Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christine, Alternate-Christine, and weakness of will: A philosophical analysis of a common everyday practice phenomenon

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.


  1. Dear Nobel
    It would depend on other factors, such what else is going on in Alternate-Christine's life, such as exhaustion from overwork or overpractice. Maybe the extra sleep is needed. But if those factors don't play in, then I would agree with Aristotle's view. Thanks for giving the Confusian angle. That view was always missing in my education - eastern philosophy angle was not taught in my school, at least not too much. I guess I'm learning that now by intuition living in the East.

    The way I view motivation is from another angle. I look at what happens if I oversleep and don't practice. How will my day go? Sometimes the day is full of anxiety and mini jealousies popping in. I hate those manifestations of the ego, so I prefer to practice to even out the feelings. Then the day feels like it is humming along.

    I like what Christine wrote that DW said, that he wakes up to practice not because of discipline, but because he loves to practice. Now that is a good motivation.


  2. I agree with the 12th century Chinese Confucian scholar Zhu Xi because I believe that our knowledge of "the good thing" is never, always perfect. I think the idea that knowledge, actions, feelings, motivations, etc. are static is a fallacy.

    I believe that in actuality, these things are dynamic and always changing and thus, sometimes we are our perfect selves - operating at 100 percent and sometimes we are our lesser selves, operating at 90 percent. This is true even if we "know" our days will go better by doing X,Y, or Z thing.

    So, maybe, most days we roll out of bed and do whatever we deem good & right: a yoga practice, the gym, a spiritual practice, our work, and/or all of the above, and some days we just can't be bothered. We don't always take the "high road" because it isn't in our nature to be static.

    In life, nothing is static or absolute and yet all things exist in some kind of perfection and harmony that, perhaps, eludes the human mind.

    We have these contrived ideas of what is good and right, but they are mostly relative. I say mostly because of course, I believe there are some things in life that aren't negotiable (they may be relative but just not negotiable) - like kindness, compassion, love, and respect for life.

  3. I love it...fascinating! I've been thinking on this alot lately now that we have entered the holiday aka "sugar season". I'm definitely "Alternate-Christine" when it comes to eating sugar. I know it makes me feel terrible (headaches and nausea kind of terrible) yet I usually end up eating it anyway.

    I wonder about the physiological patterns that we have, samskaras maybe. It takes many repetitions of a physical movement, say a forward bend to replace a pattern of stiffness with one of ease of movement. Likewise, it takes many repetitons of a new mental pattern in practice say moving into postures gently rather than pushing to replace the old pattern.
    I suspect a similar mechanism is at work when we begin to place any new pattern into our life. I would guess that the longer you've been practicing, the more ingrained that pattern is and therefore the easier to get out of bed....hence after 30+ years of practice, David Williams doesn't have as much struggle with the "getting out of bed part of practice" :)

  4. Dear Arturo and Cathrine, thank you for engaging this topic. I really appreciate your thoughts on this. I'll respond to Arturo first, and then I'll respond to you, Cathrine, in the next comment (your comment will be returned in the order it was received, hahaha...)

    Arturo, the way you view motivation has a lot in common with the views of both Aristotle and Zhu Xi. Both Aristotle and Zhu Xi believe that you don't really know something if your knowledge does not translate into the appropriate action: So, if despite claiming to know that getting out of bed to practice is the good thing to do, Alternate-Christine nevertheless fails to get out of bed, then she doesn't really know that that is the good thing to do.

    The implication here is that knowing something is not just an intellectual state: One also needs to have the appropriate attitude and emotional makeup to translate the intellectual vision into appropriate action. Which brings me to your view of motivation. Both Aristotle and Zhu Xi would agree with you that if one wants to perfect one's knowledge, one needs to internalize a certain attitude (in your case, the attitude that accompanies the awareness that if you don't practice, you will have a crabby day) or emotional makeup (such as love, in DW's case) that will allow one to more readily convert the intellectual vision into appropriate action.

    Basically, I agree with you (and Aristotle and Zhu Xi) that true knowledge cannot simply be an intellectual state. As Tolstoy says, "All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love."

