Fear, Desire and Free Will

A talk delivered at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, May 20, 2012

The other day I was out for my morning walk in the woods near my home in Beacon. Forest bathing as the Japanese call it. I rather like that idea. The Japanese forest service came up with the concept in the early 80’s in response, I am assuming, to a national epidemic of tension. Short walks in the forest are, they said, relaxing. They also did research into the physiological effects of a walk in the woods and found that it stimulates the production of natural killer cells in the human immune system. Relaxing and immune system stimulating, what is not to like about that?

I almost always have my camera with me on these walks and lately I have begun to venture off the trail into the woods in pursuit of photographs. On this particular day I was making my way back to the trail from one of these side excursions when all of a sudden something caught my pants leg and the leaves directly in front of me exploded into motion. Well, let me tell you, the adrenaline pumped, my heart raced and in the blink of an eye I had jumped. When that blink was over my mind assessed what had happened. It turned out that I had caught a twig on my pants leg which had shoved the leaves in front of me and that there was no threat. Huge sigh of relief.

I am sure you have all had a similar experience. You are surprised by something, adrenaline flows, your heart pounds, you jump, and then you figure out there was nothing to worry about. I doubt that any of you remembers thinking to yourself, tug on the leg, explosion of leaves, I had better jump! I know I didn’t. Our conscious apprehension of events like this is after the fact. What actually happens is that within our brains, beneath our consciousness, a perception, action and reaction process kicks into motion and it leaves our conscious selves in the dust. This subliminal process is not just about avoiding danger; it is also about driving us towards things that are desirable, like food and sex. This has led neuroscientists to conclude that there really isn’t much that we do, if anything at all, that is not set into motion by this unperceivable process. Their conclusion seems to be that free will as we like to think of it probably does not exist.

I have been thinking about the concept of free will for as long as I have been giving talks and probably a lot longer than that. It has always seemed to me that for Ethical Humanism to be a workable approach to life guidance, there needed to be an individual ability to consciously and purposefully choose differently. Sometime last fall I ran across an article in the Economist about a man named Ernest Dichter who, way back in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, deployed Freudian psychology in advertising to sell products to the American public, which got me thinking more about this free will thing. Coincidentally Anne asked me to give a talk. So, here I am today telling you that though you think you consciously exercised your free will to come here today and hear this talk, you really didn’t. I do, however, appreciate that you think you had the choice and did in fact get here.

This talk is informed by the Economist  Article I just mentioned, entitled Retail therapy, How Ernest Dichter, an acolyte of Sigmund Freud, revolutionized marketing, and three books, Your Dog is Your Mirror, by Kevin Behan, Who’s In Charge, by Michael Gazzaniga, and The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker. It will proceed through the subject matter it addresses in that order. It will start with a review of what Ernest Dichter taught advertisers about selling us things, which will set the stage for my inquiry into free will and whether we have it. From there It will take a brief look at human and animal nature through the eyes of Kevin Behan, a well known dog training expert. Next It will delve into some relevant concepts regarding how nature has made our brains, which will lead us to conclude that, as far as free will is concerned, well, let’s just say it’s complicated. Finally, I will draw on Pinker’s book to make the case for why we can have faith that the human condition does and can continue to improve through conscious efforts that require reason and inquiry and how an Enlightenment Humanist view of the world has made all the difference.

So, lets begin with Ernest Dichter who, according to The Economist, was the man who taught Madison Avenue that fear and desire is the wellspring of all human consumption. Dichter was a Viennese born and trained psychologist who, according to the article, “spun” Sigmund Freud’s contention “that people are governed by irrational, unconscious urges,” into a million-dollar business. Dichter suggested in his book “The Strategy of Desire” that we “would be amazed to find how often we mislead ourselves, regardless of how smart we think we are, when we attempt to explain why we are behaving the way we do.” As paraphrased by the Economist, Dichter “held that market place decisions are driven by emotions and subconscious whims and fears, and often have little to do with the product itself.” Human motivation, as far as Dichter was concerned, was akin to an “iceberg,” in that the vast majority of its bulk is hidden from view. People, he believed, spend their money on “psychological differences [and] illusory brand images.”

Dichter’s marketing insights transformed the fortunes of consumer goods producers. He was apparently so successful with his “motivational research” that he was considered by some to be a threat to the national well-being. Dichter, on the other hand, felt that it was a matter of national security that Americans become ardent consumers. I am reminded of a certain president who told us that shopping was the best answer we could give to terrorism.

