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Unread April 16th, 2006, 02:39 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Somatic Behavior Choice Hypothesis

This is not a proof of something. It is is a way of interpreting things that have been proven by others or that have not been disproven. The value is that it offers a conceptual model of human decision-making that is more predictable and testable than other psychological models. This model is also strongly based on the emerging neurological design of the human CNS in ways that can tested by observation using modern PET, MRI techniques, etc.

So, I am not saying this is how the brain works in decision-making. I am saying this is a possible explanation for how it works that does not violate what we do know about the brain and that is derived from some of the latest discoveries. And, I'm saying that if the brain did work this way then here are the implications that can be tested. In that spirit I will not try to provide any detailed support. I will provide that support later depending on what parts anyone wants to challenge. To make that easier I'll just provide a numbered list of the more important elements of the hypothesis in a sort of descending order by significance - in the spirit of providing several things that can be easily challenged.

But first, a note. Websters defines paradigm as a) a pattern, example, or model b) an overall concept accepted by most people in an intellectual community, as those in one of the natural sciences, because of its effectiveness in explaining a complex process, idea, or set of data

From the first philosophical and psychological models of the brain, cognition has been the core activity around which most of those models have been built. They are based on the larger belief that humans are the thinking animal and that that is the most salient aspect of our mind.

Human voluntary behavior is largely seen as the result of the thinking process. Almost all descriptive or functional models of explanation start with the idea that our intellect is primarily responsible for what goes on in our brain.

When someone fails at something or when they disagree with us we like to say that they didn't do a good job of thinking. When they succeed or when they agree with us we are certain that they are highly intelligent thinkers.

I call this the cognicentric paradigm. It permeates most human sciences. Most psychological models are built around cognition and the search for impediments to cognition as explanations for poor decision-making or mental disease. Emotion and feeling are typically seen as results of thinking and as the most important of those impedients. Many therapies focus on modifying or controlling emotions as a way to allow a patient to get back on the track to good thinking and good decision-making, unimpeded by emotions.

This hypothesis turns that paradigm around and for reasons that the hypothesis explains, that makes it an uncomfortable idea to consider. According to this hypothesis a paradigm that we have integrated into our belief system is a special kind of higher order belief. It has the effect of causing us to compare any new ideas that we are exposed to - to it. If the idea does not fit this higher order belief we will have an emotional reaction that affects how we think about the idea. Instead of wondering how the new idea might possibly be valid, we will be motivated instead to think of ways that it could not possibly be. This is one of the testable implications of the hypothesis.

I am explaining this because we have some control over the emotions of our higher order beliefs if we are aware of them - and to encourage you temporarily to set aside that emotionally driven skepticism, as far as you can. To keep these posts as short as possible I'll state the hypothesis here and then list the elements and implications in the following post.

The Somatic Behavior Choice Hypothesis

Behavior choice (decision-making) in humans is the result of a subconscious summation of somatic effects. These effects are automatically produced when mental images of contemplated behavior excite emotion-producing neural networks that attempt to predict the outcome of the behavior in terms of our happiness or survival. The neural networks that produce the somatic effects are located in brain areas variously responsible for our instincts, dispositions, memories of past events, beliefs, social instincts and intellectual conclusions.


Last edited by Margaret McGhee; April 27th, 2006 at 11:32 PM.
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Unread April 16th, 2006, 02:41 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Elements of the Somatic Behavior Choice Hypthesis

1) Behavior choice (decision-making) in humans is the result of a subconscious summation of somatic effects. These effects are automatically produced when mental images of contemplated behavior excite emotion-producing neural networks that attempt to predict the outcome of the behavior in terms of our happiness or survival. The neural networks that produce the somatic effects are located in brain areas variously responsible for our instincts, dispositions, memories of past events, beliefs, social instincts and intellectual conclusions.

