Wednesday, September 29, 2004

How we make a decision

“I am quite capable of jumping in my car and driving to Edinburgh right now
and for no other reason than that I want to.... I am a free agent, equipped with
free will.”

Matt Ridley, Genome

As Dr Ridley points out, we don’t just do things ‘for no reason’ - we do them because we ‘want to’…

So how does Dr Ridley know whether he "wants to" go to Edinburgh or not?

We can imagine his thoughts as he mulls over whether to make the trip: maybe his mum lives there, or someone that owes him money. Perhaps he’s heard what a beautiful place Edinburgh is and that the shopping’s rather good - or possibly he just wants to prove that he's got free will. All these things are the incentives for the trip - the benefits to be gained by going to Edinburgh.

But pretty much everything we want in life has some sort of cost:

It's not clear how far it is to Edinburgh, but we'll assume it's a fair distance. So Dr Ridley will have to take into account the price of petrol, the boredom of the long drive and if he's anything over 6ft, the back-ache from being wedged into the inadequate space behind the steering wheel. These are all costs of the journey - things arguing against him taking the trip.

But how does he know whether the costs of the trip outweigh the advantages?

Were it a simple financial transaction, he could simply compare the cost against the profit. But how do you compare the ‘cost’ of a back-ache with the ‘profit’ of seeing your mum?

You have to think about how it will make you feel.

And we humans are equipped with the ability to imagine in advance how much pleasure or pain a particular event will give us: it’s what we do when we’re umming and ahhing about a decision – we’re trying to anticipate the situation, and compare the pain and discomfort against the pleasure to be gained.

So when Dr Ridley is ‘deciding for no reason’ whether to go to Edinburgh or not, what he’s actually doing is weighing up:

- How many ‘good feelings’ he’s going to get from the trip: how much
satisfaction at recovering the money he's owed, how much pleasure at seeing his
mum, how much contentment at proving that he's got free will


- How many 'bad feelings' it will cost him to get there (expense of the petrol,
aching back, frustration at slow traffic).

If the scales come down on the side of good feelings, then he's in the car and on his way.

It’s how we make any decision. From ‘Which TV program shall I watch?’ to ‘Shall I get married?’, any decision is an attempt in some tiny way to carve out a pleasant life for ourselves.

- We avoid situations that make us feel guilty, sad, afraid.
- We try to
create a world for ourselves which is full of joy, satisfaction and contentment.

“Where are there are two desires in a man's heart he has no choice between the two but must obey the strongest, there being no such thing as free will in the composition of any human being that ever lived.”
- Mark Twain in Eruption

So what does this observation tell us about the freedom that we prize so highly?
- what it is that determines how we feel?
What is it that’s controlling our choices and behaviour? And what would we do if we were really in control of our lives?

Next: Who's really in charge?

But..! Some questions:

But...! Can't we control our own feelings?

Presumably not - otherwise we'd all be a lot happier than we already are... We might be able to 'talk ourselves' into feeling better, but this only ever happens in response to a feeling we already have. From the moment we awake we’re being assailed by feelings we’d rather not be having – the insistent ring of the alarm clock reminding us of the painful reality that we’ve got to get up and face the day. We can’t stop the bad feelings arriving, otherwise we’d just tell ourselves to be delighted at the start of each: all we can do is try to ‘think positive’, and maybe distract ourselves by turning the radio on.

But…! I often do things I don't want to do - like working for an exam, or putting in overtime…

We often do things we don’t want to do. Indeed, some people claim they spend most of their lives doing things they don’t want to do. So why do we do things we don’t want to do?

Maybe neither of the options open to us will give us any pleasure: nobody likes paying taxes, but the potential fine for not paying them is going to be even more painful, so what can we do other than choose the thing that hurts least: it’s the best way to minimise the total unpleasant feelings we’re going to experience.

Or maybe we’ve calculated that the way to get the most pleasure out of any particular situation is by doing things that hurt a little bit first: "invest in the future" - work hard now because the ultimate satisfaction will exceed the effort put in: study for your exams, because you’ll be better off with the qualification; go for a run now because it feels better to be slim and fit. It’s what child psychologists call ‘delaying your gratification’ and it’s one of the things that children have to learn as they grow up. Babies don’t do it, adults do. 10 year old children are somewhere in between, on the painful path of learning that often the way to get the most out of life is by doing things that hurt a bit first.

