Thursday, October 09, 2008

A reflection on human fallibility?

This morning, as Kathy was backing the car out of the garage, my mother-in-law opened the interior door from the house and shouted a question at her. Momentarily distracted, Kathy failed to realize that her angle of movement left insufficient space for the car to pass safely through the garage opening. And to make a long story short, my beautiful Nissan Maxima now has one less sideview mirror than it came with.

I wasn't angry when this happened. These days I tend to get far less angry about random stuff. I recognize that we all have a reason why we did something. In this case, as soon as I got upstairs to inspect the damage and I saw my mother-in-law standing there and Kathy sitting in the car, half-in and half-out of the garage, looking chagrined, I could size up what had happened without being told. None of us goes out, after all, and says, "Gee, it's such a lovely day, I think I'll break the mirror off the car." We're rushed, we're distracted, we're upset. Something that happened at dinner last night is still haunting us, so we're not really in the present. There's always an explanation, and it's a plausible one. I get that.

What I
don't get is the arbitrary distinctions we make, as a culture, between small screw-upswhich we seem to understand and shrug offand big screw-upswhich we get all exercised over.

Really, what is the difference
in principlebetween "Honey, I was rushed and distracted, so I backed the car out of the garage at a funny angle and accidentally broke off the mirror," and "Honey, I was rushed and distracted, so I backed the car out of the garage without taking that extra look, and I accidentally ran over the baby"?

Similarly, is there much difference between this:

"What happened was, I guess I lost my temper, so I punched the wall and broke my knuckles."
and this:
"What happened was, I guess I lost my temper, so I punched him and he feel down and hit his head and died."
Yes, I get that the consequences in each second case are far worse, incalculably worse. I'm not an idiot.

But that's not the it? Isn't the essential point in both cases that "accidents ha
ppen"? And even if they're not truly accidents as we commonly define them, as in the case of losing one's temper and punching someone who then dies, aren't there "accidents of emotion"? Momentary lapses that have terrible consequences, but are really no different from forgetting to put the lights out in the living room before going upstairs to bed? Isn't the point that humans are imperfect, and, being imperfect, we slip up now and then? So why penalize one slip-up and not another? And if there are certain slip-ups you're not going to penalize (or even get upset about), then why penalize or get upset about anything at all?

Just askin'.


RevRon's Rants said...

I think that consequences pretty much serve as a reflection of the actions that precede them, and it's all a matter of degrees, Steve. We are "punished" for imagining harm coming to someone we don't like, by the regret we may feel for having such thoughts. We are "punished" for verbalizing those thoughts, via the rebuke we might get from a listener. By the same token, we are "punished" for our actions by the actions of others, taken in (supposedly) proportional response to our own deeds.

Our intent that precedes the actions bears significant weight upon the reaction we face. You would probably have gotten upset, had your wife, in a pique of anger at you, willfully damaged the car. Absent that willfulness, you react more pragmatically, your concern focused upon correcting the damage done, rather than upon her actions. The closest thing to a rebuke might be a dispassionate (albeit unnecessary), "Well, be more careful next time."

When actions take a greater toll than the breaking of a minor component, the response is elevated, as well, even as the intent is considered. That's why accidentally running over a child would be treated as a case of negligent homicide, rather than murder. The repercussions of the action increase along with the damage done, yet an awareness of intent dictates that we weigh the appropriateness of the response to the intent.

On the other hand, you might be a lot madder at her than you're letting on, and using this post to publicly punish (embarrass) her without appearing angry yourself. In that case, you're a sneaky bastard, and should rightfully be exposed for the cad you are, and publicly flogged - or at the very least, have the other mirror broken, as well! :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Hmmmm. Are you accusing me of passive-aggressive posting, then? I'll have to introspect on that....

Steven Sashen said...

This question requires even greater consideration when you add in that recent cognitive psychology research on decisions and thinking suggests that both of those events happen at a non-conscious level and that what we call "thinking", or conscious thought, is really just a made up story to rationalize what we non-consciously "decided."

