The radical ideas of Raoul Martinez
"When you look at any person’s life, it’s luck, all the way down in terms of opportunities," says the man behind The Lottery of Birth and Creating Freedom
Raoul Martinez: ‘Nothing in science suggests we are responsible for our cognitive machinery’
“There is not a single shred of scientific evidence for the notion of personal freedom as it is currently conceived,” says author Raoul Martinez, “yet the concept of individual responsibility dominates our culture and lies at the heart of our criminal justice system.”
Martinez’s new book, Creating Freedom, is a philosophical text that presents a deceptively simple, and stunning, treatise; the freedoms within our society are illusory or entirely antithetical to actual liberty.
The book contends that even free will is itself an ancient myth. If we don’t have control over our choices, after all, in what sense can we be legally or morally responsible for them?
“What is a choice if not a reflection of a particular person’s identity at a particular point in time?” he argues. “To be responsible for a choice, you have to demonstrate you are responsible for the machinery making that choice. There is simply no way to do that. Nothing in science suggests we are responsible for our cognitive machinery.
“Once we accept that we do not create ourselves, then our identities, brains, and attitudes, are all not really something for which we can be responsible. They are bestowed to us in the same way that we have brown eyes, or have English as our first language, it’s the same with every quality that defines our character or identity.”
Since most people grow up considering their own culture “normal”, analysing these blind spots is particularly difficult. “Over the history of human development or thought, there’s not a belief too bizarre or an action too appalling for humans to embrace as a norm, given the necessary cultural influences.”
Since our behaviour is the product of a brain we didn’t choose and an environment we can’t control, Martinez argues that the notion we are somehow fully responsible for the failings – or, for that matter, successes – of those brains is absurd.
In Creating Freedom, Martinez explores the effect this fallacy has had in criminal justice; prisons filled with people incarcerated merely to apply moral retribution, without thought to the fact that their behaviour is predestined. In one particularly provocative passage, Martinez asks the reader to imagine a man named John who, due to a brain tumour, starts to exhibit paedophilic tendencies.
If intellectual history has taught us anythingit’s that you don’t need good arguments on both sides to keep a debate raging
Even a casual observer will take from this case that John is, to some extent, less responsible for such tendencies, seeing as they’re caused by an abnormal growth in his brain.
Martinez’s point is merely that John would be no more personally responsible for other causes, such as childhood abuse, or some other factor from his youth, any of which would be just as outside his control as a tumour.
“It exists beyond critical scrutiny,” he says of this need to enforce personal responsibility. “It shapes the way we see the world without any intellectual validity. Many arguments have been constructed by philosophers to try and justify this notion, so many diverse justifications, in fact, that it suggests they haven’t settled on one that works.”
One may wonder if the opposite might also be true; could not the eternal nature of this debate on the nature of free will be suggestive of some truth to the opposing argument? Martinez is unconvinced.
“If intellectual history has taught us anything,” he says with a glint in his eye that implies he believes it has taught us many things, “it’s that you don’t need good arguments on both sides to keep a debate raging. All you need is each side to be continuously motivated to further the debate by disputing the other side. I think that’s what we see more than anything else.”
Well, I never expected to have a book published 10 years ago. I left school at 17, why would anyone publish my book? I have no qualifications
So it’s all a roll of the dice? “In essence,” he replies. “The decisive factors in human life are based on luck. If you happen to have incredible powers of reasoning, or empathy or self-control then in all likelihood that will be a route to more moral behaviour, and admirable behaviour, but you can’t really take credit for it.”
Conceiving a philosopher
Martinez’s own route to exploring these heady concepts is hardly typical. If asked to conceive of a philosophy author, you might call to mind a woolly old don sitting in front of a classical bust, on documentaries so niche they only come on during sign-language hours.
The wild-haired type, in a frayed jumper, exchanging Greek puns with Melvyn Bragg. Or, perhaps, you’d imagine a head-mic-wearing Ted talk guru, full of dotcom puff or chakra-bending bluster; the kind whose book covers scream things like THE POWER OF WHEN or UNLEASH YOUR INNER OMBUDSMAN from airport bookshelves.
Martinez fits neither paradigm. Just 33 years old, tanned and tousle-haired, he’s not an academic and has never previously written a book on any topic. A celebrated portrait painter, Martinez left school at 17; a move he says was as much for sociological, as educational, reasons.
“I was painting and improving my technique but would consistently come up against resistance in art class. There was no sense of following your intuitions or your instincts or curiosity. It was just, ‘you shouldn’t be working on this, you should be working on that’ and I chafed against those constraints.” His dissatisfaction wasn’t limited to his artistic studies, however.
