I’ve been reading “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. The book is an exploration of the basis of human morality and how that affects our politics. In it Haidt stresses the aspects of human nature which are deeply social, and which are all too often overlooked. I find the main thrust of the book very compelling and the ideas provide good explanation for a lot of human behavior which can otherwise be somewhat mystifying. Haidt has a strong desire to ground his ideas in human evolution, so he spends a fair portion of the book talking about the concept of Group Selection, which Haidt sees as an essential component in explaining the social nature of humans. His discussion of group selection brought up a lot of thoughts for me and I am using this as a place to gather them. I’ll gloss through some background on evolutionary theory in order to define some terms so that my discussion of Group Selection will make sense. (Anyone with a firm grasp on the details of evolutionary theory and is familiar with the distinction between individual selection and group selection can skip to Part II.)
Charles Darwin put forward the idea of evolution by natural selection in the nineteenth century. Darwin was an excellent observer of the natural world and his theory was very well reasoned, but there were weaknesses in the theory because he lacked evidence of the mechanism by which natural selection works. It was up to later scientists to connect the field of genetics with evolutionary theory, and after the mid-twentieth century discovery of DNA, the lower level mechanisms of evolution were well understood and Darwin’s theory stronger than ever. The modern synthesis of evolutionary biology which arose has held a firm grasp on biology ever since. In its simplest form one can describe natural selection as an interaction between three essential components, a unit of inheritance, a unit of selection, and an environment.
In the standard late 20th century view, the unit of inheritance is the gene represented in a molecule of DNA. The unit of inheritance has to pass on to subsequent generations with very good fidelity so that good traits can persist in the population, but the fidelity cannot be perfect because the occasional imperfections cause new traits to appear and give natural selection some traction for evolutionary change. The unit of selection in the standard view is the organism, usually individual member of a species. The collection of genes of the organism, called the genotype, express themselves as the collection of traits of the organism, called the phenotype. The environment puts selection pressure on the unit of selection, here the organism, which basically means that the survival and reproduction of the organism is uncertain due to factors in the environment. Different phenotypes may have an advantage in getting food, finding mates, defending against attack, surviving diseases, producing and nurturing healthy offspring, and all of the ways that organisms interact with the environment in order to survive and pass on genes to future generations. So genes which produce organisms which are more fit to interact with the environment persist in the genome, and genes which produce organisms which are less fit do not persist.
That is the basic core of evolution by natural selection in a nutshell. It explains a lot, nearly everything about life on earth. But for many observed aspects of life, the social nature of humanity for example, explanations based on this standard gene-organism-environment model of evolution feel unsatisfying to a lot of people, and that’s where I want to go in Part II.
I’ve long thought that the discussion altruism was misguided. I notice this especially when evolutionary biologists discuss how altruistic behavior could have possibly evolved, but much of the philosophical discussion of altruism seems similarly off the mark. I think this is a largely case where the definitions of the terms used for a discussion are getting in the way of the reality behind the discussion. Merriam-Webster defines altruism thusly:
We define words based on other words and if the underlying words are poorly defined we are prone to wander. To me the most problematic underlying definition here is self, as used in unselfish and itself. We toss the word self around as if we know what that means. As I’ve said before in my post on Free Will, I have a problem with the way we use the word self. Certainly, the western concept of self has long been questioned in many eastern philosophies, but more recently science has called our assumptions about the self into question. In The Self Illusion, author Bruce Hood, a psychologist at the University of Bristol, gathers a wealth of the scientific evidence showing that our intuitive sense of the way we use the word self is not grounded in reality. We think of the self as a fixed solitary unit with some hard and fast boundary. We are the thing inside our skin and others are outside. This is merely an illusion, the way we have grown accustomed to thinking of the self; it is not grounded in the reality of who we are or how we actually behave. The way we talk about our self is often part of our post-hoc rationalization of our behavior, not the true motivation behind our behavior. The actual sense of self which drives our behavior is a fluid thing with no clear and set boundary. Differing situations produce changes in where we draw our boundaries between self and other.
I would argue that intentionally self-less behavior does not actually exist. All actions are similarly selfish, what differs from action to action, situation to situation, and person to person is the shape of the self one is being selfish about. Anyone who has been a parent (at least, that is, a passably good one) should be familiar with the feelings one has for one’s child which could be described as a feeling that the child is an extension of one’s self. This can similarly extend to close family members and friends, to a team, to one’s country, even to humanity or “all beings”. Getting up in the middle of the night to tend to one’s child is not selfless behavior, it is including the child in the self which one does things for. Team members often make personal sacrifices of varying degree to further the accomplishments of the team, not because they are selfless, but because their sense of self-identity extends to include membership in the team.