In other words, the research calls into question the very existence of free will (just because you can have the thought "I could have done it differently" or "I can choose X or Y" doesn't mean that the thought is true).

So, playing with the idea that we don't have free will, THEN how do we deal with the ramifications of our actions?

I would argue that it's no different than now -- we decide as a group about how to punish certain types of behaviors (because having no free will does not eliminate the ability to learn, change and adapt) -- but we wouldn't have the same moralistic, dogmatic, holier-than-whomever flavor added to the mix.

Anonymous said...

Humans are imperfect and slip up all the time if we are honest, not just time to time.
Slipping up is not the problem, thats a given. the trick is recovering your balance on very shaky ground and going on to slip up many more times.
Remember Terry, that croc.
Stare into the abyss and the abyss stares back.
Practice makes almost perfect, thats where experience comes in handy, experience gained slowly over much time, it becomes wise judgement.

Steve Salerno said...

...recent cognitive psychology research on decisions and thinking suggests that both of those events happen at a non-conscious level and that what we call "thinking", or conscious thought, is really just a made up story to rationalize what we non-consciously "decided."

So finally the mental-healing arts are coming around to my way of (non) thinking, huh?

RevRon's Rants said...

"what we call "thinking", or conscious thought, is really just a made up story to rationalize what we non-consciously "decided."

Accepting this "suggestion" would, I think, be followed by one of the following suppositions:
a) Such a "decision" was originally made by some supreme entity that views us as mere puppets, to be manipulated and even destroyed at will. The notion that such a being, obviously advanced beyond our comprehension, would be so simultaneously megalomaniacal as to impose such constraints upon its creations, yet so needy as to require our absolute acquiescence and worship, frankly defies logic. The fact of our continued existence, despite our frequent railings and acts in defiance of the entity's desires, lends even more credence to the absurdity of the supposition.

b) Through many millenia, a virtual googleplex of events have occurred in perfect sequence, at the perfect time and in the perfect place, to create a "reality" in which we currently dwell. Now, I'm not saying that such a profound confluence of "coincidents" is impossible, but it would seem highly unlikely to occur. To apply Occam's Razor, it's not the simplest explanation. If it *were* the correct explanation, even our feigned attempts at instituting "justice" would be little more than a sham with which we delude ourselves into thinking ourselves sentient.

Elizabeth said...

Well, I'd say yes and no, Steve.

Yes to the results of the research Steven has mentioned. But the research deals with relatively simple, conflict-free decisions.

The introduction of inner conflict changes the picture -- and brings in the free will (yes) into play. If there is internal freedom to speak of (and there is), it is in that very moment when we experience (consciously or just barely consciously) the inner conflict between our subconscious impulse and our awareness of its alternative.

E.g., I love sweets in the morning. My first impulse is to reach for chocolate rather than a more substantial breakfast. But I've also learned and understood, on the conscious level at least, that chocolate is a bad choice for me, esp. in the morning. So as I drag myself to the kitchen a.m., half-awake, and instinctively reach to the cabinet where I keep my choco stash (a decision I pre-made already in my un/subconscious mind getting out of bed -- the kind of decision described in the research Steven has mentioned), I also catch myself experiencing a pang of discomfort that comes from knowing that it is not good for me. That's the inner conflict in action. So I stand there, one hand of the cabinet knob, the other scratching my head, trying to convince myself that, just today, a bit of chocolate to begin the day won't hurt. (While the wiser Eliz screams her internal head off in protest.) I have a choice at that moment -- that's where the free will comes in.

And this is a simple situation (chocolate or not in the morn); things get less deterministic, for most of us -- i.e. for those who have a conscience -- in more complex situations involving decisions of, say, the moral nature which deal with, for example, other people.

Anonymous said...

(with apologies for condescension, I can't do it any other way)

For a self-defined Buddhist you put far too much emphasis on the god-concept.
Where in Buddhism is any mention of god-concept? That comes from your early Christian conditioning. Scrap it, scrap perfect too while you're at it.

