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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1 comment:

dan from said...

What I have never ever ever ever understood is what free will (in the sense of our will not being the product of other forces) would look like. It's the same concept as asking what a square circle would look like. No evidence is needed that our wills are deterministic, just as no evidence is needed that circles are not squares.