I have used the exercise above with Critical Thinking students, partially to get them to think in unhabitual ways about things, but also to get them to consider issues from multiple perspectives, since the solution will not be found using linear thinking. (Clue: You have to consider the scenario from the perspective of someone other than yourself…)
But this scenario also gives us insight into several other aspects of the human condition, and it is in examining these that I have found this exercise most fruitful.
Making decisions lies at the very core of the human condition. We make thousands of them every day, ranging from which parking space to choose or which lane to go into when driving, to what to have for lunch or which colour shirt to wear. These decisions have, in most cases, very little consequence and only those with obsessive natures would consider them any more than mundane.
There are other decisions, however, that may have serious and long-lasting consequences, not only for ourselves, but for those close to us like family and friends, and the community within which we live. In considering financial investments, insurance policies, jobs, medical options and the like, we are faced with a multitude of variables and in many cases we rely on ‘experts’ to guide our decision-making because they apparently know more than we do about the subject and can enhance our own decision-making ability. Of course, experts get it wrong, more often than we like to admit. They constitute little more than ‘authorities’ and authority on its own is no guarantee of a successful outcome. The state of the world financial system and the behaviour of the banks and insurance companies should give us pause.
We cannot ourselves be expert at everything. But given that in any situation there will likely be multiple options, all having differing probable outcomes, and that the experts will also probably be divided to greater or lesser extents, it becomes important that we develop at least a working knowledge of each knowledge discipline, so that we may be better informed and therefore better equipped to make sound decisions. Some will argue that we can never have perfect information and that uncertainty is always present, and I would agree – this does not mean we should take leaps in the dark; it means we should be extra careful, especially where there is greater uncertainty.
There are those who go by ‘gut feel’ and prefer to trust their ‘instincts’, and they do so in spite of the copious evidence that our intuition is hopelessly unreliable in the great majority of cases. Humans tend to have selective memories; we tend to remember our successes more easily than our failures, and the notion that our ‘heart’ is a useful guide has become a self-fulfilling myth as a result.
Nobody in his or her right mind would purchase a property or make an investment or indeed part with money for any reason without due consideration of the relative worth of the options available and their ability to provide a return on investment, whether that return be profit or utility. In the same way, we would not ingest something, particularly medicine, without some understanding of how it will affect us. Likewise, we would not take on a job of work or a contract without evaluating carefully the benefit of such an undertaking. A Government should not make investments based on how good it makes its leaders feel – it must do so on the basis of the envisaged social benefit they will accrue. These are all rational approaches to decision-making.
So it would be more than a little strange to expect someone to make a decision, especially a ‘life-or-death’ decision like the one in the scenario above, without some way of gathering information that would inform that decision. Of course, evil Dictators tend not to provide such information, but we would not readily call such people ‘rational’.
There are two aspects to this decision problem: one is understanding of the set of variables impacting on the decision, and the other is the ability of the decision-maker to evaluate those variables. We might refer to these two as ‘knowledge’ and ‘intelligence’ respectively. Without knowledge, intelligence is sterile; without intelligence, knowledge is passive. Only when both are present can we say that we are free of the constraints of uncertainty to any degree – and that ‘freedom’ we call ‘free will’ becomes available. It should be self-evident that total freedom is unavailable. Since we cannot have perfect information and since each of us lives within a ‘bounded rationality’, restricted by our own cognitive and circumstantial limitations, free will is an absolute we simply cannot have the capacity to exercise.
This does not mean that we are deterministic biological automatons. We do have the ability to choose, which is more often than not mistaken for ‘free will’. They are very different ideas. The very fact that we do make decisions is sufficient evidence that we have the ability to choose. Whether that choice is ‘free’ is the debatable part. In order for it to be ‘free’ we would need to be unrestricted by any limitations whatsoever, which is a claim to objectivity, self-evidently absurd, since in order to be objective, one would have to be ‘contained within the object’, clearly impossible. The fact of our limitations in respect of perspective, circumstance, understanding and ability must surely underline that our capacities are not equal; and if unequal, then our ‘will’ is not free.
At birth, a child is incapable of making decisions. It is only through the learning process as the child grows older that the capacity to make independent decisions develops. At some point in the child’s history, there will be a movement from general understanding to specialised understanding, and within the specialist discipline chosen, the decision-making capacity will be enhanced. The more we know about a subject, the greater our capacity to make decisions with predictable outcomes. This growth in one direction has as an unfortunate consequence the stifling of progress in other subjects, and our ability to make decisions independently within those disciplines becomes more and more limited. Specialisation breeds ignorance, and we become reliant on other specialists because of that ignorance. We are no longer free to choose. We simply do not have enough information or expertise.
If this is true of science, business practices, and sport, then it is more so in the case of art, philosophy and religion, where the presence of abstracts and the lack of physical evidence for our views compounds the problem.
The world of art is especially interesting. Whether there is a measure by which we could determine the objective quality of art is unknown at this time; it seems to be a minefield of perceptions and interpretations. The fact that we differ as to the merits of a particular piece of music, writing, painting or dance is evidence that we have freedom to choose according to our own criteria. The criteria are really the basis of our discrimination, and when we examine why people prefer one to another piece of art, we find that the artwork itself is in many cases not the focus of attention, being secondary to social pressures, personal experiences, and personal aspirations. Most people ‘like’ music by association with an event or a person or a time in their lives; the quality of the music has never entered the frame, since most people know little about the subject – they know, however, what they like. And ‘what they like’ is pretty much what everyone else in their clique or group or any other sub-society likes, and the result is popularity and the marketing phenomenon. Quality has never been a criterion, and people tend to prefer certain genres above others, and they will argue vociferously in support of them as if their preferences are objectively ‘better’. What they are really defending is themselves and their own set of preconceptions about what constitutes ‘quality’, derived by association.
