The Smallest Prayer in the Cosmos

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Put yourself in his shoes. He’s small. There’s electric pain in the elbow that hit the wall you went into. Recognise how hard it is to separate out the physical sensation from how you feel. You hurt.

Every Sunday you go to church with your mum and dad. He’s well liked, they say she’s shy and “you must take after your mummy”. Everyone sings songs and two little girls in dresses shove each other at the back of the room. We all bow our heads to pray. You close your eyes tight because it doesn’t work if your looking. All the children go out. In Sunday school there’s a story about Jonah and a whale and God was angry because Jonah tried to run away. You like Sunday school, you like the stories and God helps people. On the wall there’s a poster with footprints and another one that says “faith can move mountains”.

It’s Tuesday, P.E. day and you’re running out of excuses. You say you don’t feel well, your tummy hurts. Your teacher looks at you funny and sends you to the office. You can’t do P.E. If anyone asks about the bruises again he’ll get angry. Your mum will get in front of you like last time…your eyes water and you try to think of something else while waiting quietly for lunch time.

You like Lego and you’re sat in the living room building an aeroplane. You want to make a machine that will shrink you like on T.V. so you can fly to Disneyland. The plane has boosters so you can go fast and you’ll probably have a dog too. “I’ll fix the damn thing myself”. Your train of thought is derailed. The washing machine’s broken and you recognise that tone of voice. You go cold, you want to leave but you don’t want to move. The phone rings, he answers it, it’s okay.

At bedtime you say your prayers with your mum and when she’s gone you say the real ones. “Dear Jesus…”. You don’t want mountains to move or water to turn into wine. What you want is for him to stop hitting her and maybe if you believe hard enough, if you close your eyes tight enough and press your hands together, God will do this for you. But he doesn’t. It doesn’t stop. Maybe God answers other people’s prayers but not yours. Not when you need it.

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This story is fictional, although it is probably less so for some than others. It was inspired by a discussion I had a few months ago where I was struck by just how inadequately phrases like “abusive environment” convey their meaning.

Can Will be Free?

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The idea of free will is both enabled and hampered by the understanding that we live in a universe of causes and effects. Without cause and effect, how could we hope to exercise free will? However, in a universe of cause and effect how can we be sure that our will is free from the influence of complex causal relationships? We generally engage with causality in a fairly loose way. I might say for example that I was late for work because the traffic was heavy or my energy bills have increased because oil is more expensive. In so doing I’m simplifying causality by failing to account for all of the factors. We also tend to consider snapshots of action. Yes, I might be late because traffic was heavy but the traffic might be heavy because someone’s car stopped working. Their car might have broken down because the owner failed to get it serviced etc. etc. along numerous causal chains. Our ideas about will and free will are also pretty fuzzy but seem to center on conscious choice, self-determination, independence and action initiation e.g.:

Will: “the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/will)

Will: “the faculty of conscious and especially of deliberate action; the power of control the mind has over its own actions” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/will)

Free will: “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/free-will)

Free will: “the ability to decide what to do independently of any outside influence” (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/free-will)

If we agree that “will” is a word we use to describe the mechanics of decision-making and action-initiation in a person then perhaps we can say that “free will” is a word we use to describe the operation of decision-making and action-initiation in a person without external influence.

Let’s consider a scenario where I place my hand on a hot surface and rapidly withdraw it. The act of withdrawing my hand is a reflex, an involuntary response. Sensory nerve impulses travel from my hand to my spine and motor nerve impulses are sent from my spine to my arm. There is no processing in my brain, no thought nor decision-making. We can comfortably say that there is no free will involved in this process. Let’s imagine another scenario. I’m sitting in a park and I suddenly become aware of a dark, rapidly moving shape approaching me and I dodge it. I look at the object and realise it was a ball. Here a stream of basic visual data is very quickly processed by my brain. The processing determines that there is a risk the shape will hit me. There is an instinct that such an occurrence could be a danger to me and a message is sent from my brain to my limbs to move. When the potential threat has passed I take the time to identify the shape. Things happen too quickly for me to consciously consider the situation, there is an imperative for action and there is no space for free will. Now imagine that I see the ball approaching me from some distance. Since my instincts don’t tell me I’m in immediate danger, the problem of the ball shifts to my consciousness. I identify the shape and it’s likely characteristics, consider potential ways to act that may involve imagining outcomes, lock in the decision and act, perhaps attempting to kick the ball, catch it or simply moving. Of the three scenarios, the last seems to be the one where free will could occur and what sets it apart from the other two scenarios is consciousness.

The conscious component of choice-making involves considering a problem with regard to your knowledge, understanding and experience. It involves drawing on your experiences and it’s coloured by your emotions. You draw on these and your imagination to predict a course and then behave. This is not a seamlessly conscious process but appears to involve shifting parts of the problem in and out of consciousness. It feels seamless though, so it may be that our brains furnish us with a consistency of experience that isn’t really there. Humans are very good at spotting patterns and quickly acquire an appreciation for cause and effect. Recognising patterns of cause and effect allows us to predict outcomes, which means we can act with intent. When we act with intent and correctly predict the outcome of our actions we feel that we have control. If I pick up a pen and write my name I can feel confident that there are few factors outside my control that might cause my goal to fail. I feel I have a lot of control. If I pull the lever on a slot machine and hit the jackpot, did I do that? I certainly played an essential part but I appreciate that there are many determining factors outside my control so may choose to call the outcome lucky. The more control I feel I have the more I believe I am exercising my will.