But…! I often I do things I don’t want to do in order to help other people, or because it’s the right thing to do.

Sometimes we talk about doing things "because it's the right thing to do" - and by that we usually mean we're doing something we wouldn’t choose to do, other than because of our strong sense of moral responsibility.

But once again, we’re just choosing the course of least pain.

My friend telephones me and says ‘I really need your help to get my new piano up
the stairs to my flat.”

I weigh up the situation: I think of the
pleasure I’m going to get kicking my feet up in front of the TV; I think of the
effort, the hassle, of driving over to my friend’s house; I imagine slipping on
the stairs and being hurled down three flights with a piano on my head. I’m just
about to think of an excuse… when I start to feel selfish. I imagine my poor
friend struggling to get the piano up the stairs on his own. I think of all the
favours he’s done for me in the past, and I realize I can’t win: helping makes
me feel bad, but not helping makes me feel worse. I feel so bad at the thought
of my poor friend struggling without me, that before I know it I’m pulling on my
shoes and rushing out the door.

I’ve chosen the action which gives me least pain. It's what makes me such a nice guy. I also get a little bonus, because I start to feel good about myself, and my friend says nice things about

But…! Somehow it seems deeply insulting to say that we help other people simply to make ourselves feel better.

Do we want our saints to dislike being saints? Presumably what made Mother Theresa a ‘saint’ was the realisation that - for her, at least - the greatest pleasure, satisfaction and contentment would come from working for the benefit of others. The effort and the difficulties would be far outweighed by the rewards. It made her feel good to help to relieve someone else’s suffering. The effort of putting aside her own ‘selfish’ needs was more than compensated for by the good feelings she experienced as a result of her ‘unselfish’ actions.

To be motivated to help another person, we have to know that they have a problem – that they themselves are in pain. But we can only know their pain by feeling it ourselves.

Mother Teresa could never be sure what other people were feeling - she had to put herself in their shoes to imagine what they must be feeling. She looked at their expressions, their circumstances, and she listened to what they were telling her. And it made her sad. It made her angry. She only cared about their pain through her experience of her own pain.

But…! But what about civic duty - the moral code?

“ I can choose to help others not because I particularly want to - I'd much
rather being going to the races, to be honest. But i'll do it because it’s my
duty. I'll go to the soup kitchen and help out because it's the right thing to

"And you don't like it?"

"Well, it's OK, but it's
not exactly the best fun in the world."

"And when you've done it -
when you've done your bit of civic duty - how do you feel

"Glad it's over."

"But how do you feel about
yourself as person?"

"Well... good I suppose. I'm pleased with
myself for having done it. Wouldn't like myself much if I

"So you don't hate yourself, then? You don't despise
yourself for your weakness, for your selfishness at having done your moral

"No of course not. Don't be absurd."

"And if
you miss your monthly visit to the soup kitchen? How do you feel then? Pleased
with yourself. Happy that you haven't been?"

"OK, OK. I get the
point. I do my civic duty because it makes me feel better. But still, I really
don't like what you're saying, doesn't seem right somehow."

know it’s wrong, you just don't know why?"

"That's right.
Absolutely right."

But…! Every decision? I’m still not convinced. Where’s the evidence?

Don’t forget, we need an explanation. We have a problem – a disagreement between science and our personal experience. And rather than blame science, we’re looking for a flaw in our personal experiences of life. And as we’ll see, not only is this an explanation of ‘being human’ that fits our personal experiences, it’s also a necessary explanation.

In the next few chapters, we'll see how this understanding fits with the scientific understanding of how humans were created and how it resolves the fundamental dilemma as to whether or not we have free will.

Next: Who's really in charge?

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Monday, September 20, 2004

Who's really in charge?

"A man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he
- Schopenhauer

But doing what I want doesn’t make me a robot, does it?
- If I’ve got the ability to choose to do things that I think will make me
feel good… then what’s the problem with that? I’m still in charge, aren’t

Well, that depends on who - or what - is deciding which things make you feel good…

The Evil Scientist

Let’s get back to Dr Ridley trying to decide whether to go to Edinburgh or not. And let’s imagine that he’s somehow fallen into the hands of.... an Evil Scientist.

