Archive for the ‘Human Nature’ Category

Thanks to my philosophy professor and his awesome free-will-themed PHI101 course, I’ve become more conscious of incidents in everyday life that really call into question this “unsophisticated” view of the will, and it’s refreshing to have at least one professor who is a determinist (here’s the blog detailing the view of my other professor who thinks that determinism is largely “out of favor”).  Anyways, so now I’m cognizant of these no doubt oft-overlooked events, and I’d like to share a recent example that was rather significant, or at least I thought so.

I was at home the other day and about to do some homework, but realized I had left my books in the car.  I headed outside to retrieve them.

My minivan on that day was parked similarly to in the photo below (I staged this for illustrative purposes), so it’s obvious that the passenger door was closest, and thus would require the least exertion in accessing the interior of my vehicle.  HOWEVER — before I got all the way to the passenger door, I realized (approximately at Point A below) that all doors except the driver’s side were locked (I knew this because this model has doors that auto-lock when engaged in drive and then only unlock when opened from the inside or the “unlock all” switch is triggered, and I was the only one in the van when I parked it; thus, only that door would be accessible).  Simple, concise, “terminate command” orders sent directly to the motherboard — “Don’t bother, it’s locked, and you knew that the whole time but just decided to tell me now!”  Curiously, my body kept moving on its original trajectory and continued on to what I have labeled Point B, the locked door.  I then proceeded to pull on the handle, a real WTF moment, to phrase it like all those hip kids today.  It was only after I had gone through these fruitless motions that I found myself on the proper path, towards Point C, where I collected my stuff and returned inside, slightly baffled by what had just happened.  I should note that my backpack was in the center of the front seat, equidistant from either door, so there was no other benefit to retrieving it from the passenger side other than the external convenience afforded by my parking angle.

The yellow line shows my approach to the vehicle. At Point A, I realize that the passenger door is locked; regardless, I continue on to Point B and carry out the action, and THEN proceed to Point C, the point which I technically "willed" myself towards as the thought entered my mind at Point A but I for some reason was unable to immediately act on.

After this incident, I retrospectively thought of other similar incidents where I had carried out some “thoughtless” action despite a conflicting thought, but this event was a true catalyst in my thinking on this problem, compounded by Dr. White’s philosophical offerings.  It might seem to some that I’m just looking way too much into this, but I’d like to preemptively address anticipated concerns that there is a genuine problem for free will here: 

1) I was sober, so there was no drunken delayed motor response;
I was moving at a casual pace, not sprinting, so forward momentum didn’t prevent me from stopping in time (and if it did, why would I still bother to try the handle?);
Even at that casual pace, the time span from A to B in the picture is only a few steps (approximately a second?), and during this time I did not experience any conscious overtly conflicting thoughts like, “Noooo!!  Why am I still moving forward?  I don’t want to do this!!!  Stop it, body, STOP IT!”

I started thinking about the Libet experiments and a proposed modification to the experiment suggested by V.S. Ramachandran in A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness:

It’s almost as though your brain is really in charge and your ‘free will’ is just a post-hoc rationalization — a delusion, almost…This alone is strange enough, but what if we add another twist to the experiment.  Imagine I’m monitoring your EEG while you wiggle your finger…I will see a readiness potential a second before you act.  But suppose I display the signal on a screen in front of you so that you can see your free will.  Every time you are about to wiggle your finger, supposedly using your own free will, the machine will tell you a second in advance!  What would you now experience?

Ramachandran goes on to list “three logical possibilities” to what one would experience in that scenario, but I now propose (and perhaps this has already been proposed, or even done? — please point me to the literature if possible!) another modification to the experiment by not only instructing the subject to carry out a simple task, but by then instructing them to disregard the command and instead carry out a contrary action, like a controlled version of what I experienced (and, of course, an externally implanted conflict, unlike the internal “change of intent” that I encountered on that day).

Neuroscience continues to reveal truths about ourselves in aspects that have been debated for millennia, and it seems that we are currently living in a new renaissance with neuroscience and technology producing exponential knowledge, and perhaps moving towards blurring the line between the two.

Sam Harris

Sam Harris, author of "Lying" and "The End of Faith"

This is one of the first essay assignments I had for my composition class.  Since I was pleased with the results and received an A on the paper, and since school has prevented me from blogging since my first entry, I figured posting my essay as blog number two couldn’t hurt.  I really have not had time for any recreational writing since school started, so chances are that my next few entries will also be cut-paste jobs from various assignments.

Here is my untitled essay on the topic of cheating.  Everyone in class had to write specifically on cheating, but we were free to tackle the topic from our own angle.  I selected an evolutionary basis of cheating (surprised?), and probably could have made this a 20-page paper given enough time.

“Among the many paradoxes of human life, this is perhaps the most peculiar and consequential:  We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy.”