It might be useful here to draw attention to the distinction between believing I have free will and it being true. By way of an analogy, when I was a teenager I used to play video games with my younger brother. He was too young to play against me but wanted to join in so I would give him an unplugged controller, play against the computer and pretend he was playing too. He believed he was playing the game. He thought he was controlling the character on the screen but there were factors at play that he was unaware of. Similarly, if there is free will it’s constrained by factors that we perceive and others we don’t. If our wills were immune to influence then advertising would be a waste of time and money. Awareness of some of the factors that influence our decision-making can cause us to feel more in control or help us to realise that we aren’t, but perceiving the chains that bind you doesn’t make you free. If we are aware that we may be subject to influences that we don’t perceive, how can we ever be certain that we are exercising free will?

If there is free will then it’s boundaries are determined by where we choose the delimit the individual. If we decide to view a person who has been schooled in approaching particular problems in particular ways as distinct from and responsible for the application of that schooling then we might say free will exists. My inclination though is to say that we each have the ability to make decisions and initiate action but that it is not possible to do so without external influence. There is a conceptual relationship between cause and effect, decision-making, action-initiation, perceived control and responsibility. There comes a culturally appointed time in a person’s life when they are considered to be responsible for who they are what they do. We don’t view young children as responsible because we don’t credited them with an understanding of the implications or their acions but understanding is a relative thing. There is often a fog at the edges of our decision-making into which causal links disappear from view. The clearing in the fog that surrounds us can give the impression of self-determination but if we choose to examine closely our beliefs, knowledge and strategies we’ll find the external influences. Free will as it is currently defined probably is an illusion but that doesn’t diminish what is means to be human. You can and will exercise choice, it just isn’t free from external influences.

 

 

Free Will by Sam Harris

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The idea that humans have free will figures quite prominently in philosophical, psychological and religious thought. Free will is sometimes provided as an answer to why people do things that are considered evil or bad. We choose to commit a crime as much as we choose to help someone in need. We understand that one person’s free will can impinge on another’s and that the time and place of your birth has a massive impact on your freedom to exercise your will. Our self-determination, albeit within the constraints of our environment, makes us personally responsible for our actions and their consequences, in the eyes of most people. However, this only seems to be the case once we reach a crucial point in childhood. We aren’t born responsible or with free will. If a young child breaks something in a shop, the parent takes responsibility even if the child intended to break the item and the parent has no direct control over the child’s actions. Is the point at which we become personally responsible the same as when we can control our impulses, understand the consequences of our behaviour and develop an awareness of how others view us? Is it the acquisition of “knowledge of good and evil”, the understanding of what it means to be a good or bad member of society, that imbues us with free will and makes us responsible for ourselves?

A few weeks ago I read a book (pamphlet!) by Sam Harris on the topic of free will. The main claim of the book is that free will is an illusion. People are the product of biology, environment and experiences, none of which are authored by the individual. We don’t choose where or when we will be born.The breadth and variety in the curriculum of our educational system, if we have access to one at all, is essentially beyond our control while we are in it. We have no say over the quality of our upbringing or what is valued by our culture. Harris argues that consciousness furnishes us with an illusion of free will. We feel that we are making decisions, weighing options and acting accordingly but where does our intentionality come from? If I normally drink coffee in the morning but one day decide to have tea because I fancy it, what motivated that decision? Do you decide what you’ll think before you think it? Harris points to processes that operate below the level of consciousness but argues that even if you view the mind and body as separate and believe that your intentionality is motivated by your soul, you still have no insight into that preconscious decision making. If you are making finalised decisions before they reach your consciousness, in what sense are you able to exercise free will?

The book raises some interesting points particularly around the degree to which we are responsible for our actions. If an animal attacks a person we don’t usually blame the animal. It is the intent of a person that warrants blame and the more free they were to choose an alternate course, the more blameworthy they are. Harris argues that in the example of a killer, mitigating factors such as the circumstances, upbringing or wellness mediates how accountable we judge a person to be. If someone who is otherwise a good person commits a crime because a brain tumour has had a personality-altering effect on them, we would probably not blame them, we would want to help them. If, as Harris suggests, our intentionality is not something we consciously control, then are we really responsible for our behaviour? Should transgressors be punished or reformed?

I’m willing to travel quite a long way with the arguments Harris puts forward about free will but I’m still not sold on the idea that free will is an illusion. There are certainly constrains – environmental, biological, psychological, cultural and societal – on our free will and it may be that we feel freer than we really are but could free will really be an illusion? The reason I’m skeptical is that Harris only seems to consider scenarios that support his contention. He appears to suggest that free will should be a purely conscious activity and that intention-oriented behaviour is unidirectional:

unconscious decision > awareness > action

I suspect the reality is more complex. Consider this scenario: I’m watching television and a family member switches it off. Some unconscious processing takes place, my mood changes, I’m angry and I realise that I am going to insult them. I’m aware of my cultural and social norms and have a model for intentionally transgressing in this specific way. I turn to open my mouth and see they are upset. My mood changes, some subconscious processing takes place, I realise that insulting is the wrong action for this context. I might rapidly visualise the consequence of my insult. I manage to snatch back the words before they can leave my mouth and instead ask “what’s wrong?”. There are elements of this scenario that happen fast like shifts in emotion and interpreting facial expressions. Some that might happen a little slower like selecting and retrieving response models and visualisation. There are rapid back and forths between different brain functions, some of which may be available consciously and others not. There’s also a thread of intentionality that is subject to conscious and unconscious influence. My point is that we can recognise that people are not completely free to do as they wish and they may not be fully aware of their limitations but they still have and exercise agency.