Is Dieting a Test of Free Will?

Ever since I read The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker I’ve been obsessed with the concept of free will.  I’ve read enough books on brain studies in recent years to doubt the existence of free will.  Now I’m not saying we’re all robots, but I question whether or not we’re making decisions on our own, as if we were independent souls sitting in our heads driving our bodies around, and making impartial decisions based on weighing all the evidence and facts.


I remember a freshman philosophy course I took in 1969 and my professor challenging us to come up with an example of free will.  That class inspired many arguments between me and my friends.  Free will is a philosophical concept that few people think about in normal life – mostly because it feels like we do make our own decisions so why even ask about free will.

When Neo makes his choice between the red and blue pill in the film The Matrix, is that an act of free will?  If he’s the One, wouldn’t that make him born to take the red pill?

Everyone assumes they have free will and they are acting on their own volition, but the older I get the more I assume that’s just an illusion.  So I’ve been wondering if I can come up with a test for free will.  I think I’ve found one with dieting.  Our bodies and hunger represent the power of nature and the hardwired programming of genes.  The need to diet comes from our environment, where we constantly learn that fat is sexual unattractive, unhealthy, and like Pavlov’s dog, we’re constantly conditioned that being fat is bad.  Without that nurturing my nature would run wild.

If we have free will we should be able to evaluate all the outside data and decide to diet and lose weight because of its own philosophical merits.  Then why do so many people have trouble dieting?  Is it because our bodies, genes and physiological wiring program us to eat and free will can’t overcome that?

I started a diet today and at this very moment my body is already nagging at me to eat something fun.   “What a puss,” my mind tells my body.  I say no, it says yes.  If I can keep saying no, is that proof of free will?

Now there are two factors here:  free will and will power.   Scientists are throwing water on the concept of will power too.  And what’s the difference between free will and will power?  Deciding to diet might be an act of free will, but failing to diet might be a lack of will power.  And if I succeed in losing weight is it really because I have free will, or has outside stimuli overcame my genetic programming and reprogrammed my eating habits?  Where is the me in all of this activity?

Or is it a case of “I diet, therefore I am.”  (I wish I knew the Latin equivalent to cogito ergo sum that includes the word diet.)  Is thought good enough to prove the existence of free will?  Without thought I’d just eat anything I wanted and never think to lose weight.  However, all those thoughts about losing weight come from the outside world.  If I really had free will, wouldn’t it have been my idea to lose weight? 

But who comes up with original ideas???!!!  Einstein and the theory of relativity comes immediately to mind.   Imagining the concept of space-time had to be an act of free will.  Do we discount the billions of years of cosmological and biological evolution that produced Einstein as not part of the equation, or is Einstein’s discovery of space-time really the universe’s act of free will?  Einstein couldn’t have made his discovery without a long history of other scientists and thinkers.

When I choose to diet, is it my decision, or society’s?  Like Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  Can we ever separate our will from the world’s?  The urge to eat is genetic.  How much I want to eat is probably genetic too.  Choosing to eat between steak and veggie burgers would seem like a free will choice, but is it?  If I had never read about vegetarianism would I ever considered the choice?

That’s the weird thing about asking ourselves if we have free will.  Genetics might be our hardwiring, but the environment seems to be doing all the software programming, so where is there room for free will?  Would that be self programming?  Even if I could write my own personality programming, wouldn’t the “free will” writing the programming been created by outside programming or genetics?

If I really had free wouldn’t even the urge to eat be my choice?  Is thwarting the urge to eat free will, even thought he idea didn’t originate with me?  Is free will the ability to choose among the various outside impulses we get from society?  Society tells me not to eat, but advertising on TV is doing a major brainwashing job to get me to eat.  Every time I see a Sonic commercial I want one of their shakes.

Dieting is a test of will power and maybe even an example of free will.  It’s a shame I always flunk it.

JWH – 12/15/12

The Tyranny of Hormones

Why are tits so much more dazzling than anything else in reality?  I mean women’s tits.  And how do molecules in our brain make us think human breasts are the epitome of beauty, while convincing us that all other mammalian glands are gross?  Why aren’t guys mesmerized by cow udders?  Those hormones are some pretty amazing chemicals.

Thursday, a young women leaned over right in front of me to get something out of her backpack and a large vista of hanging breasts bulged in front of my eyes.  Evidently my heart is strong, because I didn’t have a heart attack.  As an old man of sixty, I am quite grateful for such unexpected revelations of evenly tanned globes of fatty flesh, but I have to wonder why my hormones are still active.  What’s the point?

My age, physical appearance and lack of wealth preclude any success with young women, or even women of my own age, and even though my hormones are more than willing, my equipment is unreliable at best, and my little swimmers are old and tired and probably couldn’t make it all the way to the egg anyway.  I’m sure my DNA can’t replicate like it once did.

Why won’t my reproductive hormones leave me alone?  I’ve been looking down women’s dresses for 60 years, why hasn’t it gotten old?

