Can Will be Free?

stones-167089_1920

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.

 

 

Advertisements

On the Writing of Deepak Chopra

maze-56060_1920

I had intended to write generally on the topic of pseudo-profundity and bullshit. The subject was discussed last year by Pennycook et al. in their article “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit“. Put briefly they argue that pseudo-profound bullshit involves using buzzwords to make statements that are syntactically plausible and give the impression of imparting profound knowledge, while actually communicating little or no meaning. They suggest that bullshitters are motivated by a wish to impress and bullshittees are inclined towards uncritical belief. A name that inevitably arose in connection with pseudo-profound bullshit was Dr. Deepak Chopra. The mini-bio that accompanies Chopra’s writing includes the claim that he is a “world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation” and states that “The World Post and The Huffington Post global internet survey ranked Dr. Chopra #40 influential thinker in the world and #1 in Medicine”. Just allow that to sink in. He currently has about 2.8 million Twitter followers. A significant number of people take him seriously and the marketing of his ideas has made him very wealthy. So instead of writing generally about pseudo-profundity I would like to take a look at Chopra’s current work.

Diving straight into his most recent post entitled “How the Universe Solved the Hard Problem by Intent” we’re immediately told that consciousness is a secret, that there is a reason for this that can’t be explained and that consciousness is responsible for its own secrecy:

“For some inexplicable reason the most common element in every possible experience–consciousness–has kept itself a secret.”

It turns out that the Wikipedia entry for consciousness is over 10,000 words and has 162 references, so even in plain terms it isn’t as mysterious as it’s made out to be. Suggesting that consciousness can engineer its own secrecy implies that consciousness has consciousness. It’s treating consciousness as an entity rather than a property of an entity. He goes on to suggest:

“If we were unconscious, the world would literally disappear in a puff of smoke. This obvious fact implies something that isn’t so obvious: Maybe consciousness and the world appeared at the same time.”

This unsupported “fact” simply isn’t true. People are unconscious from time to time and world continues just fine. We can be fairly confident from geology and archaeology that the world pre-dates people. What Chopra is getting at here is his view that reality is a kind of collective mental projection. He proposes that:

“A cosmos devoid of consciousness isn’t conceivable, and yet the reason for this exists completely out of sight.”

If it feels like it’s hard to get at the meaning of the sentence quoted above it’s because it is hard. Most writers seek to communicate their ideas as clearly as possible but the literary style Chopra uses frustrates quick comprehension. You can restructure the sentence to make it easier to read: We aren’t able to see the reason why we can’t imagine a cosmos without consciousness. We can see from the restructured sentence that although a bunch of words are used, not much meaning is communicated.

I’d like to pause here for a moment to let you know that Chopra is a licensed physician and former chief of staff at a hospital in the United States. He isn’t shy about using his title M.D. when promoting his ideas. Keep this in mind while reading the following quote from the same blog post:

“The difference between being blind and being able to see lies in the mechanics of how the brain processes sunlight—that much is clear. Yet the step in the process that matters the most, converting sunlight into vision, is totally mysterious.”

According to the RNBI age related macular degeneration is by far the biggest cause of blindness in adults in the UK. The WHO cites glaucoma then macular degeneration as the biggest causes of blindness in the world. These are conditions of the eye not “mechanics of the brain”. Chopra is just plain wrong about blindness and sight but arguably worse is the fact that the assertion is coming from someone identifying himself as a medical doctor.

I could go sentence by sentence, assertion by assertion through the whole post but the point is that Deepak Chopra puts across vague points using vague language in a pattern that can appear to some to be profound but in fact carries little meaning. When encountering a statement that looks complex but profound, the actual profundity of a statement can be assessed by breaking it down and looking at its parts. If Chopra just wants people to be impressed by him and people want something impressive-sounding to believe, what’s the harm? Okay, well we might object to the idea that the money that finds its way into Chopra’s pockets could be better used to solve concrete issues. Maybe we feel that as a medically trained professional Chopra could be making a tangible, beneficial difference. We could take issue with the notion that the sorts of ideas he circulates are used as a basis for alternative “healing“. In fact Chopra is sponsoring the Consciousness Field Project that is investigating the potential for transmitted intention statements to enhance peoples’ lives.

