Thursday, January 17, 2013
Physicist Leonard Mlodinow writes about a wide range of experiments on what has been called automaticity that demonstrate the enormously significant role the unconscious plays in our behavior. As he points out, science has now confirmed what advertising and public relations firms have known intuitively: decisions are largely made by factors outside our awareness. Ironically, automaticity theorists suggest that such automaticisty turns out to be very highly adaptive. The mind operates most efficiently, they argue, by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious.
Mlodinow points out that the human sensory system sends the brain about 11 million bits of information per second, yet our conscious mind can handle only about 50 bits per second! This means there’s an enormous amount of processing before we can even become aware of what has been sensed. One estimate is that we are conscious of about 5% of our cognitive processes with the other 95% going on “under the radar” of our awareness. We’d be paralyzed by the overwhelming amount of information if it were all consciously available to us!
Yet, this raises the question, “if our brains are making our decisions for us outside conscious awareness so often, how can we be held morally responsible for our actions? How can our legal system punish criminals who aren’t in full control of their decision-making faculties?”
One argument as to how we can still hold people morally responsible is to distinguish between regulative control which would be the control that allows us to choose our direction in life through making open choices from among truly open alternatives (for which there is no real evidence and which buddhism and naturalism denies) and guidance control which is a sort of control that doesn’t require open choices: I may not have any choice about my path, but I can be held morally responsible for how I walk down this path. (This is a similar argument I’ve heard from some contemporary buddhists who do not seem to fully comprehend the more profound implications of anatta and dependent origination). Epicetus used this argument, interestingly, in the context of fatalism; the fates controlled your destiny, but the details as to how we responded to our fate was up to us: “For this is your business, to act well the given part, but to choose it belongs to another.”
John Martin Fischer offers a contemporary naturalist version. From his perspective, I could not have been a physicist because I could never understand calculus, I couldn’t be a hockey player because I’ve never learned to ice skate and I couldn’t be a high-wire aerialist because I’m afraid of heights. I did not exercise regulative control in becoming a yoga/dharma teacher because it was the only path open to me! However, according to his argument for guidance control, how I carry out my teaching role is up to me: I can do it with good humor or with a stern gravitas; I can do it with sharp precision or with an air of improvisational whimsy. I can teach with gusto and élan or with slacker-laziness. However, under what grounds can we justify isolating guidance control from the same causal factors that shape all our behavior? My tendency towards more good humored, improvisational whimsy was set – and most certainly not chosen by me – by myriad factors of genetics, environment and life experience, so why should I be blamed or praised for it?
To be absolutely clear, there are truly important benefits from having guidance control. For instance, it has been shown that while cancer patients cannot control the fact they have the disease, those who feel they have some control over the treatment choices available to them suffer less depression and anxiety. Research has shown that elderly residents of long-term care institutions, who generally feel that they’ve lost much control over their lives, often suffer depression, lowered immunity and a higher death rate, but when given the opportunity to exercise control over the care for plants, or even have control over the furniture arrangement in their room have lowered rates of depression, better immune functioning and lowered mortality rates.
But, there is no justification for supporting moral responsibility provided by guidance control. Yes, if someone handles their illness with grace and dignity they will experience greater well-being psychologically, and those around her will respond with respect, admiration and kindness that they most likely would not to a more curmudgeonly patient, but to say that someone who exercises a more healthy and skillful guidance control should be held morally responsible for doing so is another question completely. That someone has the inner resources to handle illness with such dignity and another patient does not because of factors they have not chosen means that they cannot and should not be held morally responsible.
If we cannot be held morally responsible, and thus are without blame, how can we speak of “taking refuge” and “taking” or “receiving” precepts? What does it mean to practice “atonement” if we are not morally responsible? I hope to begin to approach these questions in future posts.
Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012)
Epicetus, Enchiridion 17
John Martin Fischer, The Metaphysics of Free Will: An Essay On Control, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994)