No Reason, No Cry: Determinism May Be Good For Your Health

TreesandBuildingPeople who insist that there is no such thing as free will often make an important gaff, as they dismiss – often trenchantly – the opinion of people who insist there must be something like free will. This gaff points to an important – and often overlooked – implication of the fact that we likely don’t have free will.

Here is a convenient example of the gaff:

“Given the dubious claim that rejecting free will damages society, and the undoubted benefits to our judicial system of embracing determinism, I’m still baffled by why compatibilists continue to argue that we NEED [sic] some notion of free will. […] Science tells us that our behavior is not under our conscious control ….”

Do you see it?

If there is no such thing as free will, there really is no reason to be baffled by the fact that compatibilists continue to hold their position and argue for it. It’s not like the compatibilists can freely and consciously choose to believe other than they believe, or argue other than they argue. They aren’t deciding to hold on to their view in the face of evidence to the contrary. No, they persist in their compatibilist belief and argue for it because of a complex, probably unknowable, and wholly determined process. Yes, their beliefs may change, but it won’t happen because they freely and consciously will that change. It will only happen if the necessary pieces in the deterministic puzzle fall into place. Otherwise, they will continue to be compatibilists and argue for the compatibilist position for as long as whatever wholly determined process makes it so.

And these observations, I think, point to a very important implication of the non-existence of free will that seems to be often overlooked. If there is no free will, there really is no such thing as “rationality,” “choice,” or “decision,” as we have typically understood them in modern times, because typically they are thought to involve an ability to freely choose between the true and the false, the right and the wrong, the this or the that. But, of course, if there is no such thing as free will, that can’t be correct. Instead, it must be the case that people reason, choose, and/or decide because of a wholly determined process – in all likelihood, the interactions of our brains and genes with the environment. To put it bluntly, without free will, we must discard any notion of human reason, which presumes we can freely will our way in and out of beliefs or anything else about which we might reason.   

Admittedly, for many people, that will be a difficult pill to swallow. Reason (or, if you prefer, rationality), like the enduring love of the one true God, is often thought to be the defining feature of our species. It is the secular magic wand that is often used to draw a line between us and the brutes. Without a totally free, capital-R reason, we humans don’t look very special when we compare ourselves to all the other wholly determined objects banging around the universe. For some, the prospect of having no special place in the universe might be as frightening as realizing that there is no God to answer our prayers.

To further complicate matters, on first impression, it will be very easy to think there are profound and scary consequences to this realization that human reason does not exist. While it is certainly true that we will need to rethink some of our theories about human behaviour, in practice, it won’t make a lot of difference in most people’s lives. Why? Because if it true that there are no such things as free will and human reason, it has always been true. Our description of an underlying process can change, but it doesn’t necessarily change the underlying process. To be sure, some people can be expected to act differently once the neurons in their brain realign to reflect the probably new belief that free will and reason don’t really exist, but how they respond to these changes is anyone’s guess. There is certainly no grounds to assume they will act any differently.

At the level of systematic inquiry, the biggest challenge – and opportunity – will be in the realm of moral and political theory, where it is very often assumed we humans are capable of the very kind of reasoning that is impossible in a universe of deterministic laws. As a result, I’m inclined to think many conceptions of morality and politics will need to be discarded or dramatically rethought. On the plus side, we will, I think, be able to look at old phenomenon from a fresh perspective. For example, the fact that voters often vote against their interests only seems perplexing when we think they can freely choose between the relevant candidates or policies. Instead, the fact that voters often vote against their own interests makes much more sense when we accept that those votes are determined by factors beyond the control of any one voter.

Strictly speaking, what I am proposing is not terribly radical, even if my characterization may be unsettling to some. For example, behavioural economists, primarily as a result of important and influential work in psychology, have already accepted the notion that we humans don’t reason anything like economists once thought we did. They are now adjusting their theories and research methods accordingly. Furthermore, it can be claimed, I think, that economists have always implicitly assumed that people don’t really reason freely because one of their fundamental claims has always been that the vortex of the market somehow magically makes all people freely choose to act in entirely predictable ways – which hardly seems free at all. Economists were, for a long time, perplexed by the fact that actual humans rarely act in accord with the predictions of their theories. Now, because of the historical evolution of the discipline, behavioural economists tend to talk as if we humans are poor at reasoning. However, it must be the case that we don’t reason at all, if by “reason” we mean anything that involves the exercise of one’s free will.