“The intention statement is imbued by the team during deep meditation into a crystalline electronic device and broadcast thousands of times each day to participants.”

The project is also partly funded by participants who will each contribute $33 a month (a total of $600). I think this is the first study I’ve seen that charges people to participate. If anyone feels that they need some pseudo-profundity in their life, the satirical wisdom of Chopra website can generate some for you for free.

We Are All Born Atheist

girl-67694_1920

That’s right, even the zealous, the pious and the most committed of religious characters were born without any beliefs in gods. As Richard Dawkins points out in “The God Delusion”, children don’t have religions their parents do. We are born without knowledge of our culture, without an understanding of social stratification and without superstition. Children don’t inherit characteristics of social division, they are labelled with them. We ascribe them to them. They have to be learned and are invariably taught. In fact a quick search for “Christian preschool” will return a host of results for places children from 2 to 5 years old can learn about Christianity  while learning to grip a pencil, identify colours and count to 20. Hazel’s Christian Preschool  takes the view that…

“Through creative exploration and “hands on” approach, each child is supported emotionally,cognitively, physically, social growth and foundational opportunities to know God as our loving creator and friend.”

Which apparently works since one happy mother wrote:

“This is the absolute best Christian Preschool! I moved my 4 year old daughter from another Christian preschool because I didn’t feel like her faith was growing. On her very first day she started praying on her own!”

4 years old?! Also, I’m not the sort to judge grammar and spelling too harshly. I’m sure I make mistakes and typos all of the time, but then I’m not an educational institution or teacher. The Hazel’s (Hazels? hazel’s? Hazel’s?) Christian Preschool  site is filled with glaring language errors that should warrant more concern than the growth of a 4 year old’s faith.

This Religionising of children’s education is not particular to Christianity of course, but common to many religions. This quote from littlecaliphs.com makes the point for me:

“We strongly believe that early learning exposure of Islam in children will leave a long lasting impact in their life towards realizing and accepting that Allah is their Lord and Sustainer, Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) is their teacher and role model and Islam is the way of life.”

They’re right of course. If you teach children from a young age that magic and gods are real, if you reinforce the idea that specific holy books are indisputably factual, then those children are more likely to grow up believing whichever religion they have been taught.

A parent’s concern with their young child’s religious education comes, I believe, from a good place. If you think eternal torment is in store for non-believers and rich rewards for believers, then you want to make sure that your nearest and dearest are on the path to a happy ending. There’s a difficult (and upsetting) question religious parents no doubt ask themselves about what would happen to their child in the afterlife if they were to pass away. According to Islam, all children of Muslim parents who pass away before reaching puberty go to paradise. The question of what happens to children of non-believers has many answers in Islam but judgement on the matter is usually reserved. Back to the Bible, a Christian website, tackles this difficult question by suggesting that all children go to the Christian heaven by default until they are able to understand right and wrong (legally 10 years old in the UK). After the age of 10 they had better be committed Christians though. There seems to be some appreciation that young children aren’t intellectually mature enough to be judged on religious beliefs but in what sense are children who have just hit double digits free or able to make an informed decision? If they have been taught religion as fact since they were toddlers then the extent to which they are “informed” is disputable.

Regarding the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit there are no easy answers. On the one hand it seems reasonable to teach your kids about your religion if you’re a parent who whole-heartedly believes that it’s in your child’s best interest to learn about your beliefs. On the other hand, where that belief manifests in narrowly restricting a child’s social interaction, instilling intolerance and depriving educational opportunities, the implications start to look less harmless. The fact is parents aren’t formally trained in the craft of parenting and the home lives of children vary. It may be that a child’s home life is dominated  by religion but school should be a space where they genuinely can acquire the intellectual tools to make informed decisions. Nowhere should a school be teaching religion as fact or presenting one religion as superior to others. If after learning about religions as part of a broad curriculum that is centred around language, maths and science, a child grows to decide (when they are mature enough to do so) that they believe and wish to follow a particular religion, then they have made a meaningful choice. Conversely, choosing to believe the only choice you’ve been given is no choice at all.

