Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Do we have free will?

There is a current debate going on that challenges our idea of "free will" as we know it.   It has been revitalized with the advancement of neuroscience that reaches into the core of our being, of who we are and how we interact with everything around us.  It's one that reaches down into the entire meaning of being human.
This debate centers around how we make daily choices, as well as what drives us to become who we are.  It is not a question of political or social freedoms, like whether or not you can choose between tea, water, or Coke, or going to work versus staying in bed on a Monday morning, but instead how you choose these things.  What drives you to pick one over the other each and every day, through a lifetime.  What is the difference between the person who's pursues the path of a pediatrician over a pedophile?  What is the difference between someone who is healthy versus someone who is consistently self-destructive?  As an empathetic society, this question could be one of the most important questions we ever face.  The more we unlock this mystery, the stronger our society and communities can become. 

The author Sam Harris has written a book called Free Will and makes a very strong argument that we are not in control of our selves as much as we think.  The thing you have to understand about this author is that you can disagree with him, but no intelligent person discounts him.  He has a master's degree in philosophy from Stanford and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA.  He has also traveled the world studying both organized and tribal religions.  His opinions on how consciousness intertwines with our biological brain are based on so much real-world and scientific knowledge that he has become one of the most respected experts on the subject. 

When you hear or read the statement, "We do not possess free will," it probably creates a strong feeling of disagreement.  (It was my reaction too.)  So this argument centers around what created that feeling.  Did you consciously choose between two or more feelings/reactions when you read the statement, and consciously choose between one, or did the feeling just come up from inside you before you realized it?  I think most all of us would agree that the sense of disagreement or slight revulsion to the statement just appeared inside us, and that is the gist of this debate.  You didn't actively choose that feeling to come up inside you, anymore than you choose to jerk your hand away from a hot stove.  We assume that we are in full control of our thoughts and desires, but do you really have full control of the next thought that comes into your head?  Or does it just appear?

So this is a fascinating debate, and it is the type of thing that really gets me excited, because it challenges much of our worldview (I do love underdog, game-changing, revolutionary ideas!). It can also have huge implications on our society, from how we understand and raise children to how we deal with criminals and drug addicts, as well as how we react to interpersonal relations and our ultimate sense of forgiveness.

The idea that we don't actually possess free will--as we understand it--is not new, but what is new is the advancements in neurology that have allowed us to understand what drives each of us biologically.  Advanced brain mapping technology now has the ability to recognize a thought or feeling before the person is conscious of it, which really changes how we view ourselves.   This is a fact that everyone involved easily recognizes.  For example, if I am sitting here writing and suddenly think that I would like to have some tea, an EEG would have picked up on that thought 300 milliseconds before I was aware of it.  Or a better example, if I was to suddenly decide that want to take a break from the computer and take a walk, it would be registered before I was conscious of that as well.  Our thoughts, feelings, actions, desires, wants, motivation, and emotions are actually created by unconscious neural events inside our brain, and much like jerking your hand from a hot stove, have very little to do with what we choose to do. Harris argues that if we are products of unconscious neural impulses then how can we claim to be in full control of our will?

Daniel Dennett
Everyone who understands the debate (you can find many rebuttals from people who don't) recognize that the biological neural impulses that create our motivating desires take hold of us without us consciously "choosing." The debate actually centers around whether or not we can still claim free will after understanding all of this.  One of today's more interesting philosophers, Daniel Dennet, says that we absolutely can retain free will with this knowledge, that even though we are not the autonomous agent of our thoughts, we still can claim these processes as our "selves," and therefore retain all responsibility both positive and negative (the Dalai Lama agrees).  The biological and chemical reactions in our brains that are responsible for love, fear, work ethic, morals, desires, proclivity towards violence or peace, etc. are the very foundation of who we are and how we associate with the huge world around us. 

The big picture meaning from this argument is where it becomes interesting.  Can we claim full responsibility of our successes and failures?  Can we claim responsibility for either our nature (genes) or nurture?  Those who argue that free will is an illusion say "no." As I think back to my process of becoming a musician/banjo player, I really don't remember making the actual choice so much as having an unmistakable and massive desire to do so, and most artists will agree completely.   Where did this desire come from?  I don't think I chose it, but I can claim that it is probably in my genes, as both my parents are musicians, as well as molded into my experience growing up and always being around music.  So, I can't honestly claim responsibility for either the nature or nurture,  and yet here I am, doing what I do, wondering how much of it I can "claim."

The potential to understand human behavior in a more enlightened model could revolutionize how we deal with certain criminals and drug addicts.  We've already started to understand that treating drug addicts as if they have a choice between the right and wrong doesn't work, but treating the issue from a mental health standpoint does get much better results.  Could understanding violent criminals in the same way create actual rehabilitation for them, instead of the endless cycle of prison?  Would we be willing to give up our sense of retribution and righteous indignation for the chance to actually rehabilitate someone?  Would you be willing to give up some credit for your success to help people around you get past their failures? Because one doesn't happen without the other here. 

Here is another interesting way to think about it.  We all assume that we have free will and have the choice to do whatever we like with our daily lives, but think about all the things you want to do that you just don't.  Eat better, exercise more, read more, be more productive, spend more time at a hobby and less with TV.  This list can go on forever.  If we are autonomous agents of our lives, if we are actively choosing, then why do we have such a hard time changing habits?  To expand upon that idea, take the person who has tried quitting cigarettes dozens of times with no luck, but one day wakes up with a completely different type of desire and is able to finally quit.  Understanding what changed on that very day can go hand in hand with this type of debate and neurological research, and you can also see the real-world applications for understanding how neurological impulses interact with our individual consciousness.