Yesterday was the opening of the London 2012 Olympics. There was an impressive opening ceremony celebrating British history and British identity. Today there are many British people saying how proud it made them feel to be British. The ceremony reinforced the part of their self-identity which extends out to include all of Britain. The ceremony was especially good in that it was also inclusive rather than exclusive. It was not just celebrating Britain; it was welcoming the world to come together in London to celebrate our common humanity together. The highest ideals of the Olympic movement are just that, to bring humanity together, to extend our self-identities to include each other.
Situations which enhance the expansion of our self-identity seem like they can’t help but increase altruistic behavior, not by making us selfless, but my making sense of self larger and more inclusive. This is what religions do when they are working well, but religions are just as often divisive, enhancing the contrast between self and other. I think it is worth seeking out that which makes us feel more connected and part of a larger self.
Much of 19th and 20th century evolutionary biology has been used as a justification for a picture of human behavior based on a small sense of self. Early 20th century “social darwinism” was not well justified by the actual science and should end up on the scrap heap of history. Later gene-based views of evolution were much better grounded in reality and portrayed a self of self which, if not quite as brutal as “social darwinism”, was similary isolated. I accept the validity of the gene-based picture of evolution, however I do not think it is a complete picture. The gene-based story of evolution explains much, it may even explain much of the social behavior of some insects, but I do not think it sufficiently explains human social behavior. I’ve recently come across newer work in evolutionary biology which feels to me like it helps complete the picture, Niche Construction.
One of the proponents of the Niche Construction view of evolution, Kevin Laland at the University of St. Andrew’s, makes a distinction between hammer-nail and chicken-egg causality in evolution. In the strictly gene-based view of evolution, the environment acts upon evolving organisms as a hammer driving a nail. In the niche constructionist view of evolution, the relationship between the organism and its environment can also be cyclical, where organism and environment are dependent upon on another as the chicken and egg are. A simple example he uses are earthworms who are adapted to living in soil which has been adapted by previous generations of earthworms to be hospitable to earthworms. Not only are the earthworms dependent upon the inheritance from past generations, but the survival of future generations of earthworm genes is dependent upon the current generation maintaining this soil inheritance.
This has major implications for a social species, such as our ape cousins who are dependent upon their social groups for survival. Even among brutally violent species such as baboons there are many situations where differences are put aside, such as when new males are accepted into the group. (Robert Sapolsky‘s work is a great source on this.) Building the group sometimes trumps individual self-interest in the smaller definition of self. Many birds build nests out of sticks; I tend to think that social species build their nests out of each other. Since humans developed language and greatly enhanced our ability to pass culture between generations, this interdependence, and the elaborateness of the nest, has only increased.
The “soil” we humans live in is our society, which is constructed out of other humans. We often act as if we are about as conscious of that fact as earthworms are about their soil, but that doesn’t lessen the reality of interdependence. Humans have expanded our social environment at a breathtaking pace over the last few millennia. Our ability to adapt does not necessarily keep up, and maybe comes in fits and starts. There are behaviors which enhance our common nest building. There are also behaviors which are destructive of our common nest. Divisive philosophies, such as Randian libertarianism, “social darwinism”, and free-market purism do not enhance that which we depend on, but undermine it. Various religious fundamentalism’s may have bonded smaller groups in the past, but they are destructive of society at today’s scale. Attitudes which recognize our common interdependence enhance our chances for survival as a social species.
Some of the best ideas our common cultural journey has produced have been the ones which level the field between us. We are at our best when we take care of each other. Our best times have been those when we have loosened the grip of narrow elites on our societies and made them open to all. It does not matter what a society says it is doing, it matters what it actually does. Soviet communism spoke much of the proletariate, but was really about an entrenched elite. Western democracies are prone to the same sort of hypocrisy, for all of our talk about “freedom” and “democracy”, what matters is what actually happens. It reminds me of the proverb, (which exists in many versions and is frequently misattributed), “The true measure of a society is the way it treats its weakest members.”
