How Our Will Is Not So Free – Part I

For any of you who are foolish enough to read my blog you are used to a lot of rambling.  I can’t promise this will be too different, but I would like to be a little formal and have an actual thesis for this post.  I have posted my thoughts about free will in respect to religion, but even if one is not religious the idea

From http://www.brandonragle.com

that we have free will is extremely pervasive and I think it is ultimately a not necessarily helpful concept to believe in.  The choices that we think people have are an illusion and we tend to instead judge others because people do not make choices that we would make.  It prevents us from really helping those who are violent, disturbed, hurting, depressed, etc.  It has us believe that there are people who are inherently evil allowing us to dehumanize them and cast them aside, when instead they might simply have brain abnormalities, be traumatized, influenced by people as messed up as they are, or simply lost and confused in a world that is beyond them and behave desperately.  I think it also acts to separate us from nature and is a great source of human conceit.  Free will is not something we ascribe to plants or animals and thus also gives us the illusion that we lie in a place above all else.  Whether you believe that the supernatural has imparted us this blessing of greatness or you think that evolution is a pyramid in which humans rest on top, both these notions are ultimately dangerous because they allow us to justify great atrocities against nature as we continue to satisfy our own self-importance.

In the first 8 months of watching my son grow it is clear that free will is not something he was born with.  He started out simply crying when he was hurting, uncomfortable or hungry, and sleeping when he was sleepy.  Not a lot of free will going on there.  As I watch him change, I see him simply become aware of more things.  When he first could see our cats, not surprisingly he was curious and wanted to touch them.  Now that he’s been outside he asks to go outside (well not in words).  Now that he realizes the comfort of being held he asks to be held.  He also mimics.  He sees us eating something and he wants to eat it.  He sees us using a remote, our phones, computers, and he desperately wants to use those too (or rather put them in his mouth).

Before I formally begin my argument for the absence of free will I want to put an excellent quote from an article I read some time ago from the New Yorker which has had a large influence on my thoughts in trying to understand why we are the way we are and where this sense of self comes from that I blogged about some time ago.

I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.”

From http://www.eugenecascadescoast.org

The reason I want you to keep this in mind, because not only does it support the argument I am going to make (doesn’t of course make the statement true), but most importantly I want to reveal to you that just because I don’t think we have free will, doesn’t mean that I don’t find life absolutely amazing.  The idea expressed in this passage speaks to me in a way I cannot fully express, but I find this idea beautiful.  It tells me that we are product of processes that function over many different scales of time.  From what we learn each day, to what nature has molded us into over millions of years.  We can extend even further and look at the billions of years of evolution which has produced us , and we can go back further to old stars dying and being the seeds for our own sun and solar system which allowed one fortunate planet to even allow life to evolve.  So the fact I may not be quite as in control of the process is hardly depressing.  In fact it removes a lot of the pressure if anything.  I can simply marvel at all that has taken place for me to sit here and write these thoughts out today back to the beginning of time.  It is humbling, inspiring, and magnificent.

I shall now let you pause a bit before going on to the next blog post, because going back to the beginning of time is something that requires some deep reflection. 🙂

Are we ourselves?

Psychology has become a fascination for me in recent years, particularly trying to understand how the mind works.  A class I sat in last year about love which focuses a lot on our relationship to others had me also asking the question “What about the

From Illinois.edu

love we have for ourselves?”  In talking to my colleague who teaches the class, she said to her knowledge, while many have done intensive studies both through surveys and neuroanalyses of the brain in relation to the love we feel towards others, she wasn’t aware of any studies that really studies our brain when we think about our own self.  For instance I wonder, what areas of the brain activate when we start talking about ourselves?  Is it the same area that activates when we talk about our mother?  A frightening thought indeed. Like many questions it began to lead me down a whole other path of thinking as well about how we develop identity and about individualism.  How do we become the people that we are?  How do we know ourselves?  Is our sense of self just an illusion?

From http://www.studentaffairs.pitt.edu

In the first month or so it is clear that newborns don’t have a sense of self, and numerous studies have shown that they still see themselves as extensions of their mother.  Essentially still in the womb, although the womb conditions have clearly gone through some big changes.  🙂  For the past few weeks I can clearly start to see changes in my son as he begins to engage in the world and starts realizing that he is an individual separate from others.  Although filled with a lot of terminology I am less familiar with my colleague sent me a link to a paper that talks about the development of self (as well as other things).  I found it interesting to learn that the sense of self is initial learned by imitating and watching the behavior of others.  As social animals only through learning about others do we begin to get a sense of self.  I found this to be a fascinating dichotomy.  Because on one hand we think of ourselves as unique, which is at the heart of our individualism, but this uniqueness appears to come from the observations of others.

Now I am not suggesting that we don’t have some genetic uniqueness as well.  Many parents report their children having a personality from very young ages that appears to be different from their own or their siblings.  I have no doubt that this is true.  But it could be that the children are picking up on personality traits that we don’t recognize (or admit) in ourselves or it could be that genetic differences influence how we perceive the actions of others and thus each child interprets behaviors and intentions slightly differently.

