The oddly shaped Will

It’s complicated

Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

I have been enjoying a set of lectures on the thinking of St Augustine, available on Audible.1

It is deeply satisfying because what I have left after finishing the series is a handful of crumbs about what Augustine thought about things, which is just substantial enough to really annoy people, but cannot be mistaken, on any proper test, for an actual understanding of the mind of the North African Doctor of the Church.

Augustine thought, or at least I think he thought, that the human will is complicated.

I really like this thought, and even if Augustine didn’t think it, he should’ve. One of the reasons I like it is because when my wife asks me, ‘So what do you want?’, I can refer to Augustine, and suggest that it’s possible to want several things, several contradictory things, simultaneously. That is because the will is not a thing like a light switch or a compass needle, that points in a single direction.

Augustine didn’t have the benefit of complex multi-dimensional geometries as a metaphor for the human will. Nor was able to call on the insights of quantum dynamics, of superposition, of Schrodinger’s Cat, with the will existing in two states at once and only revealed when you actually do something. I’m sure if Augustine had had those metaphors to hand, he would have used them.

The will is complex, superposed, and contradictory. My wife herself had an example of this when she offered a colleague a Kit-Kat. Her colleague simultaneously:

  • Wanted the Kit-Kat, perhaps because she is evolutionary disposed to fat, sugar and chocolate. Or perhaps because she was hungry.
  • Didn’t want the Kit-Kat because she was pre-diabetic, and also didn’t want the Kit-Kat because in her daily tally of calories, she had not left room for the 99 calories she knew it contained.

So what did she want? Her Will existed in quantum superposition of both simultaneously wanting, and not wanting the Kit-Kat. Actually resolving this, things could have gone either way.

I’ll leave you in suspense as to what actually happened. The point, is of course, if someone asks you ‘what do you want’, you can explain that Augustine felt that was not a fair question.

Though he was not, at the time of asking, married.

My books of the year
Book review: Wonders of the living world
  1. Augustine: Philosopher and Saint by Philip Cray, part of the Great Courses series which used to be marketed separately but now have been swallowed whole by the Audible amoeba.

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