“I remember as a kid my dad telling me the most important word in the English language was ‘why’,” he says, when asked how he ended up writing this book in the first place. “So, instead of telling me to stop asking questions, he encouraged it..”
Before embarking on this book, his questioning spirit had taken the form of philosophical wonderings, artistic endeavours, and the documentary film he wrote and co-directed in 2012, The Lottery of Birth.
I ask him if he looks at the successes with the same cool detachment. “Well, I never expected to have a book published 10 years ago. I left school at 17, why would anyone publish my book? I have no qualifications! But when I look back in my past, there are so many key moments that I didn’t have control over. I worked hard, yeah, but luck was key – opportunities arose. When you look at any person’s life, it’s luck, all the way down in terms of opportunities, as well as the capacities that develop.”
Another pernicious side of blame culture rooted in the book, is that the poor and downtrodden deserve their station in life. Society too often telling them that, if they only worked harder or made better choices, they could have their own rags-to-riches, American Dream stories to tell.
The more you contemplate these issues, the more you erode your sense of blame. In the end, this encourages empathy, compassion and humility as a general trend.
Martinez finds this thought process, and the propaganda that underpins it, inherently absurd. “These arguments simply define resources in too narrow a way. People who say, for example, ‘I didn’t have loads of of material resources and yet I ended up rich so anyone could do it’. Well, those are not the only kind of resources, they’re not even the most important ones. Resources can mean both external and the internal.”
Some of the variables he cites are more abstract.
“If you’re born with a gifted mind or you received extra love and support from your family, or if you grow up at a particular time where your particular gifts are particularly rewarded within your particular culture. All these quirks of fate come into play.
"People hear this argument and may very quickly accept the ‘lottery of birth’ idea but will then think that, as we develop and mature, some form of responsibility must develop. But any point in our development is dependent on those that came before it.
“So, let’s say on your 10th birthday, you decide to reflect on your character and make positive changes in your life. The only ways in which you are able to change will still be dependent on how you already are, because of genes and experience. You still have to work with the ingredients and materials bequeathed to you by your prior conditioning and biological history.”
As our conversation ends, I ask how easy it is for him to balance these concepts in his daily life; does he, for instance, refuse to congratulate people since they’re not responsible for their own achievements? Or does he really feel no ill will toward people walking slowly in front of him airports, or cutting his car off on the road?
“It’s not something you can keep in mind every second of the day,” he says “but the more you contemplate these issues, the more you erode your sense of blame. In the end, this encourages empathy, compassion and humility as a general trend. It doesn’t mean you never get angry or never have a desire to give out, but it does undermine those feelings.”
The difficulty of imagining this new moral landscape seems daunting, but in the company of Raoul Martinez it seems a tiny bit more likely. The author, and the arguments within his book, have a tendency to leave a reader feeling enlivened, stirred and provoked. But perhaps this should come as no surprise. We have no choice, after all.
How to stay positive: Raoul Martinez’s reasons to be cheerful
Free will is an illusion, the government is corrupt, and the media is lying to you. But it’s not all bad news. Here’s Raoul Martinez’s reasons to be cheerful.
“The history of humanity isn’t just war and oppression, it’s also one of remarkable changes and inspiring acts of numerous human beings, many of whose names we will never learn. Even today, we see remarkable forms of resistance and courage and dignity. Being receptive to those things is deeply motivating, inspiring and empowering.
“If anything, when we do not take the freedom we have for granted, we empower ourselves to make the most of the freedom that is available. Every day we have the opportunity to interrupt the direction of history in small ways, but these things add up.
“It’s not about shying away from the apocalyptic realities of modern civilisation, it’s about realising that our actions can reduce the risks of creating catastrophic futures, or reduce the effects of those catastrophes should they occur. What humans want more than anything else is a sense of meaning and the more we open ourselves to deeply care about the kind of future we’re creating, the more meaning we can create from our own lives and our own actions. To live according to values that seem noble, worthwhile and inspiring to you is incredibly valuable.
“To live as if you are already free in a society which exists to curtail your freedom in so many profound ways.”
Creating Freedom is published by Canongate. Raoul Martinez will be in conversation with Manchan Magan at Newman University Church on Stephens Green at 12:30pm on Easter Monday. It's a free event but ticketed. Click here for details. He is also speaking at Kilmainham Gaol that evening at Saoirse | Freedom. Both events are by the Trailblazery