Free Will or No Control?

Do We Have Free Will?

We think, we feel, we desire. These three attributes of our being have been recognized since ancient times. But how much do we control do we really have over our lives? This question has vexed us since the beginning of time.

Fate and Fortune

The ancients believed that fate guided us to our end. There was an order to the universe that was unavoidable, and the collected wisdom of ancient culture described how one’s behavior affected one’s destiny. When they observed a person acting against that wisdom, they could predict how it would trip them up. Fate did not control all outcomes. Fortune played a part as well. Fortune could protect a person or a whole community from the evil in the world or it could deliver them over to it. Between fate and fortune, man had agency to live his life even if the outcome was predetermined.

Free Will / Human Agency

There are two questions involved in this debate:

  1. What is Free Will? This is the ability to make decisions and by making them make a change in Reality. It could be an attitude change or a physical change, but the change if affected by one’s will, not the physical world imposing the change on the person. We also call this: human agency.
  • What exactly is the process of human agency? How are we able to make decisions? If we are only affected by the physical and chemical reactions of our body, how can we make an independent decision?

Behaviorism and Determinism – Rejection of Free Will

 Some people think we do not have actual agency, but only a sense of agency. We only think we have influence over our environment, but in fact all our responses to the world have been conditioned by physical forces and evolution.

This has led to the belief that human behavior can be modified if our environment is altered. This is the basis of much of economic and social engineering projects in today’s culture. However, this belief raises some obvious questions. If humans are controlled by their environment, how could they alter their environment significantly enough to change their own behavior? And, secondly, by what measure can they perceive a difference? Thirdly, assuming the previous two questions could be answered, how can we know those environmental changes will lead to a positive result?

Behaviorism

the theory that human and animal behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders are best treated by altering behavior patterns.

– treatment using the practical application of the theory of behaviorism.

Google definition

Determinism

the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. Some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.

Google definition

The point is that if we are incapable of making decisions apart from our environment, why should we trust someone else’s flawed agency to make those decisions for us? By what authority could they possibly point to in order to impose those changes on others?

Education in the sciences lacks a philosophical foundation today. Because of this, scientists are taught to believe that every problem has a solution, if only one can redefine the problem in terms of a physical system. But if we are restricted only to the physical aspects of the human being, we will never be able to consider the true nature of the problem we are trying to solve.

Next time: Gateway to Free Will

Human Concepts and Divine Ideas – Brain Theory

Last time I wrote about Levels of Being and the difference between consciousness and self-awareness. I have also written about mental maps and how we sometimes confuse our mental constructs (models of reality) with reality itself. I find it useful to think we have mental frameworks, but what do we actually know about how our mind creates concepts?

The answer is (like so much of what we think we know): Not much.

Science vs. Philosophy

Philosophy is the study of all knowledge about the essence of Reality and all that exists in it, including human beings. Science used to be called “Natural Philosophy.” It was a branch of philosophy that dealt with the physical nature of things. It is only very recently that the later term was dropped, and we call all things that we study about the physical world: Science. Further, it’s only since the early part of the 20th century that people began to think that science had developed far enough along that it could replace all of philosophy to explain all of Reality. By the time I went to college, philosophy was no longer a core subject of study. I think this is a mistake because without some understanding of philosophy it is difficult to formulate conclusions about what we see in the models and experiments that scientists conduct.  (See Bergson vs Einstein).

I believe that science can help inform other branches of philosophy, but when it comes to questions that border on the edge of our understanding, it helps to be familiar with the a broader philosophical approach that has developed over the centuries.  

What is a concept?

Philosophers separate the problem of concepts into 3 categories:

  1. Concepts as mental representations
  2. Concepts as abilities
  3. Concepts as abstract objects

Continue reading “Human Concepts and Divine Ideas – Brain Theory”

Mind/Body/Soul: Essence and Existence

The concept of essence is so fundamental to how we view our individual existence that it not only affects our understanding of how we came into the world and how we will leave it, it also affects how we order and live our lives. How we arrived at this divide requires a look at the historical development of ideas concerning our experience of reality.

Continue reading “Mind/Body/Soul: Essence and Existence”

The Divided Brain and Freedom of Thought

I’ve been reading and listening to lectures about the divided brain recently. The “hard” problem how consciousness arises from the brain is endlessly fascinating to me.

In the book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and The Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist, the author begins by explaining how perception of how the two hemispheres work has changed over time. The brain has two hemispheres – the left and the right. In the last century, scientists believed that the left brain was in charge of some things like language and mapping, while the right was in charge of music, art, and abstract thinking. Then it was discovered that both hemispheres were at work on all tasks and scientists believed that it was hopeless to assign certain tasks to one hemisphere or the other and that they were essentially the same.

Mr. McGilchrist, has studied the relationship between the two hemispheres for decades. He tells us that there is a complicated relationship between the left and right hemispheres. It turns out that the physical connection between the hemispheres plays a larger role than once thought about how the two sides communicate. While it’s true that each side of the brain can sustain consciousness on its own, each side attends to the world in its own way. When you are working on certain tasks both hemispheres do work together, but that there are inhibitors from one hemisphere to the other so that the one side is “in charge” or governs certain tasks while the other serves as a facilitator to the other hemisphere. These two modes of thinking can switch quickly as your environment changes around you.

In the animal kingdom we see the same brain division into two hemispheres. It is believed that this helps to protect an animal while its foraging for food. Mr. McGilchrist explains that when a bird is pecking around for a seed on the ground one hemisphere is focused on that task, while the other hemisphere is tasked with keeping a watch out for predators.

Another interesting discovery of how the processing is divided is that new experiences are processed first by the right hemisphere and then mapped out in the left for routine work. For example, the first time you drive to a new job or school, your right hemisphere is busy processing the new experience. You are very aware of the trip to the new location, alert to the new experience. But, after repeated trips to the same location, the left hemisphere maps out the route and after a time you hardly recall the drive at all. Routine tasks are shoved into the background of our conscious thought.

We will probably never understand how the mind works from the simple fact that there’s no way for us to study the brain objectively. In order to observe a any system, we need to be able to separate ourselves from it and observe it working independently of our control. Because each individual is the only one to truly “know” in any way what he/she is thinking it is impossible to say for sure what is going on in any individual brain. One person can observe another from the outside, but the one thinking the thoughts to be observed cannot. There’s no way to be an independent observer of your own thoughts.

Science Fiction sometimes depicts the ability to read minds as a wonderful super power or as a depressing reality of human nature. The stories generally show the mind readers as trying to control the gift so as to preserve the privacy of others. However, it seems to me that if it was discovered that some people could read minds the temptation to control large populations of people would be difficult for those in power to resist abusing that power.

Some might say that we see mind control happening today in the news media massaging the facts to fit a biased narrative or how advertisers persuade us to buy their products. It is true that a great deal of information is known about how to manipulate people, but I believe the brain is highly adaptive to these abuses. Once it becomes aware it is being manipulated, the mind can develop ways to thwart the control of an outsider. The fact that individual “thoughts” are hidden inside each person means that bullies and oppressive governments will never be able to completely control individuals.

And that’s why I’m thankful no one can read minds.

Until next time. 😊