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 the blueprint for a nervous system that is so complex that Consciousness — a new phenomenon that does not exist in the concrete world —  emerges from it. Even the neuron, as remarkable and complex a structure as it is, does not possess consciousness. Consciousness, including self-consciousness, emerges from a whole person composed of many neurons and sense organs, but it does not exist within any of that individual's physical or biological constituents.

Awareness, abstraction, appraisal, and other subjective phenomena are new properties that do not exist in the absence of consciousness. These powers, if used effectively, enable smart folks like us to exercise an intentional influence over the course of events. Needless to say, these same powers make possible the antithesis of will: self-sabotage.

Some suffering is unavoidable. Self-sabotage refers to the avoidable suffering you cause yourself. You can dramatically enhance the quality of your life (and probably the lives of those around you) by learning how to work with your subjective experience so you react to the things that happen in ways that promote, rather than sabotage, your interests.

Self-sabotage is rarely intentional; we are fallible creatures and mistakes happen. However, if there is a recurring pattern to your misfortunes, you may be able to use your gift of rational processing to become aware of the cause-and-effect principles that give rise to your particular self-sabotaging patterns.

Someone who knew you well could probably describe the predictable sequence of events that elicit your counter-productive reactions. This perspective of the dispassionate observer 's provides one source of data about how you react to the things that happen. You can use this kind of information to develop an understanding of the self: useful knowledge, but not sufficient to exercise your will. To have an intentional influence on your reactions to the things that happen — and hence on the course of events — you must be able to work with experiential phenomena directly [from the first-person, phenomenological, perspective].

It Looks Different than it Feels

The performer's experience is different than the observer's; the actor's experience is different than the critic's. As a psychologist, I know a lot about my clients and what causes them to think and behave as they do. But as well as I might know you, my understanding of your subjective experience is incomplete. You, and only you, have direct access to your experience. As a psychologist I only have access to what I can see and measure. \

Psychology is the study of experiential phenomena such as motivation, emotion, judgment, etc. from the observer's perspective; phenomenology is the study of the same phenomena from the first-person perspective.

As you come to Know Yourself from both perspectives, you will become progressively more capable of exercising an intentional influence over your subjective experience and thereby develop the power of your will to act in accord with your interests and principles.

The Power of a Will

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. Appreciating the determinants of your reactions from both the psychological and phenomenological perspectives enables you to follow the most advantageous course available to you rather than drift in the direction of least resistance. Exercising your will means that it is your will and not the laws of cause-and-effect that 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 they achieve their goal.  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.

The paradox of volition

The paradox of volition: If my reactions are the necessary consequences of antecedent causes then I have no choice in how I respond, which seems to make free will incompatible with determinism. Paradoxically, it is the very understanding of how my reactions are caused by biological, psychological, and social determinants that enables me to willfully work with these principles to influence how I react to the things that happen.

The two-mind model is a metaphor to help make sense of the puzzle of will. This model posits 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 its intended outcomes.

My Abstract Processing System considers the likely outcomes of choosing different courses of action and naturally selects the most advantageous path. The difficulty is that this processing system is only available when there is surplus cognitive resources available. Most of the time all my cognitive resources are fully deployed to cope with what is going on around me, so the Experiential Processing System (who is bound to follow the path of least resistance) is in the driver's seat. My personal challenge is to get the myopic entity to do the right thing despite encounters with stressors and temptations that would motivate me to defect.

Ahead of you is a passage that no one can take for you nor spare you. This course will help you understand the recursive relationship between external events and internal states, and will give you opportunities to practice working directly with subjective phenomena so that you develop your ability to respond mindfully to the things that happen. Its objective is to enhance the power of your will so that you are increasingly able to follow your path of greatest advantage rather than yield in the direction of least resistance.

As you navigate your way through this course, you will be exploring some ancient and modern approaches to working with subjective experience. This course is different than any you have ever taken, because you will not only research the subject matter from observer's perspective, but from the first-person perspective as well. A range of invitations to direct experience will give you the opportunity to "try on" different perspectives and ways of thinking. You will also be invited to work with experiential phenomena directly and apply some ancient and modern methods of influencing your subjective experience.

Developing the ability to exercise your will during the critical moments of crisis requires the investment of effort and attention. Understand this: during high-risk situations your best cognitive resources will not be available. 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 performance. So 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 know yourself. 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 in accord with your interests rather than counter to them and begin to reap the great benefits that come to those who stop self-sabotaging.

People who suffer from depression, anxiety, addictive disorders, and other forms of self-sabotage tend to seek relief in all the wrong places. They are often told that they have a disease over which they are powerless and must turn responsibility over to an external source of control [for example: medication, treatment provider, cults and support groups]. For those who have the cognitive resources, the best, and only permanent solution to self-sabotage, is to understand the principles that cause you to react to the things that happen as you do, and develop the practical skills to work with these principles to follow a more advantageous course.



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