Anyway, you can't get there from where you are. Another 10 years on the cushion and you might get past the discursive mind.

Mr Sashen is spot on with the stories, its all stories, dramas spun to keep you from seeing whats really there.
Don't be in a hurry to discard the stories, they have a very important function in keeping you safe until you are ready to leave them behind.

next question: Who spins?

I can tell you it all but it is meaningless until you dig for it yourself.
Just do some digging and put your back into it.
Or not, your choice.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz, for lack of time (and the inclination to have masses of people howling at me) I've always avoided wading too deeply into the determinism quagmire. But let's consider your own example(s). Let me start with your final point about conscience: If a person does not have a conscience, either because of lack of maternal attachment or some other untoward event early on, would you agree that he is far more likely to do the things that people without consciences do? Therefore, he is predetermined to act in an antisocial manner--far more so than the rest of us who do have consciences. (And to look at the converse, if we have consciences, that fact alone is going to prevent us--prevent us--from doing things that people without consciences do. So we are determined to do good. Yes, I'm oversimplifying but I think the point is clear.)

Whatever develops inside us emotionally is no different from whatever develops "upon us" physically. You don't choose to grow to be 6-4, as I am; it just happens. You don't choose to have blue eyes. Why would anyone assume that you choose to have the thoughts and feelings you have? What comes out at the end of the day, right down to that "choice" at breakfast, is the sum total of all the interactions of your programming. If you had never "learned" about proper eating, you'd be eating that piece of chocolate that your instincts drove you to. If the learning was passive, then it's simply a force that acted on you (like a sudden gust of wind that blows a fly ball foul). If the learning was active, meaning that you purposely sought to learn more about healthy eating, it was because something else inside you drove you to that end. Maybe you're more intelligent than the next person--but you didn't choose your intelligence, either.

I submit that I could walk you through your day and show you how every single thing you did had to be exactly what you did and could not possibly have been anything other. (By the way, if you didn't like chocolate--which isn't a choice--would you be reaching for it, or impulse or otherwise?)

Then there are the externalities that determine our lives. If there were no such thing as chocolate, you couldn't be drawn to it "on instinct." You can't make choices that don't exist. And the process of creating choices for you to have (i.e. the existence of chocolate) was the inevitable byproduct of other paths of the confluence of predetermined events.

I truly believe--you're gonna laugh--but I truly believe that every single thought we think, and every single act we perform, can be regressed irrevocably to the beginning of time.

Anonymous said...

'every single thought we think, and every single act we perform, can be regressed irrevocably to the beginning of time.'

Yes Steve,

But before that statement can be meaningful to you, rather than just another hypothesis among the millions out there, you must first discover--for yourself--what time is.

Then are we talking about your time, Einsteins time, Stephen whatsits Brief History, Greenwich Mean Time, future or past time, good time or bad time?

Whose time are *you* talking about?

Steve Salerno said...

Does it matter?

RevRon's Rants said...

anon 3:46 - Condescension noted. I find it humorous that someone would judge my "purity" because I don't adhere to every nuance of any belief system. I'll try and make it simple for you (my turn for condescension!). There's a big difference between the beliefs and the machine built around those beliefs. As I'd pointed out before, a person can believe in the value of the Christ's message - and call themselves a Christian - without necessarily ascribing to the whole virgin birth/resurrection story. The teachings stand on their own. By the same token, the mindset that is central to Buddhism is not dependent upon believing every story written about Siddhartha.

As a matter of fact, Buddhism (as visualized by Siddhartha Buddha) transcends beliefs; it is a way of thinking, a way of acting, and a way of viewing the events of one's life. One thing that is absent from the teachings is the application of judgment on others' chosen paths. I'd suggest that you undertake more than a casual study of rituals before issuing report cards on others' beliefs.

Ironically, I wrote a book titled, "You Can't Get There From Here; but That's Okay, You Never Really Left." Your response serves as good motivation for me to complete it and get it published. Thanks!

