Gateway to Free Will: Composing the Music of Our Lives

No control?

I talked a bit about a flawed idea that says we do not have Free Will, but only a sense of Free Will in a previous post: Free Will or No Control? This theory relies heavily on the observation that conditioning molds our behavior. However, since we do not know much about consciousness or how we develop concepts, declaring we have no Free Will is more of a philosophical opinion than a useful scientific theory.  That said, we do know that much of our behavior is conditioned and that the culture we live in helps shape much of that conditioning. So, it is important to understand as much as we can about the role conditioning plays in our decision making process.

As children we learn behaviors which are designed to allow us to move in harmony with other people within society. We greet people with a smile and a “hello”, we open doors for others, we apologize when we accidently bump into another, we wait our turn in line, and so forth.

There is a give and take in relationships that is necessary to learn and practice for there to be harmony among families and communities. These behaviors do not come naturally to us. We are not born polished manners and if you have spent any time with a toddler you know how strong  a young child’s will is to do what he/she wants when he/she wants to do it. Training a child to behave as a civilized person is a daily battle that occurs over many years. But just because we have established rules of behavior in our culture and we are conditioned to respond in specific ways by those rules, it does not follow that we lack all control how we respond to our environment.

Cognition, Affection, Conation

We think, we feel, we desire.  These are the three distinct mental processes philosophers have identified since ancient times. These divisions are also called reason, emotion, and will. Other closely related terms are Cognition, Affection, and Conation.

Cognition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses.

Affection is a mental state; an emotion.  [Note that this is considered an archaic definition of affection and we could substitution emotion.]

Conation is “the mental faculty of purpose, desire or will to perform an action; volition.” Oxford Dictionary.

Oxford Dictionary

Cognition is considered to be all our higher mental processes: conscious thought, planning, problem solving, language, remembering, imagination, and perception.

Affection is an archaic term. Feelings and emotion used to be considered two different things. We feel something, but we express emotion. However, scientific observation of body language has revealed that our outward expression of emotion cannot completely hide our true feelings.  Some think that brain scans also give us away, though that is still up for debate. So, scientists now look at affection and emotion as closely related mental states. I am not sure this is an improvement of our understanding on how feeling and emotion affect each other and other mental processes, but that seems to be the consensus from what I have read.

Conation is also considered to be an archaic word, though it is still in use by some scientists. Words such as will and desire seem to be preferred. Again it is not clear to me that they are the same thing or that they are better word choices to explain how the mind decides to act. Conation is the mental process by which we decide to do something. It can be informed by reason, our senses, instinct, intuition, and cultural or individual conditioning. How cognition and affection affect conation is a mystery. And how all three attributes of our mental processes work together to produce a particular action from a particular person is also a mystery.

We Think, We Feel, We Desire.

Can reason overcome desire and emotion? Why do some people seem able to think and act calmly, even under stress, while others act out with violence? How do these three mental processes work together? Does one dominate the others?

There is a tendency by philosophers and scientists alike to want to simplify our understanding of how the mind works so that we can create a better society. This is sometimes solved by conflating ideas or in dismissing whole aspects of the mind to make models of human behavior easier to describe and therefore, control human behavior. Even if the model is not rooted in reality, it can fill a human desire to control the many mysteries of life. And so, we often find human motivation summed up in phrases and titles such as: “Will to Survive, Survival of the Fittest, Will to Power, The Pleasure Principle, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Rationalism, Irrationalism, Determinism, and so forth.

Below are some examples of this kind of mental mapping used by philosophers and scientists.


Philosophical thinkers like Plato believed that civilized people should use reason to control their emotions and desires. One of his greatest works, The Republic, was a written as a dialog between Socrates and some friends about how society could be ordered so that it would achieve the highest good for everyone.

Plato is often praised for his vision of Feminism. I find much of it questionable.

“In this matter, then, of the regulation of women, we may say that we have surmounted one of the waves of our paradox [457c] and have not been quite swept away by it in ordaining that our guardians and female guardians must have all pursuits in common, but that in some sort the argument concurs with itself in the assurance that what it proposes is both possible and beneficial.”

“It is no slight wave that you are thus escaping.”

“You will not think it a great one,” I said, “when you have seen the one that follows.”

“Say on then and show me,” said he.

“This,” said I, “and all that precedes has for its sequel, in my opinion, the following law.”