Here are some examples of how Dichter transformed the marketing of products, which I quote and/or paraphrase from the Economist article:

In the case of soap, he found that bathing was a ritual that afforded rare moments of personal indulgence, particularly before a romantic date (“You never, can tell,” explained one woman). He discerned an erotic element to bathing, observing that “one of the few occasions when the puritanical American [is] allowed to caress himself or herself [is] while applying soap.” As for why customers picked a particular brand, Dichter concluded that it wasn’t exactly the smell or price or look or feel of the soap, but all that and something else besides — that is, the gestalt or “personality” of the soap.

Dichter went so far as to claim that a product could have a soul.

Among the insights that made Dichter’s reputation was the realization that convertible cars, which represented only a small fraction of car sales, could be used as bait to lure men into the show room. Once hooked on the idea of buying a new car they would return with their wives and more often than not leave with a sensible sedan. Convertibles, it seemed, “symbolized youth, freedom and the secret wish for a mistress…”

To elevate typewriter sales, he suggested the machines be modeled on the female body…

A phallic shape to lipstick increased sales by the way it offered a subconscious invitation to fellatio (but one has to be careful not to go overboard and make the parallels too obvious,” Dichter cautioned).

“Prunes had an image problem as they were seen as a “symbol of old age”, like “dried-out spinsters”. As a result of Dichter’s suggestion, prune packaging sports images of fresh, supple plums to this day.

The fact that cake mixes require the addition of an egg, a symbol of fertility, is based on his idea that baking is a bit like giving birth and that women would not appreciate feeling too marginalized in the process.

The principle takeaway is that Dichter, and many others, believed that it’s not our so-called conscious mind that chooses what we will consume. We are driven instead by our subconscious fears and desires. Fears of not being seen as intelligent, attractive, potent or powerful, and desires which all seemed to be related to the goal of procreation.

Eventually, Dichter’s ideas fell out of favor as new statistical analysis methods for predicting consumer behavior came to the front. He spent his waning years living in Peekskill New York in relative anonymity. However, everything old is new again. Current science seems to agree with him, albeit with less outright focus on libido and more on the clinically objective and less titillating concept of the preservation of genes into future generations.

Before I get to the science though, lets have a look at animal nature through the eyes of Kevin Behan who wrote the book “Your Dog is Your Mirror”, in which he presents his ideas about dog and human behavior. Both dogs and humans are highly social creatures and though I am not sure all of Behan’s specific ideas about what makes a dog tic would survive scientific scrutiny, his underlying thinking about dog and human behavior is consistent with the science we will look at today.

My dog Camille

According to Kevin Behan, if you want to have a window into my soul, get to know my dog Camille. Behan believes that we are connected to dogs in a way that is unlike any other cross species connection that has ever been or is ever likely to be. Its not that other examples of cross species bonding don’t exist. Its that it has never happened on such a wide spread scale over such a long period of time.

Behan believes that the thousands of years of fine tuned togetherness that canines and people have enjoyed has given dogs the ability to access our deepest emotions and reflect back to us our fears and desires. To understand why a dog behaves the way it does, he contends, one needs to understand that dogs and their humans form a unified emotional unit, charged with energy flowing back and forth between them of which both dog and human are not consciously aware. As a result, the behavior that the dog projects out into the world becomes a reflection of the feelings of its human.

Behan recounts numerous examples. A dog with extreme aggression towards every dog it has ever met, except one, to which it completely submits, and which is owned by a human the dog’s human is intimidated by. Another dog that tenderly removes ornaments from the Christmas tree and gathers them up in a pile, like so many puppies, because he senses the emotional significance invested in them by his human. And from my own experience, a dog that tenderly licks the hand of a friend who has just broken up with her boyfriend, as if to say, there, there, it will be all right. Dogs, Behan tells us, feel the heart of us.

And it’s not just their humans that dogs can feel the heart of, it’s all humans. He recounts several instances in which dogs knew that their humans were associating with individuals with criminal intent. Not intent to do physical harm, but rather intent to swindle where the perpetrator plays the part of a best friend, reliable business partner or honest worker.

I believe that in many ways Kevin Behan is on the mark and that it reveals more clearly than we can see in human to human contexts, that animals and we have ways of relating that run beneath conscious awareness. Behan believes it is an emotional connection in the case of us and our dogs and describes it as an emotional radar. Interestingly, he evolves this into a discussion of the relationship between predators and their prey.