RevRon's Rants said...

"Does it matter?"

Only in scoring a game of intellectual tennis! :-)

Elizabeth said...

Steve, that's why having discussions on determinism vs. free will is a futile activity -- you can reduce all ad absurdum (or infinity) and still come out thinking what you have been thinking before (or, as you say, what you've been determined to think). Sort of like discussions on atheism vs. belief in God -- there is no point of resolution to those.

I would say, however, that you overreach in your definition of free will. Of course we have no choice in many aspects of our existence: you're 6-4, I have blue eyes, chocolate has been invented before we were born and we had nothing to do with or say about it. Our lives follow along certain pre-programmed lines, yes -- and yet within those pre-programmed perimeters we do have a degree -- a small one but undeniable -- of choice. That's the free will you so insistently are trying to get rid of (and why? :). Unless we are significantly impaired, psychologically, that is -- and I mean the absence of self-awareness and conscience -- we have a degree of choice in almost all situations in our life. If nothing else, this applies to our attitude to our situation, which itself may be fixed and unchangeable. Even individuals in extreme situations (e.g., concentration camps) had the opportunity to exercise this choice (i.e. what kind of attitude to adopt in response to their horrific conditions). Of course not all are able and/or willing to see and exercise this choice, but the fact that even a small number of people do, is evidence for existence of free will.

You could even say here that the existence of free will is pre-determined [:)], or programmed-in to our make up as homo sapiens. Furthermore, we have more evidence of free will in cases of people consciously (and with great difficulty most of the time, btw) changing their life habits, and sometimes turning their lives around in nothing but astounding ways.

Again, you would say they were "determined" to do so, but that would be an extreme overreach, for the decision to change was theirs, and usually achieved after a long period of suffering and soul-searching. They did not have to take that particular road -- yet they consciously chose so. That's free will, no matter how determined are the external and internal circumstances that have led to the moment of the decision itself.

Of course I realize that you are pre-determined to believe otherwise and argue with me here. But perhaps you could at least choose not to punish your wife for breaking the mirror...;)

Anonymous said...

Of course it matters--to you if your question is serious. And if it is not serious, why waste time asking? Our time here is precious.

It no longer matters to me, I unravelled that one long ago. Only my time matters to me. And my only time is now.

Steve Salerno said...

How could there be free will, Eliz? How? It makes no sense. Are we not biologic creatures? To argue for free will is to argue that certain things happen without reason. If there is a reason--if thought is essentially a chemical or electrical process wherein synapse B opens when synapse A fires--then where's the choice? Where are the "free, uncontrolled thoughts" coming from?

Anonymous said...

Honoured to be of service, Revron.

Eliz, you are right about the free will in the choice of attitude.
I remember reading Viktor Frankl when I was 13, he opened a very closed world for me.

Elizabeth said...

Where are the "free, uncontrolled thoughts" coming from?

Good question. Where do thoughts, any thoughts, come from? :)

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - When I was a kid, I had no clue as to the mechanics of the process of human respiration, yet I still breathed (obviously). As I got older and studied, I learned the basics of the process. Naturally, there are those who understand the process far more fully than I.

My point is that while nothing happens "without reason," it would be ludicrous for us to claim that there is no reason beyond our own comprehension. If determinism is truth, it is beyond (or contrary to) my comprehension. If free will is truth, it is beyond (or contrary to) your comprehension. This is truly one of those concepts where there is no "right" possible in human debate. The only "right" exists in one's comprehension and (yes!) beliefs. The only "wrong" exists in our judgment of another's, which is irrelevant anyway, since we can't think with another's mind.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I read stuff like this, I think another defense lawyer is going to have a field day. Think of all the excuses people will have. “I can’t help myself; I am biologically programmed to be a fat lazy slob due to my genetics.” “I would love to help you, but I am biologically predisposition not to. You have to find someone who does have that genetic make-up.” Oh, what fun the world will be.

Steve Salerno said...