“If what you are saying is true,” the unsympathetic reader might ask, “why do you even bother sharing your ideas?” The answer, of course, is simple. I am one instance of a species that has reproduced successfully because a critical mass of us have always done something pretty much like what I am doing now – sharing ideas that cause people to take on those ideas as their own. Moreover, the part of me that thinks it is freely choosing to think and write in the way that I do can also point to research that suggests that mere exposure to an idea can cause people to judge it to be true, whether they realize it or not. So, if you’ve come this far, you’re already more susceptible to believing the claim that there is no such thing as free will and, for the part of me that thinks it is in control, that is as good a reason as any to share an idea. 

I also happen to think the idea that there is no such thing as a free will can lead to positive and practical outcomes in one’s life. In my own case, as my neurons have rewired themselves in whatever way is required for my conscious mind to take seriously the notion we don’t have a free will, I’ve discovered I am much less likely to get frustrated and angry with myself and others. From this new perspective, for example, people who disagree with me aren’t willfully ignoring the facts or failing to reason properly, they are simply following a wholly determined path over which they and I have no control. On the other hand, if I am the one who is wrong and not aware of it, there’s not a whole lot I can do about it, other than put myself into situations and environments that might stimulate correct belief and then wait for the cognitive miracle to come. Similarly, along those lines, if I make mistakes in my day-to-day life or fail to live up to some personal ideal, I am also much less likely to get angry with myself. Instead of punishing myself for a failure of will, I focus instead on the mental gymnastics that will keeping me moving towards my goal or ideal, which – not surprisingly – is exactly what the best teachers do.

Coming full circle, the main claim I’m advancing is, I think, straightforward. If you accept the view that there is no free will, expressing bafflement, frustration or even anger about other people’s unwillingness to share your view on free will (or any view, really) doesn’t make much sense. Admittedly, even if you agree with me, accepting and acting on my observation is not likely to be automatic. It will take time for your neurons to rewire themselves in whatever way will produce in you a new habit or behaviour. Of course, there is also a good chance that you disagree with me (and, I’d enjoy hearing why in the comments section below), but, please remember, whether or not we agree — or come to agree — is ultimately beyond our control.




Know When to Cut and Run: Five Permanent Obstacles to Your Happiness

The Happiness Hypothesis You’re a highly adaptable and resilient little creature. It’s one of the main reasons we humans have managed to spread so far and wide on our pale blue dot of a planet.

Nevertheless, there are some nasty experiences to which you will never become accustomed. They’re permanent obstacles to your happiness, so long as they’re a part of your life.

The good news: although you won’t ever become so accustomed to these negative experiences that you will eliminate their negative effects, they aren’t like gravity. You have some control over them. If you don’t, that might be a good sign that a major change in your life is needed.

  1. Noise: You will never get used to it, especially if it’s unpredictable. Noise — you should know, if you didn’t — is often used as a form of torture. You shouldn’t be surprised, then, to learn that it interferes with your ability to concentrate and increases your stress.
  2. Commuting: You may love to drive and the open road, but don’t don’t kid yourself, you have not, will not, and won’t ever grow accustomed to the daily grind of heavy traffic. So long as you commute through traffic, you can expect to have much higher levels of stress hormones.
  3. Insufficient autonomy: People in nursing homes are happier, more active, more alert, and live longer, if they are allowed to water the plants and pick the movies they watch. Think about that the next time you find yourself in a situation where you have little control over your actions or your environment. Expect to have a lower sense of engagement, less energy and less happiness.
  4. Shame: Whatever its source, shame is double ungood for you. Take whatever reasonable steps are necessary to remove it from your life. In the meantime, here is an exercise that might be of some help to you.
  5. Interpersonal Conflict: Not only is interpersonal conflict damaging when you experience it directly, it’s also bad for you when you think about it — and who doesn’t do that! Some conflict is necessary, it can even be healthy, but ongoing and irresolvable conflict will only do you harm.

In thinking about these obstacles to happiness, it strikes me that “insufficient autonomy” may be the most important factor. With a sufficient level of autonomy, you should always be able to avoid or reduce noise, commuting, shame, and interpersonal conflict. The only exception to this rule I can think of are those circumstances when a person has been so ground down by his or her environment that s/he is unable to recognize the autonomy s/he actually has.

One last wake-up call for those of you who choose to endure the daily grind of a commute for a bigger house. Yes, a big house will give you some short-term pleasure, but it’s exactly the kind of material perk to which we humans eventually become accustomed. Whatever pleasure you may derive initially from your larger house, it will be fleeting. That commute, however, it will grind away at you and your happiness for as long as you make it.

I learned about these five obstacles to happiness in the highly readable and very enjoyable book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Written by Jonathan Haidt, it’s an expert blend of old-school philosophy and 21st century psychology and neuroscience. Haidt’s conclusion is not earth-shattering, but the journey he takes to get you there is well worth the trip. Highly recommended.

If you want to talk through and explore some of the ideas in this excellent book, I can help.