“That these women shall all be common to all the men, [457d] and that none shall cohabit with any privately; and that the children shall be common, and that no parent shall know its own offspring nor any child its parent.”

“This is a far bigger paradox than the other, and provokes more distrust as to its possibility and its utility.”

“I presume,” said I, “that there would be no debate about its utility, no denial that the community of women and children would be the greatest good, supposing it possible. But I take it that its possibility or the contrary [457e] would be the chief topic of contention.”

“Both,” he said, “would be right sharply debated.”

Plato, The Republic

And how would this state of affairs be managed?

“And on the young men, surely, who excel in war and other pursuits we must bestow honors and prizes, and, in particular, the opportunity of more frequent intercourse with the women, which will at the same time be a plausible pretext for having them beget as many of the children as possible.”


“And the children thus born will be taken over by the officials appointed for this, men or women or both, since, I take it, the official posts too are common to women and men. [460c] The offspring of the good, I suppose, they will take to the pen or créche, to certain nurses who live apart in a quarter of the city, but the offspring of the inferior, and any of those of the other sort who are born defective, they will properly dispose of in secret, so that no one will know what has become of them.”

“That is the condition,” he said, “of preserving the purity of the guardians’ breed.”

“They will also supervise the nursing of the children, conducting the mothers to the pen when their breasts are full, but employing every device [460d] to prevent anyone from recognizing her own infant. And they will provide others who have milk if the mothers are insufficient. But they will take care that the mothers themselves shall not suckle too long, and the trouble of wakeful nights and similar burdens they will devolve upon the nurses, wet and dry.”

Plato The Republic

This does not sound like women’s liberation to me, but more like a totalitarian state. When I first read The Republic many years ago, I thought Plato was writing satire. I knew that Plato’s mentor, Socrates, was sentenced to death by the Athenian State. Democracy, the “best state” had killed off the “best man.” So, knowing Plato revered and loved his mentor, it seemed reasonable to me that Plato might have soured on the whole idea of government. And, I thought it fitting that Socrates was the architect of his dystopian state. However, many people take The Republic as a completely serious book and that even though philosophy has not found the perfect government, many people now believe science will. I think that Plato would find that too outlandish even for him.

 The Will to Power

Plato’s approach to governing human behavior by reason dominated much of contemporary thought on the subject through the Enlightenment. Then along came the Existentialists.

Nietzsche believed that the motivation behind human action was our “Will to Power.” Everything we do comes from our deepest desires. He thought that the idea that we could overcome our passions by reason was an illusion we created to feel better about our decisions.

Nietzsche’s claim that “between waking and dreaming there is no essential difference” is … controversial. He suggests that “our moral judgements and evaluations” are rationalizations of unconscious physiological processes. I take it that this means that we are not indignant because an action outrages our moral sense but that the indignation is primary and the moral judgment a rationalization.

Discovering the Mind Vol. Two, Walter Kaufmann p57

Kaufmann goes on to explain that Neitzsche’s “Will to Power” was not solely about how we try to manipulate and dominate other people as is commonly thought. He meant that everything we do can be understood as a desire to control our environment, rather than primarily through our conscious reasoning. If we are hungry, we look for food to eat. If we are nervous, we bite our fingernails to calm ourselves. If we want to stay dry while walking in the rain, we open an umbrella.

This is an interesting insight. If you watch a baby as he grows, he spends most of his waking hours trying to control his environment. He struggles to get his body to do what he wants, and slowly over time he extends this power over his caretakers. Everything an infant does is about overcoming and taming his environment until he meets the will of his parents, who in turn, struggle to get his will under their control.

But, does the unconscious will to control our environment explain all our behavior? Why do mothers give their own food to their children in times of famine? Why do fathers give up their autonomy to work in a boring job to provide for his family?

If our unconscious will explains all our actions, then why is it that adults have to be trained to put an oxygen mask on themselves first in order to save their children when a plane’s cabin decompresses? The knowledge (Cognitive process) to do this overrides the will (desire to survive) because they know the natural reaction (Affection) to put the mask on their children first might mean they may pass out before they can help anyone else. In this case, does it not appear that Plato is right when he says reason can override the passions?

The Pleasure Principle

Freud proposed “The Pleasure Principle,” where our dominant thought process is the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Later, he reworked this idea after World War I in his book “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” where he added the idea that we also do things that insure our survival.  