If my appetite hormones didn’t insist that weighing 235 pounds was so wonderful, maybe the tools of my sexual hormones would work better and I could at least attract sixty-year-old women.  But what’s the point?  I have no need of children, so why do my hormones keep insisting I reproduce?

Why do our hormones torment us so?  They make us moody and angry, or depressed and lethargic, or jumpy and nervous.  I suppose there might have been a time in my life when all my hormones worked in harmony, but that was long ago.  It’s just so pathetic to be old, bald and fat and having my hormones constantly whispering to my mind that I should go make some babies.  Even my sperm are laughing at that.

Why can’t I have reasonable hormones.  Why can’t I have sensible old man hormones instead of dirty old man chemistry?

And if I’m not having sex fantasies, I’ll be fantasizing about chocolate chip cookies.  Isn’t that bizarre?   It’s like being possessed by  demons.

Think of all the hormones it would be wonderful to have?  I want to be horny to write great novels.  Now that would be a useful urge for an old man.  It doesn’t require a lot of energy or sarcastic rejecting females.

My body is breaking down and I seriously need to lose some weight.  Yet, my inner chemistry insists on staying fat.  Where’s the biological logic in that?

Wouldn’t it be great if we were born with little knobs that allowed us to adjust our hormone levels.  I got two useless nipples.  Imagine if they had been dials for sex and hunger hormone levels.  Our whole culture has indoctrinated us to think sex is the most wonderful experience in all of nature.  But if we could turn off that urge would we think it so wonderful?  If we could turn down the sex dial to zero would we be miserable, or would we think, “Wow, peace of mind is better than a piece of ass.”

And how anorexic would we all be if we could dial down our hunger hormones?

Or if we could dial down the sex, would we all settle for being happy and fat?

JWH – 9/8/12

The Soul Torture of Dieting

I need to lose weight for health reasons.  I have arthritis in my back that makes it hard to stand or walk for long.  I’ve bought Z-coil shoes that have shock absorbing springs in the heels that help tremendously.  They make me look silly wearing them, but those bouncy shoes proves that my weight is related to my degenerative back disease.  Even with the incentive of pain, for the life of me I can’t make myself lose weight!

Dieting is torture.  Craving fun food is hormonal tyranny.  Drug addicts argue over which drug is the most addictive, well I say the junk that’s the most addictive is junk food.  I can force myself to go months without eating my favorite desserts, but then bam, something snaps, and my will power breaks.  Dieting is the absolute test of mind over matter, and carbs beats the crap out of my gray matter every time.

Just because my mind lives inside this body doesn’t mean its cozy relationship affords any influence.  Actually, I think it proves that the mind doesn’t just occupy the our skulls, but the whole hormonal system.  Insulin affects my thinking just as much as any mind altering drug.

ben & jerrys chocolate therapy

A carton of Ben & Jerry’s can bring me such happiness, energy and creative stimulation that it’s torture to resist.  But I have resisted!  I haven’t had any B&J’s for months, but the desire for it never goes away.  But it doesn’t have to be anything as fabulous as ice cream for my hormones to torture me, sometimes I just crave an ordinary peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Just losing eight or ten pounds seems to trigger something that makes me lose all mental control and resolve.

I used to come home from work and stoke up on M&Ms, Coca-Cola, pies, cake, cookies and candy.  All those calories would jazzercise my neural activities so I felt like doing after being burned out from work.  When I diet I want to come home and veg out.  In the last ten years I’ve discovered that a nap after work will rejuvenate me like my surgery loves, but it doesn’t do away with the craving.


Why isn’t eating simple and logical?  Shouldn’t it be a Mr. Spock like decision.  These foods will make me healthy, those foods are poison.  Okay, I’ll take the poison.  What sane person thinks that way?

Now scientists are telling us sugar is toxic.  That’s probably perfect true, but I’ve been developing a tolerance to sugar my whole life, and I can take on some high levels of that poison.

There is something incredibly unfair that desserts are evil.  We seldom get what we dream, but a carton of Ben & Jerry’s is something dreamy that’s easy to obtain.  Of course, now that my teeth are going, well just one, but another is feeling poorly, I feel I should have listened to those warnings against sugar all those years ago.  It’s like that old joke of Woody Allen, where his mother tells him that masturbation will make him go blind and he asks if he can do it until he needs glasses. 

I’m afraid I’ll be needing choppers and still wanting to eat sweets.  Or they’ll be cutting off my feet while I eat M&Ms.  Why is it so hard to say no?  On the news tonight they reported that there’s an epidemic of skin cancer among young women because they love tanning bed tans.  Will that news stop them?  What a silly question to ask.

