Free will, ego, and morals
Let’s define what these terms mean first, then state the goal of this article, and then we dive in. Definitions copied from a dictionary:
What do these terms mean:
Free will: the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.
Morals: Standards of behavior; principles of right and wrong. The code of conduct you carry, and which decides your behavior in a certain situation.
Ego: This is an abused word. It can mean many things, but here I mean: The sense of self.
We want to have a little argument around free will, figure out if we have it. I must warn you that I am already convinced that we don’t have it, so this post is biased. We establish a link between no-free-will and ego, and then talk about how it in turn relates to moral code.
This is a thought play. There is not enough science or technical aspect to this. Needless to say, take all this with a pinch of salt. I keep updating my thought process so it may not be the same tomorrow.
Free will, does it exist?
What reasoning goes into a decision. What shapes up that reasoning, and where does the agent that we call “self” comes in. Do we have free will?
Consciousness in itself is hard to define, and I can’t say I understand it. We are not concerned with defining it. Neither are we concerned enough about how the brain works in this article. We will look at few simple aspects we can agree on and try to reason from there to figure out if we can say, “We have free will”.
There’s a murder. Bob killed Alice. Why? Maybe Bob was furious, and out of control because Alice stole his sheep. Maybe Alice is a doctor and due to her negligence, Bob’s sick mother died under her observation. Maybe Bob likes to kill people.
In any case, would you say Bob is responsible for Alice’s death? Of course, yes!
Take any action of yours. Can you say you are the one who took it? Yes, of course. But what if you try to attribute it to some event, which started a snowball rolling off the mountain. Which resolved in you taking that action? We want to find the ultimate, the root source event which might’ve made us take that action. Not as far as the big-bang, but something in our reach.
Let’s talk about something simple. Let’s say you have an urge to eat an ice-cream. Why could that be?
- Maybe today it’s a bit hot outside
- Well, your body needs to maintain its temperature to function. It can do it on its own, but subconsiously asking for a helping hand?
- Why does it need to maintain its temperature?
- Maybe some physical constraints? I don’t know enough to talk about why, but this depth is good enough.
- Maybe you have a craving for something sweet. Why?
- Evolutionary bug? We used to be hunter-gatherers and food was hard to come by. Whenever we did, we ate loads of it. Why?
- To save up calories in the form of fats, to increase our chances of survival?
- Why survive?
- I don’t have an answer for this (yet). Why do we have this drive to survive, to live, to have kids.
- I guess something biological. So, let’s blame it on Biology. This depth is good enough too.
- Why survive?
- Maybe you are trying to cope with difficult emotional state by producing some feel-good feelings that you get after eating something sweet. To distract yourself from the difficult emotions.
- Can you think of something else? Maybe it’s a function of all cases above, maybe something we do not consider here.
Like above, if you pick any simple action, a big achievement, an embarrassing moment, an evil deed, you can attribute it to something – don’t have to go too deep. Something like, “My family was poor, and hence it makes me work hard to make sure we are not poor again” is enough.
It’s not always easy to reach these source events, and a lot of times you’d attribute it to a wrong one. A lot of our decisions are influenced by things happening in our brain we are not aware of.
In every example above, we attribute it to something outside of our own control. There may be some examples where you attribute the source to yourself, “I always get up late, because I stay up late in the night”.
For such examples where you blame yourself: Follow the chain of attributions deep enough till you are out of the picture. In “I wake up late” example: Maybe your body’s clocks are set that way? In our hunter-gatherer era (which is about 96% of our existence as homo sapiens), we had to hunt for wild animals. We used to live in small groups. We had risk from animals, and other groups. At night, every member of the group couldn’t be asleep at the same time. Some had to stay awake and keep watch to wake everyone if there was some risk. And it must have been in rotation because no person could possibly be sleeping through day? And so, maybe we are programmed to sleep and wake up at different times? And so, it’s not you to blame, you are just programmed that way by your genetic makeup?
Given any action, I think you can always reach the source event for which you are not responsible. One you did not control. Also, be careful with this, you can’t be 100% sure about your source events. See choice-supportive bias, or self-justification.
This is one way to think about it, below is another viewpoint.
The state of your brain/body at this moment is a function of:
- The “logical” environment your mind had exposure to. Think culture, language, people, your experiences so far.
- This may be the biggest factor - 80% (TODO - add reference)
- Your genes
- You inherit 50% of genes from your mother, and 50% from your father. Who in turn have inherited genes from their parents. So you are 1/4th of each of your grand-parent.
- PTSD may be transferred from parents to children via gene expressions! So it’s not only genes, but their expressions that carry forward to descendants. Think of this as information that was generated through your parents experiences which gets carried forward to you! Kind of like - their memories getting transferred via genes!
- The physical environment your body had exposure to. Think the food you ate, allergies, sun exposure, etc.
- Your genes are not only a sequence of instructions. They come with bunch of switches in them. They can be either turned on or off. Your physical environment affects these switches. They decide if you should have that allergic reaction, or fever. Or even control the balance of neurotransmitters (brain chemistry).