At one point, he describes a video of a wolf pack that has singled out and cornered their prey. The outcome is inevitable, but for a few moments the prey animal holds its ground and they don’t make a move. Its not until the prey “looses its nerve” and turns to run that the wolves finally bring it down. Behan views this whole scenario as one of fluid instinctual exchange from wolf to wolf and from wolf to prey, with each actor possessing the ability to seemingly telepathically absorb the fluid dynamics of the situation and the actors within it.

This story reminds me of a frightening experience I had a number of years ago in a housing project on the Lower East Side. We lived on 18th street near Stuyvesant town at the time and it was my habit to walk down 14th street and through a housing project to the park along the East River in the early morning. At one point there is a short cut through a street level opening under a building. I had taken this shortcut many times without incident. This one day, however, I was out later than usual and there was a group of teenage boys hanging out in the pass through. I saw them at the same moment they saw me. My instantaneous decision was to look straight ahead and keep moving. As I moved towards them they moved towards me such that I had to pass through the midst of them. A couple of them bumped me shoulder to shoulder, like sharks testing their prey before striking. I passed through without harm.

I will never know for sure exactly what could have happened had I behaved in a different way, but it was clearly a threatening situation handled in a particular way instinctively. How did we all come to the decisions to do the things that we did that day in that collection of moments? I don’t remember consciously thinking to myself that the best course of action was to walk through them staring straight ahead. I had no awareness of a leader of the pack issuing orders and coordinating movements. None of us had time to make a conscious plan. I don’t think it’s preposterous to suggest that we were all sensing each other’s “vibes” below any kind of conscious level and that somewhere deep within our lizard brains we were acting and reacting as eons of natural selection had programmed us to do.

Current science tells us that the human brain, like the animal brain, contains myriad pre-programmed sub-processing units honed over long evolutionary time, each with its specialty. For humans, these processing units function on a sub and pre-conscious level to evaluate and respond to unfolding situations. This processing happens far faster than conscious human thought can follow. If this were not the case, it is unlikely that you and I would be here today.

Michael S. Gazzaniga’s book, “Who’s in Charge”, gives a good explanation of this science. Gazzaniga’s work has involved him in research on individuals who’s left and right brain hemispheres have been separated to control seizures. This has provided him and other researchers with insight into how the brain perceives  and decides things and then explains those perceptions and decisions to itself.  The overarching gist of Gazzaniga’s book is that the vast majority of our perceiving, acting and reacting, is conducted by myriad specialized sub-processing modules in various combinations and of which we have little or no conscious awareness. These modules have been steadily honed over thousands of years to behave in ways that insure survival. What’s more, they hang on for thousands of years after the thing they were designed to cope with has left the environment.

As one proof of the point he offers this account of wallabies:

The last ninety-five hundred years have been Easy Street for the Tamar Wallabies that live on Kangaroo Island off the coast of Australia. They have lived there without a single predator to worry them all those years. They have never even seen one. So why then, when presented with stuffed models of predatory animals, such as a cat, fox, or the now-extinct animal that had been their historical predator, do they stop foraging and become vigilant, but they don’t when presented with a model of a non-predatory animal?

Experiments with squirrels that have never been exposed to snakes demonstrate the same thing according to Gazzaniga. When exposed to snakes for the first time squirrels will avoid them, but not other objects that are new to their experience. There is an “innate wariness” of snakes. Researchers have determined that it takes 10,000 years of snake free living for this wariness to disappear in a given population of animals.

We humans, by the way, have cottoned on to this innate awareness thing and we use it to chase away nuisance animals.

The fake coyote on the opposite side of the pond from the geese appeared last week in the park I walk through after my forest baths, along with a sign informing me that they were there to scare the geese away. Although this picture may seem to be proof to the contrary, it’s working as far as I have been able to tell, as there are no other geese around apart from this set and their goslings. My assumption is that the momma and poppa geese would like to leave the neighborhood but because their goslings can’t fly they are stuck. I have been speculating to myself about the trauma they are all experiencing by living so close to that which they fear the most.

Gazzaniga develops a strong case against free will in this book, maintaining that the basis of most of what we do is both pre-conscious and sub-conscious. And not only do we not have free will of the sort we like to think we do, but we are also largely incapable of explaining our actions accurately with the consciousness we do have.

