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JANUARY 6, 2011 11:02AM

Do We Reason? Do We Have Free Will? Does It Matter?

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I’ve been reading lately a good bit of the social psychology and neuroscience literature devoted to human decision-making, especially as it applies to making moral judgments.  It has been a humbling experience but not, I think, a necessarily disheartening one.


By and large, these studies in the science of morality conclude that we are not the rational creatures we think ourselves to be.  We are not thoughtful in making moral judgments; our thought processes are not especially subtle or penetrating; our consciousness is not especially discerning or sophisticated.  We do not carefully analyze a situation and, on the basis of that analysis, decide whether or not an action is wrong or right.  Rather, it seems, our judgments occur beneath or behind or outside of conscious awareness, and are galvanized by emotions, intuitions, and physical sensations.  Reason simply justifies decisions always already made by processes external to it.  Perhaps Emerson is right: our “primary wisdom” is “Spontaneity or Instinct,”—an “Intuition, whilst all later teaching are tuitions.”  And perhaps David Hume was right: reason is “the slave of passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”


Here is a quick summary of some representative studies:

·         What we consider moral or immoral behavior is influenced by the cleanliness or dirtiness of the environment in which the decision is made.  Simone Schnall, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge, reports that people sitting at a dirty table in a room pervaded by a foul odor consider doctoring a resume to improve their employment prospects wrong; at a clean table in a pleasant-smelling room, they consider it acceptable.  Evidently, the emotions aroused by the ambient surroundings transfer to moral judgments.

·         Sitting in a comfortable or uncomfortable chair, holding a hold or cold beverage, or filling out a questionnaire with or without a clipboard influence assessments of other people.  Holding a hot beverage, sitting in a comfortable chair, and filling out a questionnaire without a clipboard result in friendlier assessments of others.

·         Seeing others perform a good deed for someone inspires the observers to feel morally elevated, and motivates them to lend assistance to others themselves, often going out of their way to do so.  Thus, the secret of Oprah’s success.  As Blaise Pacal noted, “The heart has reasons that reason knows not of.”

·         Behavior can be “primed” by language.  Given a task description containing some words  referring to old age, test subjects performed the task more slowly than a control group whose task description did not include those words.  Words that refer to higher education led to improved scores in games of Trivial Pursuits.

·         On sunny days, people tend to be more satisfied with their lives than on rainy days.

·         People who are politically conservative have a larger amygdale—an area in the center of the brain associated with anxiety—and a smaller anterior angulate—a front-brain area associated with optimism and fortitude.  Though it is unknown whether these areas are shaped by experience or are inherent in brain structure, the finding suggests political outlooks are not reasoned choices.  A “liberal gene”—DRD4—has been identified; its possessor tends to respond positively to unconventional perspectives.

·         People seek a “moral equilibrium,” a self-satisfaction that they wish to maintain.  Those who experience moral equilibrium are less likely, due to a “moral licensing effect” to help others, feeling that they are already good persons. Those who feel a moral disequilibrium are more likely to help others, thereby restoring a sense of moral balance.

·         In his book “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values,” neuroscientist Sam Harris asserts that free will is an illusion.  He cites experiments in which the brains of subjects in an MRI machine display activity up to io seconds before consciously deciding to do something.  Such findings, Harris says, “are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s actions.”


It is difficult not to read this research as yet the latest instance of a 400 year history of human displacement from pride of place.  First, Copernicus and Galileo removed earth, and its human inhabitants, from the center of the universe; then, Darwin stiffarmed the belief that we were created imago dei, in the image of God, by theorizing that we were produced from earlier forms of life; then, Freud informed us that we were quite unaware of the motivations for our actions, sequestered as they were in unlit cavern of the flamboyantly irrational id; then, linguists began a mugging of the distinguishing features of human language, finding the so-called “language gene,” Fox 2P, in birds and discovering grammatical complexity in the calls of certain nonhuman creatures; now, the “science of morality” suggests that moral decisions are either automatic mental subroutines or impulse-imbued intensities of feeling that masquerade as deliberative judgment.  “It don’t seem natural,” as Huck Finn would say, but the research reckons  “it’s so,” and it is tempting to see these findings as assaults on free will and human dignity, as grist for the mill of a despondent determinism or moral irresponsibility.


I think that would be a mistake. 


