Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/09/2010

Libertarianism and Albert Einstein’s Pipe: It’s Not Rocket Science

How uncertain are you?

How uncertain are you?

In August, 1932, Albert Einstein wrote a short statement, “My Credo.” He recorded it as a benefit for the German League of Human Rights in October of that year. My favorite sentence in the “Credo” is

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. (1)

But enough of the mysteriously beautiful.

This week (or next) I have two monumentally important matters to tend to. I must go to the Social Security office and make sure they know I want my pension starting next month. And I must go to the State Tax Office and register my car for the next year.

Both tasks are a pain in the ass. I don’t understand why they don’t simply happen. The government (and everyone else) knows enough about us that they ought to be able simply to click a key on a computer and begin the Social Security of everyone who turns 66 next month. The Department of Motor Vehicles knows more about me than the federal government does. They sent me the form to renew—with all of the personal information necessary for registration— why didn’t they just send me the sticker?

In his Credo, Einstein also said,

Honestly I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the human will. I have a feeling, for instance, that I will something or other; but what relation this has with freedom I cannot understand at all. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do it; but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom?

What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing? Schopenhauer once said, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” . . . .When you mention people who speak of such a thing as free will in nature it is difficult for me to find a suitable reply. The idea is of course preposterous. (2)

Are applying to start my Social Security or registering my car acts of “freedom of the human will?” Of course not. They are acts of subservience to the social contract. I don’t imply any judgment of my subservience. I simply state the fact. Americans have decided—through no action of mine—that these are part of the dues I will pay to be a citizen of the United States and Texas.

During the last “election” in the U.S., we heard a great deal of jabbering about “libertarianism,” the majority of it concerning Rand Paul, now Senator-elect from Kentucky.

A disclaimer: I know nothing about the history or philosophy of libertarianism. It’s one of those “isms” that seem to me to be dangerous on the face of it—as nearly all “isms” are.

Rand Paul’s verbiage on the news (which is also dangerous on the face of it) sounded not like any philosophy or even any political tradition, but plain old ordinary nastiness about civil rights and such matters to me. Granted, I didn’t hear much except what the (dangerous-on-the-face-of-it) news provided; however, I heard enough to think perhaps his philosophy had less to do with liberty than with privilege and selfishness. There. I’ve said my nasty piece for the day. However, I was not alone in my (admittedly uninformed) analysis of his thinking.

While there’s certainly nothing inherently wrong or hypocritical with diverging from the libertarian mainstream, Paul’s willingness to make exceptions to the typical libertarian creed raises questions in the context of his statements on civil rights. (3)

Socially secure in Dallas

Socially secure in Dallas

The truth of the matter is I should never write (or talk) about anything political because my view of the system whereby we all agree to continue living together (except for Peter Theil and his ilk—see my posting for December 3) is so narrow and jaded no one should listen to a word I say. You will, however, note that the article about Peter Theil refers to him as a “libertarian,” too. So I’ve begun to wonder exactly what that means because Rand Paul and Peter Theil do not seem to be two of a kind.

I’m not going to either the Social Security office or the Tax Office today. That’s my choice—but is it, in Einstein’s terms, my free will? Or am I simply responding to another kind of will that insists that as soon as I finish this writing I must get to work and grade the essays my students have submitted because I have no choice but to submit their grades by Saturday. If I try to think such matters through to anything like a logical conclusion, my brain shuts down.

What is it I do, after all, that I do of my own free will? Until I got curious about Rand Paul and Peter Theil, I had no idea philosophers spend their entire philosophizing careers trying to answer that question. I must admit I don’t understand very much of what I’ve read since then.

Most libertarians invoke Heisenbergian uncertainty as the required indeterminism. . . . The present paper. . . distinguishes different levels of determinism. . . [and argues] that the attempt to support the libertarian concept of free will on the foundation of Heisenbergian uncertainty applied to the brain is problematic for both conceptual and quantitative reasons. (4)

Who would have thought it?

Many of my students take a beginning philosophy class and come away (I don’t if this is the professor’s intention) thinking the “utilitarianism” of John Stuart Mill (who, I understand, is a favorite of Libertarians) will be their philosophical underpinning for the rest of their lives:

. . . the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. . . . The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. (5)



Am I being libertarian when I choose not to go to the Social Security office, or am I choosing on the basis of some motivation I’ve been taught? some set of priorities for my action I have taken into myself in order to survive in society? If I think I’m acting autonomously the choice must

. . . derive from [my] own motives, not from rational and autonomy-friendly motives implanted in [me]. . . .The motives that are genuinely mine could be defined as: (1) my natural intrinsic motives, and (2) additional motives that become mine through a discretionary endorsement process that ultimately relies in some significant way on these intrinsic motives. (6)

The articles I’ve quoted are saved on my desktop. If I can muster enough free will, I intend to finish studying them. I’ll let you know what I figure out about my motives, about my free will, about my utilitarianism when I finish reading all of this stuff. I don’t know about Heisenberg, but I certainly feel uncertain.

In the meantime, I’ll concentrate on experiencing the mysterious—rather than the confusing.
(1) Küpper, Hans-Joseph. “Einstein’s Credo.” Albert Einstein in the World Wide Web. 2010. Web. 6 Dec.2010.
(2) idem.
(3) Harkinson, Josh. “How Libertarian is Rand Paul?” Mother Jones. May 21, 2010. Web. 6 Dec. 2010.
(4) Clarke, Peter G. H. “Determinism, Brain Function and Free Will.” Science & Christian Belief 22.2 (2010): 133-149.
(5) Mill, John Stuart. Vol. 19. Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Edited by John M. Robson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1963. Quoted in: Braun, Carlos Rodríguez. “On Liberty’s Liberty.” Independent Review 14.4 (2010): 599-612.
(6) Filice, Carlo. “Libertarian Autonomy and Intrinsic Motives.”  Social Theory & Practice 36.4 (Oct 2010): 565-592.


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