DELANY DEAN, JD, PhD
INTRODUCTION: Are we actually “free” to make choices about our behavior, or is our sense of freedom just an illusion cooked up by our brains? A lot of hard-core behaviorists (I think there might still be some of those folks), neuroscientists, and philosophers are of the opinion that human freedom is, indeed, an illusion. This idea is, of course, very counter-intuitive. Much of our lives seems to be occupied by trying to decide what to have for lunch, and suffering from regret over what we decided to have for lunch, yesterday. And, if we truly are not “free” to make choices, then what is the point of having a criminal justice system that punishes people for making bad choices, in the hopes of deterring others from choosing badly? What about this whole “morality” business? And what about this business of psychotherapy, in which we try to help people to make better choices, so they can have better lives?
This whole discussion is closely related to the question (or problem) of “mind.” Our minds, of course, are where we engage in making choices. Are our minds “nothing more than” fleshy machines, operating on electrochemical signals? Perhaps these signals determine the “choices” we make, before we are even aware of the “feeling” that we are making a “choice.” Might it be true that our behavior is governed by circumstances and contingencies that are entirely beyond our control, and of which we are mostly ignorant?
In the rest of this page, you can see some of my writing and my thoughts (and some links) about these issues.
NEUROSCIENCE AND FREE WILL
Here is a VERY nice (video) scholarly discussion of brain science, freedom (free will), and responsibility. This topic is of great interest today among thinking people in many academic disciplines: philosophy, psychology, law, theology, and everybody else, for that matter!
“EVIL” AND FREE WILL
If you get into thinking about the evil that people do, you might also begin to think about the question of human freedom (or not). One of the strongest assumptions underlying our criminal justice system is that (absent some forms of brain damage or mental illness) human beings are totally free to choose to commit crimes (or not). Some people think that isn’t really very accurate. Here is a nice short discussion of free will and neuroscience.
ARE WE ROBOTS, OR NOT?
Yesterday I went to a meeting of my book club, where one of the topics we discussed was the old question: when people are in terrible situations, why don’t they leave? I should explain that two members of this book club are career prosecutors, one is a judge, and one (me) is a former prosecutor, a former defense lawyer, and a forensic psychologist. The person who raised the “why don’t they leave?” question was a prosecutor, and a good friend of mine (we were colleagues at one time, trial lawyers in the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office). What I noticed was that prosecutors tend to have a firm attachment to a model of human mental and behavioral functioning in which it is held that all humans are fully free to make rational decisions about their actions; and that, accordingly, decisions and behaviors that appear to be unreasonable are motivated by factors such as courage (or the lack of courage), stupidity, greed, lust, or just plain evil-ness. Most psychologists would disagree with that model; we know that human decision-making is influenced by many factors that operate outside our awareness, and that much of our behavior is simply automatic, not truly a product of any kind of “deciding.” We also know that, even in cases in which the subjective experience is that we have freely decided to engage in a certain action, our brains have begun preparing for that specific action for as long as 6 seconds before we experience the conscious intention to engage in or choose that action. Benjamin Libet did the initial work that confirmed this phenomenon back in the 1980’s; more recently, there’s an fMRI study that has just been published that confirms and extends Libet’s work (the abstract for that new study is here). Libet (and others) gave considerable thought to the implications of their work. One way to interpret the findings is that we may not genuinely have what we think of as “free will”; what we might be said to enjoy, instead, might be called “free won’t.” In other words, it may be that we have the mental capacity to, in effect, “veto” the actions that our brains automatically prepare to engage in. This would be a version of human freedom that would prevent us from the need to view ourselves as no better than organic robots with a fancy, but essentially superfluous, consciousness about our own activities.
One blog writer had this to say:
Libet’s study sparked a great deal of controversy, as some saw it as a denunciation of free will. And rightly so, as Libet himself suggested the only evidence in support of free will is our own assertion that it exists… [But this work] doesn’t exclude the existence of free will. Even Libet maintained that there was a role for consciousness in decision-making, not in initiating an act, but in the ability to suppress it… the capacity to reverse a decision made by the unconscious brain would support a type of free will.
