Group Meditation: Free Will

I attend a biweekly meditation and discussion group. The following is a prompt provided by another member for the discussion this week. It is followed by the member’s own analysis and then by my response. I include my response in order to help me focus my initial thoughts before the group discussion.

The Prompt

{Free Will: Do We Have a Choice?}
Free – choosing or capable of choosing for itself
Will – the power of control over one’s own actions or emotions
Author – Sam Harris
Book: Free Will

The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment—most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high. In the early morning of July 23, 2007, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, two career criminals, arrived at the home of Dr. William and Jennifer Petit in Cheshire, a quiet town in central Connecticut. They found Dr. Petit asleep on a sofa in the sunroom. According to his taped confession, Komisarjevsky stood over the sleeping man for some minutes, hesitating, before striking him in the head with a baseball bat. He claimed that his victim’s screams then triggered something within him, and he bludgeoned Petit with all his strength until he fell silent. The two then bound Petit’s hands and feet and went upstairs to search the rest of the house. They discovered Jennifer Petit and her daughters—Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11—still asleep. They woke all three and immediately tied them to their beds. At 7:00 a.m., Hayes went to a gas station and bought four gallons of gasoline. At 9:30, he drove Jennifer Petit to her bank to withdraw $15,000 in cash. The conversation between Jennifer and the bank teller suggests that she was unaware of her husband’s injuries and believed that her captors would release her family unharmed. While Hayes and the girls’ mother were away, Komisarjevsky amused himself by taking naked photos of Michaela with his cell phone and masturbating on her. When Hayes returned with Jennifer, the two men divided up the money and briefly considered what they should do. They decided that Hayes should take Jennifer into the living room and rape her—which he did. He then strangled her, to the apparent surprise of his partner. At this point, the two men noticed that William Petit had slipped his bonds and escaped. They began to panic. They quickly doused the house with gasoline and set it on fire. When asked by the police why he hadn’t untied the two girls from their beds before lighting the blaze, Komisarjevsky said, “It just didn’t cross my mind.” The girls died of smoke inhalation. William Petit was the only survivor of the attack. Upon hearing about crimes of this kind, most of us naturally feel that men like Hayes and Komisarjevsky should be held morally responsible for their actions. Had we been close to the Petit family, many of us would feel entirely justified in killing these monsters with our own hands. Do we care that Hayes has since shown signs of remorse and has attempted suicide? Not really. What about the fact that Komisarjevsky was repeatedly raped as a child? According to his journals, for as long as he can remember, he has known that he was “different” from other people, psychologically damaged, and capable of great coldness. He also claims to have been stunned by his own behavior in the Petit home: He was a career burglar, not a murderer, and he had not consciously intended to kill anyone. Such details might begin to give us pause. As we will see, whether criminals like Hayes and Komisarjevsky can be trusted to honestly report their feelings and intentions is not the point: Whatever their conscious motives, these men cannot know why they are as they are. Nor can we account for why we are not like them. As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people. Even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the problem of responsibility remains: I cannot take credit for the fact that I do not have the soul of a psychopath. If I had truly been in Komisarjevsky’s shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this. The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive. Of course, if we learned that both these men had been suffering from brain tumors that explained their violent behavior, our moral intuitions would shift dramatically. But a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it. How can we make sense of our lives, and hold people accountable for their choices, given the unconscious origins of our conscious minds?

Response From The Member Who Offered This Topic

I would like to start off by bringing attention to what I consider a bit of an elephant in the room, which is the extremely broad, and general nature of this topic. Sam Harris presents an almost laser focused example of what he considers a case against free will, and in doing so he comes off as very matter of fact, but I would like to leave the discussion open for personal interpretation. In this subject a number of topics can be brought to the table, ranging from nature vs nurture, nihilism, morality, to crime & punishment, and plenty more, so in that fact I would like to provide a guiding question for us to consider throughout the discussion after any initial thoughts are shared.

In the example provided by Sam Harris, do you believe nature vs. nurture was at play, did the childhood of Komisarjevsky contribute to who he became, does it make him less accountable, and did he have any choice in his upbringing to begin with? To clear up the underlined concept: nature vs. nurture is a debate between two causes for our actions, nature being the purely biological side of things, what we inherit from our parents, genetics, DNA & so forth, while nurture is what we acquire throughout life, or what is adapted, and learned. One side supposes all actions are the result of your biology, the other supposes your actions are the result of the environments you’ve lived in. It isn’t my hope that anyone walk away from here convinced one way or the other, because the depth of this topic is too vast for that sort of revelation to be meaningful, instead I hope we can walk away thinking more about whether or not we’re truly in control of our thoughts, and actions, and to be more considerate and mindful about the decisions we believe we make each, and every day, be it our choice or not.


