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.