Thus begins Sam Harris’s 2011 essay, appropriately titled “Lying.”  Before I read this recently published essay, I had already been contemplating an approach to cheating (and lying) from an evolutionary perspective.  In pondering the content of my own essay, I began wondering if perhaps the speed of human progress had outpaced the ability of our species to “weed out” unnecessary genes (specifically genes that influence behavior) or if we are currently in an evolutionary transitional phase much like we are in other respects, such as continuing to adjust to our bipedal method of locomotion (in the form of our spine’s propensity for giving us problems and our vulnerability to hernias) and omnivorous digestive tract (as evidenced by the vermiform appendix).

In examining the reasons for cheating, one must examine the reasons for lying.  In Psychology Today, June 2009, Dr. Carl Pickhardt wrote an article that associates each instance of cheating with not one ethical affront but three – sneaking, lying, and stealing (“You sneak to conceal what you are up to…lie about what you have done…and steal credit for performance you did not earn.”).  I believe that most students who make the decision to cheat do not necessarily consciously decide that they want to commit the aforementioned battery of offenses, even though some surveys have shown cheating to be at near-epidemic levels with well over half of high school students engaging in some form of plagiarizing or, more common with the ease and availability of information on the Internet, simple cut-and-paste jobs.  To many students, it seems, cheating is a means to an end, a way to ensure their economic survival in a highly competitive world, and the assumption that “My parents would rather I get dishonest A than an honest B.” (Pickhardt, 2009).  It would appear that from the cheater’s perspective, only one offense – sneaking/cheating – has been committed (and is minimized or justified); stealing is hardly a consideration when the attitude towards information is that “it’s all just floating around out there”; and lying is probably the last thing on a cheater’s mind when the intent is to be convincing enough of the validity of one’s work that lying about the cheating only needs to be addressed on an as-needed basis (and hopefully not ever!).

What purpose could lying and cheating possibly have served our ancestors?  Were they that inherently selfish, to the point that our genes today are still being steered towards a deceptive nature?  Many theories exist, but most involve deception being used by the earliest hominids as a safeguard against rival groups – there was no unconditional trust, no feeling of, “Hey, we’re the same species, let’s work together,” and thus protection of the clan/family took precedence over forming any preemptive alliances.  Looking across other species, we see trickery everywhere:  Camouflaging techniques of mantises and cuttlefish, mimicry apparent in harmless snakes “disguised” as their venomous counterparts or insects masquerading as wasps and ants, and the “brood parasitism” of the infamous cuckoo.  Acknowledging that unintentional and unknowing evolutionary developments such as camouflage can hardly be compared to deliberate, calculated deception, we can soon turn our focus back to our pre-human protagonists – yes, those lying bastards, the ones that might have corrupted our children with their uninhibited immorality!

In his essay, Harris defines a lie as “intentionally mislead[ing] others when they expect honest communication.”  Teachers and professors expect honesty from their students – not just the obvious loathing of cheating to get ahead in their class, but honesty in feedback on lectures and lessons, questions on assignments, and so forth.  In the face of such statistics like above, noting occurrences from one-half to as much as three-quarters engaging in some form of cheating, it would seem that honesty is going the way of the rotary phone.  Actually, instead of making a comparison to a near-obsolete technology, perhaps it would be more appropriate to question if dishonesty is now rewarded in our society, with truly honest people receiving more indifferent treatment than exaltation.

In “Why Be Honest If Honesty Doesn’t Pay,” Amar Bhide and Howard Stevenson illustrate examples of dishonesty in American society being either rewarded or forgiven; well-established and powerful companies oftentimes earn back trust simply by being the entities they are, namely ones that provide large numbers of jobs and are a key part of the economy.  A recent comedy film, The Invention of Lying, turned a fictional world where nobody was capable of lying on its head when the lead character commits the title act, leading to a downward spiral of the world questioning their morals and values, and eventually the need for the establishment of religion to get people to act decent to one another again.  A group of cultural pranksters known as “The Yes Men” attempt to humiliate corporations and politicians by impersonating personnel representing them and by creating phony press conferences and websites.  Furthermore, “there is no compelling economic reason to tell the truth or keep one’s word” (Bhide and Stevenson, 1990), especially when dishonest companies and governments set the bar with their behavior, creating a chain of deceit down to the smaller companies and individuals struggling to get by…“if the big guys on top can’t play fair, why should we?”

