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Joe Rogan, GSP, and Free Will

November 13, 2018


Joe Rogan is fast becoming a leading philosopher of sorts in the culture today. With the number one podcast in the world, his reach is vast and impressive. He’s stated numerous times that he is an atheist, but that he does believe in nonmaterial experiences of consciousness. In particular, he has expressed an interest in the chemicals produced by the mind in a dream state, and how the introduction of psychedelics might just be the consciousness of a man going into a positive, nonmaterial experience. (Although, after seeing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, perhaps not all experiences are a dream, but rather a nightmare.) This philosophy of consciousness and psychedelics isn’t really anything new. The best of the hippie age argued much the same, though from a sincerer mysticism, as Rogan and company begin with the foundation of scientism.

In a podcast a few months back, Rogan interviewed one of my favorite mixed martial artists, Georges St-Pierre (GSP), and the two had a fascinating discussion around consciousness, the afterlife, whether or not objective morality exists, and even the breaking of the circle of violence through nonviolent forgiveness. As two fighters, I do find it interesting that, whether they know it or not, both have been influenced by the late Bruce Lee, whom both Rogan and GSP praise as one of the greatest men to ever live. Where Lee was a Daoist mystic, Rogan and GSP might be better categorized as scientific materialists with a pinch of desire for the mystic. Just as a pinch of salt brings out the best in your mum’s mashed potatoes, here it seems that the desire for immateriality brings flavor out of what would’ve been a humdrum conversation, for all philosophical conversations between materialists must end in the state of humdrumity.

However, the most interesting topic they discussed was that of free will. GSP posits a staunch determinism; he feels he doesn’t have a choice when it comes to his actions. It is the classic domino effect: things like environment and experiences have caused you to be where you are. Rogan begins a good argument by stating that the determinist position gets slippery when we start talking about morality and ethics; however, he then quotes a brain chemistry expert who feels that at some point in the future we will see our punitive system as ridiculous because the criminal did not have a choice, at which GSP 100 percent agrees. So, at this point, maybe we could call both of them progressive determinists; they believe that mankind always progresses forward in the name of science, which apparently has figured out that we don’t have any choice in the matter anyway. This is where they leave the company of Bruce Lee, who was a staunch advocate of the will and the power of decision.

The part that I don’t understand is how they can complement this philosophy with their careers as professional fighters. If decisions are predetermined by the mind, why would a fighter get in the cage at all? The brain operates as a defense mechanism against danger. A child places his hand on a hot stove and burns his finger, and the brain makes a note to never touch that spot again. The lover gets a broken heart, and the brain decides to avoid the possibility of love because the pain is too unbearable. The fighter gets sideswiped by the back of his opponent’s heel, nearly dislocating his orbital bone and knocking him to the mat, and the body and brain scream for him to stop—yet he gets up and keeps swinging? Logically speaking, this makes very little sense. If we are indeed just machinery within a system, the brain’s rightful decision is to stop the fight. However, the will, which must be free of even the internal voices to stay down, causes the fighter to decide that he isn’t going down this way. He is free to make that choice. We’ve all probably heard the term “flight or fight response” to a dangerous situation. The best fighters have that same choice. Most often, the brain is going to choose the flight response (not because it is a coward but because that is what it was built to do). But the mind—or in the language of Rogan, the consciousness—can choose whether or not he is going to get back up.

The problem with scientific determinism is that, by its own volition, it is a prison. No choice. No decisions. In the name of freedom, the determinist enters the madhouse. For example, Rogan struggles with the idea of free will, yet is pro-choice and a major proponent of free speech. Also, later in the interview GSP states, “I like the fact that I’m a free man. I’m my own boss. I do whatever I want.” Actually, you’re only as free as the chain of causation allows you to be, like a Rottweiler who can’t leave the backyard.

G.K. Chesterton once said that the determinist is the one who sees too much cause in everything. Ever since Newton was pelted by that infamous apple, every action must have a cause. The baby smiles when it hears her mother’s voice, and the determinist only sees chemical recognition. The husband buys his wife flowers, and the determinist only sees that the flowers will begin to decay and the husband probably wants a night of romance, for that can be the only real reason to buy something that will die. The grandma bakes cookies for her family, and the determinist gives an hour lecture about how love isn’t a real ingredient.

I could give all kinds of scientific arguments for or against free will. However, my purpose here is simply to state that while the desire for causes is certainly admirable (I believe a great man named Aristotle achieved something amazing with the same desire), to relieve oneself of choice and negate the possibility of free will is to not dodge that heel coming right at your face. Perhaps Rogan and GSP could revisit their great hero, Bruce Lee, and discover that by staring at the finger that is pointing to the moon (probably by the free choice of the person with the finger), they’ve lost all of the heavenly glory above them.