And another one of my favorite blogs, MindHacks, brought up the issue in the context of possible future development and implementation of what might be called “neuroweapons” that could use brain signals to trigger firing (see this discussion). What might it be like if a weapon could be developed that would fire, based not on a conscious decision made by a human who pulls a trigger or pushes a button, but on the activities going on in his (or her) brain that are outside of, and previous to, conscious awareness? Could a person who operates such technology even be considered responsible for his or her actions? Here is part of their discussion:
This concept [of legal and moral responsibility] is based on the theory that the conscious mind forms an intention, and an actions follows… [But now] we know that this idea is outdated… [Yet it is still] assumed that, at least for healthy individuals, we have as much control over stopping our own actions as starting them. [But] the US government’s defence research agency, DARPA, is currently developing new military technologies, dubbed ‘neuroweapons’, that may throw these assumptions into disarray.
The webpage of DARPA’s Human Assisted Neural Devices Program only mentions the use of brain-machine interfaces in terms of helping injured veterans, but p11 of the US Dept of Defense budget justification [pdf] explicitly states that “This program will develop the scientific foundation for novel concepts that will improve warfighter performance on the battlefield as well as technologies for enhancing the quality of life of paralyzed veterans”.
In other words, the same technology that allows humans to control computer cursors, robot arms or wheelchairs by thought alone, could be used to target and trigger weapons.
Even if only part of the process, such as selecting possible targets, is delegated to technology that reads the unconscious orienting response from the brain, that still means that part of the thought process has automatically become part of the action.
So, it may be true that we are not robots… but (only?!) that we can, in a sense, turn ourselves into something that is at least somewhat like a robot… All this is fairly mind-boggling, is it not?
And so there are major questions about the genuine nature of human freedom, and I think that’s a very big deal, something that causes most of us to sit up and take notice.
FREE WILL AND STEERING WHEELS
There’s a really intriguing blog (The Garden of Forking Paths) that appears to be primarily devoted to discussions among philosophers about freedom, moral responsibility, volition, and so forth. It is fairly accessible and really interesting, including all the major schools of thought about this subject. I especially enjoyed the comments that appeared below an entry about the recent discussions about the experiments that appear to demonstrate that students are more likely to cheat on a test if they have recently heard a lecture telling them that neuroscience “proves” there is “no free will” (here is an example of one of the write-ups about these experiments). The introductory sentence in this write-up (in the NYT) is: “If there is no such thing as free will, do you really have to put that money into the office coffee kitty when no one is looking?” The idea being, of course, that there is a danger that science will tell us things that end up making us bad people (note that this at least somewhat resembles the fearfulness, in some religious circles [and especially in Kansas!], that surrounds the teaching of evolution). It was this “Garden” blog that reminded me of a recent article by
It was this “Garden” blog that reminded me of a recent article by Roy Baumeister (one of my favorite social psychologists, especially on the subject of “evil”) in a major psychology journal (Perspectives on Psychological Science). Dr. Baumeister describes a viewpoint about human freedom that is very similar to my own long-held view (that human freedom is quite limited, and in some cases practically non-existent) and also consistent with the recent work involving the apparent 6-second time lag between brain-based decision-making, and the conscious perception of “making a choice to do something.” Here’s how he expressed the idea (sometimes known, technically within philosophy, as “compatabilism”): “[it may be] that there are two systems for guiding behavior: a default one that mostly runs the show and an occasional one that sometimes intervenes to make changes. Free will should be understood not as the starter or motor of action but rather as a passenger who occasionally grabs the steering wheel or even as just a navigator who says to turn left up ahead.”
Anyway, Baumeister is a major figure in the area of human freedom (he recently published a fascinating study indicating that people are less capable of resisting temptation when their blood glucose levels have dropped).