Why aren’t we smarter?   Or to ask it another way, why do our urges trump our brains, because we do know the answers, and we even believe what we’re told, but we still do the things bad for us like lemmings heading for the edge of the abyss.  I suppose it’s the same thing with global warming – we can’t give up fossil fuels any easier than sugar or cigarettes.  We’re like one cell animals heading directly to the stimulus we love the most.  Becoming big brain beings didn’t overcome those basic instincts.  What good is a neo-cortex when it can’t control the mammalian and reptilian parts of our brains? 

Have they ever considered lobotomies for the lower brain functions?  Or would being healthy and logical like Mr. Spock feel like being a zombie?

JWH – 4/2/12

The Metamorphosis Diet

Most people when they hear the word metamorphosis think about a caterpillar and butterfly.  Fewer people, those with a literary bent, are reminded of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, the dude who turned into a big bug.  I need to meta-morph myself, but I’m afraid it would be too much to believe I could become young again and go the butterfly route, however if I don’t, I do see myself going down the dead bug path, flat on my back with my feet up in the air.

I’ve reached a time in my life I’ve been avoiding for thirty years – the time to diet.  My doctor insists I need statins for cholesterol, but they just don’t agree with me.  Since my father died of a heart attack at age 49 after having three previous heart attacks and a stroke, I am an obvious candidate for such drugs.  To go without them demands dramatic changes in diet.

I’m overweight – tipping the scales at 232, at five ten and three quarters, which gives me a horrible body mass index of 32.4.  Being fat hasn’t been unpleasant until I became unhealthy, so I had no incentive to diet.  Feeling bad is an incentive, but then my father had many such demons driving him and he never changed his habits.  Only 1 person out of 20 can diet and keep the weight off.  What makes that 1 person succeed?

I also have spinal stenosis, so I want to believe weighing less would ease the pressure on my back, which is yet another incentive to put myself through some kind of metamorphosis.  Now I wished I lived in the world of Harry Potter where I could buy a transformation potion, but that’s not an option.  The only real choices are the same ones I’ve been hearing my whole life:  diet and exercise.

But if I dieted like skinny-crazed actresses could I somehow morph myself into a new me?  I found this book, Stop Inflammation Now! by Richard M. Fleming, M.D. that promises dramatic change (read the Amazon customer reviews).  The trouble is Fleming’s diet is hard!!!  The phase 1 diet, the prescription to get your cholesterol numbers under control, is composed of only fruits and vegetables.   I’ve been a vegetarian since 1969, but I find it almost impossible to eat as many fruits and vegetables as Fleming wants me to.

I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian, one who doesn’t eat animals, but will eat eggs and milk products.  And since I’ve also discovered The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone after watching Food, Inc., I’ve been thinking about becoming a vegan vegetarian.  But even the vegan diet is far more varied than the Fleming diet.  Giving up cheese, yogurt, ice cream and scrambled eggs is scary to me, since they are great comfort foods.   The Fleming diet, at least the early phase 1, doesn’t even provide salad dressing for salads – no fats allowed.  Under the vegan regime, I can have rice, oils, and even mutant pasta and breads, as well as fake meats and cheese.

So in my waffling, I’m shifting toward the vegan diet, but hoping I can eventually build up the guts to do the Fleming diet for a few weeks and see if my cholesterol numbers do come down.  The Fleming phase 1 diet is almost identical to many cleansing diets.  When I was 26, and only weighed 155 pounds, I did a cleansing diet that had dramatic effects in two weeks.  This diet was based on eating fruits one meal, and veggies the next, and the only condiments were pepper and lemon juice.  The day was started with a bracing wake-up of hot water and garlic.  I remember, the first thing I ate after going off this diet was scrambled eggs.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt as healthy as I did after that cleansing diet.

However, dieting is hard.  But after seeing Food, Inc. and many news films about the recent egg contamination scare, with all those warehouses of monster ugly chickens, I’ve decided that eggs aren’t that appealing anymore.  Giving up cheese and milk is going to be much harder, no matter how badly cows are treated.  But whenever I see how milk is produced, I waver.  That’s why the agribusiness keeps animal production hidden.

Ultimately, the hardest part of dieting is fitting the new way of eating into my existing lifestyle.  Being a normal vegetarian has made me a social outcast of sorts, and going vegan will distant me further from normal people.  Going out to dinner, either at restaurants or at a friend’s house, becomes trying at best, and sometimes impossible at worst.  The transformation I’m seeking will make me far from normal.  And that might be the key to why diets fail.

I think I can make it to veganism, especially after reading this New York Times article on vegan cupcakes.  It proves tasty food can be vegan.   Also, Alicia Silverstone preaches a hell-fire sermon for vegan living.  Time will tell if I can meta-morph into a better eater, and whether or not it will make me butterfly-like.  Even if I got down to 199, I doubt I’d float like a butterfly.  Maybe I can be Mothra.  I’ll keep you posted.  I will say that after making this decision I got up early the next morning and drove to the store and bought myself some soy milk for my cereal.  Yuck.  I have adapted that much.  One step at a time, as they say in the metamorphosis business.

JWH – 9/16/10