I do not see the revelations of morality science as especially pernicious.  If they indeed uncurtain  fundamental conditions, then let’s accept them as such. If we know they are true, if we understand that we process our experience of the world through affect and hidden emotion, then we are in a fair way of exerting a governing control over it.   Even if our actions spring largely from involuntary factors, taking responsibility for them decreases the lure of infatuated impulsivity.  We may not have free will, but we can at least exert that neuroscientist Benjamin Libet calls “free won’t.”  We can, like Odysseus, lash ourselves to the mast of restraint.


 That reason is not the pure source of our action in the world changes nothing about what we are or what we do.  We have always sought to be self-intelligible so we could assume responsibility for ourselves and the world we inhabit.  We have always felt moral tugs and urgings. Where our sense of moral value comes from is less important than the fact that we have such a sense.  Its origin in no way diminishes its significance, or the value we attach to our goals and intentions.  We will still perform charitable acts, still feel compassion, still exhibit loyalty, still meet obligations, still practice self-denial, still entune ourselves with the melody of all the outward-reaching virtues that mark our humanity.  We always have.  We will still make things, things with design and function, things that incarnate our purposeful striving.  We always have.  We will still be remarkably, endlessly creative.  We always have.  Despite being an irreducibly messy bundle of qualities, we will still be adventurous, still feel a transcendent spirit, still be taken by wildly extravagant flashes of imagination.  We always have.  We have always been taken by courage and love and virtue and faith and wonder and beauty and justice, and we have always written the narrative of that captivity.  We always have been, and will continue to be, subjects encountering other subjects, one moving among many, experiencing risk and conflict, and held accountable for what we are and what we do


I am not naive.  I  have not been Pollyannaed and Panglossed into believing that we live in the best of all possible worlds.  I know that the history of human beings on this planet displays lavish cruelty, cruelty that too often bears compound interest. I know that people blink when staring down moral challenges, that hearts and minds have been adamantine, that in taking a long, backward glance, “one sees more devils than vast hell can hold.”  Still, I do believe we need not fall into a kind of secular Calvinism, skeptical of the value or efficacy of human actions, simply because we may do things for no good reason.  We still do good, in small ways and large.  We too easily forget that.  It is worth remembering that in the last 150 years we have abolished slavery, that labor unionized to guarantee workers’ rights, that consumers upended “buyer beware” in favor of “seller beware,” that we established civil and voting rights, addressed concerns about gender equality, proscribed environmental degradation, outlawed gay bashing, and asserted non-human animal rights. 


Problems, highly vexing, perhaps indurate, problems, assuredly remain.  But I choose to take heart from this: while Galileo’s book Sideries Nuncius, Starry Messenger, may have demoted humanity from its exalted perch in the order of things, it ironically promoted humanity as well, for it unveiled truths hidden behind dogma and superstition and unquestioned tradition and enshrined opinion, truths that set knowledge afoot in the world, truths that, finally, in the balance of things, made us, and our world, not the best we and it can be, but better.

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I'm exercising my free will to rate this. It was like a deliciously complex meal with multiple courses of thought. I'm going to swirl this around in my head like the fine wine that accompanied it. Rich, nuanced and very well written.
I've read only a few books on the brain and the mind, Carl Sagan's Dragons of Eden and Daniel Tammet's Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind, and I could toss in J. Krishnamurti's Think on These Things, as he believed in a revolution of the mind, examining one's patterns of thinking and overcoming them.

To understand where we come from, how we came to be, how our minds work is not to undo the people we are, but reveal the inner workings that make us who we are.

I'd like to see a further study based on the findings in the documentary, The Corporation, where individual moral compasses are put on the back-burner in favor of the tribalism of the corporate identity as a whole.
Ahh Jerry, I read this and just envied your knowledge and words. Everything made sense but said in a way that only you can do.

" That reason is not the pure source of our action in the world changes nothing about what we are or what we do."

We are what we are. Some go one way others go another but none of it influences the other. Except Oprah..:)
Rated for brilliance. I am in awe.
Well-written, fascinating and throught-provoking.
Neuroscience is fascinating and so very active. I found a couple of links that you might enjoy.


This one deals with the neuroscience of music and I found it quite captivating.

