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. 🙂

A Little Respect

From http://masalamommas.com

In a conversation with a good friend who was born and raised in India, we had one of those east vs. west discussions.  I think it’s natural to always defend the values of where you were raised to a certain degree, for me I was raised in the west, but had an Indian father and thus spent time with many Indian friends and relatives as well as having been to India a couple times so I’d like to believe that I can look at both sides objectively and see the best and worst of both worlds.

This particular discussion was about family values.  My friend argued about the lack of family values here in the west, specifically the lack of respect for one’s

parents.  I think even a lot of parents here might support her claim.  In India there is a lot more respect for parents and the elderly in general.  Before evaluating whether or not such statements are even true, let’s perhaps breakdown some factors that might be important in the different attitudes of children in the west vs. east.  (Note here in the east I will be focusing about India, but India does share similar values with other countries in Asia towards family and parenting, and for the west mostly U.S.A and Canada).

In the west we might attribute a lack of respect to the following:

  • Both parents working meaning less time to spend, discipline, and guide children
  • In the west there is a general rejection towards authority, government, and hierarchy
  • High divorce rate
  • Highly valuing individualism over collectivism
  • A tendency to be more mobile and not living very close to family
  • A long history of a strong economy allowing for greater financial independence at advanced ages

In the east we might attribute greater respect to the following

  • Relatively low divorce rate because of the emphasis towards arranged marriage, binding families and resources over an emphasis on romantic love
  • Like many nations that have had historically high poverty rates (although India is an economic powerhouse now) have created a system in which there was simply no plan for the elderly to be taken care of should they become unable to take care of themselves. Thus grown children are expected to take care of their parents financially when they can no longer work.
  • High population density and again the historically weaker economy means people are less likely to leave the area near where their parents live
  • Less job opportunities for women historically and thus allowing many women to remain at home giving more time for discipline and guidance. This also reduces the amount of retirement money that would come into a home when the parents are older

I am sure there are probably others, but honestly I feel like a weaker economy historically and a lack of social security and retirement plans for older people has created a system over time that required closer family unity.

But regardless of the reason let’s take a look at whether or not it is actually true whether or not there is an actual difference of respect.  First of all I have never actually seen a study that proves this is true.  Certainly there are many studies that talk about the differences in behavior culturally between young and old, or parents and their children.  However none of those studies really measure respect.  The dictionary defines respect as the following:

“A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements”

It seems to me the first error in this discussion is that maybe we aren’t talking about respect, but duty, or obligation.  I guess it could be respect if say “abilities” involves the ability to parent a child, but that’s a bit of a stretch, given that even a weak ability in raising a child can get one to adulthood.  So respect seems to be something different and it is not clear whether there is a difference between east and west. A soldier in the military can follow the orders of a superior out of duty, but still not respect that superior.

I have known numerous Indian children who were given little freedom in choosing what they wanted to be, who they can marry, how they want to marry, etc.  Well I’m not saying they obeyed purely out of duty, because clearly there is love there as well,  but I do know some children who resented their parents for taking advantage of that sense of duty and love to set them on a course in life that they did not want.  It’s somewhat questionable to me how much respect there was.   They often did what they were told even though they were unhappy about it.  Parents in the east would do well to recognize that their kids are not simply extensions of themselves but individuals.

On the other hand, parenting is not really easy.  It’s easy to doubt yourself and your actions.  A lot of times you might just default to what your parents did to

From http://blogspot.com

you instead of really adopting a practice you are not comfortable with.  Raising kids takes time, energy, and resources.  Kids growing up in western culture would do well to remember that and appreciate more often the sacrifices and difficulties associated with raising them.  However, does not listening to your parents indicate a lack of respect for them? If we value individuality as a nation, isn’t likely that your child is simply expressing that individuality.  This can be hard when you see them making mistakes, especially the same ones we made.  But isn’t that how we also learned some important lessons.  Again, just because a kid chooses to ignore your advice and do their own thing, doesn’t mean there is a lack of respect, it just means they feel more compelled to exercise their own judgment right or wrong and see where it leads them.