Our Evil Scientist has gained access to Dr Ridley 's brain.... and she's found a
way to rewire his neural pathways so that she's in control of whether he feels
good or bad about something. She could, for example, set up his brain so that he
disliked seeing his mum... or indeed so that everything else that was
previously attractive about his proposed trip now filled him with dread and

Would he still go to Edinburgh?

Well, he’d be
somewhat confused that the thought of seeing his mum was making him feel bad,
but he wouldn't put himself through the effort of the trip if he could see so
much pain coming from it.

And yet he would of course still feel
like he was making his own decision....

In reality, of course,
he’d just be doing precisely what the Evil Scientist told him to do.

If we can’t choose which things make us feel good, and which things make us feel bad… then how free are we? To answer that, we need to ask the key question: why is it that some things make us feel good… and some things make us feel bad?

But before we get to why, we need to know where:

- where are feelings created, and where is it decided whether the feeling we experience should be ‘nice’ or ‘nasty’?

Where are feelings?


Feelings are created inside our own brains

We know that all our thoughts happen inside our brains, so presumably that must be where we experience all our feelings and emotions as well. And not only is it the place where feelings are experienced, but it must also be the place where those feelings are created:

Although ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ seem to be automatic responses to things happening in
the world around us, we also know that these feelings aren’t somehow being
beamed into our brains from the outside world. When we eat ice cream, we know
that nerve impulses are passing from our taste buds into our brains, and that
somehow our brains convert those impulses into feelings or pleasure.

A bad feeling is not an inevitable consequence of the physical world - like
light travelling in straight lines, or like gravity pulling us towards the

We also know that when someone tells us that our mother is dying, all that’s
entering our heads are the sound waves of their voice: it has to be our
brains that somehow convert those sound waves into the feelings of sadness
that we ‘automatically’ feel.

But how automatic is it?

Somehow our brains must be decide whether ‘mother dying’ makes us feel ‘overjoyed and elated’ or ‘desperate sadness’.


Our own brains decide whether our lives are…

abject misery or utter delight.

The only suffering we ever experience must be created by our own brains.

Doesn’t seem right somehow. Our own brains?

When a prisoner is trapped in his enemy’s torture chamber and subjected to hours
of horrendous pain… the pain he experiences is created entirely by his own
. Sure, he wouldn’t be experiencing that horror if his torturer weren’t
subjecting him to the horror, but the torturer would have no weapon were it not
for our own body’s ability to create enormously awful feelings.

We blame
our torturer…

…but should we be blaming our own brain?

We’ll discuss the implications more later, but we can not escape the conclusion.

Q But..! That’s silly. We have to feel bad. If your mother dies - you have to feel bad: it’s absurd to think it could be any other way.

Does your mother want you to be unhappy? Does she want you to be miserable?
Sure, she wants to know that you love her and that you’re going to miss her. But
the chances are that she’s spent your whole life trying to do things that will
make you as happy as possible. And there you are - unhappy, miserable and
missing her. The point is not so much whether or not we should feel happy or
unhappy, the point is to realise that it is a decision of our own brains, and
not a decision that we make consciously. We can then explore the reasons why we
feel unhappy.

The question is, why do our brains decide that some of us should lead lives of misery and some of us should be truly happy?

But before we address that issue, one last observation about this brain of ours:

Where - and what - is ‘me’?

Let’s have a careful look at what we mean by ‘me’. What is this 'me' that we are all so aware of?

When we think of who ‘we’ are, it feels like ‘we’ is our whole body... from the
top of our head to the tip of our toes - it all goes to making up the concept we
have of ‘me’.

And yet it's more complicated than that: I am still 'me'
if I lose a leg, or if lose an arm. Sure, I might be changed slightly, but my
basic personality remains in my brain, it doesn’t leave with my departing arm. I
am still me if I am confined to a wheel chair without use of my arms or legs.

‘Me’ is not my body - ‘me’ is my brain.

But we can take this
further. Because, I’m not really 'there' if I’m asleep, or unconscious: my body
is there, but I’m not there myself - at least I’m not aware of being there

My only experience of life - indeed my only experience of
anything at all - is my when I’m awake, when I’m conscious.

