told me it wanted, to get up and go endure the pain of exercise. And sometimes, I haven't been able to make those difficult but correct decisions; sometimes I yielded to the easier path.

On the whole, though, for the last thirty months or so, I have made more correct decisions than I've made bad ones. The changes in my body, and in my physical abilities, testify to this.

I know for a fact how hard some of those choices were to make. To argue that I didn't really make them, that those decisions were made for me by external factors, is so absurd that it scarcely bears thinking about.

Is it possible that my efforts to change my life are doomed to failure, that five or ten years from now, I will balloon back up to my previous weight?  Of course. But not because the outcome is outside my control. Rather, it's because Free Will is never, ever about one single choice at one point in time. It's about every choice a person makes, in sequence. For me to lose the weight I've lost required me to make, not one single decision to get healthy, but a thousand such decisions, a hundred thousand, a million. At any time, I have the ability to start making bad decisions again, to yield to those temptations to give myself a break, to take the easier path. I also have the ability to continue to make correct choices for myself, choices that will lead my path ever upward toward whatever goal I set for myself.

There are millions of voices in the world telling me I am doomed to fail. I believe that's because my success damns their own failure. If everyone else fails as they have, then obviously their failure was not their fault. But every success, every individual who makes the choices they did not, stands as mute condemnation, saying "You might have chosen a different path. The fact that you didn't is on you, and no one else. You alone are responsible." So even those successes must be taken away from me, ascribed to external, deterministic forces. Free will must be denied.

I won't allow this—and neither should anyone else. And not just because my successes were too hard-won, because they required too high a price in pain and sweat, to be taken away like that. But also because, when viewed in light of this truth, even my failures take on a new shape. Every time I fell down, it was because I chose poorly, where I might have chosen well. Going forward, every time I choose anew, I still have the option to choose well. Every moment is a new opportunity, until the race is run.

To forego Free Will is to forego the truth that I always have the chance to make a better choice than I did yesterday. To embrace free will is to embrace the terrifying truth that as many good choices as I make, my next decision could always be a horrible one.

To be alive is to make choices, constantly, endlessly. The only release is death. Which then means, to be without free will is to already be dead.  I choose to live. 

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Those who seek a collective society, seek to destroy free will. Free will produces individuals. Individuals accomplish amazing feats. :) Great article!

And you look great! Good work, my friend.