Enjoyable article on an incredible subject. You provided much fuel for thought and then brought it all together with this:
"We too easily forget that. It is worth remembering that in the last 150 years we have abolished slavery, that labor unionized to guarantee workers’ rights, that consumers upended “buyer beware” in favor of “seller beware,” that we established civil and voting rights, addressed concerns about gender equality, proscribed environmental degradation, outlawed gay bashing, and asserted non-human animal rights".....We keep moving on despite our limitations it appears. Thanks for the post, Jerry.
The revelations of this study are so important. You explain how people get taken in by the Tea Party and how we can be compassionate and kind. What a fabulous job you did of research and analysis.
rated with love
The thing about Sam Harris' book is that it's actually very optimistic; that is, he believes in the capability of science to demonstrate how beneficial it is for us to act for the greatest good. Another terrific book that celebrates the "logic" of moral behavior, if you will, is Austin Dacey's "The Secular Conscious." In it, he elevates the role of conscience in creating values in common with our fellow human beings.

The greatest experience I had in writing my own book last year was in discovering writers like Austin Dacey and Susan Neiman, who wrote "The Moral Compass" books--and the work of neurologists like Sam Wang and Robert Burton. These philosophers and scientists have given me hope and confidence, after so many years, that acceptance of our innate abilities to be moral without needing the strictures of religion may become a reality in my lifetime.
Great research on your part. I believe that we do make fundamental choices every day that strongly influence the direction of our lives. I seek an environment that stimulates creativity and an in-depth thought process and considerations of conscience. thanks for reminding me of many of these studies, and introducting me to others...
With all of the progress mankind has made in many areas, we still can't stop killing each other. Very well-written and researched article. R
This is among the finest, most interesting presentations I have seen here. Thank you. r.
What O'Really said, Jerry (I enjoy coming late so I can do this, altho I usually find Cranky's comments come out closer to what I might have said). While I was reading it a quote came to mind I heard on NPR yesterday during a discussion on Williams James: "A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices." This struck me as an awful truth. The saving grace for me is that "a great many" still leaves plenty of room for actual thinking.
Jerry, I read this 3 times, and gathered something different each time. I'd go back for 4ths, but my head is full.

I have to say Nikki's comment resonates with me, moral thinking outside the limitations or demands of religion is an encouraging thought. If evolution is an ongoing process, I hope this is the path it's taking.

(now hold all the calls and letters, people. This isn't a debate about that)
we are flesh engines, rattling around on the skin of a rock in a very narrow track between too cold and too hot. no matter, it's the only game in town. pretend what you are doing is useful, and it will be, for you at least.

and develop a taste for red wine and sophisticated music, they will amuse you when sex seems less interesting.
I was just thinking about the bad in the world when you got to the "polynana" chapter. Perhaps we have "come a long way" but man, have we got a ways to go!
Isaac Bashevis Singer said

"Of course I believe in free will - I have no choice,"
I often lose myself in the richness and beauty of your diction and syntax like a little girl going off the main road in pursuit of flowers and butterflies. But I do get back and enjoy the excellence of the discourse, as in this case. Thank you, as always.
Very insightful and thought-provoking but language such as "sequestered as they were in unlit cavern of the flamboyantly irrational id " makes it kinda difficult for a layman like myself to comprehend.

As for "Reason simply justifies decisions always already made by processes external to it", I am wondering at the difference between being rational and irrational.
I've always felt that my subconscious has quickly decided what I'm going to do and then my rational side just searches for reasons to justify it. It's also proven how the same question can provoke a different response just by the questioner changing emphasis. We are very easily manipulated.
The determinism vs. free will debate is interesting, but I tend to agree that it's not critical to our shaping of morality. Even if "we have no choice," as the determinist would say, we still must decide right from wrong.
I've been tossing that idea around that we're not as rational and complex as we would like to think. It's an age old paradox; we can come up with all these technological and medical breakthroughs, yet we're still waging wars in the name of God. I might have taken your point to left field, haha.
The question that should be invoked in a discussion of free will is "Free from what?" Whether it is reason or emotion or some rumblings from the infernal internal machine which mystifies everybody, they each have their contribution to how we act, and to ignore all that protoplasmic gadgetry and make a decision from chaos may be free will but it is without question psychosis.
I agree with the way you've addressed the issue. regardless of how many factors incline us one way or the other and seemingly diminish the very notion of free will, we still hold moral precepts, judge others, expect to be judged, and in many situation hold ourselves and others accountable for our and their actions. A misleading conclusion of the determinism position is that if there is no free will, no one is morally good or bad. In practice, for good reason no one holds this position.