 

Narrative and Identity

castle-606787_1280

“Once upon a time…”, the familiar phrase introduced to us in childhood lets us prepare ourselves bodily and dispositionally for an anticipated tale. It’s a deeply embedded cue to listen attentively and engage your imagination. Narrative and imagination go hand-in-hand. We visualise places we’ve never been and form emotional ties to characters that don’t exist anywhere but the page. We root for a protagonist and empathise with their suffering. When they encounter a problem we feel that we are right there with them. When they overcome what seemed like impossible odds we feel joy and exhilaration. When we finish reading, listening or watching a well told tale, the story leaves its mark on us. The seeming ubiquity of storytelling as a method of enculturation hints at narrative being one of those demarcating features of humankind even if the cultural content varies.

Whether we intend it or not, stories are a means by which children acquire an understanding of the cultural norms in their society and build up a picture of how the world works. Except good doesn’t always triumph over bad, big romantic gestures don’t magically fix relationships and wishing on a star can’t make a person from a puppet. It turns out that narratives are not a great source of accurate, dispassionate fact. We ought to learn when stories bump up against contrary experiences that they often fail to reflect reality, yet the influence of some stories is difficult to shake. When I was a student for example my class discussed the “one true love” notion of romance that figures quite prominently in fiction. Despite virtually everyone recognising the fallacy of this idea both from experiential and logical perspectives, many were unable to resist its emotional appeal.

Narratives are not just mechanisms for distributing culture. Stories help us to make sense of our place in the world. This happens in the telling, reflecting on and retelling of many short stories about ourselves. The tone of the tale shifts depending of who you’re telling and how you feel. In the case of introspection the audience is yourself. The role of narrative in the construction and affirmation of identity is nowhere more clear than where there is a shift in identity. Take for example a religious transformation in a person. When an individual has undergone a religious change an historicising of the self often occurs. A person reflects upon their past and evidence is identified that affirms the transition that has taken place. These artefacts of their history are narrativised and become some of the many anchoring points in their changing identity. This is not to imply that there’s something synthesised or fake about about their identity. These are real events in a person’s life as interpreted by the person. What this sheds light on is that identity is not the sum of one’s experiences but is deeply connected to key points in one’s life. In other words, identity doesn’t necessarily relate the facts of a person’s experiences but the stories they tell communicate something about who they are at a point in time.

A good example of the role of narrative in religious identity can be found in a video interview of Richard Dawkins by Howard Conder for Revelation TV*. In the interview (29:25-41:43) Conder describes some key moments in his religious life that for him lend weight to his beliefs. As with any collective, religions have in-group narratives. Where a person aligns with and/or wishes to be accepted by a collective, they’ll deploy narratives that are consistent with the group. Conder’s anecdote includes themes around initial scepticsm, submitting to the will of God, experiencing physical manifestations of the spiritual, others witnessing immaterial phenomena and a miracle of someone rising from the dead. These are all themes that are consistent with his religion’s in-group narratives and hold credibility in that context. I’m not suggesting that Conder was lying about his experiences but rather that he had experiences in a religious context, that were interpreted through his understanding of his in-group’s religious narratives and he consequently attached special significance to these. In the same sense that alien abduction stories, ghost sightings or accounts of spirit channelling tell us something about the teller rather than something about the world, Conder’s story is about his beliefs.