“…some important forms of human behavior could not be explained in terms of the pleasure principle, and he introduced a second basic drive known as the death instinct and is associated with aggression and destruction.” Kaufmann p82?

One can understand that after the terrible horror of World War I that the idea that reason plays a lesser role in our behavior than sex and aggression would seem a plausible explanation for why we do not always behave the way we reason is best for us.

But, if that were so, if we only act on pleasant experiences and/or the death instinct then how do civilizations and their institutions come about in the first place? We seem capable of rational behavior to cooperate in enormous building projects and the dissemination of technological knowledge. We have art, literature, and music. All these things require work and sacrifice. Where do they fit into this framework?

Again, to be fair to Freud, he was hopeful that psychoanalysis would free people from debilitating neurosis. But, he admitted, “There are really people in whom psychoanalysis has not changed anything.” (Kaufmann p230)

The Divided Brain – Elephant and Rider

One of the latest editions to the study of human behavior is explained in Jonathon Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Haidt divides our thinking into two categories which he roughly ascribes to the physical structure of the brain – our two hemispheres – as neurologists describe it. (See: The Divided Brain).  

“The mind is divided into parts, like a rider (controlled processes) on an elephant (automatic processes). The rider evolved to serve the elephant.”

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt, p49

It used to be thought that our immediate responses – ones that we seem to do without thinking – had little to do with the cognitive processes of of our minds. They were instinctual or conditioned responses and controlled by the unconscious. Haidt believes that these responses are influenced by cognitive mind processes, though on a lower level than conscious thought. Like Nietzsche, he believes most of our reasoning is about justifying our actions, and has less to do with our driving our actions than the our cultural conditioning. The “rider” can override a response, but rarely does so. The thrust of his book is that if you want to change minds, you have to address the “elephant”, not the “rider.”

“Therefore, if you want to change someone’s mind about a moral or political issue, talk to the elephant first. If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch – a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed.”

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt, p50

Haidt admits that our immediate (intuitive or instinctive) reactions are not completely devoid of cognitive processes. However, his book describes intuition as culturally conditioned and as such, an individual can be converted to a new cultural outlook simply by appealing to the individual’s brain processes. He, like many self-described atheists, ignore the oral traditions and written volumes of collected wisdom literature of the world’s cultures. The reason why wisdom literature exists is to provide the reasons why a culture does what it does. One man cannot, by himself, experience everything. It requires generations of people to collect and organize the experiences of mankind in a way that it can be passed onto the next generation. This is the job of the priests and philosophers of a culture – our wise men. Unfortunately, there is a trend in science these days to want to dismiss all wisdom literature as meaningless.

This is a subject I will take up later on this blog. The point I want to make here is that culture is not simply an individual’s lifestyle or his personal philosophy, it is much deeper than that. Many of Haidt’s “benign taboo” experiments demonstrate that people do not always have a rational explanation for why they think a cultural taboo exists, they simply “know” (intuit) the behavior is wrong. In trying to explain it, many people are easily confused by a questioner who’s own culture may not share that taboo. Haidt calls this “dumbfounding response” and that is why people search for an answer to explain and come up shorthanded. They do not know the reason why intellectually, but they are conditioned to reject the behavior. Haidt does not find value in this kind of conditioning.  However,  just because an individual cannot explain why, for example, incest is wrong or why having sex with a dead animal is wrong, this does not mean that the individual’s culture does not have an valid rational for why it is wrong. The idea that cultural conditioning might rest on a rational reason that the culture has determined over generations of experience does not seem to occur to Haidt. But then this is the cultural conditioning that he is under, where the “good” (acceptable behavior) is a relative term that is both personal and situational.

The National Divide and Problem Solving

I think that that Haidt’s strategy can work by manipulating behavior in the short term but does not have deep roots. Deeply held cultural beliefs have a way of reinforcing themselves when met by a challenge that goes against cultural frameworks built on reason and experience. You can temporarily appeal to a person’s emotions and desires, but cognition also plays a significant role in our decision making, especially when considering discussion of the permanent things of life (human nature). We are even divided over whether there are permanent things about human nature.

For example, we are deeply divided over the practice of abortion. This division comes about over the philosophical argument of essence versus existence. If you believe that existence comes before essence, then the woman has existence and essence where the fetus simply exists. Most people who approve of abortion do not believe a person has an essence until birth. So, it would seem logical that the woman has priority in how she wishes to exercise control over her life. If you believe that both the woman and the fetus have essence as well as existence, then both have equal rights to life.

