Posts Tagged ‘free will’

A stroke of insight

February 25, 2017

It’s said that a key to happiness is gratitude for what you have. I am extremely grateful for my brain. Not that mine is so special; all human brains are. Jill Bolte Taylor’s 2008 book, My Stroke of Insight, is a good reminder of this.

Jill and her brain

Jill and her brain

Jill, 37, single, awoke one day with a bad pain in her head. She had trouble with normal morning routines. Something was very wrong. A congenital malformation of blood vessels in her brain had suddenly blown, flooding it with blood, which is toxic to neurons. In short, a stroke.

Jill was a neuroanatomist – a brain scientist. She, if anyone, was capable of understanding what was happening. And she knew well that with a stroke, time is of the essence; the faster treatment begins, the better the outcome. Yet her detailed chronicle of that morning is agonizing to read. It took her quite a long while to connect the dots and decide to get help, because the stroke was wreaking havoc with her mental functioning. And that worsened with every passing minute as the hemorrhaging continued.

Still, it seemed puzzling that she didn’t act right away, while she still had most of her wits. I was reminded of Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air. He was a neurosurgeon who got cancer; he too delayed getting help, rationalizing his severe symptoms as just due to the stresses of his intensive medical training. But he should have known better. When he finally got himself checked out, it was too late. He was 37 too, when he died.

imagesBy the time Jill at last grasped the situation, she was so incapacitated that taking action was becoming increasingly difficult. She sat immobilized in front of the phone. The part of her brain responsible for  numbers had been particularly hard hit. In intermittent moments of relative lucidity, she somehow managed to locate a card with her doctor’s number, and even to dial it. But then could not speak.

The doctor figured out who was calling. “Go to Mount Auburn Hospital,” she said. That was all. I was appalled. Jill couldn’t even talk.

Eventually, she also managed to dial her office. A colleague, alarmed, went to her apartment, and got her to a hospital, probably saving her life.

But here is a fascinating point. One reason for Jill’s delay is that she was loving what she was experiencing.

images-1Very generally, our two brain halves differ; the left is considered to be the rational side, housing our cognitive skills, while the right brain is the artistic, creative, intuitive side. Note that while normally, one cannot really separate the two, experiments cutting the connection between them (e.g., to control epilepsy) reveal that in some ways there really are two separate personalities inhabiting the one skull.

The stroke ravaged Jill’s left hemisphere – so, she says, it “no longer inhibited my right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquility of my right mind. Swathed in an enfolding sense of liberation and transformation, the essence of my consciousness shifted into a state that felt amazingly” like what Buddhists call nirvana. “I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.” (My emphasis)

unknown-2Buddhist meditation practice also aims for a kind of annihilation of the self, and this too Jill experienced. She even writes of losing proprioception – the brain’s monitoring of the body. The boundary between one’s body and what’s outside it is something second nature to us, but for Jill that melted away. She describes it as feeling fluid rather than solid (a feeling that didn’t go away for years). I was reminded of the Buddhist asking a hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything.”

Proprioception is only one element of our sense of self. How the self is created is something we don’t yet truly understand. (For an excellent discussion of that problem, click here.) But as a brain scientist, Jill sheds some light by describing how she lost her self. unknown-3She talks of the brain constantly engaged in reminding you who you are, what your life is about, how you fit into the world, etc. – an unremitting effort like that of a performer keeping a row of plates spinning atop sticks. Jill’s brain stopped doing it, and her very selfhood dissolved away.

She recovered, but it was a tough eight-year slog. Much of her mind had to be rebuilt, reprogrammed – she was like an infant needing to learn the most basic things about life and the world. The hardest, she says, was reading: “I had no recollection that reading was something I had ever done before, and I thought the concept was ridiculous. Reading was such an abstract idea that I couldn’t believe anyone had ever thought of it, much less put forth the effort to figure out how to do it.”

images-2Her mother moved in to help her. Another challenge was the total loss of her number sense. When her mother asked her, “What’s one plus one?” Jill pondered before responding: “What’s a one?”

Motivating herself was hard. Nirvana still beckoned. Jill had to constantly consciously decide to exit from the “enticing and wonderful” right hemisphere “la-la land” of “divine bliss,” and engage her recovering analytical left mind. And she says she wondered how much of her “newly found right hemisphere consciousness, set of values, and resultant personality” would have to be sacrificed in order to recover her left-brain skills. In fact, she now recognized aspects of her past personality – egotism, argumentativeness, meanness, and various hang-ups – that she’d rather leave behind.

images-3And the way she saw things now, those characteristics reflected her left brain having exercised dominance over the right brain; but that dominance was not beyond her control. She says her stroke revealed that it was actually up to her to decide the relationship between the two sides of her brain in shaping her personality. This may be easier said than done, but Jill seems to feel she has done it, and that it is possible for anyone to do it.

