Determinism is the understanding that everything that is, is the result of everything that came before, and that includes you and me and everything about us. There is no free will. If you don’t believe that, then there probably isn’t much in this post for you. As they say down home, I’m preaching to the choir, to those who already believe there’s no free will, but who may not have explored some of the implications I have.
Marvin Minsky didn’t believe in free will, but he endorsed it anyway:
“No matter that the physical world provides no room for freedom of will: that concept is essential to our models of the mental realm. Too much of our psychology is based on it for us to ever give it up, We’re virtually forced to maintain that belief, even though we know it’s false—except, of course, when we’re inspired to find the flaws in all our beliefs, whatever may be the consequences to cheerfulness and mental peace.” (Society of Mind, 1988, p. 307)
Marvin and I had very different lives, and I ended up fearless of whatever “the consequences to cheerfulness and mental peace might be,” thanks to my early exposure to platitudes like, “Know the truth and the truth will set you free,” “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and way back in my youth, “All things work together for good to them that love god.” I got rid of the god part, but the positive attitude stuck. I figured that whatever the truth might be, I could handle it.
If you haven’t acquired that kind of attitude, I’m going to try to inspire it in you. I’m going to try, by example, to be the cause of an effect in you. Whether that works or not depends on how receptive your life has made you.
People who believe in free will think that they made themselves. They take credit for all the decisions they’ve made, whereas someone like me knows that those decisions arose from everything that came before. I’m not self-made, I’ve been made by others, oblivious at the time to how it was happening. What I didn’t know then, I know now, and that gives my brain the chance to reverse-engineer itself. It can’t change anything that has happened, but it can see the effect that it caused, and ask if that effect would have been the same if it had known then what it knows now.
For example, the culture I grew up in taught me that everything about male sexual parts was nasty, including my own. As my brain was exposed to a wider world, it concluded that that teaching was wrong—sex was not what I was taught it was; I was not who I was taught I was. The world and my place in it felt very different after that.
The more I pay attention, the more I become aware of how my surroundings have shaped me.That is how the brain evolved to function—to understand its environment and its place in it, and to adapt to changes by altering its understanding of who it is in the context of the new setting.
Some people, like Marvin, acquire a conservative attitude toward change. They continue to believe in free will, even though they know it’s wrong, because adapting to what is really the case would be too disruptive to their idea of who they are. They can’t imagine a more reality-based version of themselves that would retain the “cheerfulness and mental peace” they had before.
It’s totally understandable that they would feel that way. It’s one thing to get rid of the idea that sex is nasty, but it’s much more radical to give up the idea that you’re in conscious control of your life; to realize, as Firesign Theater said, that “Everything you know is wrong,” or at least, there’s more wrong than most people are willing to give up—pride, shame, anger, hatred, etc.
‘You’ in the context of science, are an organic robot, reprogramming itself as it encounters new information. How do you look at that in a cheerful way? How do you explain that to your friends and neighbors?
I had a go at answering these questions in my video, “Stoned Observations—Being Human Part 9, Selves and Robots.” Here’s an edited transcript, leaving out all the wild gesturing, laughing, and most of the profanity:
“I think of myself as a robot, an organic robot, and everything I do, every thought I have, every feeling, every move I make, comes from the interaction of neurons in my brain. There’s nothing else going on. It’s all an automatic process, and if you don’t think that way you’ve been reading different books. A very good one is Lisa Feldman Barrett’s “7 1/2 Lessons About the Brain,” the best explanation I’ve read of how your brain works, how it makes you. The only problem is her handwaving defense of free will, which doesn’t stand up to a close look.
Everything is determined from moment to moment by everything that has come before. That’s the reality, but all our lives we have felt—at least I have—that I was consciously making decisions, that I was somehow making words come out of my mouth, that I was somehow deciding to go to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, but that just doesn’t hold up if you believe that every thought that comes into your brain is just as determined as a gust of wind blowing the leaves on the trees outside. Which way it blows, how hard it blows, how the leaves move, it’s all physics. What goes on in our brains is just chemistry and physics.
So that’s who I am, and the idea of being in charge of my life, and doing things, and being me—in conscious control of it all—just doesn’t jibe with reality.
How, then, does one happily look at being a robot? That’s what I think is so difficult for so many people: they can’t imagine, having thought of themselves as self-determined creatures for their whole lives, how to revise their idea of what it means to be who and what they are; what it means to be a human being. If they want to harmonize their self-concept with a deterministic universe, a lot of changes have to happen.
