Earlier this morning, occupied as I was by two projects of interest simultaneously (making my breakfast and writing this essay), I managed to burn my first attempt at the former on account of turning my attention full-bore to the latter. The result furnished me with an object lesson (as if I needed it) in the way things work in the natural world. If one were to inquire into the reasons why my first pancake went into the trash, thoroughly blackened on one side and filling my house with acrid smoke, two equally viable and meaningful answers would present themselves, one having to do with the nature of chemical changes and the other with human psychology.
The first of those answers simply has to do with molecular bonding, with the propensity of oxygen to bond with many other chemical elements in its never-ending pursuit of a lower energy state – which is something that everything in the universe seeks continually, and which drives everything from the fusion reactions in the cores of stars to the chemistry of life. The second answer has to do with our prioritizing of tasks – which is one of many things that we have in common with every other animal. It might be more difficult to distract a cheetah from its fixation on a gazelle than it is to distract a human from making his breakfast, but it most certainly can be done. Our priorities – the priorities of all animals, in fact – are flexible. This is one of the realities that lies behind the notion of “free will” – the appearance of which, pretty much everyone agrees, is far more pronounced in humans than in other animals. (The line of demarcation is not by any means so clearly drawn, however, as creationists imagine. And the very notion of “free will” is a fallacy anyway, as research in neuroscience may have demonstrated.)
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