“Altruistic” behavior is behavior which makes it better for all of us. From the view that “we build our nest from each other”, maybe it follows that a more accurate view of altruism is merely feathering one’s own nest.
I was talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs the other day. Then I came across the above image today. It must be time to put down a few thoughts about the concept. The comparison of Maslow vs Lennon is actually a perfect springboard for some of my thoughts on the subject.
Abraham Maslow is credited with the concept of the hierarchy of needs. The pyramid diagram on his Wikipedia page is a more detailed presentation of the concepts than the one in the John Lennon comparision.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
The bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, Physiological Needs, has a firm rooting in reality. Who can argue with the idea that air, food, and water are fundamental needs which much be addressed before any other needs can be considered? I don’t think placing sex at this bottom level makes sense. It probably just shows some influence from Wilhelm Reich on Maslow’s thinking, (or at least on whoever made this graphic). The rest of the bottom layer however seems pretty solid. Though one’s culture may have a lot to say about the way these needs are met in practice, they are basic biological needs which do not vary from culture to culture.
The second layer, Safety Needs, also has a firm foundation in reality. I think the best way of describing this is that it is just the same physiological needs only in the future. If you have food now, level one is under control, but if food next week is uncertain, your level two need isn’t being met. As with placing sex in the first layer, the way this is described in the graphic begins to wander from the moorings. Property and security of property can fit in here, but just placing property at this level seems excessive to me. It’s not clear to me that the security of a Rolex watch or Ferrari belongs at this level. Property such as a coat in the winter, a pot to cook in, or a craftsman’s tools seem to be the kind of property which might fit. Family is also debatable here. It certainly fits for a child, but mostly as a need for the older generation to provide the rest of the list. As one transitions to adulthood, the dependence on the older generation lessens. Certainly when an adult has dependent children, his needs include providing these needs for his children. Merely placing the word “family” at this level without defining what about family pertains to this level is not very helpful. Family shows up again higher on the pyramid, and I think that’s a better place for it. Certainly the morality of others can have a large effect on one’s ability to plan for future needs, but morality covers a lot of ideas, not all of them well defined, so it strikes me as strange to see it listed. The details of this safety level will vary much more than the first level from culture to culture, since cultures vary quite a bit in how they provide for future needs. Certainly what kind of property belongs here is culturally specific. Many items often included in the list of second level needs were only introduced into western culture in the last couple of centuries, hence must be more culturally specific than generally human.
The middle of Maslow’s pyramid also has grounding in human nature. “Psychological Needs” seems to me to be the worst way of describing it, since the definition of psychological needs depends a lot on the school of psychology involved. A better description is “Social Needs“, which specifically implies our need for connection with others. The shortest description I’ve seen is simply “Love“. Whoever created the Maslow/Lennon juxtaposition missed an opportunity in not following that precedent by simply naming the center of Maslow’s pyramid Love. Calling it love is more poetic and evocative than social needs, but all of the ideas which love conjures up can distract us from what is really important about social needs. Adding “Belonging” to love is helpful in bringing it closer to social needs, but I think it loses something of what is really important here in that belonging feels somewhat static and what is important here is something dynamic. I think a good candidate for what really belongs in the layer above physiological and safety is a concept I’ve recently been exposed to from the world of occupational therapy: Participation. Once needs are met which insure the immediate and continuing survival of the individual, the individual needs something to participate in. Saying a person needs something “to do” does not capture it anywhere nearly as well. Participation involves a relationship with what is being done and the context it is being done in. Some of the fundamental forms of participation are simple things such as feeding and dressing oneself. When one is very sick, being fed by a caring person can be comforting and in way it is a form of participation in a relationship with the caregiver, but such passive participation is not fulfilling in the long term. A person needs to get back to active participation in such basic functions. Extending out from the basics, participation involves wider and wider contexts, family, neighborhood, social groups, even one’s country or the world at large. The specifics of this participation are highly culturally specific, since a culture defines the way a society functions and who can participate in what aspects and how.
John Lennon said in his song that All You Need Is Love, but I take that as poetic hyperbole. I’m sure he wasn’t suggesting that love was more necessary than food, it’s only reasonable to assume he meant after one had the more basic needs met. However, I think there is something which can be missed when you characterize love as a need. Love is an emotion, and it is an emotion which arises when a certain kind of need is being met. The need is, again, participation. We have a basic human need to participate in relationships with other humans. Love is a feeling which arises from that participation when the participation is working. Different forms of love arise from different forms of participation, with parents, children, friends, or lovers. Love is a secondary need which is fulfilled when the primary need for participation is fulfilled. Just as our need for lack of hunger is actually a need for food, our need for love is actually a need for participation. That being said, “All you need is love” sounds far better set to music than “All you need is participation”.