Ironically, it appears that not only do we have a biological basis for deceptive behavior, but an existing natural phenomenon (which also doubles as a moral philosophy) known as reciprocal altruism points towards a natural source for honest communication.   Quite simply, reciprocal altruism is a “tit-for-tat,” quid pro quo scenario in which both parties end up better off by both paying into the situation minimally (symbiotic relationships such as those exhibited by “cleaner fish” that remove parasites from larger fish that would normally prey on them, resulting in a meal for themselves – although in a deceptive twist, there exists a fish that mimics the cleaner fish, but is in fact itself a parasite masquerading as beneficial).  This Golden Rule of nature has its parallels in human artifices such as religion and philosophy, a “do unto others” mentality that has popped up independently in some form in nearly every culture (indeed, according to anthropologist Donald Brown’s Human Universals (1991), both positive and negative reciprocity are universal concepts).  While it would be difficult to prove that the most successful liars and cheats are devoid of any genetic inclination towards altruistic behavior, the aptly named psychological concept of self-deception could, in theory, cause the deceiver to become completely unconscious of dishonesty, since not being aware of “immoral” behavior would make it easier to mask telltale signs of deception.

While our evolution may be haunting us with these lingering tendencies to deceive, or at the very least only tell half-truths, our evolution is also steering us towards behavior where extending trust and being trustworthy has a better payoff than just being a selfish ass; whereas the latter would have certainly received “the lion’s share” in a competitive survival scenario, the widespread cooperation that we as a species are beginning to exhibit in this era of a globally connected planet with access to information like never before, coupled with our tremendous decision-making capacity and analytical nature, should allow us to jettison our instinctive impulse to cheat others in order to get ahead.  That said, there will undoubtedly always be some degree of cheating in schools (and everywhere); it is inevitable, much like the fringe ideas and deviant behaviors that have always clung to the coattails of civilization, even in eras of great enlightenment, and have occasionally halted its progress.

As to content, your view of human nature seems rather reductive to me.  The idea that we can trace complex human behaviors back to genetics is, I think, pretty much out of favor.  We don’t, in fact, do much purely by instinct.  Most behavior is learned, and our behaviors are heavily influenced by our cultures.  So I suspect this approach is rather suspect from the beginning.  And we live in our culture, now.  It is unclear whether cheating is a problem today in schools in China, or Africa, or Egypt, or anywhere else.  To suggest there is evolutionary causation, you would need to show commonality across many cultures, today and historically.  And then, one would eventually need to identify a mechanism.  Perhaps closer to the point might be to consider what it is in our culture that makes so many people believe cheating is wrong (even when they do it) and, as Bhide and Stevenson point out, keep most people fundamentally honest even in the face of evidence they will not necessarily be rewarded.

I am a parent.

That is, I have fulfilled my biological duty to our species.  This “duty” I speak of is neither a divine mandate nor the demand of a regime.  My genes have been passed on (and perhaps slightly modified in the process of replicating themselves).  My genes will (more than likely) be passed on through these new vehicles to other transports, much like a perpetual passenger on an Amtrak to the unknown…miss your transfer (fail to procreate) and the entire journey is a failure; keep riding and hitting those transfers, and the sky’s the limit (literally, since inevitably some of our descendants will have to flee this planet for a new home).

Admittedly, though not regrettably, I joined the ranks of parents rather young and unprepared (though certainly not alone).  I was presented with two children before I was 21, which was also a period in my life fraught with soul searching, unhappiness, and a good bit of selfishness.  I wanted desperately to prove my worth as a parent while also trying to figure out who I was and where I was going — in other words, balancing selflessness with narcissism.  This juxtaposition is a hurdle I still encounter, albeit more of a stumbling block these days than a seemingly impassable obstacle as I’ve learned to embrace my traits and adapt them to parenting.

Up until a few years ago, I sincerely believed in a tabula rasa theory of the mind; that is, a preference towards nurture insofar as determining how we develop and who we become.  It makes sense — you are presented with young, presumably malleable minds, and for nearly two decades you are assigned the mission, should you choose to accept it (ahem, deadbeats), of sculpting these brains to retain whatever values you see fit to indoctrinate them with, hoping to set them on the straight and narrow and deliver them not into temptation.  Basically, we want our kids to be like us (while overlooking or deliberately ignoring the fact that no matter how much our parents tried to do the same to us, we eventually swore that we would never be like them, hence making our attempts at parenting an uphill battle to make sure our children are nothing like their grandparents!).  This ingrained philosophy started to crumble, however, after years of self-reflection and realizing that no matter how hard my parents tried, some of my most significant personality traits are pretty far off from the “who” I was raised to be.

Even before I read Steven Pinker‘s The Blank Slate, which satisfactorily demolishes most of the nurture argument, I had a nagging feeling that there was something erroneous about the belief that you could mold your children like lumps of clay (in stark contrast to this blog entry, the first blog I ever wrote — probably archived somewhere on the MySpace account I never use anymore and will more than likely delete soon — was an essay regarding the infinite malleability of minds, which I presume had slight Marxist undertones).  The fact that my soul searching had led me to a position of “staunch atheist” after spending years being raised by a third-generation LCMS minister was the nail in the coffin.  After all, I never truly chose atheism (my personal spiritual journey is a subject for a future entry)…something I’ve been accused of and still am to this day.