Now, I know
that certain things in my brain happen outside my conscious control: I know my
heart rate is controlled by my brain, but not by ‘me’; I know that ????

Which means that there must effectively be two parts to my brain: the
conscious part and a part that isn’t under my conscious control, and that I’m
not even aware of being there.

So that means ‘I’ am not even the
non-conscious part of my brain:

‘I’ am only my conscious mind

my conscious thoughts, sensations, feelings, emotions... etc etc… are the true
extent of ‘me’.


We are our conscious minds.

Only. Nothing else.

The religious concept of 'the soul' is a tidy comparison: the thought that, once the body dies, the soul lives on, rising above the body, floating around, somehow surviving outside the body, is so powerful and easy to understand because consciousness is our only experience,

Back to where…

So where exactly are our feelings created? In our brains, yes… but in our conscious mind… or in the part of our brain that is not conscious? Clearly, we experience these feelings consciously… but we don’t create them consciously: our feelings must be being created in an area of the brain that we don't have conscious control over:

"A man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he wills." -

Whether we feel good or bad
depends on a part of our brains over which we have no control

Which is the same as saying:


‘We’ are controlled
by a part of our brain over which we have no control.

This doesn't mean we're controlling ourselves, because we've already decided that 'we' are only our conscious minds.

Somehow, this ‘non-conscious’ part of our brain is able to assess events in the outside world and determine whether we should feel good or bad as a result.

The big question is - How does our non-conscious brain know whether we should be feeling good or bad at any one time?

- How does our non-conscious mind know that ice cream should make us feel good?

- How does our non-conscious mind know that when our mother dies we
should feel sad?

Because this is the key.

Not just the key to understanding whether we are robots, but the key perhaps to a everything that matters in life.

Next: Why are feelings?

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Why are feelings? understand whether we are robots or not, we need to investigate why feelings exist - what their purpose is and whether they work to our advantage...

We've all lived with feelings from the day we were born, they're as a much a part of our lives as our arms and legs. But whereas it's easy to see what arms and legs are for, we don't often ask ourselves "What's the purpose of my anger?" or "I'm happy today - but what's the function of this happiness that I'm feeling?" Our assumption is that feelings don’t have a purpose at all - they are results. But as we’ll see, this is just a symptom of the rather na├»ve and self-important view we have of ourselves.

Why does food make us feel good? Why does being loved make us feel good? Why does being admired make us feel good? Why does success make us feel good?

Let's start with the most basic feeling we have - physical pain

Physical pain

When you put your finger in a flame, it hurts.

And it hurts for an obvious reason: your finger is getting damaged. Your body (well, actually your subconscious mind) is telling you to take action quickly if you want to keep your finger.

Pain hurts.... but we couldn’t live with out it.

And what about pleasure? Although it might not be immediately obvious why we get pleasure from such things as the opera and Picasso, the pleasure we get from eating ice cream and from having sex are much more easily explained: the fatty food helps us survive and the sex helps to procreate the species.

Somewhere way back in our deep murky past, our ancestors didn't have any feelings at all. They didn't experience pleasure, they didn't even know what pain felt like. They just... did. Somewhere near the very beginning, the earliest forms of life were single cells - like bacteria or amoeba. No nervous system, no pain, no pleasure.

And then feelings evolved...

As animals started to move around, they needed a quick method of knowing whether something was good or bad for them. The animals that felt pain when their bodies were damaged became the ones that survived - and they were the ones that had more chance of reproducing and passing their genes onto their children. Animals that had genes for pain flourished, animals that didn’t experience pain died out.

Evolution operates a carrot and stick to help animals survive.

You might say that evolution trains us a bit like we train a dog:

- we get "little dog biscuits of pleasure” every time we do something that’s good for our chances of survival, and "little chastisements of pain" whenever something happens that’s bad our chances of survival.

If something happens that is good for our survival chances - we feel good.

If something happens that is bad for our survival chances - we feel bad.

- it’s how we know what we need to do to survive

OK - but that doesn't mean that we're robots, does it? Evolution’s helping us survive; that's what we’d choose to do anyway!

Pain and hunger are good news for us. They keep us alive. We don’t mind experiencing a little bit of pain every now and then in return for that.

