Determinism and Free Will

The human nervous system has become so complex, that it is able to affect its own states, making it functionally independent of its genetic blueprint, and of the objective environment. A person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening "outside" just by changing the contents of consciousness.

 — Cskiszentmihalyi

We are born with a blueprint for a nervous system that is so complex that from it emerges a new phenomenon: Consciousness. Even the neuron, as remarkable and complex a structure as it is, does not possess consciousness. Awareness, including self-awareness, emerges from a creature composed of many neurons and sense organs. But consciousness does not exist within any of its component parts.

Rational processing, a property of consciousness, grants you the ability to understand some of the important cause-and-effect principles that determine the emotional reactions of creatures such as yourself. By accessing this faculty, you can learn to influence your emotional reactions so that you become progressively more capable of acting in accord with your interests and principles.

Volition is the faculty that separates humans from more primitive creatures. The actions of animals and young children are determined by complex cause-and-effect principles in the same way that the simpler principles of hydrodynamics determine the course of flowing water. But you, unlike running water, possess the mental faculties that enable you to understand cause-and-effect, and to use that knowledge to influence outcomes.

Exercising your will means that your will, not the laws of cause-and-effect, determine how you respond to the things that happen.

Consider the turkey; it doesn’t have free will yet it provides excellent care for its young. A turkey spends much time warming and cleaning her young, but this complex behavior is triggered by one thing—the “cheep cheep” sound of her chicks. If the chick makes that sound, the mother will care for it; otherwise she will ignore it. In a research project, a polecat, the turkey’s natural enemy, was stuffed with a tape recording of the “cheep cheep” sound. When the stuffed pole cat was pulled by a string to approach the turkey she attacked it viciously, but when the taped sound was turned on, the turkey not only did not attack it, but gathered it under her to comfort it. When the sound was turned off, she again attacked it.

Unlike turkeys, whose behavior is determined by specific aspects of their immediate environment, some humans are able to set long-range goals, develop plans, and make adjustments to their plan until their goal is achieved.  They appear to have an intentional influence over the course of their life. Advocates of free will argue that something new emerged with human cognition — the ability to think abstractly and use rational problem-solving faculties to achieve intended outcomes — which enables us, unlike turkeys, to exercise will. Alternatively, determinists argue that it may just seem that way because we are so much more complex than turkeys.

We cannot resolve the free will debate by simply asking people whether they intended to do something or not, because we cannot be sure whether the intention led to the behavior or the behavior led to the experience of intention. The subjective experience of free will is not evidence for its existence. While it seems that our intentions cause our actions, there may be causes of which we are unaware that produce both of them. In fact, there is evidence that even before we are aware of the intention to perform an action, the neural precursors of the action have already occurred.

The paradox of volition

Even though we cannot identify the mother of intention, the exercise of will involves purposely responding in ways that promote the outcomes I intend. The paradox of volition is: If my responses are the necessary consequences of antecedents then I have no choice in how I respond, which seems to make free will incompatible with determinism.

The resolution of this paradox is to posit two entities: an Experiential Processing System whose reactions are completely determined by antecedent causes, and a Abstract Processing System that can appreciate the pertinent cause-and-effect principles and use these understandings to arrange things in ways that promote intended outcomes.

In other words: our reactions are completely determined by biological, psychological, and social causes, but this very causality provides us the opportunity to apply these principles to influence how we react to the things that happen.

Exercising will involves responding non-automatically — that is, over-riding the automatic reactions that tend to produce bad outcomes and instead respond in ways that promote your interests and principles. As you persevere along your path of greatest advantage, you will be exercising adaptive ways of reacting to emotionally provocative situations while the self-sabotaging habitual ways of responding weaken through disuse.

Exercising will is costly — requiring effort and attention. Responding effectively during emotionally provocative moments requires some preparation, because your best cognitive resources will not be available to you at these critical moments. Professional athletes and performers are in a similar predicament. They must perform nearly perfectly during the critical moments when there is a lot riding on excellent or heroic performance. To achieve the capability of performing well when doing so is difficult, they rehearse and practice the intended response sequences until they can perform them automatically.

Phenomenological Traps

There are payoffs for investing the time and effort to develop the power of your will. Familiarity with the cause-and-effect principles that determine the phenomena you experience and the practical skills to intentionally influence these phenomena enable you to act according to your interests rather than counter to them. The low hanging fruit are the great benefits reaped when you stop self-sabotaging.

Pathology may be defined as continuing to react to the things that happen in ways that are counter to your interests. Addictive and emotional disorders refer to conditions in which one's reactions to the things that happen is the immediate cause of the pathology. The permanent solution to self-sabotage is to understand the cause-and-effect principles that pertain to the phenomena that you experience, so that you can exercise an intentional influence on how you react to the things that happen. If the beneficial change results from developing the ability to work with, these principles [rather than as a result of depending upon an external source of control such as medication], the change can be irreversible.

The first step in developing the skills and faculties to escape phenomenological traps is to understand the challenge. While there are many different kinds of phenomenological traps, they all obey the laws of cause-and-effect. The important mechanisms of these traps are describe in the next section.


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