- The quality and quantity of attention your mother provided you till before you were one year old affects your personality!
Which one of these you control? Maybe you can say you can choose to stay in Japan, instead of India. But who’s making that call? why do you move to Japan and not Bangladesh?
My argument is that, you don’t truly control 1, 2, or 3. And they influence what you end up doing in a certain situation. Hence, you have no free will.
Still don’t buy it?
Here are some interesting medical examples:
Charles Joseph Whitman (June 24, 1941 – August 1, 1966) was an American mass murderer who became infamous as the “Texas Tower Sniper”. On August 1, 1966, Whitman used knives to kill his mother and his wife in their respective homes, then went to the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) with multiple firearms and began indiscriminately shooting at people. He fatally shot three people inside UT Austin’s Main Building, then accessed the 28th-floor observation deck on the building’s clock tower. There, he fired at random people for some 96 minutes, killing an additional eleven people and wounding 31 others before he was shot dead by Austin police officers. Whitman killed a total of sixteen people; the 16th victim died 35 years later from injuries sustained in the attack.
Apparently, this was a good person in the standard sense. Reliable, a loving husband, and a son.
Some of his notes:
To Whom It May Concern: I have just taken my mother’s life. I am very upset over having done it. However, I feel that if there is a heaven she is definitely there now […] I am truly sorry […] Let there be no doubt in your mind that I loved this woman with all my heart
I imagine it appears that I brutally killed both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job […] If my life insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts […] donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type […] Give our dog to my in-laws. Tell them Kathy loved “Schocie” very much […] If you can find in yourselves to grant my last wish, cremate me after the autopsy
They did look at his brain, and a strong hypothesis was:
Forensic investigators have theorized that the tumor pressed against Whitman’s amygdala, a part of the brain related to anxiety and fight-or-flight responses.
Alright, another such medical case is: Phineas Gage. He had an accident while working on a railroad construction site where an iron rod pierced through his skull and completely passed through it, taking a big blob of his brain out along with it. It took out his frontal cortex – part of the brain responsible for controlling our rational and emotional signals. The part which maintains our moral code. How did it affect his behavior?
He lost inhibitions - like being super drunk. Frontal cortex moderates your social behavior. He lost that ability.
Anyway, doesn’t it all make you think that you are a machine? Like, what if you get into an accident and lose the frontal cortex? Or if your amygdala is pressed upon by a tumor like Charles Whitman? (I hope you live a long and healthy life)
The only reason I am using these medical cases is to bring some data points to your attension that can make a case for – We are just machines!
Now if we agree that there is no free will, it leads to some questions:
- Identity / ego - Who am I? Am I only an automaton, pre-programmed to do something.
- Morals - If nothing I do is my own choice, why can’t I stop working, start looting, and live a life without labor?
Ego, or who am I?
If anything that I do, or think is because of something else, who am I even? Do I not have anything of my own? I think that’s the case. the accidental and random aspect of life is the fact. Is it a downer, disheartening? Knowing that we’re a product of randomness? Like all that effort towards your ethos, or cause wasn’t because you decided to do it. Rather something that emerged out of an automaton because of series of chance occurrences.
But ego plays a role here? Why is it disheartening in the first place? Deep down, is there a desire to be known for something? to leave a print? But in the end, why does it even matter?
So if you think we do have free will, ask yourself if it’s your ego talking?
Regardless, it’s better to just acknowledge, and ignore the free will aspect. Internalizing “I don’t have a free will” is very hard. More below.
This is a hard one. An interesting mental game:
- Convince yourself for a bit that you have no free will, that all your mistakes and misdeeds are not your fault.
- Even if you do make any mistakes henceforth, tell yourself that it is not your fault and do them anyway.
- Think of an evil act. Now try imagining yourself doing it.
- Also imagine that there will be no consequences of it. The world will forget about it and move on, no one will remember a thing.
- Do you think you will do it?
In your imagination, are you able to go through with it? The more visceral and real your imagination is, the better answer you will get.
Anyway, someone raised a question that if we have no free will, why should I care about morals? Anything that’s done by this body, isn’t it done by this body and not “I”?
I can reason about us not having free will but deep down I don’t think I believe it. I am delusional, and so is everyone else who thinks they have free will. I also think it’s important to maintain this delusion. It helps us keep our sanity, it also creates this loop:
- Every act we do takes us further along some line:
- Drink alcohol one time, you’d drink it again, so on and so forth a chain will start which may continue forever?
- Lie in bad faith once, and you may do it again.
If we believe in free will, we will be tied with the moral code we carry. We will feel responsible for our actions. A socially accepted moral code helps keep the society tied together and keeps it functioning?
I also think that even if you internalize the “no free will” aspect, you’d still carry the moral code. I don’t think they’re tied together.
I understand the last two paragraphs conflict each other. Both are speculations and I don’t know any better today.
- Behave - Robert Sapolsky
- Wikipedia articles linked along the blog. The snippets of Charles Whitman’s notes are copied as-is from the wikipedia article.