This is a philosophical matter and it does not seem to be a contention that can be won by appealing to the elephant (affection and desire). Even though it is a deeply emotional issue it is rooted in a cognitive mental framework that governs how people view themselves and their place in the universe.

Culture molds our actions, but also our moral views of those actions. If two cultures are fundamentally opposed in some key aspect on a cognitive level, they will not interpret actions in the same way.  The subject of abortion will continue to divide people over the acceptance and practice of abortion as long as we disagree over what what a human being is.

What all of these “systems” approaches to human behavior have in common is the hope that we discover the hidden motivations of human beings and from there predict how they will behave. If we do not have Free Will, then it is simply a matter of finding the one thing (or some simple combination of things) that motivates us to act. It is tempting to think that we could increase happiness and diminish suffering in the world if we could find the right physical mechanism to make us all behave.

The most we can expect from these studies is to understand a particular aspect of our mental processes better. Each of the scientists and philosophers I have mentioned have added greatly to our understanding of the mind, but it does not mean that we should accept all their conclusions.

No single explanation can really explain human behavior, it can at most illuminate human behavior and allow us to see something we have not seen.”

Discovering the Mind Vol. Three, Walter Kaufmann p279

The Error of Reductionism

Much is lost in understanding by trying to simplify the human mind. Today we tend to see the actions of people as falling into two categories as Haidt describes – controlled and automatic. Controlled actions are generally labelled as rational and belonging to like-thinking individuals who agree with us. Those who act against our beliefs are labelled irrational, primitive or automatic, or ill-willed. As a result of this disordered approach to understanding motivation, many people today believe that conflict arises from poor or improper conditioning. The solution is to apply proper secular behavioral conditioning, such as peer pressure in the classroom. The virtue of charity towards our fellow human beings is lost in our education systems. We have forgotten that we are not mind readers and believe that we can perceive motivation by simply observing a person’s words or actions. This leads to an academic form of bullying. Students are coerced or pressured into responding in acceptable ways to school authority figures – teachers and administrators. In this way, schools become indoctrination centers rather than places of learning and discovering new ways of problem solving.

There will always be two kinds of problems in the world: convergent problems and divergent problems. Convergent problems have solutions, Divergent ones do not. Scientists and philosophers tend to be problem solvers and have difficulty accepting that the problem of human behavior is a divergent one. Resolutions to conflicts between cultures require complex strategies and decision making – which is why the problem of how to govern people and how to apply justice and mercy is complicated and fraught with human fallibility.  But we are not left without hope.

Our lives may have limits and many common experiences – which is why so many of our stories follow similar themes – but within these physical constraints we are beings with great potential to produce an infinite variety of physical works through our imagination of our minds and the work of our hands. All this does not occur solely through products of physical and chemical processes acting on our bodies. To overcome our physical restraints, we need to appreciate the gift of all our mental processes, cognition, affection, and conation. Only then can we understand the reality of Free Will exists.

Composing the Music of Our Lives

It is true that no reasoning or appeal to emotion or desires can bring everyone together. Humans find it difficult to accept that other people do not think or feel the same they do. This is the struggle that made language necessary. Again, we cannot read other people’s minds – this is a barrier to communication. It is part of the struggle of life – to communicate the best of our thoughts to each other.

Western music uses a 7-note scale and arranged in octaves. These notes are further divided by half-steps called semitones. There are other types of scales as well, but they also contain a limited number of notes. Out of this limited number of notes comes all our music in its infinite variety.

Human beings are also limited in a physical way as the notes of a scale. We are born, we live, we die. All cultures around the world have similar stories of love, betrayal, courage, etc. This is because we are limited by a physical body. However, we have the ability to choose many things about how we live each day. Even in totalitarian societies, where our physical freedom is restricted, we have freedom to think what we wish to think. We can choose our attitude and divine our purpose despite our circumstances. We have the ability to improve our lives, but only if we choose to exercise that freedom.

We can wait for motivation to strike, but as we have discussed above, much of our behavior is conditioned. To do or create something that is original, (or even some very simple that is different from the mainstream of our society) requires individual courage. To compose the music of our lives begins with the recognition that it is possible for us through our own agency. And then it requires courage to act on that knowledge.

Overly civilized cultures fear change and it does not matter who is in charge, the left or the right. They would prefer that all citizens shut up and sit down.

I, for one, aim to misbehave.

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