This is a theory that in the past I’ve never liked- mainly because experiences in my adult life have led me to believe that we have a much greater ability to change than we often give ourselves credit for- but that change is often easily avoided because it comes through taking steps that feel impossible but are not. If I trace back what might have led to my having this mentality, I always think of this life-changing moment that occurred when I was ~20 years old... I came across a book about habit change that I found in my parents’ basement- which in short led me from the misery of believing that I was a result of my conditioning into an empowering place of learning techniques to change. Applying what I read in that book has not been easy- it takes an incredible amount of determination to act when the task feels impossible, and I had presumed that doing so was an act of my own free will, which is the part I am now questioning. Over the years I’ve wondered about what was involved with that moment occurring in the first place- the fact that I saw the book there, what made me pick it up, the ability to take in the information and apply it, to witness others read the same book in the future as a class assignment in college and it mean nothing to them. << The question of free will comes up with all of those questions, and might be the most important part >> It can be so easy to assume that everything we say and do is conscious and purposeful, as if we all have the same baseline awareness, experiences, and genes, as if we can simply choose to have certain tendencies and traits and not have others.
Judgement of others and ourselves seems to become much less necessary when considering this theory as well, which can make everything feel much lighter. My mind keeps coming back to younger kids when considering this lack of free will theory ~ how the overachiever star athlete is often given credit for being who they are, and we can somehow do so while simultaneously recognizing that the causes and conditions of their life have allowed for that. Yet the credit and praise will be given to them (and/or their parents) for being such good people. I am not saying they or their parents don’t deserve any positive regard or reinforcement and that it takes no effort on their part, it’s just interesting how we assign credit for them being this way.
& We can have the intellectual understanding that a person in an underserved community, who has been abused, who has been under stress from the time they were born, etc. does not have the same chance as the example above, yet it seems to be common to punish them for the behavior that arises out of those causes and conditions. I am not saying they don't need rules or boundaries, but the typical way it is dealt with only seems to contribute to more shame, isolation, and reinforcement of bad behavior.
And although we might have this intellectual understanding re: kids, any hint of empathy or understanding seems to go out the window when they become adults. There is a documentary on the 10 most heinous crimes ever committed and the criminals all had the same two things in common. They were all abused as children + had a history of brain injury...
What seems to stop this lack of free will theory from being considered is that it seems to be assumed that we believe that in turn everyone should be forgiven & able to roam freely at a danger to others. I think we can apply this theory without letting dangerous people remain free. However, what we currently do to them - societally and in institutions- seems to make them worse while reinforcing all the judgement, blame and shame instead of making them better. I am not proposing what to do with them instead, but to simply consider applying this theory in our minds / institutions / families. Sam Harris made a great point that a kinder alternative could ultimately serve us, as people are getting out of prison earlier than ever, and if they are coming out worse, that puts their neighbors in greater danger.
I am not immune from believing that people are choosing to be assholes. The default in my mind tends to be to blame and shame others. The most difficult thing to do in the midst of conflict is to step back and see why the person may be believing what they do or acting the way that they do. Especially now in the midst of such extreme polarization, it may serve us to consider that contributing to this shame and blame and getting louder in stating all the ways the opposition is wrong may only make the other person (and ourselves) worse.
Sam Harris’ series on free will part 1 of 7…