Posts Tagged ‘angels’

SERMON: “Free Will and the Modern Mind” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

The not-so-reverend bob.

A recent article in The Humanist magazine about mass murderer Anders Breivik, uses his “case” to ponder the implications that our expanding knowledge of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are going to have on our ideas of how much free will (and independent) thought we really have.  This turns out to be not simply a question for individuals who commit horrendous acts, but for you and me, every day.

(To sum up the article, we may well have to reconsider our desire for the “punitive” aspects of our system of justice, and learn to content ourselves with isolating dangerous individuals from the general population).

To my mind there is always a whiff of determinism in these discussions.  For one, I am reminded of an apparent and recurring pattern of the overly-broad application of the newest scientific ideas to complex social issues.  (In this case the notion that any one of us brought up as Breivik was — with the same DNA — would have actually had the capacity to make a different choice than he did when he launched his killing spree).

The part of this idea that I personally find a bit chafing is how much it reminds me of a very human propensity to ascribe our bad choices to forces greater than ourselves.  In this case it becomes a sort of a cognitive Calvinism, where DNA (read: “nature”) and experience (read: “nurture”) stand in for God or the Devil.  Knowing the way we humans think, it is good to be wary of such ideas.  But having marked out that particular ditch to not “drive into”, we must next mark out the other:  we clearly are not as independent as we think we are, or — more precisely — not independent in quite the way that we think we are.

(This is ground that Malcolm Gladwell covers well in “Blink” — reviewed this blog — where he describes the way our conscious brain seems to dance to the tune of a deeper level of instinctual thinking).

What we are really facing here is not a confirmation (or repudiation) on any of the traditional ideas about our individual independence of thought and “free will”, but rather a challenge to see them in a more nuanced way.  The thing we will have to carefully consider, then, is the way in which we think about these questions.  And this is going to be tricky.

Common traps await us.  One is to think of us a automatons, dancing to our DNA.  Another is that we are merely reactive pawns of whoever knows how to manipulate our ancient Ice Age brains with appeals to tribalism, fear, or, well, it’s all pretty much fear and tribalism.

As individuals dealing with the idea of some sort of natural determinism, we can also end up back in the old game of trying to fool God (or fate, or DNA) by changing our mind at the last minute.  But then, some wag will always say that “God knew you were going to change your mind”.  So we can’t really outsmart our fate.  But is it really fate?

This is where we have to think differently about these sorts of things.  Why?  Because things are turning out to be different than we thought they were.  And because our reality is more complex and nuanced than we thought, we actually have to develop new ways of thinking about it that allow for more nuance and complexity.

This is why old-time religion breaks down before such a challenge.  It was built for a world full of angels, demons, temptations, sinful natures and redeeming sacrifices.  (But perhaps more importantly, a world where every individual was also somehow completely responsible for what were seen as their individual “moral” choices).  But that was a world that was imagined to exist under a sort of glass sphere that contained the entire universe in a very small space just above our heads.  These people did not know that brain disorders were caused by genetic copying errors, or that people could be killed by microscopic bacteria (or driven mad by a brain virus).  It all seemed like a mysterious existential crap shoot to them, and so they struggled to find a pattern — any pattern — to it all.  But even the best pattern-makers had to recognize that the race was not always to the swift or the battle to the strong (the “righteous person” could also suffer calamity).  And so we have constantly struggled with this idea a “good god” who could “allow” evil the world.

This is a question that vexes many.  And I don’t mean that lightly.  It is the rock that every believer in a deity has to find a way over or around, because it can never be moved.

Now I’m all for letting go of the idea of god and moving on, for the simple reason that traditional religious concepts are only going to hinder us from getting to a new (and more correct) understanding of these questions of morality, choice and consequence.

I think, in the end, that what we are going to find is that each of us begins with a certain potential for intelligence, talent, emotional capacity and ethical behavior which is going to be impossible to completely quantify.  The question of “nature” versus “nurture” will be continuously refined and perhaps become genuinely useful as a concept.  As the article in The Humanist pointed out, we may need to reconsider the punitive and rehabilitatory aspects of our judicial system, and face the fact that there are a certain number of socio- and psychopaths that will always have to be removed from the general population (but who we will not be able to punish or “fix” to our ultimate satisfaction).

In short,  I think we’re going to have to accept a new idea of ourselves as the captains of our own cognitive ships.  Already we understand that the conscious brain, long held to be the pinnacle of our consciousness (and the thing that sets us apart from the beasts) in many cases dances to the tune of the mid-brain’s impulses.  In some ways, it then seems, we come up with stories after-the-fact to explain our instinctual behavior.  So, maybe we’ll have to give a little less credence to these stories we tell about ourselves, and come up with some new ones as we begin to recognize the true limits and potentials of the organ that is the human brain.

t.n.s.r. bob