The worst problems with Maslow’s hierarchy are what happens in the levels above Social Needs, and they are serious problems. Placing terms like self-esteem and self-actualization at the top of the pyramid involves some unsupported assumptions. As I said in my post about Free Will, we don’t have a very good definition of what a self is. It’s hard to say who would even be having free will unless we can define who it is that is having the free will. Terms like self-esteem and self-actualization are even more problematic in that they invoke the word self directly. Self-esteem looks like another emotion, and again, an emotion can’t be a primary need, it is at best an indication of whether a need is being fulfilled or not. There is a useful concept behind the term, but the term itself is more of an impediment to understanding than a help. Self-esteem would mean that some self, which we don’t have a good definition for, feels good about itself. That could mean something good, or it could mean narcissism. The best definition for the idea that is being reached for by the term self-esteem would be the feeling which arises when one’s participation is working well and being acknowledged. Rather than the indirection involved in feeling self-esteem after a job well done, it seems more direct, and more like actual human nature, to say that it feels good to participate in a job well done. The participation is the need, and the emotion is the sign that the need is being met.
Self-actualization is even more of a problematic concept, not only do we have the ill-defined self, but this other ill-defined idea of actualization. If we just look at descriptions of self-actualization through the lens of participation it seems pretty clear that what is really being described is achievement of more effective and fulfilling forms of participation.
So, the first step to fix Maslow’s hierarchy is to remove the word self from it. Once the word self is removed, all of the top three levels can be replaced with participation. You could try to further characterize participation in to levels to indicate how fulfilling it is, but I’m not sure it’s easy or fruitful. There are a number of ways to measure one’s participation. for example participation can vary in breadth and depth. But how does one compare on a linear scale having a profound effect on a single person with having a minor effect on a very large number of people? How about the varying importance of participating with family, friends, neighborhood, town, country, the world, on-line community … I’m not sure trying to present it in a hierarchy is a good thing. The valuation of of the participation is something which happens inside the individual according to the emotions felt as a result of the participation or in others measured by how much the participation is appreciated.
It’s interesting how employment in our society straddles levels. It’s nice to know one has a job which will cover the level two needs, but providing jobs for the poor which only cover level two needs will not heal society of poverty, since it will leave the level three need unfilled. If you want people to stay employed, the employment should also help fulfill their level three need of participation.
The psychological concept of the self can be traced back to a number of thinkers, such as Descartes, but it was Freud and his successors who developed it into a concept with such a profound effect on the culture of the 20th century. This conceptual atomization of society into separate selves has not been beneficial for the individuals or the society. Maslow’s hierarchy separates the needs of this atomic self from the needs of society and places them at the top of the hierarchy, above social needs, as if this atom has inner needs which supersede those of the society in which the the individual is embedded. But this atomic self has never been well defined, or even shown to exist. If one looks at actual humans, once the basic survival needs are met, and the constant worry about tomorrow’s survival is alleviated, then a human’s overriding need is to participate in society. In a sense, we are our participation, our very identity is entangled with it. Who we feel ourselves to be changes with our participation in society. There is far more real evidence for this than there is for the atomic psychological self. When a human is cut off from a functional participation in society, whether due to physical disability, economics, discrimination, what have you, that human feels distress. When impediments are removed and the person is able to participate, the distress is relieved. When the participation is acknowledged and appreciated by other individuals or a social group, the participant feels emotions variously described as self-esteem, fulfillment, and yes, even love.
So sure John, nitpicking over primary or secondary needs aside, if you’re feeling love, it must be a sign that things are working. We all need to be in a place where we feel that. So I’d rather throw in with Lennon’s simple formula than Maslow’s selfish one:
Someone I have a lot of respect for pointed me towards The Charter for Compassion, a document initiated by Karen Armstrong. The goal of the Charter is to convince all humanity to act according to the age old principle of the Golden Rule. I applaud the intentions behind this document and have even added my name to the list of supporters. However, I do have a number of reservations about the language of the Charter which I feel the need to express.
