I was planning to share more in today's blog post from Robert Sapolsky's book, Determined, which argues persuasively that free will is an illusion. But with disturbing news of the Israel-Hamas war ricocheting around in my mind, I find myself unable to focus on my original intent.
Which is how minds work. I'm going to talk about no-free-will anyway, just not in the way that I had intended.
Every experience changes us. We are nothing but our experiences, understanding that "experience" includes much more than that word implies. It encompasses the genetic experience of our bodies; the historical experience of the culture we're a part of; the evolutionary experience of all life on earth; the personal experience of our life from the womb until death; and other forms of experience.
It's a fantasy to believe that human thoughts, emotions, and behavior are somehow orchestrated by a Me or Self that can float above all these varieties of experience and engage in acts of free will that are uncaused by all the influences bearing down upon us.
The Israel-Hamas war provides plenty of evidence for this.
Yesterday I wrote a post for my HinesSight blog, Our job is to empathize with both Israelis and Palestinians, that mostly consisted of the last part of an essay in the November 6 issue of TIME by Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari, "The world's job during the war."
Here's a quote from Harari.
Most Israelis are psychologically incapable at this moment of empathizing with the Palestinians. The mind is filled to the brim with our own pain, and no space is left to even acknowledge the pain of others.
Many of the people who tried to hold such a space -- like the Kutz family -- are dead or deeply traumatized. Most Palestinians are in an analogous situation -- their minds too are filled with pain, they cannot see our pain.
But outsiders who are not themselves immersed in pain should make an effort to empathize with all suffering humans, rather than lazily seeing only part of the terrible reality. It is the job of outsiders to help maintain a space for peace.
I hope this is possible.
However, it's difficult to be optimistic when this horrific war is viewed through the lens of what Sapolsky tells us is the neuroscientific truth. Trauma changes us. The Jews who control Israel feel in their bones, in their heart, in their mind, the trauma of longstanding Jewish persecution at the hands of others, notably Nazi Germany in the Holocaust.
This affects their current attitude toward their Palestinian neighbors who also have experienced trauma of a more recent variety: how they've been ill treated by Israel over about 75 years of forcible relocation and occupation. This has caused deep resentments that are one of the causes of the terror inflicted on people in Israel by Hamas's October 7 attacks.
As Harari said in his essay, this prevents both Israelis and Palestinians from seeing the suffering of the other side as deserving of empathy. Not everybody, of course, but certainly the leaders who are directing the course of the Israel-Hamas war.
So the 1,400 deaths Hamas caused in Israel turns into an estimated 9,000 deaths Israel has caused in the Gaza Strip. And the killing continues, with many more deaths to come. I see no evidence of free will in any of this, because it is clear that the leaders of both sides are being propelled by deep reserves of anger, resentment, and hatred that have nothing to do with calm, considered, wise decision-making.
Yesterday I heard a man interviewed on CNN, I think it was, who used to be an Israeli ambassador to the United States. He was asked about the thousands of civilian deaths in Gaza from Israel's bombing, at least half of whom are women and children. His logic, if you can call it that, went like this:
Civilians in Gaza are being killed because Hamas terrorists hide among them, and Israel is justified in killing Hamas. Residents in the north of Gaza have been told to leave that area and move to the southern part of Gaza. When told by the interviewer that Israel is also attacking civilian targets in the south of Gaza, the Israeli said this was justified because Hamas terrorists hide among them there also.
So the previous ambassador believes that women, children, the elderly, and other noncombatants can be killed by Israel anywhere in Gaza, since Israel is entitled to do so just because. That's how a three year old acts: I can do it just because I want to.
Today Israel attacked an ambulance in Gaza. Again, this isn't an act of free will. This is an act of leaders of a nation who are consumed by so much rage, so much anger, so much feeling of entitlement, that they can kill innocent people for no good reason just because they have the ability to do so.
A Washington Post story tells the sickening tale of Israeli destruction in "Israel launches deadly strike on ambulance outside hospital in Gaza." Excerpts: