I've almost finished reading Lisa Feldman Barrett's How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, a book I've been writing about lately.
I have few criticisms of it. But after I read the "Emotion and the Law" chapter, I realized what was missing from Barrett's book: a discussion of free will. Meaning, the lack thereof.
Most of that chapter made sense to me. I'll explain the part that didn't. This passage struck me as fine.
The third type of responsibility relates to the content within your conceptual system, separately from how your brain uses that system to predict when breaking the law. A brain does not compute a mind in a vacuum.
Every human being is the sum of his or her concepts, which become the predictions that drive behavior. The concepts in your head are not purely a matter of personal choice. Your predictions come from the cultural influences you were pickled in.
...All of your predictions are shaped not just by direct experience but also indirectly by television, movies, friends, and the symbols of your culture... Your mind is not only a function of your brain, but also of the other brains in your culture.
OK. I've got no problem with these thoughts. However, this passage strikes me as problematic.
This third domain of responsibility cuts two ways. Sometimes it's trivialized as "society is to blame," a phrase lampooned as bleeding-heart liberal sentiment.
I am saying something more nuanced. If you commit a crime, you are indeed to blame, but your actions are rooted in your conceptual system, and those concepts don't just appear in a puff of magic.
They are forged by the social reality you live in, which gets under your skin to turn genes on and off and wire your neurons. You learn from your environment like any other animal. Nevertheless, all animals shape their own environment.
So as a human being, you have the ability to shape your environment to modify your conceptual system, which means that you are ultimately responsible for the concepts that you accept and reject.
So Barrett is saying that while past experiences, both personal and cultural, go a long way toward determining our actions in the present, we still have the ability to choose different experiences in the future which will modify the conceptual system that guides our behavior now.
This assumes that we possess some sort of magical free will that operates outside of the causes and effects that are described in much detail by Barrett as creating the conditions that produce both human emotions and other behavior.
To confirm that Barrett has a flawed understanding of free will, I dug out my copy of Sam Harris' short 66 page book aptly called Free Will. It didn't take me long to re-read it. The way Harris talks about choices makes more sense than how Barrett views this subject.
When we consider human behavior, the difference between premeditated, voluntary action and mere accident seems immensely consequential. As we will see, this distinction can be preserved -- and with it, our most important moral and legal concerns -- while banishing the idea of free will once and for all.
Certain states of consciousness seem to arise automatically, beyond the sphere of our intentions. Others seem self-generated, deliberative, and subject to our will... Within certain limits, I seem to choose what I pay attention to.
The sound of the leaf blower intrudes, but I can seize the spotlight of my attention in the next moment and aim it elsewhere. This difference between nonvolitional and volitional states of mind is reflected at the level of the brain -- for they are governed by different systems.
And the difference between them must, in part, produce the felt sense that there is a conscious self endowed with freedom of will.
As we have begun to see, however, this feeling of freedom arises from our moment-to-moment ignorance of the prior causes of our thoughts and actions. The phrase "free will" describes what it feels like to identify with certain mental states as they arise in consciousness.
Thoughts like "What should I get my daughter for her birthday? I know -- I'll take her to a pet store and have her pick out some tropical fish" convey the apparent reality of choices, freely made. But from a deeper perspective (speaking both objectively and subjectively), thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions.
...And the fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they don't matter. If I had not decided to write this book, it wouldn't have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being.
Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world. Human choice, therefore, is as important as fanciers of free will believe.
But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being... From the perspective of your conscious awareness, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.
...You can do what you decide to do -- but you cannot decide what you will decide to do. Of course, you can create a framework in which certain decisions are more likely than others -- you can, for instance, purge your house of all sweets, making it very unlikely that you will eat dessert later in the evening -- but you cannot know why you were able to submit to such a framework today when you weren't yesterday.
...You have not built your mind. And in moments in which you seem to build it -- when you make an effort to change yourself, to acquire knowledge, or to perfect a skill -- the only tools at your disposal are those that you have inherited from moments past.
Choices, efforts, intentions, and reasoning influence our behavior -- but they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter -- and there are paths toward making wiser ones -- but I cannot choose what I choose.
And if it ever appears that I do -- for instance, after going back and forth between two options -- I do not choose to choose what I choose. There is a regress here that always ends in darkness. I must take a first step, or a last one, for reasons that are bound to remain inscrutable.
...To say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought "I could have done otherwise" after doing whatever I in fact did. This is an empty affirmation. It confuses hope for the future with an honest account of the past.
What I will do next, and why, remains, at bottom, a mystery -- one that is fully determined by the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature (including the contribution of chance). To declare my "freedom" is tantamount to saying, "I don't know why I did it, but it's the sort of thing I tend to do, and and I don't mind doing it."
...You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise.
...Why did I order beer instead of wine? Because I prefer beer. Why do I prefer it? I don't know, but I generally have no need to ask. Knowing that I like beer more than wine is all I need to know to function in a restaurant. Whatever the reason, I prefer one taste to the other.