One point of disagreement is an assumption which can be clearly seen in the central core of the Charter itself:
“We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate …”
This seems to me to be an example of what is sometimes referred to as a Golden Age Fallacy or an Appeal to Tradition. It assumes that at some time in the past compassion was at the center of morality and religion but we have somehow lost our way. It encourages us to hark back to an earlier way of thinking which is more moral than modern thinking. While I agree with the Charter that a greater emphasis on compassion in the modern world would be a good thing, I do not agree with the assumption that this would somehow be a return to something that was better in the past.
From Armstrong’s writings, I get an impression that she is an apologist for religion. Not an apologist for a particular religion but for her particular interfaith view of religion which views all religions as reflections of some deeper truth. This view presumes that this deeper truth was somehow more purely expressed in the past at the founding of the major religions, but has somehow been corrupted since then. This interfaith view is generally benign in that it encourages people toward the gentler side of religious doctrine. It attempts to loosen the grip of narrow dogmatic belief systems and open up dialog and understanding between people of different faiths. Though I appreciate these goals and feel that progress in this direction is desirable, I don’t believe this view holds up to detailed scrutiny. Though in the short term it might lead in a constructive direction, I don’t think it provides a firm long-term foundation for morality.
The charter explicitly speaks of “morality and religion“, so it seems on the surface to include secular thought as an equal along side of religion, but the investment in things past seems to me to be much more of a feature of religious thinking than of moral philosophy. Sure, there are those who would say that ancient greek philosophies such as stoicism or epicureanism provide all of the foundation we need for morality, but I seriously doubt even they would coin it up as a necessity “to restore compassion to the centre of morality”. It doesn’t take much scratching of the surface to see that the language of the charter is religious language with some secular window dressing. This harking back to a former time feels like it arises from the religious concept of revelation, where truths are found via the religious revelations which were the source of religions. The purest forms of those revelations is viewed as having come in the past and has been recorded in those documents referred to as “scripture”.
The view embodied in the Charter essentially attempts to have it both ways, since to accept the religious revelations of the past as a source of morality, one must accept just the right amount of religious dogma, but to allow other religions access to the same source one must let go of just the right amount of conflicting religious dogma. In allowing a special spiritual source as the source of religions and morality, this view plants the seeds of its own undoing. This dogma of a common source of religion is easily rationalized under existing religious dogmas. An example is the view among many muslims that though islam, judaism, and christianity share a common mythology, islam is somehow purer and closer to the true source where the other abrahamic faiths have been corrupted. The mormons have a similar dogmatic view of the other abrahamic faiths as being incomplete versions of something only finding full expression in the “latter-day saints”. The catholic church views itself as the true form of a faith of which protestantism has corrupted. Examples abound. So accepting this ideal of a common source still allows religions their dogmas of precedence and superiority. It leaves plenty of room for a condescending interfaith tolerance alongside of honest fellow feeling.
Another problem is the claim that non-compassionate interpretations of scripture are “illegitimate”, which smacks of the No True Scotsman fallacy. This view can only be supported by cherry-picking from any religion or body of scripture what one considers to be valid interpretations. What exactly is the compassionate interpretation of the genocide which the book of Joshua describes in great detail? Other religious scriptures have similarly problematic sections. One cannot just make them all go away by ignoring them. One either has to offer a believable compassionate interpretation or admit that there isn’t one.
The Charter starts with what sounds like an admirable statement:
“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.”
but this seems like a sweeping assumption to be reached by only by defining as “religious, ethical and spiritual traditions” those traditions which have compassion at their heart. The later statement:
“We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.”
gives us the flip side, where any religious activity which does not have compassion at its heart is defined as not truly religious but a flawed human act “in the name of religion”. We find ourselves back around to the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. The charter insists that compassion be the rubric for judging true religious acts from acts merely in the name of religion, but the only reasons given for this claim are circular reasoning at best. If someone claims that the true expression of his religion includes the persecution of unbelievers, the only argument against the claim is the counter-claim that the “principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions”. No reason is presented as to why anyone should accept this claim as fact.