When we set out to explain our actions, Gazzaniga writes, they are all post hoc explanations using post hoc observations with no access to non-conscious processing. Not only that, our left brain fudges things a bit to fit into a makes-sense story. It is only when the stories stray too far from the facts that the right brain pulls the reins in. These explanations are all based on what makes it into our consciousness, but the reality is the actions and the feelings happen before we are consciously aware of them — and most of them are the results of non-conscious processes, which will never make it into the explanations. The reality is, listening to peoples explanations of their actions is interesting –and in the case of politicians, entertaining—but often a waste of time.

According to Gazzaniga, neuroscientists generally believe that consciousness arises out of “a multitude of widely distributed specialized systems and disunited processes…” We have what he calls an “interpreter module” that integrates and makes sense of them. It seems to be a uniquely human module, located in the left hemisphere. It is the desire of this module to create an explanation of what happens that is the trigger for beliefs he tells us.

Our subjective awareness, he says, arises out of the dominant left hemisphere’s unrelenting quest to explain these bits and pieces that have popped into consciousness. Notice that popped is in the past tense. This is a post hoc rationalization process.

The interpreter, he continues in the next chapter, provides the storyline and narrative, and we all believe we are agents acting of our own free will, making important choices. The illusion is so powerful that there is no amount of analysis that will change our sensation that we are all acting willfully and with purpose. The simple truth is, that even the most strident determinists and fatalists at the personal psychological level do not actually believe they are pawns in the brain’s chess game.

At this point I have taken you about half way through Gazzaniga’s book. Although in subsequent chapters he attempts to bring us back from the edge of the precipice that he has pushed us up to, those attempts did not give me a whole lot of solace. He rightly points out, for instance, that this understanding of how our minds work calls into question the idea that people are responsible for their actions, a notion on which our justice system is based, not to mention essential aspects of our own Ethical Humanist beliefs.

He does, however, give us an inkling of the way forward when he tells us that personal responsibility may have no meaning in the context of an individual brain, that instead, it is dependent on the social group.

At this point I will leave Gazzaniga and turn to Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angel’s of Our Nature”, wherein I found solace, hope and yes, even salvation. Pinker opens with the following statement:

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not – violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

What, he goes on to ask a little later, could be more fundamental to our sense of meaning and purpose than a conception of whether the strivings of the human race over long stretches of time have left us better or worse off?

The conclusion he comes to is that there are basic human impulses, both violence inducing and violence restraining, that are, as Gazzaniga told us, deeply imbedded in the programming of our brain, and that they are there because they have helped our ancestors survive. Pinker identifies five “inner demons” that have been responsible for much of human violence over time:

  1. A tendency to attack to achieve gain or preempt a threat.
  2. The urge to acquire authority, prestige, glory and power.
  3. The desire for revenge.
  4. Sadistic tendencies.
  5. A predisposition to ideology, which Pinker defines as “a shared belief system, usually involving a vision of utopia, which justifies unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited good.

These, he says, play out in conjunction with what he calls our four “better angels”,which support our social nature.

  1. A capacity for Empathy.
  2. Self-Control, which restrains impulsive behaviour.
  3. A moral sense, “which sanctifies a set of norms and taboos that govern the interactions among people in a culture”, which can both inhibit and exacerbate violence.
  4. An ability to reason, which offers freedom from parochial points of view.

The history of the reduction of violence then, is a history of holding the violent impulses in check and mobilizing the social ones.

Pinker takes us on a long and often disturbing ride through the history of human violence. The statistics tell a convincing story. We have only to read accounts of how people were tortured and put to death in the Middle Ages and why, to appreciate how much things have changed.

What Pinker tells us, and I can’t overemphasize this, is that humanity has overcome its lizard brain, is overcoming its lizard brain and may well be able to continue to overcome its lizard brain.

But wait a minute, we have just finished reviewing science that tells us that the lizard brain is not only alive and well, but in control, and the evidence is pretty convincing, what are we to make of this? The key, I think, lives in the word humanity. Not single individuals, not small numbers of individuals, but lots of individuals together, and the more the better. Left to our own individual devices, our inner demons sooner or later rear their ugly heads, but together in large numbers and in stable societies, it is a different story.