The key to such control, she says, is to recognize when she’s hooked into a negative thought loop. She lets it run for about 90 seconds, then consciously asks her brain to knock it off. This must be done with intensity, Jill says, and she tries to get her brain onto different, better thoughts. (I believe I myself do a lot of what Jill prescribes; but click here for a counter-story.)

All this is an ultimate argument for free will; and Jill does provide some powerful evidence for it.

I will end with this quote from the book: “our minds are highly sophisticated ‘seek and ye shall find’ instruments. unknown-4We are designed to focus in on whatever we are looking for. If I seek red in the world then I will find it everywhere. Perhaps just a little in the beginning, but the longer I stay focused on looking for red, then before you know it, I will see red everywhere.”

This is highly relevant to our political lives.

What is it Like to be a Bat? A Cat? Or Me?

December 15, 2013

imagesI’ve written before about the problem of the “self.” What is it like to be a bat? was the title of a famous article by philosopher Thomas Nagel. All sentient creatures experience life – that’s what sentient means – but how does that work? For a bat, it’s so different that we have a hard time imagining what it’s like, to the bat.

I have a better idea of what it’s like being a cat, having long lived with one; still, his interior life is very alien to my own. But never mind bats and cats. What is it like to be me?



This I ought to know. But David Hume said no amount of introspection enabled him to catch hold of his “self.” And I have repeated his experiment (continually) with the same result. The problem is using the self to seek the self. Like using a flashlight to find light. images-1Hard as I try to grasp the true essence of being me, it slithers away like jelly.

I’ve also written about free will. Sam Harris wrote a book against it – but was his writing it not an act of free will? There’s a big difference between activities like that and quotidian everyday life. My choreography of motions in showering is exceedingly complex. And of course I’m conscious during it. But that doesn’t seem required, the motions are on automatic pilot, while my mind can be elsewhere. Like on another Humean attempt to fathom my self while it’s doing the shower routine. (Yet my free will could have chosen not to shower.)

Experiments have shown that the brain forms an intention to act milliseconds before one is consciously aware of it. This has bugged me no end. I try to beat it. images-4When I’m ready to get out of bed, I’ll try to do it precisely when I consciously decide, not when some uncon-scious process pre-decides. And it’s impossible! No matter how much conscious concentration I muster, I can never feel I’ve trumped that interior system. I’ll lie there, knowing it’s lurking, waiting to spring its decision on me. If I say “Now!” and get up, what made it happen at that particular microsecond? Me, or it? Even if I decide I’ll get up on the count of three, and do it, didn’t the decision to count to three at that moment precede my conscious awareness? Sam Harris would say this proves there’s no free will. However, I could have chosen to stay in bed.

We know what pain and pleasure are. But the true nature of these “qualia” is similarly elusive. images-5What is it like to experience eating a cookie? Or having sex? It’s in the mind where the pleasure takes place. And we not only have experiences and thoughts, but thoughts about them, attending to them. So when I have sex, I try to make sure I experience the experiencing of it; to reify it by, at the same time, visualizing that I’m doing the things I’m doing. As though watching myself doing them, with another part of me, apart from the part doing them. So that it’s being experienced on more than one level.

However, as this suggests, there’s a recursiveness here, a loop that cannot be closed. Unknown-1The problem once more is Hume’s: the attempt to unify experience with the self that does the experiencing. And is that even enough? Don’t you need a further experiencer that experiences the experiencing? And so on endlessly? So on what level do I truly experience anything? That’s why I struggle with the Nagelian question of what it’s like to be me.

Cookies, and sex, produce complex sets of sensory inputs, and why do our brains do a pleasure response, whereas some other set of inputs produces a very different response? That might seem an easy question: evolution has programmed our brains to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli, as adaptations, for survivability, to make us seek or avoid those respective stimuli. Calories (and sex) were good for survival and reproduction; pain (from injury), bad. So could a brain be reprogrammed to change those pre-installed responses? Of course; we do it all the time. images-6Some people somehow even get reprogrammed to feel whipping as pleasurable.

What is it like to be such a person? Almost as mysterious to me as what it’s like to be a bat.

So I sit here trying to truly understand who wrote that last sentence, really. We could go on like this all day, as better minds than mine have done, with no better result (or hardly any better).

But at least I understand the problem. At least I think so. Whatever “think” means. And whoever “I” is.

