Saturday, September 18, 2010


(The following is taken from another contribution of mine in a continuing discussion about free will on the World Pantheism Movement website I belong to.)

I sometimes think that a person needs to be involved in crisis situations before they can uncover the determinism that drives their own human behavior. Because we can reflect ahead (interesting turn of phrase, eh) in most cases, we seem able to ignore that the ultimate determinant in any decision is our emotional life (the mechanisms evolved for the regulation of our behaviors). We can tell other people, "I'm not going to the dance because Emily's going to be there." Or we can say we can't go because we "have homework to do". In discussing our decisions with others, language makes us supply calculations or reasons for our decisions, but quite often we don't relate the feelings that actually determined our decisions. Often we're not even aware of the emotional currents that underpin our decisions. If it was fear of the hurt of seeing ex-girlfriend Emily that kept us from going to the dance, we seldom say that we were afraid. We leave it up to our friends to understand what's going on. And people spend a good deal of their lives reflecting upon other people's behaviors, and they generally do so by trying to think about what others are/were feeling when they made a decision. Note the verb "to make" in the phrase? It reveals that we imagine decision making as an activity that can be formed or shaped. Language colors all our discussion about human behavior.

By the way, if you want to get deeply into the difference between a liberal and a conservative mentality, I believe it's in their capacity for self-knowledge, their capacity for getting in touch with the emotions that underlie their behaviors. The liberal tends to be a Hamlet and the conservative leans toward Genghis Khan. Action versus reflection. The reason we go at each other so mercilessly is that we don't accept that the others' underlying emotional life predetermines their thoughts and actions. So we blame them for their actions. We imagine them in out mental lives as responsible for their emotional reflexes.

Anyhow... to return to the theme of crisis in decisions. In a barroom brawl is one instance where our determinism becomes apparent. Think about all the immediate decisions that can flow from the conflict. Anywhere from running from the bar to participating joyously in the fray or, in the middle, seeking a balcony view where one can watch from safety. Among those who participate, are some who'll grab a beer bottle, break it and try to cause serious harm to an opponent. While another can only use his fists. Another might pick up a handy pool cue. Of course, depending upon which opponent faces you, you might graduate to a broken beer bottle if your opponent has one.

My point is that these decisions in crisis situations are flowing from every piece of experience that has formed our emotional cores up to the moment of decisions, the mechanisms which control your behavior. You may have rehearsed your behaviors all your life by imagining them through, but in crisis your decisions are based upon the exact alignment of all your experiences at the moment they trigger your action. And when I say alignment, I mean every synapse and chemical reaction that has been repeatedly rehearsed by every imagining of behavior and every feedback for every behavior that you've had in the past. You are so primed for action that you don't need to think about it. The switches activate and the behavior begins, but those behaviors are conditioned by so much individual experience as well as genetic inheritance that no person can take any credit for how he acts in a crisis.

Later, after the crisis passes, we often discuss our behavior with others, but by then, we're already shading our discussions, feelings and reactions to the crisis even from ourselves. How many people can tell a relative stranger, "Man, am I a coward! I ran from that bar like a chicken with its head cut off!" No we'll say, "Them damn fools was a trying to kill each other. I got the hell out of there!" Our fear is obvious to another person, but think about all the shades of meaning that can attach to an action that is motivated by fear? No wonder, the more civilized we get, the less we are in touch with crisis situational thinking. A hunter gatherer was always in crisis and those who hunted the mastodon effectively (fearlessly) stood out and became the leader and those of us more cautious became the shamans. Et cetera!

I still side with determinism even though our less dangerous existences nowadays allow us time to imagine (reflect) upon our behaviors and imagine that we control them when, deep down, it's a single uncontrollable synapse that tips the balance of behavior in each decision.

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