Is there freedom in this? None whatsoever. Would I magically reclaim my freedom if I decided to spite my preference and order wine instead? No, because the roots of this intention would be as obscure as the preference itself.
So we see that while Barrett considers that we're able to modify our past mental programming by filling our brain/mind with different future experiences we consider to be better for us, she fails to realize that our choice of those different future experiences doesn't spring from our unfettered free will, but from the same sorts of influences that created our past mental programming.
This seems clear to me, as it is to Sam Harris. But it's a fairly subtle notion that, as Harris says, is irrelevant to most of our everyday life. Nonetheless, it's an important notion, because it points to the wonderful awe-inspiring interdependency of everything in our world. Harris writes:
We do not change ourselves, precisely -- because we have only ourselves with which to do the changing -- but we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us... In improving ourselves and society, we are working directly with the forces of nature, for there is nothing but nature itself to work with.
"...she fails to realize that our choice of those different future experiences doesn't spring from our unfettered free will, but from the same sorts of influences that created our past mental programming. "
She fails to realize that if the universe was started over again, it would result in Chuckie Cheese restaurants, the invention of the hula hoop, and the birth of and exactly precise musical career of Michael Jackson. Sure.
That, my friends, is the ineluctable conclusion of the No Free Will Absolutists. And if obviously makes no sense whatsoever.
Posted by: PascalsPager | December 11, 2022 at 09:12 AM
PascalsPager, actually what you said DOES make sense. Perfect sense.
As Sam Harris persuasively argues in his Free Will book, if the universe was in absolutely the same state as when something happened, the exact same thing would happen again the next time. So if the universe started over again just as it did in the original Big Bang, the same things would happen again.
Of course, there's the element of chance or probability, which plays a big role in quantum mechanics. Since the early universe was very small, and thus obeyed quantum laws, chance/probability would change things if there was another Big Bang.
But this has nothing to do with free will, which is associated with sentient creatures. My point, which also makes perfect sense, is that just as determinism, or causes and effects, is what causes our thoughts, actions, and other phenomena in the past, determinism also causes those phenomena in the present, which creates our future.
There is no magic fairy dust called "free will." That's a fantasy, akin to a belief in immaterial soul.
Posted by: Brian Hines | December 11, 2022 at 10:34 AM
We are born with an element of free will until someone or institution takes it away and you become a kind of conditioned puppet. Take RSSB and gurinder singh dhillon, who have created a religion / cult to brainwash minds that are suffering and in need of help and a direction to help make sense of the pain brought on by parasitic forces that gurinder singh dhillon works with. It is in this vulnerable state, where they become desperate for answers and fall into bent baba hands - wolf in sheeps clothing. These crooked sly foxes provide some crumbs of answers but create a heightened emotional suggestive state and the sheep effect to seduce them. This is when their sense of reason and free will is completely subdued. They become under a spell of a sex demonic baba who cares only about himself, his family , and expanding their investment and power in the form of a world wide religion. These leaches suck your mind into many layers of brainwashing where you actually love strangers more than your real family and community. They get you to do free seva, which is nothing but modern day slavery as you gain nothing , but their masters , gurinder singh dhillon gains free labour, your mind and your soul in the afterlife.
In the afterlife he rapes your soul and harvests it for a meal before repeating the whole reincarnation process again. They are creating a high vibration individual before the harvest - why else do you think they want you vegetarian. These monsters will face their karma as the truth is coming out.
Posted by: Kranvir | December 11, 2022 at 01:46 PM
On the other hand, there's the RS take on free will, in the broader context of ontology and the role and identity of the guru. This is what I recently heard in an RSSB satsang from a speaker who though I'm sure is a wonderful person is one of those people who typically ends her sentences in a whisper (perhaps the most annoying verbal tic there is).
"Someone asked Maharaji how many light bulbs it would take for people to see his face and he gave a huge smile and said 'there will never be enough for people to truly see my face!" and these kinds of comments show us how wise the masters are!"
Wise how? What the hell was she talking about?
I doubt if I'll ever attend another RSSB satsang. The theme is perversely defeatist and, to me, depressing. The tacit message is that all we can expect from our efforts is failure, and yet we should try harder, harder.
I've been to a very many religious groups East and West over the last several decades, and I just realized that none of them comes close to RSSB in their emphasis on the members as spiritual failures. Spiritual failure is always the theme of every RSSB satsang.
Posted by: PascalsPager | December 11, 2022 at 01:59 PM
People that want to live in a monastery have to go through a process that goes by the term NOVITIATE that last something of 2 years.
Years in which a person has to find out about his motives to live a monastic life.
If these motives are ulterior, it is better for all, he does not enter into monastic life.
Schools like RSSB are in a sense also a monastic way of life. A life that is not different from other ways of life, as all humans are the same, having the same needs etc, but in such a life everything is focused on a central goal.
If one is not prepared to life it from the heart, to the complete exclusion of everything, else, one is well advised not to take up that way of living.
