Free Will and Changing Your Mind

There was a very good question posed to Sam Harris on his podcast which was:

“If free will is an illusion, why are intentions morally relevant?”

Sam Harris’ answer was very good, but I wanted to throw in my own answer as well.  This also brought to the fore questions I have been asking for years and has led me on a path to learn about the brain and cognitive science: “How effectively can we change our own minds about things?  And what is the manner in which we can change our mind?”  Now perhaps to some, the question posed to Sam Harris doesn’t seem related, but I think there is a very important connection here.

Whether or not you agree that free will is an illusion or not, isn’t something I want to debate with right now.  I haven’t heard a compelling reason in favor of the idea of free will in some time.  I think what the more interest question is to understand why people are against the idea of free will being an illusion.  Sure you could argue that religion is part of that reason, but even secular people are uncomfortable with the idea.  The question posed to Sam Harris says it all.  If there is no free will, how is anybody responsible for their actions?

The word responsible is the word that doesn’t belong here, and this is what most people seem to miss.  This has important consequences for our justice system.  So then why do intentions matter?  The reason why intentions matter is because of what it says about your brain.  Let’s say I’m driving and I accidentally hit a cyclist, what does this say about me as a person?  I may be careless on the road.  Maybe I need to take some more driver training classes.  Maybe I need glasses.  Maybe if I’ve gotten into numerous accidents it means I probably shouldn’t drive any more.   What if I feel genuine remorse for what I’ve done?  Doesn’t that say something about how my brain works as well?  Do I belong in jail?  I don’t think so.  But if on the other hand I see that cyclist and get a sinister grin on my face and speed up and mow that cyclist down, what does this say about me?  It says that I am a person who takes joy about causing harm to others.  I might not feel remorse…maybe I do…but there would be something troubling about my mind that speaks to what future actions I am likely to take.  What if I know the cyclist and hate the person and that’s why I mow them down?  This also says something troubling about future actions I might make.  Because who might be the next person I hate, and what might I do to them?

I have talked about the idea of “personal responsibility” before and as I write this post it becomes even clearer why that phrase confuses me.  Having a party centered around personal responsibility seems to be an even bigger mistake.  We are a social species and it’s easy to say we are responsible for ourselves, but I don’t think that’s really the case.  It is the environment which shapes the individual and we have laws in large part not to control individual behaviors but to protect society.  It seems to me that it is we as a society, as other people in a person’s life that intervene to impact someone’s behavior.  And when a person does change their behavior it is a response to what society values, or through some personal experience in interacting with society or their environment that changes one’s mind.  If I am going around running people down with my car, whether accidentally, or on purpose, it is society that in some way says hey you can’t be doing that and finds an appropriate way to make me less of a danger.  If I take it upon myself to make changes, it is because of some emotional reaction to what I’ve done that is the impetus for change.  Rather than a decision to change, my body, my mind doesn’t want to feel a certain way and thus pushes me in a direction to not feel that way again.  My consciousness of that motivation is what gives me the illusion of free will.

Change in an individual seems to be a result not of an individual’s decisions, but rather the environmental context in which we live.  If society hasn’t shaped us to be more receptive to changing our mind, it is actively intervening to try and convince us to reform our views.  Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  It seems that there is no real reason for me to want to change my mind about anything when I think about it.  I mean if what I believe has kept me alive so far, to be of an age to reproduce and raise children to a sufficient age so they can reproduce then what I believe must be pretty reasonable.  Now for a social species it could be that what I believe is very counter to surviving well with the people around me.  But as long as I generally believe what the “group” believes I’ll probably be alright.  Whether those beliefs are true or not makes no difference.  It really doesn’t even make a difference if they are harmful, providing that harm doesn’t lead to any consequences that would significantly reduce my chances to reproduce.