  5. Cathrine,
    I really like these words of yours:

    'our knowledge of "the good thing" is never, always perfect. I think the idea that knowledge, actions, feelings, motivations, etc. are static is a fallacy.'

    I really like these words; as you know, I am very sympathetic to the worldview that underlies these words. However, there is something I have been grappling with recently. Here's one way to put it: Aren't there at least certain cases in which knowledge is an all-or-nothing proposition? I mean, I either know that the earth revolves around the sun, or I don't. With regard to this matter, there is no such thing as knowing 90 ninety percent: I either know that the earth revolves around the sun, or I don't.

    Hmm... maybe scientific knowledge and knowledge of ethical or existential matters are two different kinds of knowledge? Maybe scientific knowledge is an all-or-nothing proposition, whereas knowledge of ethical or existential matters (such as knowing what the good thing to do is at a given moment) is something that comes in different degrees? I don't know...

    Here's another way of getting at the same issues: Maybe we humans are made in such a way that our minds can readily understand how the universe is physically like, but have more difficulty understanding how to live with other beings in this universe in a way that is mutually productive and flourishing. Perhaps this is because while the physical makeup of the universe is relatively static (I say "relatively", because even the physical universe itself is constantly changing), the "makeup" of other human beings is much more fluid, and changing much more quickly, so our minds have a harder time grasping what the right thing to do is in our moment-to-moment relationships with other living beings.

    I really don't have any definite answers. I'm just wondering...

  6. Hey Christine,
    once again, many thanks for allowing me to use you (and your alternate-universe counterpart) as an example.

    Yes, the concept of samskaras is definitely very important and fascinating here. I did not bring this out in the post, because I really don't know enough about samskaras (except as I experience it in my daily practice on and off and mat). But perhaps both Aristotle's and Zhu Xi's views about how to perfect knowledge and overcome weakness of will (which I will write about in an upcoming post) are alternate ways of articulating this fascinating concept of samskara.

    And yes, I totally hear what you are saying with regard to your being "Alternate-Christine" when it comes to sugar. I am "Alternate-Nobel" when it comes to eating potato chips. I "know" that eating too many chips will make me feel not-so-good (potato-chip-induced headache, dry mouth, dehydration, etc.), and yet I almost always end up eating too many chips anyway!

  7. Crap.. that's like my daily struggle and sleeping in almost always wins, because although I know the practice is good for me down the road, sleeping in feels so good *right now*.

    There's a study done on 4 year old children: the experimenter gives a kid one marshmallow, tells him/her that if they can wait until the experimenter comes back, they can have another marshmallow, and then leaves the room for 15 minutes. They found 2/3 of the kids stuffed the marshmallow into their mouths almost right away after the adult left the room. A few tried, but couldn't last the full 15min, and 1/3 painfully waited the full period for the reward of a 2nd marshmallow. Would #1, #2 or #3 apply in this case? :)

    I think like Christine said, building a habit definitely helps to deal with this instant vs. delayed gratification issue. For me I always need external help. Like if someone asks me to take a morning class with them, that commitment will get me to wake up earlier. Or if it's one of my favorite teachers' last morning class (several weeks ago), that got me to drag my body out of bed too. Otherwise my will is pretty weak, haha :)

  8. I see this sort of problem in Freud's terms... That the "I" or ego is constantly trying to balance the needs of the id (pleasure-seeking part of our consciousness) with the super-ego (parental, knowing-what's-best-for-us) part of our consciousness. On days when Alternate Christine sleeps in, her id has simply won out! And sometimes we need this... Always listening to the super-ego can be stifling. So even though we know it's "better" for us, it's just more fun to rebel and listen to the darker, freer voice of our id.

  9. Yyogini, the marshmallow experiment is interesting. I'm not entirely sure what #1, #2, or #3 would say about this case. I don't know if it is fair to say that children can suffer from weakness of will (after all, they are children, and are still learning how to function fully in the community). But if the whole experiment was repeated with adults (in which case, we'll need more than marshmallows:-)), then maybe #1, #2 and #3 would say the same things they said about the adults who cannot delay gratification as they said about Alternate-Christine.

  10. Stephanie, very interesting Freudian perspective. I would like to learn more about what Freud has to say about balancing the needs of the id and the demands of the super-ego.