There is nothing to be had there, but to GIVE and if you have nothing to give, that too is alright but than you better find another "Shop" were you cab pay with "efoort"
There was a nun, having lived decades in a monastery who was asked, if here prayers were ever heared and/ or if she had ever had an answer. No she said smilingly. The surprised reporter but why did you stay .... she laught heartly and said .. "I do love this life and I love praying"
Becoming an olympic hero is only within the reach of a very few, but finding pleasure in sports is open to most people. But those that are after results, after compensation for their efforts, for those, even this simple pleasure is not avialable.
Posted by: um | December 11, 2022 at 02:36 PM
It’s quite possible that Sam Harris wasn’t right about everything.
It’s highly probable that RSSB isn’t right about everything.
If Brian is an atheist purely based on determinism then why are we reading any of this?
I’d like to believe that there are people out there who have the ability to contemplate and make decisions based on evidence. If everything Brian writes is based on his programming then where is the true contemplation or discernment behind the writing?
Posted by: ProFreeWill | December 11, 2022 at 08:18 PM
If you went to any professor of quantum mechanics and told him there was no such thing as free will he’d advise you to consider a vocation that doesn’t involve higher learning.
Posted by: ProFreeWill | December 11, 2022 at 08:22 PM
I’d like to add that for ALL people, our greatest limitation is ourself.
Self. Self is profoundly limited.
Posted by: ProFreeWill | December 11, 2022 at 08:29 PM
We can choose to see the world through our own self (ish) lens or we can choose to try and see the world through the lens of Oneness.
Posted by: ProFreeWill | December 11, 2022 at 08:32 PM
Brian quotes Barrett's ' . . . third domain of responsibility': - “So as a human being, you have the ability to shape your environment to modify your conceptual system, which means that you are ultimately responsible for the concepts that you accept and reject”.
Yes, it does read smack of free will. As Brian summarises what she is saying: - “ . . .we still have the ability to choose different experiences in the future which will modify the conceptual system that guides our behaviour now”
Barrett's premise is that we (or rather our brains) construct concepts from our past experiences which are then used to predict current sense data; but this is all about brain predictions from our 'library' of existing data and as I understand her theories, we can deconstruct (some of) our concepts to alter the realities of our conceived worlds – how we experience people, our boss, nature etc. It's not to do with free will, more to do with the brain re-programming (through choice) its predictions.
Having just been reading her other book 'Seven and a Half lessons About the Brain', with regards to 'brain predictions' she states: - “You may not be able to change your behaviour in the heat of the moment, but there's a good chance you can change your predictions 'before' the heat of the moment. With practice, you can make some 'automatic' behaviours more likely than others and have more control over your future actions and experiences than you might think”.
I would say that there is a common misapprehension between the concepts free will and choice. The ability to choose is determined by our experiences – when and where we were born, the culture we grew up in, our parents, DNA, hormones, brain networking's and so on. Any choice is bound by these circumstances and is purely dependent on the limited information our brain hold. Conversely, free will would necessitate some entity or vital source that is independent (free from) of our biological natures and able to effect outcomes. Naturally, no such entity has ever been found – only believed or assumed.
Posted by: Ron E. | December 12, 2022 at 07:43 AM
Free Will would imply that the individual can make a choice and perform an action without factors involving environment, circumstance, conditioning, the autonomic nervous system, other individuals' actions and the winds of change.
Life presents endless possibilities but it is the one you choose that will define the quality of your mind state in now-ness.
We all have the Freedom to Choose and make Choices …………………
Anything (physical, emotional, psychological, or any combination thereof) is possible but not all things are plausible.
Although, free will has been debunked within a neurological context, there still exists conscious choice and it is that conscious choice that will define the experience of your mind state that will affect what you think, say and do next.
But conscious choice can only happen when you are paying attention and are aware and not simply reacting to sensory data input on the basis of conditioned habitual patterns, or in other words, living on auto-pilot.
Conscious awareness is the key to the alleviation or the eradication of the worrying mind.
Every human experience brings with it two choices. You can react in an unhelpful way and the mind will worry, or you can respond in a helpful way and the mind will be at peace with itself, others and the world around it.
If you think, speak and act on the basis of doing the least amount of physical, emotional or psychological harm to yourself, others and the world around you, the mind will not worry.
If you think, speak and act unkindly, the mind will worry.
There is value in having an Open Mind and engaging in some kind of Critical Thinking.
Posted by: Roger | December 12, 2022 at 09:57 AM
@ Ron E. [ free will would necessitate some entity or vital source that is independent (free from) of our biological natures and able to effect outcomes. Naturally, no such entity has ever been found – only believed or assumed. ]
Thousands of years of mystic practice suggest a different answer is
discoverable within. An answer that isn't merely believed or assumed
either but is knowable/provable by direct perception. Of course, these are
only words... hollow until experienced within. But the method is there. In
the mystic's case, a discipline of mindfulness/devotion to overcome the
distractive thought and imagery of the mind. A hard discipline too... far
more than what the usual hobbyist or religious part-timer will be willing to
invest. But IMO it's the only away to slip out of the smothering grasp of
the mind's dualism to see the truth.
Posted by: Dungeness | December 12, 2022 at 08:28 PM