The Freedom of the Surfer

Savvy philosophers distill their core insight into a short phrase. For Adam Smith it was “invisible hand,” for David Hume “confined generosity,” for John Rawls “veil of ignorance.” In James’s book, the fundamental idea is “adaptive attunement.” This is what he takes to be “the essence of surfing.” For someone to be surfing, three conditions must be met: He must be attuned to a shifting phenomenon outside of himself (like a wave); he must be adjusting himself in response to it (adapting), “so as to be carried along by its propulsive forces”; and he must be doing so intentionally and “for its own sake” — that is, because negotiating the world in this manner strikes him as intrinsically valuable. You are surfing if and only if you are adaptively attuned.

By defining surfing in this formal and abstract way, James frees himself to talk not just about surfing waves but also about surfing “in an extended sense”: for example, “surfing” through a cocktail party conversation or down a busy Manhattan sidewalk. Surfers surf when they are in the water, but in other aspects of their lives, too — as can we all, and well we should, James contends. He presents adaptive attunement as a fruitful way to understand how much of the world works, as well as a winning strategy for life.

James regrets that Sartre did not get to think about surfing. If he had, he might have been led to a different and, as James sees it, more convincing theory of freedom. Sartre was an “incompatibilist” about free will: He considered freedom to be at odds with the deterministic universe implied by our best physics. (In what sense are you free if you could not have acted otherwise?) But James is a compatibilist: He thinks there is a meaningful sense of “freedom” consistent with being trapped by the laws of nature — indeed, he thinks the surfer-derived notion of adaptive attunement captures that sense.

As the surfer knows, freedom is not a matter of imposing your will, Sartre-like, on the world. That’s a surefire way to wipe out. Freedom, rather, is a matter of transcending your will, and accepting the “exchange,” or two-way relationship, between what you intend to do and what you are constrained to do by the forces around you. You take what the wave gives you. In a deterministic universe, freedom is the sensation, known to the adaptively attuned, of “efficacy without control.” The surfer is right; Sartre is wrong.

‘Surfing With Sartre’: Does Riding a Wave Help Solve Existential Mysteries?
James Ryerson

Review of:
An Aquatic Inquiry Into a Life of Meaning
By Aaron James