Fear, Desire, and Free Will

by mkriegh

I have been asked to give a talk at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in May. NYSEC is a humanist religious organization of which I have been a member for many years. Our equivalent of a religious service is to gather on Sunday and hear a talk that is in some way related to our human experience and through which we can understand how to better engage the world for our own and others success.

For a long time I have thought that I should explore the concept of free will because it appeared to me that if there is no free will, as some argue, humanism falls to pieces as an approach to human betterment. I should also add that the concept of a civil society achieved through democratic institutions founders as well without some concept of rational choice. In short, my belief is that we need some capacity to choose differently to realize our potential as moral actors.

Still, these waters appear very murky to me. Research has been done that suggests the choices we make are made at a level that is not conscious, and that to whatever extent we have a rational explanation for these choices, it is an explanation after the fact. Nor is this a new concept. According to an article in The Economist magazine, a Freudian trained psychologist, Ernest Dichter, arrived in the United States in 1938 and subsequently made millions teaching Madison Avenue how to sell to the hidden subconscious desires of the public. He believed that…

…most people have no idea why they buy things. They might answer questions in an effort to be helpful (particularly in the early 20th century, when consumers were chuffed to be asked to share their thoughts). But these were attempts to make sense of decisions retrospectively.

I suspect we have all caught ourselves looking for ways to rationalize what we somehow know we want to do but about which we have some instinctual understanding that it might not be a good thing to do.

I am in the beginning stages of research for my talk but already I have come across a couple of books that have bearing on the subject. The first is Your Dog is Your Mirror, written by Kevin Behan, which explores at length the emotional capacity of humans and dogs. Mr. Behan comes at this from life long experience of training dogs and their owners. His conviction is that emotion is the essence of the connection of dogs to humans, dogs to dogs, and humans to humans. Emotion, he believes is the basis of our ability to empathize as well. It is also, he claims, the vehicle whereby energy is turned into information, that is, how intelligence is manifested. Among his central points is the idea that social animals are connected at an emotional level into a kind of group being, and that each animal has a role to play in that group being. This is most striking when he discusses the relationship between prey and predator, which is clearly not limited to an interspecies relationship, but also exists within the context of a species. We can see this very clearly when we consider our experience of human agression. According to Behan, we have varying degrees of “prey-fulness,” which shift us on the scale of predatory and prey-ful behavior according to the individual actors present.

The second book I am reading is Steven Pinker‘s The Better Angels of Ourselves. I have only just begun this book but already I have been treated to a crash course in the history of human cruelty and violence and the opening arguments for the case that we are getting progressively less violent and more able to get along together. Although it is hard to believe this in light of all the strife, human atrocity and conflict we are treated to in our news, it appears to be statistically true when you look at the trends of humans killing humans. Even with the two major world wars of the last century, the rate of humans killing humans was down over preceding centuries.

Of critical importance to the case Pinker is making is the arrival of our ability to empathize, which Pinker suggests is a relatively recent development brought on by a number of civilizing factors, perhaps one of the most important of which was the invention of the printing press. He argues that the widespread dissemination of the written word accompanied our increasing awareness that torture is cruel. It was, he claimed, the ability of enlightenment thinkers to argue broadly through books that certain common human practices, which are horrific by our present standards but which were widely viewed as good entertainment at the time, were unacceptable. As importantly, he argues, fiction that related stories from a first person perspective over time developed the capacity of the general public to project themselves into the minds of other human beings, that is, empathize.

For the next couple of months I will be using my blog to explore ideas for my talk. My working premise is that choice does exist, but it exists in a social context. That is, the rational discourse that leads to consciously choosing something better over something worse does not reside within the individual so much as it resides within the group being. Individuals are driven by fear and desire and their decisions emerge from these emotions. It is only within the context of social relationship that reaches beyond kin, clan and immediate community, that a rational process that can be thought of as free will takes hold. By talking and arguing with one another in a superstition free environment we create the space to be moral actors. I welcome your thoughts, opinions and arguments to the contrary about what I am thinking.