comment by Kip_Werking ·
2008-07-09T02:28:02.000Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
This is one of my favorite quotes (and one of only two I post on my facebook page, the other being "The way to love something is to realize that it might be lost", which is cited at the top of the scarcity chapter in Cialdini's Influence).
I'm not sure if I interpret it the same way as Schopenhauer (who was batsh** crazy as far as I can tell), but I take it to mean this:
Control bottoms out. In the race between A, "things influencing/determining how you decide/think/act" and B, "your control over these things that influence/determine how you decide/think/act", A will always win. The desire for infinite control, control that doesn't bottom out, that bootstraps itself out of nothingness (what some people have associated with free will), is doomed to frustration.
[In fact, Einstein cites exactly this quote in explaining why he didn't believe in free will: "In human freedom in the philosophical sense I am definitely a disbeliever. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity. Schopenhauer's saying, that "a man can do as he will, but not will as he will," has been an inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others'. This feeling mercifully mitigates the sense of responsibility which so easily becomes paralyzing, and it prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously; it conduces to a view of life in which humour, above all, has its due place."]
Shopenhauer draws the line between action and will: we choose how we act, given our will, but we don't choose how we will. Many would take issue with that. But it doesn't really matter where you draw the line, the point is that eventually the line will be drawn. Someone might say: "oh, I choose how I will!" And then Schopenhauer might say (I like to think): "oh really, and what is this choice based on? Did you choose that?"
To some people, the fact that we don't have this ultimate control (free will, if you like) is obvious. "Of course we don't have that kind of free will, it's obviously non-existent, because it's logically impossible." But not all necessary truths are obvious, and most people are happy to believe in logical impossibilities---just pick up a philosophy of religion book and read about the many paradoxes associated with a perfectly loving, just, omnipresent, and omnipotent (etc.) God.
Note also that Schopenhauer's insight has a consequence: because everything we do, our entire lives, can be traced back to things entirely outside of our control, it follows that a sufficiently powerful and intelligent being could design our entire lives before we are born. Our entire life story, down to the last detail, could have been predetermined and preprogrammed (assuming the universe is deterministic in the right way). Most people don't realize how interesting Schopenhauer's insight, or at least the kernal of truth I think it captures, is, until you phrase it in those dramatic terms.