Whether it’s duty or respect, I asked myself after the conversation with my friend, why did I have a child?  Was it so I could raise somebody who would listen

From http://www.childandfamilymentalhealth.com

to everything I had to say about what to do in the world?  Was it so I could instantly have someone who respected me regardless of my flaws, weaknesses, and the way that I treated him/her?  The answer of course is no, but what is absolutely wonderful about the parent – child relationship is that it begins with love.  There is an implicit trust and affection built in, and so we only have to think how best to foster and grow that love from the simple biological relationship to the complex relationship that binds any two people together.  As I watch my son grow I can already see his sense of self forming, and I know it will only get stronger with time.  It seems that we always have to remember that respect runs both ways with our children and I hope I have the wisdom to know when to let him express his individuality even if it runs against my better judgment and my need to remain his protector.  Being able to let go is also a quality worthy of respect and it seems to make some sense that as children grow the qualities that they admire in you and others change.  I hope that I will be able to grow along with him and adapt to his changing needs and desires while remaining an ever present part of his life.

While there are differences between east vs. west parent – child relationship I don’t think any one of those is a better way of doing things.  Respect is always earned and I think it is best earned when a parent demonstrate an ability to understand what their children are going through and by constantly being there for their child.  I think this is what builds a lasting respect between parent and child.

 

Terms of Two

Not that I am any great writer or am treating any of my subject matter with a great deal of academic rigor I would nevertheless like to add the final chapter to my blog posts on self and individualism, and collectivism.  There is another facet of the human mind and human behavior that fascinates me and that is our ability to be dual-minded.  I’m not positive if my definition meets any particular psychological definition, but let me describe what I mean.

I often have trouble reconciling how many Republicans can be anti-abortion but pro

From http://www.elfwood.com

war or pro capital punishment.  Growing up with an alcoholic father I found myself always wondering who my father was.  Was he the neglectful alcoholic who passed out and missed spending time with me, or was he the jovial affectionate sober dad?  Is he the bold man whose not afraid to go up to anybody and strike up a conversation or ask a question, or is he the coward unable to handle even is own inner demons and needing the escape that drugs can give just to get through the day?  The somewhat recent passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman reminded me of this paradox as I saw people debate.  As one side would simply praise his genius while the other side condemned him as selfish and stupid for abandoning his wife and children for heroin.  What about those who believe that God wanted us to have free will, but who also believe that everything is part of God’s plan for us?  How do we reconcile those who are scientists whose work depends on forming conclusions based on evidence, but at the same time are people of faith subscribing to a set of beliefs which have no such evidence?  We hate those people who might bud into our private business, but then have no trouble doing it to other people.  Is it a contradiction to want to be part of group, but within that group you try hard to stand out as individual?

It is clear that we are all walking contradictions to a certain extent.  What makes it all so remarkable is that we simply don’t see it.  It seems we are unable to recognize these contradictions within ourselves and our behavior seems perfectly natural and sensible.  Of course we are not dealing with simple opposites like hot and cold, black and white, left or right, but complex behaviors.  So while they may seem contradictory, perhaps if we analyzed them at a deeper psychological level they would not seem so contradictory.  Since we rationalize our beliefs and behaviors rather than base our beliefs and behaviors on reason, if we try hard enough we can bend any two contradictions complex enough to our will.

Of course our brains are complex and contain different systems that have different functions.  Perhaps these contradictions are simply feeding off a different set of neural pathways and there is no communication between the two such that there is no cross-check for incompatibility.  Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion postulates that we may have conceived of the notion of God simply because when we are young we don’t understand that the voice in our head is us.  We are dual-minded from the beginning because we aren’t really aware that the voice in our head is our own.  I, as I am sure all of you have as well, have had many a debate in my mind.  It is clear that our mind can simultaneous take different sides of an argument with sincerity in order to weigh our options in order to make the best decision.  So it seems at least possible that we might have these different sides of our self that remain separate, for which there is no debate or where we can’t resolve the debate.  It could be that a dual sided nature appeals to our sense of self as adding complexity and uniqueness to who we are.