It seems to me that even if this would not be the case we would still all be quite unique because our lives are sum of a unique set of experiences.  No person meets the exact same people, goes to the exact same places, and experiences the exact same education.  We are all dynamic and constantly changing individuals such that even children of the same parents will experience their parents and different times in their lives when they have more or less experience, different skill sets, etc.

So it’s not that self is so much an illusion but rather that the concept of self perhaps has no value without the context of others, especially for a social species.  We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, judging others, labeling and categorizing others, and while I can see the harm that this can sometimes, it seems that it is something we have been doing all our lives.  Without doing that can we understand who we are as individuals without comparing and contrasting ourselves to

From http://www.chameleion-web.co.uk

others?  People tell you not to care what others think of you, but this seems like somewhat unrealistic advice.  No matter how much a person protests that they don’t care, there is no question we all do care.  What we really want to do is shrug off the people who think we suck and believe hook, line, and sinker in the people who think we are awesome.  It seems to me that this is really hard thing to do given how much of our life we spend defining ourselves through our relationships with other people and so we must often take the good with the bad and then reflect on the interpretation that others seem to gather of our behaviors and actions.

I would love to hear the thoughts others have about this, and would love to get academic about it as well is you have any expertise to share.  This I would like to be just one in a 3 part series as I am also fascinated, as an extension of individualism, by collectivism.  After that I’d like to look at the somewhat more ethereal topic of duality.

Questions

The human mind is amazing.  Think of things you can imagine.  Some are real.  Some are fantastical.  Some are not possible.  Some may be possible.  The range of what we are minds are capable of coming up with is astounding.

From http://www.daviddisalvo.org

Now humans are also curious.  Part of our imagination may be to visualize something and then ask ourselves.  How can I make this dream, this fantasy I have, real?  The fact that we can make any of these dreams real is impressive.  Any inventor though will probably have more failures than successes.

You may be questioning where am I going with this, and you’d be right to question me.  The truth is I don’t exactly know and luckily this is part of the point.

Given what are minds are capable of, and given that only a handful of our dreams ever can become reality, is it possible that we can dream up questions which have no answer?  I can ask a lot of questions that have no answer.  For instance I might ask “When we build a ship capable of traveling across the galaxy how many planets can one visit in a lifetime?”  Of course there are answers that you can give, but how much accuracy or value would such an answer have?  It is first contingent on a device we don’t have, asks us to know the number of planets in the galaxy which is something we don’t know, and we also are uncertain what our lifetimes might be at some future date when this device is available.  Such a question might have value.  If I cared enough about the answer I may devote my life to trying to see out into our galaxy more clearly, or build a faster than light speed spaceship, or perhaps try to increase our life expectancy, so that one day people can see lots of planets potentially.

The question is a loaded one because of all the uncertainties in the question, and it has no precise answer.  There are however grander questions we can ask.  What does God want from us?  There is uncertainty as to God’s existence so the answer becomes difficult.  And even if there was one, most cultures disagree on God’s nature, so trying to determine what God wants becomes rather challenging.

From library.sasaustin.org

But we can get even grander.  What is the meaning of life?   I would respond back with “whose life?” or “how do you define life?”  But let’s go a step further to a related question: Why are we here?  The simplest of all questions.  Not much ambiguity to it all.  Those who might have an answer have no evidence to back it up.  Many would simply say they don’t know.  And answers of course vary from person to person.  Of all the many questions we can ask, perhaps we can answer them all;  partly by answering some smaller questions first before getting to the bigger parent question.  But what if there are some questions like “Why are we here?”  that have no answer?  What if this question is a simply a product of our wonderful minds.  Nevertheless one of our inventions.  We invent machines, concepts, why not questions? And while the question “Why are we here?” seems a natural question to ask,  must every question have an answer?  Maybe our answers are inventions as well. What if the only answer to that question is “We just are”.  That seems quite unsatisfying because “Why” has not been addressed.  Making it not really the answer at all.  Just a truth which we might have to accept.

And if “Why are we here?” really has no answer, can’t existence still be wonderful? Does there have to be some grand plan in order for you to be happy?  Is there no value in a satisfying career, making the world a better place, raising your child to be happy and strong, bringing smiles to the faces of friends and family, giving to those who have less than you?  Maybe it is these smaller questions we should be trying to answer with our lives.  The bigger question has almost no value to the countless millions who live in abject poverty. If you are reading (or writing this blog) you have the privilege in life to ponder this big question more deeply.  Would the answer really change you all that much?  Is the answer preventing you from being a good person?  Do you need an answer to see that love is better than hate?  That peace is better than violence?  That generosity is better than greed?  Would an answer make learning physics, chemistry, or biology meaningless?  Would an answer make creating art, writing, or making music any less enjoyable or meaningful?

The only seems clear is that there are many questions to be asked, many questions that are important, and that we should never stop asking questions. 🙂