My preference is for a view rooted in a scientific world-view rather than a religious one. I see compassion, or to use the word preferred in scientific circles, empathy, as a natural component of human behavior which arose long ago in the evolution of social animals. It exists in human behavior alongside many other behaviors, viewed individually as good, bad, or neutral, such as competition, violence, sharing, stealing, monogamy, promiscuity. Contained within every human there is a complex set of these tendencies. Every human culture is a complex balance of these natural human tendencies. Any religion arises from a particular culture and contains within it a rationalization of that cultures characteristics. Religion is not the source of culture, it is a product of culture. The jews had cultural taboos concerning killing, stealing, and adultery long before origin stories were written to explain the taboos as arising from tablets handed down from god. Of course, once a religion is established there is a complex feedback between religion and culture, and when religions travel between cultures both the cultures and the religions shift. To view compassion, or empathy, as arising from religion would be to get the cart before the horse. Religions and ethics are explanations of human behavior.
Of course this perspective is often seen by the religious as yet another dogma and opinions of the primacy of the scientific view over religious views seen as yet another form of dogmatic condescension. That would be fair enough, however this scientific world-view is built upon empirical knowledge, not on modern interpretations of texts written in dead languages from long dead cultures. There is a wealth of information becoming available to us, whether it be from neuroscience (“The Ethical Brain” by Michael Gazzaniga), or primatology (“The Age of Empathy” by Frans de Waal) , or from any number of different fields of scientific study (“The Origins of Virtue” by Matt Ridley, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker), it is pointing at an ability to learn about and understand human nature, the way humans and their societies evolved, and the way humans act as social beings. The picture of human nature emerging is based on a mature understanding of evolution, not the early shallow misunderstandings referred to as “Social Darwinism”, but on a realistic understanding of how social cooperative species could evolve and thrive.
These secular sources seem to me to be a much firmer foundation for a modern ethics of compassion and empathy than ancient “scripture” and unsupported claims that compassion is at the heart of all traditions. Not everyone will accept ethics based on a scientific world-view, so a document such as The Charter for Compassion might be a worthwhile effort. We need to get somewhere from where we are now. We cannot leapfrog into some secular future while much of the world still runs according to religious belief systems. It seems useful to find roots in existing traditions which resonate with that which can be learned from empirical study. I wish the Charter offered more help with this and were expressed in language I could agree with whole-heartedly instead of unsupported presuppositions and circular logic.
In the end, it doesn’t seem to me that the Charter could be very effective. To accept it one has to accept a priori the primacy of compassion. Those who don’t accept the primacy of compassion would not accept the Charter. It’s possible that the existence of the Charter and the presence of some prominent names connected to it could encourage some to think in terms of compassion who might not otherwise. I wish I could feel more hopeful about that than I actually do.
Compassion can be cultivated and it would be good for us to do so. As the world gets more and more crowded, there will be less and less room in it for many of the human behavior patterns which blot our history with violence and cruelty. There are religious traditions which have explored the cultivation of compassion, probably the strongest such traditions would be those arising from buddhism. We should welcome any such practices which any religion has to offer. However any religious tradition should be able to stand up to scrutiny in the light of modern knowledge. Religious scriptures are full of examples of behaviors which are no longer considered acceptable in modern societies such as slavery and misogyny. To adapt to an increasingly crowded planet, humanity needs to get over the idea that religious traditions should be accepted merely because they are religious traditions. We need a rubric for determining which religious traditions are worth keeping and which need to be discarded or revised. Compassion or empathy could be a good choice for such a rubric, but we need a stronger justification for choosing it than the weak circular logic of the Charter for Compassion and we can’t just pretend, as Armstrong apparently does, that all traditions fit the compassion rubric if you just squint your eyes properly.
The concept of Free Will has sparked many of the most pointless arguments in philosophy. When someone says that they can prove that Free Will doesn’t exist, my first reply is sometimes “well, you’re free to think that”. Which might be followed by the more thoughtful ”there is no way to live other than as if there is free will”. But it takes a bit more to get to the heart of what I see as the problem with the philosophical question of Free Will.
I think that the whole debate about Free Will is flawed from the start because the concept is not well defined. Many people agree, but many of them merely engage in semantic furniture rearrangement such as saying we really should be talking about Free Choice or some such. But the flaw is much deeper than that. The term Free Will might need some work, but the real flaw is in the assumption of who it is who possesses this Free Will, or makes that Free Choice. The view of the human mind emerging from the study of cognitive neuroscience is very different from the views assumed by most people in their day to day lives, and by philosophers over the history of philosophy. We have historically assumed a model of the human mind and the human “self” that has been shown to be deeply flawed by modern science.
