Existential and Philosophical OCD

I’ve been experiencing some OCD symptoms since last night and didn’t get any sleep because I was wound up. It was triggered by a book I was reading called “Free Will” by Sam Harris who is a neuroscientist. In it he argues for the philosophical position known as Hard Determinism which entails that free will does not exist. If I were to classify my beliefs on the subject of free will I would tend to fall into a compatibilist camp and maybe even slightly leaning towards a “libertarian” esque free will of my own making. I’m not entirely sure the concept is coherent to be honest. I think of consciousness and “free will” as emergent properties of complexity. I agree that the notion of uncaused causes can be absurd, but then again I’m not sure if the universe is determined or not. It strikes me as something of both. Even Laplace’s demon may not be able to calculate the amount of chaos and quantum effects that accumulate through any system. Just take the number pi for example. By simply being an irrational number, there isn’t a hypothetical calculator that Laplace’s demon could use to calculate any circle with “complete accuracy.” I’m not suggesting that Laplace’s demon couldn’t use a very good approximation for pi, but the very nature of the universe seems to indicate that you can only hope for estimate. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle seems to further demonstrate that determinism may in fact be impossible. Even Godel’s incompleteness theorem shows that any finite axiomatic system will not be able to encapsulate every known mathematical fact. I would imagine this would extend to metaphysics as well.

Anyway my brain was misfiring in all sorts of ways. For example, I would jump immediately to fatalism and of course that I’m somehow destined to do something bad to someone I love and there isn’t anything I could do about it. Now logically, I know that even in “fatalism” I may or may not be fated to do something, but the free-will vs determinism is a wallop of a mindbender. I know that this may be a question that may not even be answerable and that neuroscience is a relatively new field and making many discoveries, some of which touch on this topic. As with anything, the devil is in the details and many philosophers have remarked that some of the experiments may not be interpreted correctly. There seems to be neuroscientists who do in fact believe that free will exists. The jury hasn’t even finished hearing the trial.

Regardless, any type of existential or philosophical OCD symptoms the treatment is the same; ERP.

I think the band Rush tackled this whole dilemma and in a great tune to boot

There are those who think that life has nothing left to chance

A host of holy horrors to direct our aimless dance

A planet of play things
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive
‘The stars aren’t aligned
Or the gods are malign…’
Blame is better to give than receive

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose freewill

There are those who think
That they were dealt a losing hand
The cards were stacked against them
They weren’t born in Lotusland

All preordained
A prisoner in chains
A victim of venomous fate
Kicked in the face
You can’t pray for a place
In heaven’s unearthly estate


Each of us
A cell of awareness
Imperfect and incomplete
Genetic blends
With uncertain ends
On a fortune hunt that’s far too fleet


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3 responses to “Existential and Philosophical OCD”

  1. Herb says :

    I see Sam Harris’s point that we are a product of our genes and environment and from that standpoint, we will act accordingly. But we do have some choices. For instance, we can choose to give into the doubts that our OCD sends us and futilely try to gain 100% certainty over our doubts. To do so guarantees that we will be back in our OCD rut. Or we can choose to reattribute the doubt as a brain condition and that the only way to stay out of the OCD rut is to ignore it and live with the doubt and focus on something else and then the doubt will diminish. So we do have choices, we don’t have to be slaves to the OCD doubts.

    • The Scrupulous Atheist says :

      I agree with you, I do see Harris’ point too, but it is very easy to go from determinism to fatalism in an OCD brain. This idea can sap our notion that we have choice. That said I think it is a false dilemma. I think I would have more confidence in the test with people who are accomplished “meditators” since most people don’t take the time to be aware of their decision making process and just take it for granted. As someone who has meditated for a few years I’m aware of sensations that precede my “consent” as to the fullness of my decision. Someone who has more of a vocabulary on these issues may able to shed light on the issues regarding delays between people becoming aware of their decision and when it actually happened.

  2. The Scrupulous Atheist says :

    A Quote from Stephen Hawking
    “The ultimate objective test of free will would seem to be: Can one predict the behavior of the organism? If one can, then it clearly doesn’t have free will but is predetermined. On the other hand, if one cannot predict the behavior, one could take that as an operational definition that the organism has free will … The real reason why we cannot predict human behavior is that it is just too difficult. We already know the basic physical laws that govern the activity of the brain, and they are comparatively simple. But it is just too hard to solve the equations when there are more than a few particles involved … So although we know the fundamental equations that govern the brain, we are quite unable to use them to predict human behavior. This situation arises in science whenever we deal with the macroscopic system, because the number of particles is always too large for there to be any chance of solving the fundamental equations. What we do instead is use effective theories. These are approximations in which the very large number of particles are replaced by a few quantities. An example is fluid mechanics … I want to suggest that the concept of free will and moral responsibility for our actions are really an effective theory in the sense of fluid mechanics. It may be that everything we do is determined by some grand unified theory. If that theory has determined that we shall die by hanging, then we shall not drown. But you would have to be awfully sure that you were destined for the gallows to put to sea in a small boat during a storm. I have noticed that even people who claim everything is predetermined and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road. … One cannot base one’s conduct on the idea that everything is determined, because one does not know what has been determined. Instead, one has to adopt the effective theory that one has free will and that one is responsible for one’s actions. This theory is not very good at predicting human behavior, but we adopt it because there is no chance of solving the equations arising from the fundamental laws. There is also a Darwinian reason that we believe in free will: A society in which the individual feels responsible for his or her actions is more likely to work together and survive to spread its values.”

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