Monday, September 3, 2012

The Reality of Free Will - To Be Who You Are

I've been reading plenty of books.  Not as much as I'd like, because I am a wage labourer.  To get the most out of what little time I have to read I tend to read academic non-fiction rather than fiction, although I'm trying to catch up on the classics right now.  I found The Three Musketeers on my new smart phone and I've found it rather enjoyable - better than playing some game app, at least.  I've also read 1984 recently and picked up a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I chose over book Eating Animals that was recommended by the staff at Chapters. I skimmed the Jonathan Safran Foer offering and found it too biased in favour of veganism and full of guilt trips to sacrifice my money or time on.  I've found this choice to be rewarding, so far, as I'd rather follow the Mark Twain character as he struggles for survival on the Mississippi River than suffer through passages of a book that provide a slanted view of an complex issue that I've already made up my mind on.  If I want to read nitwits, I'll at least do it online where I can talk back to them; it's less frustrating.

Now, was this choice to consume a classic piece of American literature over a semi-intellectual non-fiction piece really a choice?  Or was I compelled to do it by my utter disdain for vegetarians and my realization that the book was going to argue factory farming, animal cruelty and environmental issues are somehow proof that we would all be better off eating just plants when I know that animal fat is biologically necessary for most human being to be healthy.  I'd rather spend my time reading about how leprochans are the new clean energy source than be guilted into thinking the wrong way about diet.
Still, I returned the book to the place I found it and noticed Huckleberry Finn there on the Recommended Titles display.  It roused an emotional reaction, (the carefree, barefoot boy holding a make-shift fishing rod on the riverbank awoke something primal in me) twinged with guilt for somehow avoiding this work although I hold a degree in literature.  ITh did not have to walk over to the counter and wait in line - my wife was already ringing up the children's books we were purchasing.  There was certainly a compulsion, but I made this choice of free will, knowing that I could probably pick up an e-book version for free.
In his book The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris argues, as do many in academia, that free will is an illusion. 
Our belief in free will arises from our moment-to-moment ignorance of specific prior causes.  The phrase "free will describes what it feels like to be identified with the content of each thought as it arises in consciousness. Trains of thought like, "What should I get my daugher for her birthday? I know, I'll take her to a pet store and have her pick out some tropical fish," convey the apparent reality of choices, freely made.  But from a deeper perspective (speaking both subjectively and objectively), thoughts simply arise (what else could they do?) unauthored and yet author to our actions. (p. 105)
We are conscious of only a tiny fraction of the information that our brains process in each moment.  While we continually notice changes in our experience - in thought, mood, perception, behavior, etc. - we are utterly unaware of the neural events that produce these changes. In fact, by merely glancing at your face or listening to your tone of voice, others are often more aware of your internal states and motivations than you are. And yet most of us still feel that we are the authors of our own thoughts and actions.

All of our behavior can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge: this has always suggested that free will is an illusion. (p. 103)
 Basically, our brains are pre-wired to feel and think a certain way and it is doing so without our knowledge.  Our thoughts are formed before we are aware of them, so we are not acting upon our own free will, but under the control of our biological processess within the brain.  Basically, our state of mind is not a choice, but determined by our circumstances and our breeding.  As an intelligent person under pressures of the culture of which I am a part, I was compelled to pick up the copy of Mark Twain, cleverly placed there by store staff who knew that someone like me would want to own it sooner or later and that there was a good chance I would decide that now is the time to own it leading to a sale (ka-ching).  I was like compelled to pick up a book called Eating Animals as it is a subject I hold dear (I love*∞ eating animals) and I am always eager to explore the moral and dietary dilemas as the book claimed to do objectively.  Alas, I had time to skim it and concluded that it was not so objective, at least was more concerned with animal welfare than human health (viz. no sale).

So, how can I determine that free will exists even though I cannot help but feel hungry as the noon-hour approaches (although, the paleo diet has helped me control my need for snacking) and this inveriably leads to thoughts of slicing animal parts into bite-size morcels, chewing and swallowing them until satiated?  Note, that I am taking it one step further than Sam Harris, because our stomachs act like a second brain that sometimes take precedence. As Odysseus said when disguised as a beggar, everyone is ruled by their stomach.  Quite simply, the same way that Harris has proven his point - by semantics.

Harris seems to think that true free will would be free of interference from the very factors that make us who we are. He ignores the fact that our biology is our essence and has been trained by various social and environmental factors to create our sense of self.  While it is true, that I cannot help but feel remorse for mistakes that hurt a loved one or want to help others when they are in need, each instant of my life offers a choice of action.  I can hit publish right now despite the fact that this post is incomplete, or I can continue to write this sentence.  While it is true that it would not make sense and it would go against all my instincts which compell me to write a coherent and complete blog post on this important matter, it is entirely within my control.  I could walk away from the computer right now, or just hit save and leave this in my ever-growing list of unpublished posts, but I don't think I will, even though the real world compells me quite strongly right now to leave the office (it's a nice day outside, my children are home and it's well past lunch-time now).

Harris uses the word "inscrutable" in a sentence and then muses that he had no choice but to use that word because it was the one that came to mind.  Even after debating the merits of using the word "opaque" instead.  Am I free to feel that "opaque is a better word, when I just do not feel that it is the better word? Am I free to change my mind? Of course not. It can only change me. Such as it is, that is correct. But, to say that choosing a less-apt word despite his preferences would be free will is absurd.  Free will is actually the ability to act upon ones preferences.  Say that some editor had forced him to use "opaque" or that some regulator had outlined the acceptable uses of the word "inscrutable" and his sentence did not comply.  Despite his desire to use the word, he would not be able to use it.  He would not be able to act of his own free will.  He has internalized the concept of free will to the point that our own impulses and desires are not our own.  As if the brain is not a part of us.  We own our emotions, even as they own and control us.

