Night Terrors

Carl awoke screaming, still caught in his dream. Reeducation did that to you.

With the realisation that no-one could help their actions, had come the judicial reform. Violent offenders were no longer punished, but reeducated. Today it was possible to instill the sense of empathy in someone who lacked it.

So now Carl was capable of love and empathy. By day. By night he relived his past: every blow, every stab, every cruelty he had visited on his victims. The look in their eyes.

The suicide rate among Re-eds was 60%. The rest … probably innocent.

Quicker than death row, some said.

T.Mastgrave’s challenge: Determinism vs. Free Will.

Responsibility vs. Blame

I’ve argued before that we are pulled in many different ways by our feelings and needs, and that we do not consciously choose our actions. Also, believing that somebody deliberately chose to act badly is what triggers anger, hatred and blame.

– Heresy n°2 –

Everyone is always doing their best.

While I characterise it as a heresy, it’s not exactly a new idea. Many people reject it because thy are afraid that if noone is to blame for their actions, we will lose any kind of morality, and the basis for social order. In one sense this is true: our current societies are based on blame, and that does go out the window. At the same time we can easily replace it with something better: responsibility.

Blaming is about looking backward, about judging and finding a guilty party. Responsibility looks forward: it is our common responsibility to find a way of living together in peace. Blame is divisive, responsibility binds us together.


Adopting Heresy n°2 means we can think in terms of incentives and deterrents. These don’t depend on free will: if an action is connected to a cost or benefit, this becomes a factor in the unconscious decision making process, and influences our behaviour. And we can think about influencing behaviour much more clearly without the fog of concepts like blameworthiness, and just deserts.

Have you ever found yourself defending your own behaviour, although, in your heart of hearts, you were unhappy with it yourself? When we play the blame-game, we are automatically creating opposition. When we say “you are a bad person” to someone, it’s not really surprising that they push back. Suppose instead we say: “I understand you had a good reason to act as you did, at the same time I really don’t like what you did, maybe you aren’t completely happy with it either?” Then maybe together with that person we can find ways to help them act differently in the future, or to prevent the negative consequences of such actions.

Most important of all, when we adopt the idea that everyone is always doing their best we can stop wrestling in our minds with what we think is going on in someone else’s head. Have you ever found yourself repeating an argument you had with someone? Have you ever found yourself wanting to “teach someone a lesson”, or to “show them how it feels”? This is all unpleasant, and it’s not about what really happened, but about what you think is going on inside the other person’s head. When you accept that that person did not choose to act as they did, you can let it go.

Personal slant

There are many ways of expressing Heresy n°2., e.g. “Everyone is acting the only way they can act in the situation as they see it.” I prefer my version “Everyone is always doing their best” because I find it emotionally more appealing. The positive slant makes it easier for me to feel compassion with someone whose actions are getting on my nerves. Of course, everyone is free to find their own way of putting it.

A final test

If you think: “Well that’s all very nice, but it’s not really true, is it?” try this test. Think of something bad that you’ve done, something you are really unhappy with in retrospect. Were you happy and relaxed that day? Was the sun shining, the sky blue, and did you decide to do something bad just for the hell of it?  Or were you under pressure, stressed out, exhausted, afraid, or hurt? Was this something you did because you saw no other way, or you just couldn’t help yourself?

I think you will find that at that moment, under those circumstances you did the best you could, however miserable that best may have been. Now, if you claim this compassion for yourself: how can you deny it to anyone else?

Thought Experiment on Anger

Why is the free-will question so important, especially if reality is bunk, anyway? Do this thought experiment:

Step 1: Choose a situation in your life, where someone made you really angry. Angry, not devastated; no murders etc.

Don’t read on until you’ve chosen. “Person A did X, and that really pissed me off.”

Continue reading Thought Experiment on Anger

Why God Invented Free Will

What is free will, anyway? Here some ways of seeing it._____

Free decision _____
“If we went back to a situation and faced it again, we could go another way.”
This is simply meaningless. As Heraclitus already knew, you cannot bathe in the same river twice._____

Unpredictability _____
“Before we decide, it could go either way.”
Recent findings suggest that someone looking at your brain can see what you will decide, before you become aware of it.
More relevantly, simple factors are good predictors of our lives._____

Changeability _____
“If we go through the same type of situations again and again, we can make different decisions.”
No, we can’t. No matter how badly we want to change our behaviour, as long as the situations remain the same (for us), we tend to make the same bad decisions over and over.
What we can do, is change the situation. Often by changing the way we think about it. Therapy types that change how we think about a situation are the ones that seem to be most helpful. ___

Harm avoiders ____
“We can take measures to avoid bad things we see coming.”
Undoubtedly. In fact, we cannot do otherwise.
Call that freedom? Prisoners of the world: you are free. Well, free to remain in your cells.

Manual override 
Why do we actually want free will? Who wants to bother with all the little stuff: breathe in, breathe out, lift foot, blink eyes…?
What we want, is to have the power to make the big decisions. Especially when our actions seem to go against what we think we want. Then we want a “manual override” button, to do as we choose.

We are simply not aware of many of the factors going into the decision making process. An override button might do more harm than good. Anyway, why should our conscious self be allowed to skew the decision in its favour?

But it feels like I’m deciding 
Someone told Wittgenstein that people had thought the sun revolves around the earth “because it looked that way”. He is said to have asked: “But how would it have looked if the earth revolved around the sun?”
Now, how would it feel if you were not consciously deciding? Of course, “you” do decide. It’s just not a part of you that is in the spotlight of conscious awareness.

Where does that leave us?

Our decision making process is largely an unconscious one. Our cognitive brain may be asked for an analysis of the situation, but that’s it. Our conscious justifications come after the fact. There is an “out”: when we are too unhappy with our decision making, this triggers conscious reflection and we can take steps to improve.

German philosopher Schmidt-Salomon says: we are free to act according to our desires, but not free to choose what we desire (here).
Good enough for me.