The more you look at free will, the more complicated the issues surrounding it become. Kudos for charting a cogent course.
I'm not really prepared to respond to this. It's very good. I think I'll steal (is that an impulsive act?) and adapt (a reasonable one, or an intensification/justification of the initial response?) from Istvan Meszaros's "Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness" (there, I cited him, does that suffice some moral impulse, or simply guilt, or both?):

"This is what we end up with by the time Marcuse, still in an optimistic mood, praises the positive future of his utopia whose horizons are defined by him in terms of "non-repressive sublimation..." It is no wonder therefore that the disappointed expectations with regard to his new subject...lead to the utter despair and pessimism of his last years--when, according to him, "in reality evil triumphs," leaving to the individual nothing but the "islands of good to which one can escape for short periods of time." For the paralyzing negativity of the dominant theoretical discourse cannot be broken by strategies modelled on the psuedo-positivity of Kantian imperatives and transcendental constructs, but only by redefining in inherently positive--as well as practically viable--terms both the direction of the journey and the social agency...."

Then he goes on to talk about mediation, which I believe is your position:

"...critics of the ruling order, like Sartre and Marcuse, should reject the false positivity of which the conception of mediation is a characteristic example. [But]...their [Sartre's and Marcuse's] reliance on Kantian "ought" only makes their negation more abstract and generic, with a tendency to disregard the key role of socially effective mediation in bringing about the necessary structural change."

In other words, if you start with something as blandly, and blatantly, positivistic as the brain sciences, don't be surprised if you end up with a bad subject, a subject resistent to change from the start, even one that makes any real change for the better socially seem impossible, a subject set in stone, despite all the weird, neat molecular movement being tracked down to...what? I think down to the exactly the kind of "We" that shows up near the end of your post. "We" still do good, "We" established civil and voting rights. Did "we"? I distrust this "We." I think it's the same one being hunted down by the brain scientists, I think they have it in mind, as you did, from the start. And it seems isolated to me, totally cut off. Anti-social even. I don't like this "We." As a matter of fact, I think I hate it. I certainly wouldn't invite it to dinner, where it would probably spend the whole evening going on, in ways both subtle and direct, impulsive and reasonable, about how it's done all these things it hasn't, climbed all these mountains it hasn't even seen up close.

I would go further, and ask, "How do we (little case) rid ourselves of It? Of this pernicious WE? And discover us?"

Now there are some questions I'm pretty sure that studying brain science won't answer. But all the movement by the pretty molecules around in a circle inside a skull is really cool.
And I think I degenerated into a smarmy tone there near the end, for effect, and I didn't really mean that. This is one of the smartest posts I've seen on any site in a long time. People should take more interest in what's going on in the brain sciences right now, if for no other reason, then as an intervention in something potentially misleading, dangerous, disastrous. And yes, useful
"Even if our actions spring largely from involuntary factors, taking responsibility for them decreases the lure of infatuated impulsivity. We may not have free will, but we can at least exert that neuroscientist Benjamin Libet calls “free won’t.” We can, like Odysseus, lash ourselves to the mast of restraint."

With this I am familiar. And now it is no longer a secret!
The concept that a lack of free will negates a necessity to do something about bad performance is quite weird. When a machine goes out of whack you fix it or discard it. Why should humans be treated differently?
Impressive and fascinating post. It shows how incredibly complex we all are and research has likely barely touched the tip of the iceberg.
One of the greatest moments in my life is when I went to the museum of science in Florence and saw the instruments Galileo used!

See if you can pass my quiz for the day.....I know you are smart!
Jerry, I follow your essays with great interest. You should collect them in a book. I was born in Turkey and I was trained as a physicist. I am equally interested in Eastern and Western philosophies. I love the Western world and that’s why I live here. Science is not necessarily Western but it was heavily influenced by the Western thought. One thing that escapes science is the existence of soul. The narrower the focus the more off base the conclusion will be. Science does not see the big picture from the perspective of the soul which extends over many lifetimes. Even though the Eastern philosophy talks about karma implying that we are responsible for our actions and we will suffer of reap rewards in the future accordingly, my experiences have taught me that there is also special education designed for our spiritual growth. Not all difficulties are punishment for our past actions. Sometimes the difficulties are really teaching us a new lesson. And most importantly, there is God’s grace. Without His grace and infinite love for us, life would have been meaningless. Do we have free will? In the complicated interplay of karma, biology, and psychology it appears that we don’t but we have this strange ability to comprehend the universe and the miraculous faculty of intuition which can lead us into a life in more harmony with the Cosmic Will. We are given more freedom as we integrate with the Cosmic Mind. The interesting fact is that as we harmonize more our egotism decreases. It seems to me that when we control our ego we gain more free will.
You do an incredible job of making psychology and neuroscience, which is certainly over my head, fascinating and though-provoking. Very well-written.