But evolution isn’t just about survival

Take sex, for example…

At first sight, evolution's definitely looking like our best friend where sex is concerned: 'having sex' appears without doubt to be a choice we'd make with our free will. Not only is sex a great deal of fun, but we also need sex to survive. We need sex to have children, and if we didn't have children, the human race would die out.....

But hold on a minute... what has 'having children' got to do with us? As individuals, that is? Sure, as a species, we do of course need children. And if every one of our ancestors hadn't had sex at least once, we wouldn't be here...

...but what’s in it for us? What do we get out of sex - apart from the obvious pleasure, that is?

The truth is that each of us would still live just as long if we never had sex again. (It might feel like we were living a long time, anyway.)

Further more, sex isn't just 'not necessary' for our individual survival, it's actually extremely dangerous. Especially for an animal in the wild:

The dangers of having sex and having children:

- For a female, the whole pregnancy thing is just about the most expensive and difficult
job they've got. Not only do they have to find much more food to eat, they've
got a bigger weight to carry around when they're hunting and being hunted. And
then maybe there's the nest to build, and the whole giving birth ritual - and we
haven't even begun to discuss the costs of providing for the offspring,
defending them and finally teaching them the wicked ways of the world.

Even the males don't get off lightly. Think of the nightmare of the whole
'fighting for territory' thing, and if you're a peacock, you've got to carry
that ridiculous tail around with you just for a chance at getting laid.

- And then there's disease. For both genders, sex is a wonderful way to
spread disease - no condoms for our ancestors, whether they'd wanted to use them
or not.

Kids! Who needs them?

Well, the point is - we don't.

So why do we do it? Why do we have sex… and why do we have children? Why do our brains sweet-talk us into doing something so dangerous.... if it isn’t for our own benefit?

Next: Why evolution makes us do things that aren't for our own benefit

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Why evolution makes us do things that aren't for our own benefit

Because evolution is not about us. Life is not about us. The reason we exist... isn't for our own benefit.

Evolution is about our genes. We exist as machines to help spread our genes around the world. It seems crazy, it seems like it's the wrong way round. But that's the way it is.

Compare yourself to a compact disc of your favourite music.

What's ‘the point’ - the music or the cd? Does the music have an existence because of the cd, or does the cd exist because of the music?

Clearly, it's all about the music. The music can be copied to another cd, or when the technology advances, the music can be copied to whatever improved carrier-mechanism is developed in the future and the cd thrown away, just like vinyl and tapes have been.

Cd's exist because they're a good way of spreading music around the world. They aren't the purpose, they aren’t the point… they're the mechanism. Equally, human beings aren't the point, we're just the device by which the genes get to be spread round the world.

Our genes are the music. We’re the cd's.

Which is why we humans aren’t designed to behave in such a way that we as individuals will survive....

…we’re designed to behave in a way that will help our genes survive.

If something happens that’s bad for the survival chances of our genes - we feel bad.

If something happens that’s good for the survival chances of our genes - we feel good.

Which could be the most important thing that science has ever taught us.

Of course, that’s not to say it’s irrelevant whether we live or die. But we're not alive for the sake of living. We're alive to create the next generation. 'Being alive' is just a mechanism to increase the chances of our genes surviving.

That's just the way evolution works. It's what evolution is. Automatically. You can't have the process of evolution if you don't have genetic information that gets passed on from one individual to the next.
If our ancestors had behaved in such a way that they maximised their own individual survival chances over the survival chances of their genes they might have survived longer… but they wouldn’t have passed those genes on: the genes for ‘look after yourself first and don’t have children’ don’t get passed on. It was only the individuals that took the risk of having sex and looking after children that could become our ancestors. Evolution (or natural selection) can only select behaviour that favours the genes.

But..... i like kids - I want to have kids.
Having kids is precisely what i would choose to do anyway, regardless of whether i have free will or not. And i love having sex as well. You can't seriously be trying to tell me that it wouldn't be my free will choice to have sex.

What if you could get all the pleasure you get from having children or sex....without actually having to do it? Sounds absurd, of course.... but if we've agreed that the only thing we care about is how we feel, we have to consider the serious possibility that if we had the opportunity to experience all the feelings without the risk... we'd be very advised to take that opportunity.

We only like having sex and having children because evolution 'wants' us to like it.

We're not choosing to want it.

Next: If we genuinely had free will - what would we do all day?