October 04, 2022

It was such a pleasant start to the walk.


Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.

-Arthur Schopenhauer


Waldo’s out in front, tugging at the leash.  He sees a stick and lunges for it as if it would get away if he didn’t.  He fumbles with it (it’s such a little thing, a mere twig, really), trying to get a good grip with his teeth.  Then he’s off down the trail, prancing along, bearing the wood as if it were of great intrinsic value.

I see a bigger, beefier stick on the side of the trail and pick it up.  I call to him and toss the thing out in front of him.  He ignores it and continues on as if to say, “You have no idea what a good stick is.”  And he’s right, I have no idea what makes him choose one stick over another.  Maybe Waldo has no choice at all.  Maybe it’s all instinct ruled by some force outside of himself he has no control over.  Or maybe he has a real choice, but once that choice is made, he’s done, he’s committed.  I know people who seem to behave according to both.

The question of freewill vs. determinism has fascinated me since grade school.  On the one hand, I strongly believe in a causality that can be translated into mathematics.  That is, I believe in science.  Science that says that nature acts in predictable patterns.  Once those patterns are found, i.e. a law is discovered, nature does not violate that law.  A circumstance has never been discovered where science predicts one event and something else happens.  Oh, mistakes are made, but not because the patterns of nature have been violated, but rather because we humans have screwed up and don’t have the right patterns.  Once we know the correct pattern, it is inviolable.  Always.  Without exception.

Because of this, one might suppose that the universe is deterministic.  There is a lot of evidence that says it is.  Yet, we have this nagging feeling that we can make a choice.  Maybe we have no real choice, but have just been predetermined to feel like we do.  To say that we do have choice is to suggest that we can do something in the universe that would not have happened if we did not make that choice.  That we can change the universe in some way, no matter how small, that would not have occurred if we had just let the universe evolve in its natural way, according to natural law.  In other words, our choice violated natural law somehow.  Yet no one has ever observed such a violation.

We are less than a mile from returning to our car and, as I ponder all this, we come across a large tree that has fallen across the trail in front of me.  I “choose” to put my left foot on top of the eighteen-inch diameter trunk in order to get over it.  Did I really choose that, or was it predetermined that I would do so by my biology?  I “choose” to step over the trunk with my right foot to put it on the ground on the other side.  I swing it up, but in the process of moving over the top, it gets caught on a vine that is wound around the thing.  My right foot cannot move, but I’ve already shifted my center of gravity forward and it’s now on the far side of the tree with no support under it.  I fall.  Hard.  I drop Waldo’s leash and brace myself with outstretched arms that is more of a reflex than a choice.  My hat flies off my head and my cellphone is ejected from my shirt pocket.  I’m down.

My reverie is broken and I do a quick systems check.  I’ve sprained my left wrist and bruised the left side of my chest wall; I have minor abrasions to the heels of both hands and I have a skinned left knee.  I hit hard enough that I’m in a mild state of shock — feeling slightly nauseous and a little light-headed.

Waldo sees something has happened, drops his stick, and comes over to gently nudge me with his nose.  “I’m okay,” I say.  But it is taking me a little while to get up.  Waldo gives me a lick, then goes a short distance down the trail and stops, looking at me to see if I really am okay.  I get up on my feet and, although sore in places, I’m sure I can continue walking.  Waldo waits patiently for me and I walk up and pick up my end of the leash.  “I’m okay,” I say again.  “Let’s go home.”  Waldo picks up his stick and we continue on to the car (he has come a long way from the puppy that ran off when he got off leash and I had to run him down).  Just how much of all that was choice and how much was determined, I don’t know.  But I choose to believe that Waldo chose to come check on me, even though his instincts told him to continue following his nose down the trail.  That makes me happy.

Waldo is such a good dog.


Remnants of the offending log.