I’ve recently been reading and thinking quite a bit about the issue of weakness of will. I’m doing this with a view to writing a philosophy paper about this issue at some point in the future. But weakness of will is actually also relevant to the yoga practice, so I thought I’ll write about it on this blog as well. Warning: This post is very long. But I just don’t think I can do justice to this issue without devoting a lot of space to talking about it.
The favorite example of weakness of will among philosophers (probably because so many philosophers smoke so much, it’s not even funny) is that of the smoker who knows that smoking is bad for her, but nevertheless accepts a cigarette offered to her. After smoking the cigarette (or maybe even while smoking it) she might say to herself, “I really should have refused this cigarette; I know smoking is so bad for me. But I couldn’t stop myself from doing it at that particular moment.”
Many of us do not smoke, and so may not be able to relate so readily to this example. But we yogis are not immune to weakness of will either. Here’s an example that might hit closer to home. In her latest post on her blog, Christine wrote,
“Getting out of bed is hard!... Discipline alone would not have gotten me out of bed this week. Only love of the practice could manage to drag me out to the studio, turn on the space heaters, and nudge me into the first surya namaskara.”
Christine, of course, does not suffer from weakness of will; she heroically overcomes her desire to stay in bed, and does what she knows is good for her (the practice). (Disclaimer: I am not saying that sleep is bad. If you need more rest because you are tired or not feeling well, then the thing that is good for you would be to stay in bed. I have in mind days when one is not feeling tired or under the weather, and does not need more sleep.)
But things may not always work out this way. It is quite possible that, in some alternate universe, there could be another Christine – let’s call her Alternate-Christine – that suffers from weakness of will. Alternate-Christine hears the alarm ring, hits the snooze button, goes back to sleep, and does not wake up again till it’s time to get ready to go to work. As she is getting ready for work, Alternate-Christine might be feeling somewhat remorseful, and think to herself, “I should have just dragged myself out of bed this morning when the alarm sounded. I know the practice is so good for me, and my body needs it so badly. But I just couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed at that moment. It was so nice and cozy under the covers!”
This might sound a bit harsh, but Alternate-Christine suffers from weakness of will: Just as the smoker succumbs to her desire to smoke even though she knows that the good thing to do is to refuse the cigarette, Alternate-Christine succumbs to her desire to stay in bed even though she knows that the good thing to do is to drag herself out of bed and onto the mat.
If Alternate-Christine knows that the good thing to do is to drag herself out of bed, why did she fail to do so? After all, it seems that both Christine and Alternate-Christine know that the good thing to do is to get out of bed, but only Christine actually gets out of bed, while her alternate-universe counterpart continues to stay in bed. Could it be that perhaps Alternate-Christine’s knowledge is somehow less perfect than Christine’s, and this lack of perfection is what explains her failure to do what she knows to be good for her? If Alternate-Christine’s knowledge of what is good for her is indeed less than perfect, in what way is it less than perfect?
Philosophers from both the eastern and western traditions have interesting things to say about Alternate-Christine’s predicament. Their views can basically be divided into 3 camps:
(1) Aristotle would say that Alternate-Christine knew both before and after the crucial moment (the moment when she hit the snooze button) that the good thing to do is to get out of bed. However, at the crucial moment, either (i) her strong desire to stay in bed causes her to experience a “black-out” in her reasoning abilities, so that she becomes “blind” to reason and fails to see that the good thing to do is to get out of bed, or (ii) her strong desire to stay in bed causes her to experience some kind of “short-circuit” in her reasoning ability, so that, at the crucial moment, she mistakenly thinks that the good thing to do is to stay in bed, even though she knows before and after the fact that the good thing to do is in fact to get out of bed.
In either case, the general idea is that Alternate-Christine’s knowledge of what is good for her is imperfect because even though she knows most of the time that the good thing to do is to get out of bed, at the crucial moment, this knowledge fails to “connect” with the appropriate action (either because of a “black-out” or a “short-circuit”).
(2) The 12th century Chinese Confucian scholar Zhu Xi declares:
“To do what is good, one must know what is good one hundred percent. If one only knows it ninety percent and there is ten percent uncertainty, that ten percent uncertainty will be the cause of not doing what is good.” (Zhu Zi Yu Lei, trans. by Xinyan Jiang)
Zhu Xi would say that the problem is not that Alternate-Christine experienced some kind of “black-out” or “short-circuit” that caused her to fail to act according to what she otherwise knew very well. The problem, Zhu would say, is that her knowledge was flawed in the first place: Because she only has ninety percent certainty that getting out of bed is the good thing to do, the remaining ten percent uncertainty creeps in at the crucial moment and prevents her from doing what is good for her.
(3) The American philosopher Donald Davidson would disagree with both Aristotle and Zhu Xi in diagnosing Alternate-Christine’s problem. According to Davidson, there is absolutely no failure of knowledge at all. Alternate-Christine had perfect knowledge of what the good thing to do is the whole time, even during the crucial moment when she hit the snooze button. Why, then, did she fail to do the good thing while the real-world Christine succeeded? Davidson is not entirely clear on this point (and I can’t send him an email to ask him to clarify, because he passed away in 2003), but this is what he might be getting at: Even though both Christine and Alternate-Christine knew perfectly well at the crucial moment that getting out of bed is the good thing to do, Alternate Christine’s desire to stay in bed was much stronger than Christine’s. The strong desire “pushed” her to act in a way that went against her better judgment. But if Alternate-Christine’s knowledge of what is the good thing to do was so perfect (as Davidson claims), how can this perfect knowledge exist side-by-side with a strong desire to do something that goes against this knowledge? Where would such a strong desire come from, in the first place?
I can write more. But I think this is a good place to stop, and take stock of things. Which of the 3 views above speak more to your personal experience? Please feel free to weigh in. I will be most delighted to hear anything you have to say.