That being said, it is also in that crux that I find a weakness in the argument.  The person that wakes up one day and suddenly and successfully changes decades old habits seems to be acting from more than just biological neural firings of the brain.  Harris tries to tackle that specific experience with describing how he decided one day to re-engage in extensive martial arts training after a 10 year break.  He claims that one day the desire just reappeared and he takes no credit for it, which is understandable and works in his hypothesis, but I wonder about the people who deal with a certain desire for years, and finally work their way into successful action.  Are not those people choosing this path more consciously and able to take credit?  Either way, understanding the change that occurred is the end-goal. 

You don't have to go far into neurology to find plenty of evidence that a child who was raised in a violent household has a completely different brain chemistry than a child raised in a loving and calm household - and the same goes for drug addicts.  Different brain chemistry means different impulse control, which means a new paradigm of understanding and treatment.    Why can't the same approach be taken for violent criminals?  Luckily for us scientists are much more willing to fly in the face of eons of assumption of human understanding.  For me, I just love explosive groundbreaking ideas.  It is the alpine-mountaineering of the mind.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

High Expectations are OK.

We all want to be effective.  A lot of our happiness comes from our ability to be effective in our daily lives both professionally and personally.   Someone who does not feel any control in any aspect of their lives will probably not rate their happiness level as very high.  So as we all look for ways to achieve our goals and have a positive effect on the people around us that we care about, we can find lessons in the oddest of places.

The great NPR show "This American Life" had a story about the University of Montevallo in Alabama that plays a game called "The last seat in the life raft." Different professors get up and make the case that if there were only one seat left in the life raft then they, along with their chosen academic field, should be allowed in.  For example, if you were trying to survive on an island would you rather have a chemist or communications major? The goal is a philosophical debate about what academic fields benefit our society the most.   It is a popular event at the school, but through the years it has turned into more of a silly spectacle, with professors riding a Harley into the gym, and others showing up in superhero costumes.

This is one of those stories that starts out lighthearted and silly, but then turns into something beautiful - and boy do I love those.  The last speaker of this event is always the "Devil's Advocate," who argues to not pick any of the academic choices.  This one particular year a non-tenured, young English professor, Jon Smith, was getting ready to give his prepared speech, and in one of those classic pivotal story points he just snaps from the side show carnival that the event has digressed into, and throws away his speech and spoke from the heart. 

He started by apologizing to his freshman classes that he required to come to this event in hopes they would be exposed to well-crafted intellectual arguments from distinguished senior faculty members, but instead had to sit through overly dramatic gimmicks and attempts at humor, much like an over-planned high-school pep rally.

Then, with the balls of a titanium baboon, he begins to chastise these senior faculty members in front of half the student body.  Jon Smith is very intelligent, well spoken, and deprecatingly funny, so he gets away with it.  But his message was clear, we...deserve...better...than...this!  And he was absolutely right--which also served his case--everyone in the gym deserved better.

One can easily take this lesson and inject it straight into the three-ring circus of current American politics, as even the most serious members get dragged down into the theater of the absurd; but there was more, something a little deeper.   In an interview for the NPR show, Smith said something that really caught my attention: "Simon Cowell has actually done wonders for teachers these days!"  I thought to myself, "Wait...what?"  Cowell--the guy that has cut open the pop music industry machine and displayed its guts on national TV as millions of us watch rather talented young dreamers get injected into the dog-eat-dog world of mechanical soulless hit-making machinery that somehow passes as art?  That guy has helped teachers?  How?

Jon Smith explained that Cowell actually helped us get out of the 80's and 90's idea that everyone gets a medal, and everyone is equal and to never criticize or judge.  Instead, it is not only okay, but even productive, to say, "That was not good enough," or "You can do better than that," or even, "You should find a different direction!"  I started thinking about that, and it reminded me of my dad telling me when I was younger, "Don't get on-stage and make people clap for you if you aren't any good."  That always stuck with me and it is probably one of the reasons I practiced so hard when I was younger.  It probably had more influence on me than being told, "You can do anything you want."

But keeping with the American Idol analogy, I started thinking about the positive that Jon Smith sees out of that show, and there is an interesting lesson buried in it.   If Paula says someone does well, it doesn't really matter that much, because she says that for everyone.  Randy is a solid musician, so his opinion carries a lot more weight,  but ultimately what is everyone looking for?  The one guy who has gotten famous for being overly critical, but more importantly, he is just plain honest.   If something isn't good enough, then you will know where you stand with him, and this honesty is very common in many successful people.  Steve Jobs was the same way, as he could be downright brutal, but the people that made it with him all say the same thing, "He got more out of us than we ever expected, and we wouldn't change it for the world."  

There is something to be said for having a touch of Simon Cowell's honesty and confidence in you.  There's also something to be said for being empathetic to people's feelings too.  But I think most of us could benefit in our daily lives by setting high expectations and giving honest feedback.   If you have lofty dreams, then you don't have much of any other choice in the matter.

Two of the best books I've ever read about this are on completely different ends of the empathy spectrum, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and Rick Pitino's book Success is a ChoiceAnyone who is trying to make something happen owes it to themselves to check these out.  It will fire you up and give you the confidence to expect the best out of everyone around you.   

Oh, and for the first time ever the students voted for "The Devil's Advocate," meaning nobody got on the life raft; and the following years the debate became much more serious and intellectually challenging.   You can listen to the full story here

The Life Raft Debate at the University of Montevallo.