As we realize the global society that we live in, and that more and more of us are infringing on each other cultural and intellectual space, as we become more acutely aware of the harm of certain beliefs and values, not just in our community but over the entirety of the planet, I feel it’s important we start asking how can we all get along?  What values should this global community have?  What differences can we afford to maintain and still get diversity?  Does diversity’s value diminish over time if we hope for unity among humankind?  And given how difficult it seems to be to change one’s mind, what are some beliefs we could have that would provide a backdrop to growth for a better future where less humans suffer, and well being is increased?  It is this last question I want to explore a bit more in future posts.  I think tied to this is the area of human emotion which I have become more intrigued with of late.  I think that our emotional and reasoning side are more tied together than we think and that without emotions, at least for humans, growth isn’t possible.

How Our Will Is Not So Free – Part II

In Part I, I hoped to get you into a relaxed frame of mind as you consider the possibility about the existence of free will.  That perhaps our subscribing to free will is more trouble than it’s worth and that life can be no less wonderful without it.  So here is the way that I like to look at our ability to make choices.

In a previous blog post I talked about the fortunes of life perhaps depending on the choice between Pepsi and Coke, so let’s stick with soda (or pop if you

from http://createmeaning.com

prefer) to start our little thought experiment.  Let’s say you live in a world in which there is only one beverage you know about, and that beverage is Coke.  When you are thirsty and you need something to drink, there is no decision to make it is going to be Coke.  Free will does not enter into the decision.

Now this is not particularly realistic.  So let’s add a choice like Pepsi into the mix.  They taste different, but both can quench your thirst.  Which one do you choose?  Well let’s see what might go into making a decision.  You are at the store that sells the only two beverages that are available and which one do you choose?  Likely your choice will come down to statistical probability.  If you absolutely had no preference, your decision would simply be random.  Over the course of your life you would probably have picked Coke 50% of the time and Pepsi 50% of the time, provided you had a choice.  Nothing in your life that you have learned has caused you to lean one way or another, there are only two choices, and thus your choice is limited and can be simply equated to flipping a coin.

You might say at this point, wait, I can choose to pick Coke or Pepsi more often.  Okay then, but why would you?  What particular reason would you have for choosing one over the other?  This question is particularly devilish so I’ll get back to it later.  As for now, you have no reason to choose one more than another, and so quite simply you wouldn’t; it’s a flip of the coin, which isn’t free will.  Generally people don’t do anything without a reason.

Now let’s throw in a reason.  Your mother who you revere and think is wonderful always brought you a special souvenir coke when she’d go away somewhere, and so drinking Coke sometimes reminds of that warm feeling.  This is an influence that impacts your decision making. All of a sudden your preference for Coke perhaps goes to 60% (40% Pepsi) because when you’re thinking about your mom you’re in a mood for Coke, taking away from it always being a completely random decision.   Now since Coke is a little less sweet, perhaps your blood doesn’t react well to too much sugar, a genetic trait running in your family, and you can’t tolerate Pepsi as often and all of a sudden you’re at 75% Coke, 25% Pepsi.  Then you find that the makers of Coke are a little more efficient at running their business and are able to have more sales on their product.  As someone who is money conscious all of sudden you are buying Coke 85% of the time, Pepsi 15%. A really hot girl or guy is in the Coke commercial – 90%/10%.  Finally your Dad is a mean person who beat you as a child and he always drank Pepsi.  All of a sudden you are only drinking Coke again.  Your choices are a function of the things that influence you.

For every answer there is a question.  You’re money conscious, but where does that come from? Perhaps your father despite being abusive was very disciplined with money and so you gained that skill from him.   What if you decide that you aren’t going to let your father’s action impact your decisions and

From http://crenshawcomm.com

get a Pepsi out of spite.  Great, but what would cause you to be so defiant and rebellious.  Perhaps your mother showed that trait.  Perhaps you were inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. that you learned about in school.  Perhaps you were inspired by the movie Braveheart.  There may be many possible influences, the point is that you believe that defiance is a positive way of dealing with such childhood trauma and that idea had to come from somewhere.  Many people do not have such boldness.  Perhaps that is not a weakness, perhaps they just feel the best way to cope is for them to completely dissociate themselves with their Pepsi drinking dad as way of staying stress free and peaceful.  They learned this from a self-help book that they read on letting go of the past.