What I’ve tried to convey very briefly is that narrative plays a significant role in distributing culture and constituting identity but is not a particularly accurate way of describing or explaining the world. Narratives have patterns and structures that are not necessarily a good match with the way things happen or work and are susceptible to nuance and emphasis. Even when we can see that a message conveyed through a narrative poorly reflects our experience we can be coerced by our feelings or our sense of belonging. Is it any wonder why some people feel under attack when religious claims are challenged if their identity is wrapped up with beliefs that underpin those claims? The more a person’s identity is anchored to experiences that are narrativised to give religious significance, the more the integrity of their personhood depends on the defence of their religion.

 

 

*I was hoping to link to the original video but was unfortunately unable to find it on the Revelation TV YouTube channel.

The Immortal Soul

fingerprint-227610_1920

The idea that the essence of a person is non-physical and survives the death of the body is a truly ancient one. Early conceptualisations of the soul included the idea that bodies contained a “breath of life”. Some viewed the soul as a force that enlivens and drives a body. What’s interesting about the problem of the soul in history is not so much that people have recognised this thing named “soul” and sought to describe it but rather have sought explanations for how human beings work and labelled various descriptions as “the soul.” It may be that questions about self-awareness, conscious thought and imagination have been answered with recourse to supernatural explanations in the absence of better accounts. The soul has become quite an influential idea. It’s a convenient means by which everything that makes you who you are can escape death. With the idea of an immortal soul we can envision life or lives after death and begin to construct a picture of where we go, what it’s like and what we need to do in life in order to get there.

If we take our definition of the soul to be “an immaterial part of a person that contains the essence of who they are and survives the death of the body”, what evidence is there to support a belief in it? Well, some people make bold claims on behalf of science, saying that there is evidence for the existence of the soul but these claims should probably be taken with a healthy dose of scepticism. The fact is that if there was solid scientific evidence for the soul we would all know about it, it would be enormous news and the real world implications would be huge. The problem here is that we are looking at the soul as if it’s a thing with features like personality, memory and feelings rather than as an explanation for these things as they occur in human beings. Is your personality immaterial? Are your memories immortal? Can your feelings persist beyond death? Some people will claim yes to all of these, providing pretty dodgy evidence if any. Yet we know that chemical changes in the body can alter mood, personality and the ability to access and create memories. Anyone who has known a loved one suffering dementia will be aware of how damage to the brain can fundamentally alter personality and recollection. Unfortunates who have suffered acquired brain injuries have permanently lost aspects of who they were. The immortal soul is simply not a very good explanation. Who we are is very much physical and far from immortal.

I’ve suggested elsewhere that what we believe matters because our beliefs have real world implications. In the case of the soul the consequence can be a devaluing of the body and a devaluing of life. Some people might be less inclined to sacrifice themselves for religious or political reasons if it were not for their belief in an immortal soul. It makes it easier to stomach human suffering and profound inequality without taking direct tangible action if you can believe it’s just a temporary part of an immortal existence. Some find solace in the idea that they will be reunited with loved ones when they die or at least that their loved ones persist. In a sense it feels like a harmless idea that because it brings comfort shouldn’t be contradicted. I’m not convinced that it is harmless though. It slots in with other unfounded beliefs and explanations of the world and can act as a cornerstone that props these beliefs up. For example I’ve known several people who genuinely believed that humans can be possessed by spirits or demons. Others I’ve known believed that the soul can become detached from their body and lost. For some the soul is a means by which people can carry their culpability beyond death. It’s a belief that can give people a feeling that justice cannot be escaped. It’s also a means by which our behaviour and expectations can be influenced. If you happen to believe that your essence will escape death then you might want some assurances about how you’ll be spending eternity and there are plenty who are willing to provide conditional assurances.

We need to recognise that the concept of an immortal soul is an outdated attempt to understand and describe difficult human features like personality, imagination and memory. The soul is a wrong answer where much better answers are available. Accepting that we are all physical, fragile and vulnerable should broaden our compassion. Proceeding on the basis that we probably don’t persist beyond death should cause us to value life. Rather than believing that wrongs will be righted in the here-after, let’s take responsibility for righting them in the here and now.

Free Will by Sam Harris

railroad-865118_1920

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.