The standard intuitive view of the “self” and ideas like “you”, “me”, or “him” are based on what we have needed in the past for social interaction. I view it as similar to the simplification in physics where you can assume the mass of a planet is concentrated at a point in order to calculate its orbit. You can use the mass-at-a-point assumption to steer a rocket to Mars pretty well, but when you start getting close to Mars and want to land, the simplification is no longer useful. You need to know the radius, the local topology, maybe even some local geology in order to find a spot to land safely. Similarly, our intuitive view of a self is very like a person concentrated at a point. This works amazingly well for many social interactions, but if you want to get closer, such as in an intimate relationship, or even try to figure out internal motivations, the simplified idea of a person-at-a-point is an impediment to understanding. This intuitive person-at-a-point is very like the old “homunculus” model of the human mind where a little man in your head would make all of the decisions, which model makes absolutely no logical sense since the question of how the mind works is just pushed into the homunculus who would then need another little man in his head. These little men are all an attempt to rationalize the person-concentrated-at-a-point intuitive view of the mind, but they have little to do with the way the human mind actually works.
Modern cognitive neuroscience has shown very clearly that humans are a complex fabric of interwoven simultaneous processes. We are nowhere near a full understanding of the implications of that fact. It is, however, clear to me that centuries worth of philosophy on the bookshelves needs to re-evaluated in light of the non-punctiform self.
It’s bad enough to see philosophers wasting their time arguing Free Will without a good concept of who is having it, but it makes me sad to see actual neuroscientists talking about it as if they might be looking for the homunculus neuron. Take this recent article in Nature as an example:
The main voice of reason in there is Michael Gazzaniga:
“Neuroscientists also sometimes have misconceptions about their own field, says Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In particular, scientists tend to see preparatory brain activity as proceeding stepwise, one bit at a time, to a final decision. He suggests that researchers should instead think of processes working in parallel, in a complex network with interactions happening continually. The time at which one becomes aware of a decision is thus not as important as some have thought.”
Which, translated into simple language might as well say: “the entire rest of this article is pointless”, since the article is about neuroscientists trying to pinpoint when and where a decision is made. They pose the Free Will definition question, but without ever phrasing it as if it might be deeper than a problem in semantics:
There are conceptual issues — and then there is semantics. “What would really help is if scientists and philosophers could come to an agreement on what free will means,” says Glannon.
They never really address the aspect of it most needing definition. It’s very sad to see so many scientists and philosophers, whom Nature presents so favorably here, just wandering in the darkness of their unexamined assumptions.
One prominent philosopher who is helpful on this subject is Daniel Dennett. He talks about related problems in many books, but his book “Freedom Evolves” is directly about the question of Free Will. He attempts to deal with the fact that the mind is not all happening serially, but is instead is distributed over many smaller parts operating in parallel. Each of these parts is less complex than the whole, definitely not a homunculus, but the from the combination of all of them, complexity arises. The best, and most humorous, summary I’ve seen of his idea is the one Dennett cites here:
‘Some years ago, there was a lovely philosopher of science and journalist in Italy named Giulio Giorello, and he did an interview with me. And I don’t know if he wrote it or not, but the headline in Corriere della Sera when it was published was “Sì, abbiamo un’anima. Ma è fatta di tanti piccoli robot – “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots.” And I thought, exactly.’
The “robots” being neurons of course, which can be viewed as deterministic, ie. robots. Dennett goes through a very complex argument to present a way in which something which is like what we think of as Free Will might arise from a complex network of tiny automata, such as neurons. It’s far from a settled argument, but Dennett points toward ways to break out of the fallacies that traditional philosophy finds itself mired in because of an outmoded concept of what a mind is.
Freedom Evolves also has another favorite Dennett quote:
’Some philosophers can’t bear to say simple things, like “Suppose a dog bites a man.” They feel obliged instead to say, “Suppose a dog d bites a man m at time t,” thereby demonstrating their unshakable commitment to logical rigor, even though they don’t go on to manipulate any formulae involving d, m, and t. Talk about time t is ubiquitous in philosophical definitions but seldom given any serious work to do.’ *
The misguided attempt to define a mind as concentrated at a point in space or a decision as happing at a point in time is a relic of outmoded intuitive ways of seeing ourselves. And this is not just an old intuition, when most people use a computer metaphor for the mind they are thinking in terms of the kinds of computers most people have been exposed to, ones which serialize a single thread of instructions through a central processing unit. (Advanced computer parallel processing technology is beyond most people’s grasp.) In the kind of computers most people are familiar with, a decision does happen at a particular time which can be measured with impressive accuracy and one could point to the electronic gate on the chip where it actually happened. However as computers become complex enough to model minds of complexity comparable to human minds, the decision will be much harder locate, just as it is in our minds.