I want to eat tenderloin steak or prime-rib from grass-fed beef every day.  I cannot stop wanting this, despite the fact that it would be extra-ordinarily expensive and even if I could afford it, I'd be better off mixing some salmon and other meats in once in awhile (eating plenty of greens as well).  Just because I can't stop my desires, does not mean I will go broke and ignore all other priorities to get my fix of beef.  My children still need clothes and shelter and desire to live in a fairly nice neighbourhood.  I choose which desires take priority.  All these thoughts and desires arise on their own because of my evolutionary instinct for survival and my conscious and sub-concsious assessments of my environment.  The more I am aware of them and their purpose the better I am able to meet those desires and control the desires that cannot be met.  If I can subdue my desires for a period of time (future time orientation), I am more likely to become rich and then meet more of my desires.

Why do I blog when I'd probably be better off honing skills I use at work to earn money?  Well, I'm compelled by my nature.  If you blocked my ability to blog, I'd have no avenue to express my desire to express myself.  That would be denial of free will.  Why did I study Literature when I would have been better off studying something more economically practical?  Well, I thought it would make me happy.  Of course, it was also because I realized that I did not possess the correct state of mind or discipline to study science as I had hoped, although I know I had the brains.  I found that science was not giving me the pleasure I thought it would so I wound up in Literature (too bad for my future self, but here I am).

Harris seems to argue from the point of view that free will must not arise from any base urge or unconscious thought in order to be genuine.  Of course, there is no such thing as a thought or desire that does not arise first from a biological process somewhere deep in a brain.  Unless you believe in God, there is no such thoughts in the universe.  I do not believe in God, however, I believe that the notion of free will that some believe was endowed upon man by God is not that you can do or think anything.  If that were the case, than to truly have free will, you would be able to turn yourself into a chicken and then think like a chicken one day and turn yourself into a lion the next day and think like a lion.  The fact is that lions think like lions and chickens think like lions and they have free will because they can act like lions and chickens until something stronger imposes its will upon them and prevents them from acting as they please - say by cutting their heads off and roasting them.

Lion and chicken thoughts are much less complex than human thoughts, as far as we can tell. Speaking as a human, I can tell you that many, many thoughts strange and wonderful vie within my brain for attention and action.  Somehow, I choose which of those thoughts I act upon.  The biblical meaning of free will was that God showed man the proper way to behave and each individual had a choice whether to act upon his desire to attain primal satisfaction in a way that pleased God or in a way that angered him.  Or, in the face of eternal damnation, would it be wiser still to deny all efforts to attain primal satisfaction and live like a monk, guaranteeing entry to heaven?  It's his choice - free will.

As an atheist, and I am strongly influenced by Sam Harris's thoughts on morality, I see it a little differently. I am aware of my primal desires and speculate on the reasons I feel them.  The more aware I am of them and the more I can reason, the better able I am to act of my own free will.

It is true that if you punch me in the nose, that I will feel angry and desire retribution.  However, I have to weigh the advantages and risks of open combat.  I may decide that you are much stronger and I will be better off swallowing my pride and succumbing to your will.  I may decide that I can take retribution now and win in the fight.  I may also decide that although you are stronger, I am better off fighting and taking another punch or two until I am thoroughly defeated, just to save face and potentially avoid being the target of others who would want to fight me if they witnessed me backing down.  All three of these thoughts, and more, would arise in my head as I debated the best course of action.  Once I was aware of all of the possibilities, I would choose what I thought would most likely lead to my happiness - or the least misery.  I cannot help but feel these feelings, but once I am aware of them, I can determine what I would most like to do.
I bring up this point, only to show what the origins of sub-conscious thought really are: assessments of reality. They arise only from external and internal stimuli. So, a punch in the nose (external stimuli) causes messages to be sent to my brain (internal stimuli) and my brain reacts in various ways causing a cascade of internal stimuli, adrenalin for example, to speed up assessment of external and internal stimuli to choose the required fight or flight response. How bad am I hurt? Who is my attacker(s)? What routes of escape exist? Are there openings for attack?  I am thinking these things because they are appropriate for the reality of the moment.These thoughts are mine, even though I cannot stop thinking them. I assess my own skills and strength versus my assessment of the reality of the situation, possible because of my fight/flight response and act accordingly.

To deny that our sub-conscious thoughts are the result of internal and external stimuli would be to argue that any thought is possible at any time and thoughts arise into the conscious mind randomly and only illicit our attention when they are needed. In the seconds after being punched in the nose, I might have a thought about whether a meatball sub would be a good choice for lunch and have to push it out of the way to deal with the amount of blood being lost and ducking the next incoming punch. If that were the case, I would imagine most fights would end up in a turtling response as the number of thoughts bouncing around in the brain would be debilitating.

So it goes with all thoughts from the emergency response in times of crisis to the slow deliberate assessment of nature that goes on in philosophy. Reality causes stimuli and brains process stimuli consciously and unconsciously. But regardless, the thoughts belong to the thinker and it his perogative to contemplate them.

I believe that Harris's dislike for the concept of God and religion has biased him.  He desires to separate man from religion, so he would like to denounce free will since it is such a basic concept in the hearts of religious believers.  While rhetorically, he is correct - no individual thought can be initiated of one's own free will, he ignores the fact that the human mind is conscious of many competing thoughts - all originating from the same internal part of the body which the individual owns.  Once the human mind is aware of the the many thoughts it holds, it can truly use free will to decide which thoughts to champion and in which actions to partake.

Edit: I thought this section was the main point, skipped over in haste. Added Nov 27, 2012

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