Where do thoughts, any thoughts, come from? :)

I don't know. But if they come from anywhere, they're predetermined, ipso facto, it would seem.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 5:13: Not necessarily. Because we still have to live in the world, a civilized world (one hopes), so whether or not laws and punishment are out of conformity with the true "nature of being," we must enforce them nonetheless. The only change I would suggest is that we try to enforce our laws without anger--with the added enlightenment born of the knowledge that the things that happen, pretty much had to happen.

Elizabeth said...

Interestingly enough, this news bit comes out today -- about a video game that exercises willpower instead of finger power:

Kids play the game by using their will to influence their brain activity.

Now, if there is no free will, there would be no will power to speak of = no possibility to make choices *at will* about our behaviors. And as even this technology demonstrates, it is not true.

So, Steve, if we can influence our brain activity (as well as other physiological processes, including breathing, heart rate, etc., not to mention our psychological processes and states) through our deliberate use of willpower, how can you argue that there is no free will?

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: Who is the "we" who is "influencing" our brain power? Is this conscious and controllable? (No.) Would there be any influencing taking place if the game had never been invented? If there weren't certain predispositions and tendencies already embedded inside us, would we make the "decisions" we make in that game?

Did I ever tell you about the time my dad--bless him, and rest his soul--was summoned up to school to answer for the fact that I laughed inappropriately pretty much all day long?

The principal says, "Your son has no self-discipline."

And my father replies, "Well, if he has no self-discipline, what do you want him to do about it? How's that his fault?"

And the principal says, "Well, he needs to develop some."

And my father says, "That's fine, but until he develops it, he won't have any. And once he develops it, he won't be exercising discipline. He'll just be disciplined."

God, I loved my dad.

See my point, though?

Anonymous said...

'it is beyond (or contrary to) my comprehension.'

So why not expand your comprehension, Revron?

Anonymous said...

'We are "punished" for imagining harm coming to someone we don't like,'

We punish ourselves, if we are so inclined.

Elizabeth said...

Who is the "we" who is "influencing" our brain power? Is this conscious and controllable? (No.)

Steve, how do you suppose the video game is played? Of course it is a controllable process. And conscious as much as the person has to exert and control his willpower (i.e. make and execute willful choices) in the game. That is the point of it -- and that is the fun of it, too.

I give up. (And don't blame me, I'm obviously determined to do so.;)

Steven Sashen said...

A lack of free will does not demand determinism in it's stead.

Some have argued for "quantum determinism" where we know, say, *that* an atom might decay or change state, but we don't know *when*.

The temporal difference could lead to any number of different and unpredictable events/futures.

It's probably fair to apply this to the biological/chemical aspects of the brain.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz, let me put it this way: To me, the behavior of the human playing the video game is as predetermined as the behavior of the video game. Nothing "just happens." We may not know in advance what's going to happen...but that doesn't mean it isn't set in stone.

Steve Salerno said...

Steve: Yeah, but the mere fact that we can't predict it or know it (even a fraction of a second ahead of time) doesn't mean it's not preordained. I don't know when it's going to rain next, either--but the exact moment the first drop will fall is rock-certain (despite what James Gleick argues in Chaos).

Anonymous said...

'-but the exact moment the first drop will fall is rock-certain (despite what James Gleick argues in Chaos).'

Way too many variables, all in continuous and constant flux, no scientist would ever make such a statement.

Carl Sagan (a scientist) had a good take on this:
'Arguments from authority carry little weight(in science there are no "authorities")'

Item 3 from full text:

Steve Salerno said...

Look, Anon, maybe what we've got here is a difference in semantics. But it would seem that life--the overall of it, considering all the elements in the universe, however far it extends--is a closed system. There are no new variables. Never were, never will be. (And if there are new variables, by some magic, then all bets are off about everything anyway. If we're going to admit deus ex machina thinking into the discussion, then what's the point of applying logic or science at all?)

So if you have a closed system, and all of the variables are acting upon one another at all times, then the sum total of those interactions determines what happens anywhere and everywhere. No?

