It is for 2018. Happy New Year to the world! On the first day of 2018, I want to lay out a list of questions without answers and some books related to each. Those questions will be with me in 2018.
Q1: How much free will do we have?
Let’s start with the last book I read in 2017, Man’s Search for Meaning (by Viktor Frankl). There are many books about experiences in a concentration camp. The literary and artistic works about the period of history mostly focus on “pain.” However, in this book, Frankl observed people’s psychological development in an extremely desperate environment from a psychologist’s point of view. And the prisoners’ psychological reaction in this extreme environment is much more complicated than just “painful” which is unimaginable under normal life. There are three phases of inmates’ reactions to camp life.
(1) the period following admission: shock
When entering the concentration camp, the prisoner’s response was, of course, frightened and extremely frightened. For example, when Dr. Frank just disembarked to the Auschwitz concentration camp, Nazi officers divided the line of prisoners into two teams by leisurely pointing each one to the right or the left. None of those prisoners at that time understood the sinister meaning behind that little movement of a man’s finger. In the evening, he asked a prisoner who had been there for some time where did the other team go? He pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off which was sending a column of flame up into the sky: “That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven.” What an extreme experience!
Such horror, with the brutal time in the camps, gradually unfolded. People’s psychology quickly adapted to a condition known as “delusion of reprieve.”
“Delusion of Reprieve: The condemned man immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute”.
As the realities of concentration camp destroyed their illusions one by one, the prisoners were overcome by a grim sense of humor. Other than the strange kind of humor, they also developed a kind of cold curiosity. This sensation detached the mind from its surroundings. They were anxious to know what would happen to themselves with a kind of weird objectivity.
Once, a colleague of Frankl who arrived in Auschwitz several weeks earlier came to his hut to calm and comfort them and also provided them a few tips. The friend said: “…… shave daily if at all possible, even if you have to use a piece of glass to do it … even if you have to give your last piece of bread for it. You will look younger and the scraping will make your cheeks look ruddier. If you want to stay alive, there is only one way: look fit for work….” And then he pointed to Frankl and said: “ I hope you don’t mind my telling you frankly. Of all of you he is the only one who must fear the next selection (to be gassed).” In normal circumstances, anyone who heard this would be terrified, or outrageous. But Frankl’s reaction at the time was only a smile - you see, this reaction is the “look at somebody” perspective. It is objective and abnormal but normal to that abnormal situation.
(2) the phase of relative apathy
Once passed the first phase, the prisoners would enter the second phase, which was a kind of emotional death, indifferent to everything. What prisoners think of day and night was the most basic needs of life, such as eating and sleeping. It is called “regression”, a retreat to a more primitive form of mental life. Everything else, the tortures and atrocities that occur in front of them, the bodies of other comrades who died of hunger, the sufferings of their friends, could not draw their attention. The prisoners’ emotions were numb and seeing nothing but staring blankly without fear, mercy, disgust, and so on.
When the pressure from the outside world is too high, and there is no hope of getting rid of it, and if it persists for a long time, people will protect themselves with an indifferent shell and blunted their emotions. The symptom was a necessary mechanism of self-defense.
(3) the period following the liberation: depersonalization
What was happening to the liberated prisoners was “depersonalization.” The test they face was whether they could resume their normal mental state. People could not escape the influences of the brutality in camp life right after liberation. They thought they could use their freedom ruthlessly. Some of the surviving prisoners repaid society with doubled violence and cruelty. A friend of Frankl said to him: “May this hand be cut off if I don’t stain it with blood on the day when I get home.” It is not easy to recover from the moral deformity.
In the end, the author pointed out that even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress, there were enough examples which proved that man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone ……the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom that makes life meaningful and purposeful…Not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete. [Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Mearning]
When reading this book, I can’t help asking that even human being is not completely determined by the surroundings, how much are we influenced? And how much free will do we have?
We assume that our brains are controlling our behavior. We always imagine ourselves make some decision under a specific circumstance. For example, if I buy this book, I will finish it; if I marry this person, I will love him/her all my life; if I have a good job, I will be happy; if I get my Ph.D., life will be easier and so on. Human beings are a kind of prospective animal. Well, our most significant ability is to be able to imagine a situation, but it is also the biggest risk.
If our brains control our behavior, what controls our brains? One of the answers is the environment. In a given environment, we have specific ideas and behaviors. We can not anticipate our thoughts without really being in that situation. I can decide what I do tomorrow, but there is no way to determine what I think tomorrow.
Under a given circumstance, it is possible for us to make ourselves alien, cruel, vulnerable, stupid, numb to adapt ourselves to that environment. We will also self-justify our behaviors.
I like the words of a Chinese writer: “God’s rule is to give pain before giving way. The devil’s rule is to create trouble, and then rationalize it.” It is particularly hard to find a way out in the face of pain. However, it is easy to rationalize our trouble, and there is no other way out.