My Response

My first reaction is to emphatically agree with everything Sam Harris said in this reading. I have followed his broader work on this topic and found his arguments very compelling. His education is in neurology and much of his professional writing career has been focused on the idea of removing the mysticism from concepts like this one; to empower secular debate with fluent vocabulary which is able to approach topics once relegated to the proponents of superstition.

My own thinking on this topic has evolved to include an appreciation for the distinction between behaviors driven by the default mode network versus the prefrontal cortex, and the impact of mindfulness and willpower on allowing the prefrontal cortex to exert inhibitory control over the amygdala and hypothalamus, overriding the default mode network.

Based on my understanding of the neuroscience of decision making from the perspective of meditation practice; a person is very much the product of their environment. Genetic and other biological factors play a large role in defining a person’s many predilections and predispositions. Environmental factors such as early childhood development and the hierarchy of needs have an equally important role in defining a person’s default behaviors based on their predilections and predispositions.  Lastly, there is the potential for the influence of a practiced use of mindfulness based cognitive behavior therapy.

In the example given above, a person sexually assaults a child after having been sexually assaulted as a child. There are lots of other obvious examples of antisocial behavior which is clearly stemming from the default mode network and a person’s likelihood to do things based on their memories, especially in cases of abuse. There are also lots of examples of people doing things because of various physiological problems with the brain. Take for example America’s first mass shooting which was caused by a brain tumor pressing on the shooter’s amygdala (a major component of the default mode network).

Let’s define the default mode network. The way we respond to an average situation is based on our default mode network. It is a feedback loop of the amygdala and hypothalamus using memory to trigger emotional states based on stimuli we perceive. So when we see something happening, a memory is triggered by the hypothalamus. This causes the amygdala to trigger an associated emotional state, and the cycle loops back and forth, intensifying the experience until a reaction happens in the person’s mind and behavior. This is the function of the default mode network of the brain. This is the active system in the brain when we are not exerting executive function from the prefrontal cortex.

As we discussed last week, the prefrontal cortex is capable of exerting inhibitory control over the default mode network. This is the mode the brain goes into when we are trying to focus on a particular task or solve a problem for example. This also means we can choose not to accept a feeling or thought which is triggered by the default mode network. We can choose to think or feel something different from our initial reaction through the use of mindfulness based cognitive behavior therapy.

The evidence (as discussed last week) suggests that the more often we make the choice whether or not to accept a thought of feeling, the easier it is to do that. And the thoughts and feelings we choose, become the types of thoughts and feelings produced spontaneously by the default mode network.

For example, if one is burdened by feelings of anxiety, and one persistently chooses not to feel anxious, then one will stop feeling anxious by default. This application of mindfulness based cognitive behavior therapy is more effective than medicine at treating a number of chronic conditions, according to research discussed last week.

I would argue that an inverse correlation therefore exists between the predisposition towards a particular reaction, and the relative ease of choosing otherwise. For example, a person with a brain tumor pressing on their amygdala would have a very hard time choosing not to act on strong emotional reactions to stimuli. Conversely, a person who is well practiced in mindfulness meditation would have a very easy time choosing to disregard a suggested thought or feeling from their default mode network.

The inverse correlation which describes the ease of disregarding the default mode network and its thoughts and feelings is one which closes in distance with practice. I think this is an accurate analog to the metaphor we think of as free will. I think people can choose to choose, or they can go with the flow. If people choose to choose, and do it frequently enough, then they can overcome their predilections and predispositions.

If the people in the example above had been given training in mindfulness based cognitive behavior therapy as children, it is entirely conceivable that they would have overcome the impulses which led to their antisocial behavior. Especially in the cases where the perpetrators were reenacting things which had been done to them, it seems very likely they would have had different outcomes. It almost seems like these people were trying to self-medicate by inflicting their trauma on others in order to find some kind of catharsis. Their reaction to one victim escaping; to burn down the house as though that would somehow erase the evidence, and Sam’s comment that they later showed remorse, suggests that if they were able to, they would likely have chosen to disregard the series of successive impulses which compounded to become these crimes.

Sam invites us to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the perpetrators deciding to do these things based on the lives that led to this moment. It is easy to look in from the outside and advise another path. But without the ability to disregard thoughts and feelings which one does not want to accept, it’s hard to imagine a path where a victim of this kind of trauma finds a healthier outcome.