It seems likely to me that this duality, like our sense of self, is quite possibly an illusion.  Perhaps it is part of our need to categorize and separate things; labeling people and actions.  But Freud seemed to think that our minds are always in conflict.   For instance I came up with this scenario in which parents tell their child not to cheat, that it’s wrong.  At the same time they get very happy when their child gets good grades.  So let’s say they aren’t prepared for an exam and they are now caught between perhaps cheating off the person next to them so they can please their parents (because what child doesn’t want to make them happy) or listening to their parents advice about not cheating and do poorly thus disappointing them.  Such conflicts are perhaps simply a series of battles we fight.  Sometimes winning sometimes losing.  Perhaps my father is simply fighting his addiction everyday.  Some days he wins and is able to the be the man I love, and other days he loses and becomes the man that I feel distanced from.  Perhaps for some people the struggle ends in compromise, unable to resolve what is truly right and wrong they allow one answer to pervade one type of behavior and another answer to govern the other.

In the end I think it’s all you.  Our brain can quickly consider many possible solutions to any problem, and not all of them are right, but what does right have to do with it?  Perhaps any solution that helps you survive as well as possible is all that matters.

Unhealthy thoughts

A friend of mine gave us this adorable little lumberjack outfit as a gift for the birth of our child.  It’s probably going to be a year or so before he fits into it, but he is going to look so cute when he is wearing it.  In my mind I was picture how handsome he is going to look and then all of a sudden I was thinking how adorable he would look in all sorts of outfits.  He’s such a beautiful baby.  I wouldn’t be surprised if professionals wanted to take his picture.  He’d become a baby model.  Then I started picturing him as this little toddler, hair-styled, posing for pictures in magazines and advertisements.  The world confirming how beautiful my child is, and me feeling good the whole way.  Then I started imagining become all self-centered and narcissistic about his looks and this horrible teenage model who all the other kids hated, and I was the cause of it all.  Then all of a sudden the metaphorical sound of a record scratching occurred in my head, and I was like “Whoa, where did that come from?”

For a second I got inside the mind of those crazy parents who rear their children to be in beauty contests, or TV children from the outset.  Maybe in some ways that was a good thing as I always like to try to understand people, even where what seem like a ridiculous and foreign notion comes from. Then there it was, popping into my head though I was diametrically opposed to such practices before having a kid.  Well I still am, but I think I saw the beginning of the reasoning.  Love is a strange thing.  If you’ve fallen in love before, you know that you sort of just expect everyone else that you know to love that person too.  Maybe the love I feel for my son is making me want others to love him just is much, which neither practical or realistic.  But that is probably a more innocent explanation.  Individuality takes time to develop in a new life.  Somewhere around 6 months a baby will realize that it is a separate being from the mother.  They learn individuality from watching their parents of course, so even individuality is something that is learned through others.  In the time before they see themselves as extensions of their mother.  I pondered that perhaps the relationship works both ways.  It’s something that I have noted before having a child perhaps, but didn’t really understand.  How long does it take parents to not see children as an extension of themselves?  For some parents it seems to never end.  As a professor I have had to deal with many parents who will not let their child make a decision for themselves even though they are college aged.  It is clear to me that the mother who enters who daughter into beauty pageants from the age of a toddler is clearly not respecting the individuality of the child as is doing it for themselves.  Parents who force their kids into one profession or another also are projecting their wishes on their child.  So I thank those unhealthy thoughts for putting what I knew in my subconscious into my conscious that I better always remember to respect the individuality of my child.  I still can’t wait to see him in that lumberjack outfit though. 🙂