Saturday, September 6, 2014

Changing Free Will from a Harmful Illusion to a Life-Affirming Fact

Underlying many of the social systems and moral perspectives that govern our society is the concept of free will.  Whether stated as the ability to know right from wrong or whether it’s the belief that anyone can pick themselves up by their bootstraps, our system of laws, both criminal and civil, and government’s approach to helping those in need is founded on the concept of free will.

But do we really have free will?  Does each person really have this broad range of options from which he or she can choose?

The answer, in short, is “no.”  We are, each of us, a product of our upbringing, in all its many aspects ... from our experience in the womb, to the nurturing we receive in our early formative years, to everything we experience and learn at the hands of our family, peers, and the larger culture.  How all those different factors impact each person results in the multifaceted nature of humanity ... literally, no two people are the same, not even twins, and certainly not siblings.

While this statement should not be controversial, the further implications of it will likely be viewed as highly so.  The environment of our upbringing programs us (our minds are like extremely complex computers) to act the way we act. This is not to say that we are like robots.  Because we have minds and the ability to think, each of us has a range of actions that we can take.  But it is a much smaller range than assumed by the concept of free will.

Whether someone has ambition or has none, becomes a criminal or not, is kind or ruthless, and the list could go on and on ... regarding almost every area of human activity, most of the “decisions” we make are not really decisions, because decision implies a real choice.  Instead, these “decisions” have been made for us by the way we have been programmed by the environment of our upbringing.

Let’s take the example of two individuals growing up poor in the ghetto in similar circumstances and with a similar lack of educational achievement.  One takes the path of crime to provide money for the basics of life; the other rejects that route and takes a low-paying job.  The conventional view would be that the first individual makes a conscious decision to do what he knows to be wrong, while the second one makes a choice not to do what he knows to be wrong.  

But that is false.  The first individual, by virtue of his upbringing, does not think crime is wrong; he knows it’s illegal, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong as far as he is concerned.  The environment of his upbringing programmed him to disregard the larger society’s morality and to believe he had no other options for making it.  The second individual, on the other hand, had something in his upbringing ... possibly a parent or church ... that taught him that crime is wrong.  He could no sooner do that than chop off his hand.

Then there is the well known example of the child or wife abuser.  As research has clearly shown, these individuals do not choose to abuse their children or their wives.  They themselves were typically abused as children and their minds equate abuse with love because as children that’s how they coped with being abused by a parent.  And so, they are programmed by their past to abuse their loved ones.  They have no choice, absent intervention and therapy.

It is the mind’s programming that causes those who are abused to become abusers themselves.  As hard as it is for us to understand and accept that fact, as incomprehensible as it may seem, it is nevertheless a fact.

The implications of this analysis is significant.  There is no such thing as a bad person; that is to say, no one comes out of the womb a bad person, no one is an inherently bad person.  But people do come to do bad things because of what they’ve been taught by the environment of their upbringing.  

While that should and can have no impact on the laws of what is socially allowable behavior.  And those who violate those laws must take responsibility for their behavior, even if they in reality had little or no choice ... that is necessary for the stability of society ... how we treat such individuals is another matter.

Based on this analysis, how we deal with those who violate the law needs to change drastically from current and past practices.  For example, the goal of the criminal justice system is to increase public safety.  We know all too well from experience though that fear of incarceration or even death does not act as a deterrent and change people’s behavior.  Such is the power of their programmed minds.

Thus, while the criminal justice system would still determine guilt or innocence, the driving goal of the sentencing process would be rehabilitation not punishment.  Not just sentencing, but the whole prison culture would be totally transformed because in order to rehabilitate, a person’s thought process must be reprogrammed.  This is a complex process, but first and foremost it involves building someone’s feeling of self-worth and his sense of oneness, his interconnectedness with all people.  Only then will a person stop treating others badly, whether family, peers, or strangers.  (See my post, “Prisons as Monastery not Dungeon,” 11/20/14.)

The latter lesson will be very controversial for most readers because our whole system of social interaction, from the micro to the group to the nation is based on an us v them analysis, which in turn is based on our insecurity.  Virtually every conflict that man has been involved in has been a result of this insecurity and his us v them perspective.  Even the three great western religions have an us v them perspective at their core.  But this human weakness must be eradicated wherever it appears if we are ever to achieve peace at any level.

This analysis of the programming that robs us of free will also should impact the function of our public schools.  It is not enough to teach people job-related skills (yes, I know that many schools do a poor job of even that).  Schools must teach people what they are all too often not taught at home or by the media ... to be ethical human beings, regardless of the circumstance.  (See my post, “Schools as Educators of Citizens,” 3/10/14,)  Only then will children see beyond the immediacy of their environment and have a real chance to exercise free will

The goal of these changes I’m suggesting is to provide a real opportunity for people to exercise free will, to free themselves from the straight-jacket of their mind’s programming.

I stated in the beginning that for the most part, our systems are based on the invalid assumption that we have free will.  But in one critical arena, the injustice suffered by many results from the opposite assumption ... that they have no free will.  Schools, especially inner-city schools, mostly accept as given that children from bad backgrounds are hopeless, s lost cause, and nothing but trouble.  And that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy,

Let’s take two people of equal talent and intelligence,  One is born in an upper middle-class family with all the attendant privileges and supportive parents. One is born into a drug-addicted family living in poverty on the fringes of society.  There is no difference in the two children regarding their genetic-based talents and intelligence.  

In the one case the talents and intelligence are recognized and nurtured, sometimes obsessively, the talent and intelligence blossoms and the person goes on to become a productive person.  But in the other case, the talents and intelligence are neither recognized nor nurtured ... the seeds that are within are not watered ... and so that talent and intelligence atrophies and the person goes on to the life that is more or less typical for people raised in those surroundings.  Free will was not a factor in either case.

This is a huge waste of human potential and a crime against humanity.  Children indeed do not have free will, but they are young and their minds are malleable enough that they can more easily be taught to feel self-worth than adults.  Thus, all schools must instead function with the goal of making the most of each child’s potential and from the perspective that a child’s background and SES group does not predetermine that potential.  Just as our criminal justice system ideally follows the maxim “innocent until proven guilty,” our schools should follow the maxim, “talented and intelligent until proven otherwise.”

Our system of justice and social engineering based on the assumption of free will, or in the case of many inner-city schools, the lack of free will, has done an injustice to untold millions of people to the detriment not just of their lives but of the health and stability of our society.  We assume that people have free will when convenient for us, when in fact they do not; but at the same time believe that people have no free will, when that is what’s convenient.

What we must do is reform our systems so that all people develop a sense of self-worth, of opportunity, and thus in fact can exercise free will.  Only with such reforms will we ever see the full implementation of the promise of the Declaration of Independence ... that all men are created equal, have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that governments are instituted to secure these rights.