I’ve been struggling with this for decades—it’s not easy; it’s hard. It’s a scary idea: I’m going disappear! I’m going to cease to exist! But what happened to me in the end—and I think it can happen to anybody—is that it’s perfectly OK that I’m not in charge my life. It has to be OK, it’s real! That’s the way it is!
Given the way my brain presents its calculations and figurings, my thoughts will continue to appear as they usually do. I’ll get the urge to go to the kitchen and have a snack, and it’ll feel just as normal as it always has. It won’t feel any different. As far as the thoughts occurring in my brain—the way they just seem to appear to me, and I seem to be thinking about this, that, and the other thing—all that is just a beautiful show, like shadows on the wall.
The brain has evolved to work in a way that allows me to see myself as the observer of a thinking process that is beyond my comprehension, although I can see the effects of it. Things that I used to take for granted in everyday life all of a sudden become questions: Suppose I have a thought about a woman I used to see a long time ago, and an excursion we had—why did that pop into my head? I have no idea. I spend my day watching thoughts appear, memories appear; the outside world appears, perception happens. We ordinarily just take all this for granted, but I have come to see it as the work of an incomprehensibly complex organic data processing system. Astounding! As the aliens reported about Earthlings, “They think with meat!”
I was reading a book at work one time, and the guy I was working with asked what I was reading. I told him it was a book about how the brain works. He said, “You don’t need to know how it works. It’s like the telephone, you just pick it up and use it.” That’s how we think about our brains most of our lives; it just works. Look at these words coming out of my mouth; the brain is doing a wonderful job.
When I realized I didn’t have free will, however, there was a shift in my point of view: Instead of seeing myself as the initiator of everything—I decided—I! Instead of seeing it that way, it’s like, what’s next? What is my next idea or decision going to be? The hot topic in my brain at the moment, and I don’t know why, seems to be that I’m going to do something about that picture over there. And that’s the way my day goes, watching my brain crank stuff out.
As I walk around doing the things that I ordinarily do, I don’t think of it as I’m doing stuff. Actually, most of the time I don’t think about the mechanics of it; I don’t think, “My brain is in charge,” but it has become the background of everything I do.
Sometimes when my brain is making a decision, I’m conscious of some of the alternatives it’s considering as my thoughts change. The balance between different networks is shifting as they stimulate each other, and that’s what my thoughts are. As I’m thinking about whether I should I do this or that, it’s just networks operating up there.
It makes life much more interesting to me and it shifts the burden. Before I felt like it was up to me to decide to do this or that or the other thing. Now I feel more like, a decision is going to happen, and I’m not going to understand it, or why it came up, but it’s going to happen, and it’s going to seem like the right thing to do, because my brain will have figured it’s the right thing to do. It’s just so much more relaxed and so much more entertaining—the entertainment value is huge.
If you watch your brain work, you’ll see that it isn’t perfect. Search online for illusions— audible illusions, visual illusions. They show the shortcomings of the brain’s operating system. Those shortcomings happen in daily life all the time. My brain is always fucking up. Say I’m going to make a cup of coffee: there’s a logical sequence in putting the parts together, but sometimes my brain will be thinking about something else—it won’t be giving the ‘coffee maker’ enough resources—and it will fuck up the order, so that all of a sudden I’ve got a pitcher of hot water in my hand and there’s nothing in the cup, and there should be.
The thing is, that what people have thought was this scary thing: I’m a fucking robot! I’m not in control! It’s not a scary thing. It’s the way your life is been the whole time you’ve been alive! This is not something that happened just recently, it’s been happening since you were born. Your brain has been looking around saying, “Where the fuck am I, and who’s paying for lunch?” And that’s how your life goes.
To me it’s humorous that we’ve entertained these ideas about ourselves that are totally wrong for hundreds of years. It’s nobody’s fault. Entertaining those ideas is just as determined as everything else, and whether you will find what I’m saying interesting or total rubbish is just as determined as everything else. So I won’t take it personally. You can hate my guts; it’s OK, I don’t mind, because I know that it’s just your life playing itself out, moment by moment, and my life playing itself out, moment by moment, and hopefully, the way those things play out will never collide, and we will never find ourselves in conflict over anything. I think that’s the ideal; that’s the way it should be.
Now this robot has decided that it’s said enough, that it has a tendency to talk too long anyway, so I’m going to stop, and I hope you, all my fellow robots, have a wonderful day. If it hasn’t occurred to you before that you are a robot, look around. It’s an amazing world you’re living in, and you’re so sensitive! You can see all this beauty! Bye.