So, how is it that we have been able to overcome the inner demons, or at least hold them in check? Pinker identifies six trends that have led us to this better place:

  1. The transition from hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies to agricultural societies with cities and governments, which began about 5,000 years ago.
  2. The development of centralized authority in large kingdoms, and eventually nation states, as opposed to feudal territories, along with the infrastructure of commerce from the late Middle Ages into the 20th century.
  3. The arrival of the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries along side ofthe first organized movements to abolish socially sanctioned forms of violence like despotism, slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment and cruelty to animals, together with the first stirrings of systematic pacifism.”
  4. Since the end of World War II the great powers have stopped waging war on one another.
  5. Since the end of the Cold War, organized conflicts of all kinds have declined throughout the world.
  6. Since the end of World War II revulsion against small scale aggression including violence against ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals, has been steadily increasing.

He also talks about five historical factors that have had a dampening influence on violence:

  1. The appearance of a “state and judiciary with a monopoly on the use of force, which serves to defuse the tension of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge and circumvent the self-serving biases that make all parties believe they are on the side of the angels.”

By the way, in the United States, Pinker points out, we never agreed to grant the state that monopoly. By enshrining the right to bear arms in our constitution, we have given the people the right to instruments of mayhem. Historically, this has not worked out well.

To continue:

  1. Commerce has made more people at greater distances “more valuable alive than dead”, which also makes it harder to demonize and dehumanize them.
  2. Feminization, or “the process in which cultures have increasingly respected the interests and values of women.”
  3. The increase of literacy, mobility and mass media have made us aware of the perspectives of others and helped create empathy for them.
  4. The “intensified application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs”, which “can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.”

Among this last set of factors we can detect that there are some that appear to be reliant on abilities that at least imply self determination, like “self control” and a capacity to “reason.” Isn’t that what could be considered free will? Not necessarily so. Self control is explainable as a subconscious module set to make calculations of future gain in relation to present satisfaction. Reason, on the other hand, struggles to have objective utility when it is located in the mind of one individual or the minds of a small group of individuals. Reasoning needs a broad social context, with a set of agreed upon rules and procedures for testing its objective utility.

If our first nature consists of the evolved motives that govern life in a state of nature, says Pinker, and our second nature consists of the ingrained habits of a civilized society, then our third nature consists of a conscious reflection on these habits, in which we evaluate which aspects of a culture’s norms are worth adhering to and which have outlived their usefulness.

It is then, within a collective context with long-term stability, that a more thoughtful and deliberate process can unfold. In this context, individual demons can be held in check, the public at large can be educated and collectively come to a place where they benefit from an objectively reasoned set of laws and codes of behavior with institutions to uphold and apply them. In this way, humanity’s lot steadily improves.

So, there is the solace and hope I promised, what about the salvation?

Pinker tells us that since the 17th and 18th centuries, enormous progress has been made. In particular, institutionalized violence within societies has been under steady attack with the result that all manner of institutional violence is rapidly being expunged. Despotism, slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment and cruelty to animals are all on the decline, as are wars between the great powers and civil and genocidal wars. And to what does Pinker attribute this relatively recent progress?

The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time, Pinker tells us, was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a world view that we can call Enlightenment humanism.

Here is Pinker’ condensed rendering of this world view:

…It begins with skepticism. The history of human folly, and our own susceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that men and women are fallible. One therefore ought to seek good reasons for believing something. Faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty – all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.

Is there anything we can be certain of? Descartes gave as good an answer as any: our own consciousness. I know that I am conscious, by the very fact of wondering what I can know, and I can also know that my consciousness comprises several kinds of experience. These include perception of an external world and of other people, and various pleasures and pains, both sensual (such as food, comfort, and sex) and spiritual (such as love, knowledge, and an appreciation of beauty).

We are also committed to reason. If we are asking a question, evaluating possible answers, and trying to persuade others of the value of those answers, then we are reasoning, and therefore have tacitly signed on to the validity of reason. We are also committed to whatever conclusions follow from the careful application of reason, such as the theorems of mathematics and logic.

Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it. The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science. The progress of science, with its dazzling success at explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge – not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.

The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality…mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests…morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides of positive-sum games…this line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied.

Thank you Steven Pinker!


Sex and Advertising: Retail therapy. How Ernest Dichter, an acolyte of Sigmund Freud, revolutionized marketing. – Economist Magazine

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, Michael S. Gazzaniga

Your Dog is Your Mirror: The Emotional Capacity of Our Dogs and Ourselves, Kevin Behan

Additional Reading

Blink, Malcom Gladwell