Going back to 1999, there I was with my firstborn, overwhelmed yet accepting of this new role I had as father, simultaneously swearing to myself not to raise her the way I was raised, yet agreeing to have her baptized to appease not just a couple family members but nearly every single one, making promises to all those people to raise her as a Christian when I didn’t even believe in that stuff anymore.   I certainly didn’t have a “parenting philosophy” other than to do my best (which, as noted above, was kind of a half-assed best).  I had my second child in late 2000 with a lather/rinse/repeat of the above scenario, and the approach I took to raising them was a very rough-draft prototype of the method I utilize today…let them experience the world and formulate their own opinions in regards to spirituality/religion/philosophy, using myself as a living example that the apple not only falls from the tree, but occasionally has a tendency to roll half an orchard away, only to come to rest against the pear tree or blackberry brambles.

I’m certainly not discouraging anyone from raising their children in the religion they themselves were brought up in; just resign yourselves to the fact that no matter how much time and energy you invest, there’s always a chance it will have been in vain.  “But maybe the kids that turn out ‘wrong’ were just raised ‘wrong,’ and I know I’ll do it right because I’m just how my parents raised ME to be!”  You could argue that…and you can take that gamble, with years and years of your life, thousands and thousands of dollars spent on schools and educational materials to get them on the “right” path, etc.  But it’s still a gamble, especially based on what we know about behavioral genetics and the knowledge gleaned from the various sub-specialties in the field of psychiatry.  If your child DOES turn out to have characteristics you “molded” into them, chances are they inherited a good chunk of your personality!

In The Blank Slate, Pinker quotes a beautiful poem, one that has stuck with me and which I have quoted to friends (with kids) several times of late:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Being that this blog has a focus on parenting as an atheist with a religious upbringing, my work here would be amiss if I did not include some quotes in that regard:

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion — “I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear a phrase such as ‘Catholic child’ or ‘Muslim child.’  Speak of a ‘child of Catholic parents’ if you like; but if you hear anybody speak of a ‘Catholic child,’ stop them and politely point out that children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics…There is no such thing as a Muslim child.  There is no such thing as a Christian child.”

Dawkins later in the book illustrates damaging effects of indoctrinating children with religion, including school segregation (“Children are educated…with members of a religious in-group and separately from children whose families adhere to other religions.”) and marriage preferences and the taboos associated with “marrying out” of one’s family’s religion.

Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell — “Religions are transmitted culturally…not through the genes.  You may get your father’s nose and your mother’s musical ability through your genes, but if you get your religion from your parents, you get it the way you get your language, through upbringing.”

Dennett illustrates the need for parents to earn the trust of their children…and the resulting exploitation of that trust that can occur:  “It is in the genetic interests of parents…to inform — not misinform — their young, so it is efficient (and relatively safe) to trust one’s parents.  Once the information superhighway between parent and child is established by genetic evolution, it is ready to be used — or abused — by any agents with agendas of their own, or by any memes that happen to have features that benefit from the biases built into the highway.”

So if you’re raising your child(ren) to be like you and believe like you, chances are that they trust you enough to “go along with it” for as long as they can benefit from your benevolence and maybe discover a few loopholes of their own to exploit.  But, you may be raising a walking antithesis to your worldview, which more than likely won’t become apparent until your spawn are out in the world on their own.  How will you send them out there — naive, or prepared to encounter and absorb the countless worldviews in existence and make an informed decision that “fits” with their inherent traits?

In closing, I will offer my parenting advice:  Ignore parenting advice, especially that of the “experts.”  We made it this far as a species with our only motivation being that of ensuring our genes, carried by our offspring, would make it another generation.  Of course, in today’s globally connected world, a nearly universal society, we have obligations to pass on some values, but even children raised by parents with no values (or, more simply, raised without parents) will pick up values from society.  Remember the pressures your parents placed on you, and compare the person you are now to the person your parents were probably trying to mold you into.  Carry that thought experiment over a generation and apply it to your children, and you will understand that most of your efforts will yield nothing like what you expect, but that will never remove love from the equation.

And no, I do not call my children “atheist,” nor do I raise them to reject all religion.  They certainly know that Daddy is vehemently anti-theist (and occasionally we have pleasant conversations regarding such), and I encourage them to question anything that doesn’t make sense, but for now they’re just children.  They need to experience all the wonder that childhood has to offer, without the trappings of an “Us Versus Them” mentality, and certainly one free of unnecessary fear.

Note:  Replacing every instance or implication of “religion” in this entry with “politics” will not change my message one bit.