If we want to come to terms with ourselves and how our minds work, and maybe with what a term like Free Will might mean, we first need to come to terms with a picture of a mind where many diverse components of “thought” are happening simultaneously in different brain structures and what we experience consciously is something like the froth on top of a bubbling stew of unconscious processes.
* (Dennett is essentially apologizing here for quoting another philosopher’s statement involving a time t, and goes on to point out that the use of time t is actually useful in the particular quote he is citing.)
Some people involved with Occupy Wall Street might say that we should end Capitalism. The Tea Party rails against Socialism. Myself, I think to move forward constructively we should stop looking at the world through glasses tinted by such dogmas. I think it would be useful to see how the world appears if we try to step back as far as possible and try to build up an unbiased opinion of the problem using as little as possible of our preconceptions.
Economics is human behavior. Politics is human behavior. Government is made up of humans and these humans behave like humans. Corporations are made up of humans and they behave like humans too. It doesn’t matter what the underlying political system or economic system is, people will behave like humans, colored by their culture and personal variations from the norm. Much of human behavior is constructive and good, but in some situations normal human behavior can be bad, because we are subject to so many cognitive biases which distort the way we interact with the world. So is Government inherently bad? Are corporations? Sometimes either of them can do bad things, but they also sometimes they do act constructively. I think the idea of either of them as The Problem prevents us from seeing where the real problems lie. I propose that the real problems are not evil governments or evil corporations but certain kinds of human behavior which need to be kept in check for us to all get along constructively. Two which I would put forward as non-constructive are over-centralization and entrenchment.
The Soviet Union is a good example. Was the Soviet Union a bad idea because it was communist? Maybe, but I think a more constructive way to look at the Soviet Union is that their communist system encouraged over-centralization of control, so important decisions were usually made far from where the impact would be felt. The system also allowed, even encouraged, the most powerful of the communist party to entrench themselves in their positions in the hierarchy, blocking off all courses of change for the better. The system finally broke down when one brave man managed to work his way up the entrenched hierarchy who was disenchanted with the system. Gorbachev proceeded to undermine the centralization and entrenchment which led to the break up of the over-centralized Soviet Union. Things aren’t perfect now, but there is more possibility of change without the massive power structure of the USSR.
These principles apply to many governments around the world. Certainly dictators like Gaddafi or Kim Jong-Il fit the picture of deeply entrenched powers in control of over-centralized decision making. However these are not strictly governmental behaviors, these are natural human behavioral tendencies. They happen in business as well. With a small business centralization is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if the business is small enough that the boss knows every employee. As the size grows to a large corporation factors come in to play that lead to over-centralization. Everyone in a large corporation has seen people who try to entrench themselves into their positions in the hierarchy. When the tendency toward over-centralization or entrenchment happens internally to the corporation, it’s really the business of that corporation. If they saddle themselves with an entrenched over-centralized structure some more flexible corporation is liable to come along and compete with them. The problem arises when these tendencies apply outside of the corporation.
A monopoly is a classic example of entrenched over-centralization, all of the power over a certain market gets centralized in one corporation and they are so entrenched that it is impossible for another business to get to a position where they can compete. The sort of entrenchment and over-centralization which gives corporations excessive power over markets is everyone’s problem.
Instead of viewing Wall Street as the antithesis of the Soviet Union the way most people do, I see them both as having the same disease. Our financial systems are over-centralized, concentrating too much power in too few corporations. Those corporations, and the people who run them, have entrenched themselves into positions of power so deeply that it is hard to dislodge them. The people in corporations who exhibit the entrenching and over-centralizing behaviors are just as human as politicians who exhibit the same natural human tendencies.
If you call it a capitalism problem or a socialism problem it prevents you from seeing the fact that it is indeed a human behavior problem. In certain situations humans tend to exhibit these behaviors so we need to set up a structure which counter-balances that tendency. Just as we need traffic laws to keep everyone’s driving in check and make the streets safer for all of us, we need some rules of the road for our economic system which keeps Wall Street from exerting so much power over the rest of us.