Association is a prejudice – the choice may be a ‘free’ choice, but it is an ignorant one if bound by influence of any sort, whether positive or negative. An uneducated choice cannot be free. Nor can an unintelligent one. They are bounded by a lack of knowledge in the first case and a lack of intellect in the second.
There are those who insist that our will is always free by virtue of our ‘conscience’. Depending on whether you believe conscience to be a Universal, innate ability or whether you think conscience is a result of social conditioning, you would have a different perspective on the idea. The notion that conscience is innate and present in all humans is, of course, an article of faith and does not fall within our jurisdiction in conducting a logical analysis of the idea of free will, since one cannot test for the presence of something necessarily supernatural. The fact that so many cultures have such differing value systems, even given their commonalities, suggests that conscience is not innate. Humans spent a long time embracing ideas such as slavery, subjugation of women, racism and other values that were regarded as moral, even in religions, until they were questioned. One would think that they would not have been so popular in the first place had conscience been innate. Of course, one could argue that humans just ignored their consciences but the fact is that they regarded these values as ‘good’, not anomalies practiced by few. It was the few who objected, and this has always been the case, and their arguments have in most cases had rational grounds.
So to get back to the scenario above: the solution requires a substantial portion of intelligence to work out – without a solution, one is bound to take a ‘leap in the dark’, an act of faith that ‘everything is gonna be alright’ if we just believe. The problem is, we have no idea what is behind the door – we don’t even know if the Emperor is not just playing with our minds. This leap in the dark is a prerequisite of every superstition, religion, paranormal. junk science, and new age or mystical idea in existence – it requires suspense of logic and common sense and a leap into the abyss of the unknown, since we cannot know to any degree whether any of them have a basis in reality, since their premises lie outside the field of investigation. The supernatural cannot be examined in the natural world, and if you can know nothing besides what the belief system’s authority figures (The Emperor) and it’s adherents tell you, there is no guarantee that there is anything behind the door at all. In fact, it could be argued that the solution lies, not in opening a door, i.e. subscribing to a belief system, but in working things out for oneself.
Making a decision to support a given system of beliefs does not engage the ‘will’ at all; neither knowledge nor intelligence are required, just a liberal dose of emotional need coupled with a gullible nature and ignorance with regard to how the world works. Given that we cannot know to any degree whether any of them have credibility, it does not matter which door one chooses if you have no basis in logic for the choice, since either choice is equally likely to be incorrect. In fact, the likelihood that any choice at all is correct is not known, for they may all be wrong. In addition, one can only call a decision a ‘choice’ if other options are considered. The fact is, most adherents to religions and superstitions do so because they acquiesce to their culturally-inherited beliefs, and never actually investigate competing beliefs; at no point is a ‘choice’ made, i.e. a selection of one option from numerous others.
The assumption that humans have free will guided by conscience has other consequences, not the least of which is the judgemental behaviour of those who expect others to conform to their own moral codes, and the manner in which our legal systems are based on this flimsy premise: that all of us have equal moral capacity and therefore equal moral responsibility. If free will and conscience exist, then by all means it is completely appropriate that our social and legal systems identify and isolate those who destroy the property and lives of others. But what if it doesn’t? The correlations between lack of education, poverty and abuse and their relationship to crime and violence suggest that our personal position and experience of life has a strong influence on our behaviour.
If it is true that part of our dynamic is brought about by forces beyond our control; if culture, personal experience, lack of education and/or intelligence have a significant effect on individual beliefs and value systems and therefore their behavioural responses, then we must alter the way we think about maladaptive or deviant behaviour. Instead of condemnation, regarding others as severally responsible for their behaviour, we should see them as victims to some extent, and we should seek to obviate or reduce the contributing factors rather than punish those who have merely knocked over the last domino in a cause-effect chain reaction.
Judgement across cultural divides becomes patently inappropriate; one can hardly be blamed, in the absence of a universal conscience, for doing things that another culture finds reprehensible. When people attack those in Asian countries for eating dogs, I am amazed at the double standard, since in most cases the people doing the judging would think nothing of eating pigs, who are more intelligent than dogs and have similar emotional profiles. But even if we ignore the hypocrisy, we must consider whether we would have done any different had we been born into that culture. It’s difficult to see why we should have, and the same applies to any set of behaviours that are common to a given culture or sub-culture. We point fingers because we are ignorant of the cultural cause-effects in foreign circumstances. Ignorance invariably leads to prejudices and they become the building blocks of conflict and confrontation.
Judgement or condemnation will not free the enslaved or redeem the offender – the tools of understanding and education have far greater power in the long run. In matters of Life and Death, careful consideration is of more importance and value than irrational knee-jerks of prejudice and preconception.
If we are intent on choosing Life, then we must find life-affirming strategies that build up those we regard as weak, not put them down in the hope that they will magically transform or go away.
“Never look down on anybody unless you helping him up.” ~ Martin Luther King