Now going back to an earlier question, what prevents you from just preferring one drink over another for no reason?  People seem to do things for no reason all the time, and I would have to agree.  But doing something for the hell of it is also a trait.  There are people who will never be like that all their lives.  Some people say, I’m just going to be a Coke drinker even though I like both of them well enough, because hey why not, I’m a wild and crazy guy, and I just want to be on team Coke.  Where does this spontaneous side come from?  An aunt you love and revere whose always taking chances and is a thrill seeker?  A friend you went to college with who just loved to be spontaneous?  But if your spontaneous next year you might just be on Team Pepsi.

The reasons for our decisions are so varied and complex that such a breakdown for why we make the decision we do is not always clear, but it is clear that we are conditioned by multiple influences over different scales of time to reach those decisions.  Your choice of beverage might really be something like this:

Coke 70% – Tastes better, grew up with it, family drank Coke

Trying something new 10% – Your mom always encouraged you to try new things and that variety is important so you aren’t afraid to take a chance when something catches your eye

Dr. Pepper 10% – You also like the taste and it reminds you of your years in grad school when you and your friends used to always take a break from studies and get a Dr. Pepper

RC Cola 5% – They were out of Coke, you wanted a cola and you hate Pepsi

Tolerable Beverages 5% – when your favorite choices aren’t available you can tolerate maybe an Orange Crush, Fanta, or Root Beer because it’s better than any of the other choices you’ve been given.

And then finally you might have a special category of beverage you’d hate and never choose unless you had been in the desert a real long time and had no other choice.

In our minds we think about all the things we have drank and see them all as choices and feel like we are consciously making the choice with our free will, but the truth is that we are conditioned into those choices and if we really thought about it, we usually do get a Coke, and the other beverages are choices but low probability ones.

Can our lives really be predicted so easily?  Our decisions already pre-determined? The answer, of course, is “no”, because life is full of unexpected events.  Even if everything that occurs is deterministic you are an incredibly small part of everything and cannot follow the chain of events. And perhaps your penchant for trying new things leads you to a beverage you love more than Coke.  Perhaps you fall in love with a girl who loves Dr. Pepper and that becomes your preferred drink since you both like it and it’s something you can share.

From http://dilbert.com

Life is full of events that we don’t know are coming and it is those intersections that throw us out of our comfort zones and give us new experiences that shift the probabilities and possibilities of choices we can make in any given situation.  Whether you are open or closed to new situations also depends on the various things that can influence us as human beings.  We are animals born with a unique mixture of genes, in a part of the world we had no choice in, raised by people who we had no choice over, while our senses feed us information every day we exist to a brain that has been conditioned over millions of years to process all that information amazingly well and do its best to help us survive.  Yet most things we will never know or understand fully, closing off an entire range of possibilities that we might choose from.  And so what if we are not consciously making our choices?  We are a complex mixture of nature and nurture and in such a symphony who wants to pick out a single note from a single instrument.  Just sit back and enjoy the music.

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. 🙂

Musings on Belief and Free Will

Christians often say that God does not reveal himself because he wanted people to have free will.

It may sound cynical, but given how many believe in spite of evidence, I somehow don’t think God revealing himself will turn everybody into the mindless automatons who have no choice.  Plenty of people reject evolution despite all the evidence.  Plenty of people believe in all sorts of conspiracies despite the evidence against.  People tend to believe in their religion and reject the other one.  People reject their creator all the time.  How many children get pissed off at their parents and never speak to them again?  Don’t underestimate mankind’s ability to ignore something that’s right in front of their eyes.

There are many also who would be still skeptical.  “Why don’t you have a beard?”  “I thought you were supposed to be a dude?”  “You’re not as white as I thought you would be” “This is some sort of a trick.”  Hey, maybe that skeptic would be me.  I mean if God did reveal himself, I’d have to have a good talk with him before I’d start fawning over him. I mean the dude would seriously have some explaining to do.  Is he just supposed to be so amazingly delicious that I have no choice but adore him?  It sounds like I am losing more than just my free will, but my rationality, my curiosity and the essence of who I am.

So God, if you are out there…let’s have a look at ya! 😉