And what do you mean the variables are "in flux"? They may seem in flux to us--because we can't sort it all out--but their actions are hardly random. If randomness were operative, then you might easily have days when the sun didn't rise. (And I'm not saying we won't eventually, depending on further interactions of those variables.) But come on. Life, at least as far back as we're aware of it, has been fairly orderly to this point, and the reason it's been orderly is that everything happens for a reason.

RevRon's Rants said...

Sounds a lot like Mr. Spock got beamed down into an episode of Kung Fu! Remove the improvable elements, and all that's left is a collection of individual perspectives so diametrically opposed they will likely never reach synthesis. And that's okay.

Steve is sure that all existence is ruled by some static script. Someone else is sure that the fuse got lit for the big bang, and we're all observing the events unfold, and choosing to instigate some of the events and reactions. I think we're looking for absolutes where none exist, yet still striving to prove their existence because, by damn, we "know" they exist. The scary part is that the wise old sage Donald Rumsfeld would probably fit right in here!

"As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know."

I dunno... :-)

Anonymous said...

'I dunno... :-)'

Me neither, but that could be a spur to striving to know more rather than throwing in the towel.

Elizabeth said...

Your POV is perplexing (to me), Steve. Sorta deterministic fundamentalism (or fundamentalist determinism). Would you ever let arguments supported by evidence convince you that free will is a reality? I didn't think so, LOL. You seem to have grown a firm belief in determinism -- and it is hard to argue with a belief. Especially when you extend your reasoning supporting it to infinity and other concepts that exceed our capacity to form any reasonable judgments and, by necessity, lead to pure speculation. (And when you do this, you lose sight, IMO, of the reality of our daily lives -- and this is where, after all, the issue of free will really matters.)

That's why discussions like this one are unresolvable (if one is looking for some kind of a resolution, that is). And of course it's not just Steve Salerno vs. free-willers; the debate about the reality of free will has been going on for ages -- and will continue as long.

As an aside, I'd note that even such staunch determinists as Christians, who believe that God has arranged and pre-ordained reality on the scale large and small, not only point out the existence of free will in our human dealings, but also insist (rightly so, IMO) on its central importance in our decisions. We have no say in our birth and death, as well as the circumstances of our lives (by and large), but within those clear constraints we have some freedom of choice as it applies to our actions. It is beyond me how you could dispute this, frankly. You know, this morn I had several things to do -- but I *chose* to sit down and compose this comment. Out of my free will (as far as I can tell). I did not have to do it and I highly doubt this activity was pre-ordained for me in any way. (Though you may disagree, I gather.)

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: OK, let me ask you sumthin': Suppose I could download Everything Elizabeth into a computer--all of the swirling internal variables that make you you--and, on that basis, I was able to predict everything you do next week, right down to every last syllable you say, with a 99.99% accuracy (allowing for some programming errors). If I were able to do that, would you then, at least, believe that there's no such thing as free will?

Do you further agree that if we only make the "choices" we must make, that's not "free will"?

I believe that if, right this moment, I asked you to pick a number between 1 and 1000, there is only one number it could be. Truthfully; that's just how I see it. But clearly we see it differently, so as you say, there's not much point in continuing.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Me neither, but that could be a spur to striving to know more rather than throwing in the towel."

Put away the wand, Mr. Potter. Disagreement is not synonymous with ignorance, and turning aside from something with which I fundamentally disagree hardly constitutes "throwing in the towel." An open mind accepts and allows disagreement, but needn't open so wide that the brains tumble out. :-)

RevRon's Rants said...

So this guy walks into a brothel, makes the appropriate financial transaction, and goes into the room with his "date." When he undresses, his date looks down, laughs, and asks him, "Who are you gonna satisfy with *that* little thing?"

He looks her in the eye and defiantly declares, "Me!"

Our beliefs are no different than the man's ... well, you get the point. Comparing each other's "beliefs" can be entertaining, even somewhat enlightening, so long as it doesn't get too personal. :-)