Freedom and Free Will

October 28, 2012

I recently had an article in The Humanist magazine, entitled “Is Freedom a Mistaken Idea?” Click here to read the whole thing; below is a condensed version (but with jazzier illustrations):

Freedom means doing what you want. But is that really important? Or even meaningful?

Some might say that individuals doing what they want isn’t even good; that we exist chiefly as social creatures, and the group comes first. Such ideas characterize some Eastern cultures, notably Japan’s; in stronger form this is the essence of ideologies like fascism and communism, where individuals exist to serve the collective.

But we don’t really want a society like a beehive full of drones. Indeed, when individuals are motivated to advance their own proclivities, you actually get a society better for everyone in it. Further, it’s when we have a strong sense of ourselves as individuals, rather than as cogs in a societal machine, that we can truly respect the individual worth of others. While people do have naturally groupish and even hivelike instincts, they’re best served when free to choose for themselves how to express those instincts.

Yet a deeper question is whether we can truly be free, in any genuine sense. Arthur Schopenhauer said you can do what you want, but cannot will what you want. That is, you can fulfill desires and wishes, but can’t choose what desires and wishes to have.

This is the ancient problem of free will. A recent Humanist article suggests that punishing Anders Breivik for mass murder may be as immoral as his crimes themselves, because the shootings were caused by brain events over which “Breivik” had no control. I put “Breivik” in quotes because, on this analysis, the person virtually disappears. Does this make sense?

We start with the premise that everything has causes. If you choose chocolate over vanilla, that’s caused by a pattern of interactions among neurons in your brain—a product of your whole life history. Your choice is thus actually predetermined. Ponder this deeply enough, and the “you” that “chooses” does disappear, like a computer program that does what it does because it’s programmed to.

Moreover, science has shown (as discussed in books like Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational) that not only don’t we choose our wants and desires, but often we don’t even know what they are. We can misjudge what we think we want; and how fulfillment will actually affect us. (As George Bernard Shaw said, there are two big disappointments in life: not getting what you want, and getting it.) This leads some to consider the assumption of “rational choice,” supposedly underlying free market economics, a myth.

But let’s go back to the most fundamental question: What matters? Why does it matter? And to whom?

The only possible answer is sentient beings, capable of feeling. Without someone or something feeling, and being aware of it, nothing can be said to matter. Thus such feelings—principally, of course, human feelings—are themselves the only things that ultimately matter. And the only ultimate good versus bad is good versus bad feelings.

This idea is easily mocked. There is a suspicion that humans aren’t important or worthy, and fixating on our feelings is narcissistic and trivial. And you can loftily argue that something can be good or bad in some objective sense, irrespective of human feelings. But what is the point of considering something “good” if it doesn’t somehow contribute to sentient beings feeling good? Remove that from the picture, and what is there to care about?

I will not purport here to fully resolve the problem of free will. True enough, thinking and decision making are deterministically governed. However, what’s unique about humans is that we think about our thinking. This gives us an override capability—exerting what might legitimately be termed “will.” (Legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen has called this “free won’t.”) Sigmund Freud too, who considered us creatures of unconsciously rooted primal urges, nevertheless recognized in Civilization and Its Discontents that most of us suppress these impulses. And surely long-time smokers exhibit a particularly powerful form of determinism—physical addiction on top of the psychological and behavioral aspects—yet they can quit. Some functionality in the mind is making a choice that is real—and free—in every practical sense. Thus, people live their lives feeling they have that kind of free will, and behave accordingly.

So returning to Breivik, his brain did produce violent impulses he couldn’t control. But, as psychologist Thomas Szasz has argued, so do all our brains; yet to act upon those impulses crosses a behavioral line that almost everyone is able to control. Hence it’s not immoral to punish the behavior. It is no mere illusion to feel we have that kind of free will.

And again, the only thing that can ultimately matter is feeling. The fact remains that actual human beings experience actual feelings that are more positive the more they perceive themselves able to advance their desires. Further, notwithstanding all the ways in which we misjudge our desires and their likely results, surely there is a greater probability of being happy with outcomes produced by acting on your own desires than when what you get is merely random or chosen by others.

This is true even if those desires arise deterministically, and even if people pursue them with imperfect rationality. That’s still better than not choosing at all. In fact, despite all the imperfections, we nevertheless act, in our day-to-day continuous decision making, with a very high degree of rationality. The overwhelming majority of your choices are more or less reasonably calculated to enhance the quality of your life, in fact with long-range forethought to increase pleasure and avoid pain. And you are by no means clueless about what pleases or pains you. You know exactly how dark you like your toast. Thus the idea that “rational choice is a myth” is simply wrong.