MEDITATION AND HUMAN FREEDOM
Meditation Practice and Human Freedom: As I noted above, most psychologists and other scientists understand that human freedom is not unlimited (some psychologists are actually determinists, believing that human freedom is totally illusory; but I think that concept is a dead end, and will not deal with it in this post). If we reflect upon it, I think all of us would acknowledge that, as a practical matter, much of our behavior is thoughtless, even “automatic.” We all have what we call “knee-jerk reactions.” We all can probably recall occasions when we did something (maybe something contrary to our values), but cannot say “why” we did it, and cannot really recall making a conscious decision to do it. In my work as a forensic psychologist, it has many times been my sad experience to evaluate a person facing murder charges who tells me (when I ask him what his thoughts were, just before he killed someone): “I didn’t think about it; it just happened!” There is, in such cases, the sense that the act of killing was something that happened to him, instead of by him (and these are people who do not have a psychiatric condition). And, in the (much more common) situations in which people engage in compulsive (or addictive) behaviors, they certainly have the subjective sense that their capacity for self-control is severely lacking (or even entirely absent).
The good news about this picture is that we need not be helpless in the face of limitations in our capacity to exercise freedom. One of the primary reasons that we engage in so much thoughtless, automatic behavior is that we allow ourselves to become lost in thought, even as we are going through the activities of our daily lives. We just “go through the motions,” while mentally engaged in activities such as planning for the future, or re-hashing the past. In other words, we allow ourselves to be “mindless,” a state in which we fail to pay attention to what is going on (within our minds, and in our surroundings), right this very moment. And, when we are mindless, we can easily act on an impulse that we never even realized that we had (resulting in what would label a “knee-jerk reaction”). Within psychology and psychiatry, in treating compulsive/addictive behavior, we teach people to pay closer attention to their thoughts and emotions, so that they can detect the beginnings of an impulse (or craving) early enough to make a conscious decision to head it off… and, in this way, they can begin to change their behavioral patterns, even those that have often felt uncontrollable.
This type of attentional training, or attentional enhancement, is a one very important aspect of meditation practice. Over and over again, we bring our mind into a state in which we are deliberately paying attention to what is going on right now, this very moment. As we do this, our brains become more capable of shifting attention from the internal train of mental chatter (worrying about the future, thinking about the past); and we are better able to remain consciously aware, in our daily lives. And, when this happens, we are also improving our capacity for self-control, because we actually know what we are thinking and feeling, and how we are responding to environmental triggers, in the here-and-now (instead of later, after we have done something that we might regret!).
In the Mind Hacks blog, there is a short discussion of a new article by Richard Davidson and his colleagues, about the effects of meditation practice on attentional processes; they note that: “many… studies… have reported interesting effects. For example, highly experienced focused attention meditators need minimal effort to sustain attentional focus, while even short courses on meditation can improve attention and decrease stress.” In our contemporary world, one in which we all seem to suffer from attentional deficits to one degree or another, the implications are obvious…
Conclusion: I think it is fair to say that contemporary neuroscientists would agree that it was with very good justification that Joseph Goldstein, the great meditation teacher, titled one of his books (one I highly recommend!): Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom.
Non-Human Animals and Morality
I saw an interesting article in the NYT about the “beginnings of morality” found in non-human primates. Various of the apes have been observed to behave in pro-social, even self-sacrificial ways. Chimps, who cannot swim, sometimes drown trying to save other chimps struggling in the water. Hungry rhesus monkeys will ignore food if it is set up in such a way that getting the food will cause pain to others. Do we call this “morality”? Some feel threatened and outraged, or dismissive, when these “behaviors” are labelled as “moral.” Similar arguments take place among those who study violence and aggression. Some say that violent human behavior is very much innate, and does not differ in essential ways from violent/aggressive behavior among non-human animals. Others insist that all aggressive behavior in humans is learned from the environment. There are two main “camps” in these arguments. One group of us humans wishes to see a sharp dichotomy between humans and other animals, so that our similarities are minimized, and our differences are seen more as differences in “kind” than in “degree.” Christian doctrine, for some, requires or at least promotes such a distinction. Another group of humans tends to rely on evolutionary theory and observations of continuities. They tend to assert that it is simply obvious that humans are a species of animal, a very interesting species indeed, but not substantially different (i.e., different in substance) from other species. And, unfortunately, these two camps perceive each other with distrust, fear, and/or contempt. Their stances tend to be polarized and contrasted with each other; there are few efforts to find common ground. I wonder, can there not be continuities that bring the two camps together? I, for one, am fond of continuities. I am not a fan of polarities, nor of “black and white” thinking. My life and my studies have convinced me that the whole shebang is a gray area, and that discontinuities are fundamentally illusory.