2) The brain regions listed above - our instincts, dispositions, memories of past events, beliefs, social reasoning and intellectual conclusions - are listed generally in descending order by evolutionary age. Of course, in most cases evolution proceeded concurrently in those areas with some developing ahead of the others, not sequentially. The earliest of those are the most archaic and are regions that we share with all mammals. The latest contributors are the newest and the most refined and are the ones that make us most human.

3) At the same time they are listed in descending order by the strength of the potential effect of those emotions on our behavior decisions. For example, the emotions from our instinct to run from danger may easily overpower the emotions generated from our intellectual conclusion to remain under a doorway during an earthquake. Or, in some persons, the emotions generated by their belief that God takes care of those who believe in him and pray may be stronger than the emotions generated by their intellectual appreciation of modern medicine.

4) Mammalian brain evolution has generally proceeded in a way to add ever more refined and effective sources for the emotions that influence our decisionmaking. It has done this by wrapping newer functions around older structures while using the older structures as far as possible. The prefrontal cortex where our complex social emotions originate and our neocortex where logical reasoning and the mental images associated with consciousness occurs are regions wrapped around the older limbic core.

5) I will now discuss intellect and belief, the sources for our decision-making emotions that have become the most important contributors to our decision-making process. This has happened as we have shaped our environment to protect us from extreme danger and provide for our needs for food shelter, etc. We now live in a very complex environemnt that requires a good working intellect to navigate and a very large belief system for reference.

6) Intellect, the newest evolutionary source for our decison-making emotions, only started becoming effective about 50,000 years ago. We are probably still evolving our intellect, not in computing power as much as in the accuracy of the strength and appropriateness of the emotions it produces. i.e. in our ability to give our intellectual conclusions appropriate weight in a decision, to know when we are likely to be right or wrong. It's power comes from the ability to selectively abstract percepts and conceptualize them as images separate from the emotions they are usually attached to in the real world. This provides a powerful objective window on the world that is denied to most other animals - who live in a completely subjective world. Mathematics is a perfect example where we abstract the quantitative value of mental images and manipulate those concepts divorced (ideally) from all emotion.

7) Conceptualization has an interesting side-effect - consciousness. As our ability increased to conceptualize images and create new images not tied to the real world, we eventually got to the point where we could conceptualize (imagine) our own intellectual activity as it happened. I'm not proposing a definition of consciousness here but it seems intimately tied to intellect - as if it's purpose were to observe our intellect. We are largely unconscious of our decision-making as it happens and the various emotional inputs that contribute to it. Our consciousness seems to spend all its time observing and perhaps supervising our intellect - watching what we think. Since this is all we are consciously aware of (most of the time) that, plus the strange self-interested dimension of consciousness, ego, creates the impression that our intellect is in charge of our decision-making. And that creates the cognicentric paradigm discussed earlier.

8) Beliefs are an inherently more powerful emotional input to our decision-making computer than our intellect. Many mammals have beliefs - like my cat believes that vacuum cleaners are cat-eating devices. I only have to take it out of the closet for her to seek refuge - despite that she has never once been attacked or injured by it. Beliefs are very useful for animals with memory capacity. It allows us to generalize many personal experiences that have been tested in our own environment and experiences related by those we trust - and combine those with our instincts and dispositions, to provide a short, easily-recalled truth. Beliefs express relationships that we believe to be true. Everything from which ice cream flavor we like best to beliefs such as the meme honesty is the best policy. My cat doesn't have much intellect which is why her instinct has a much greater effect on establishing her beliefs about vacuum cleaners than her reason. But her beliefs serve her in the same way ours do. They provide easily recalled nuggets of personal wisdom about the world and our place in it - each one attached to the appropriate emotions to make it work in our decision-making process.

9) While cats and chimps can have limited belief systems, humans have very large and very elaborate belief systems that are arranged in a hierarchy and have separate zones for different types of beliefs (compartmentalizing). All together our full set of beliefs form our cognitive identity. A few very important beliefs at the top of our hierarchy are most emotionally connected to our personal identity. They are beliefs about our gender and sexual orientation for example. Those are so crucial to the survival of our DNA that they have a strong instinctive (genetic) dimension. We generally choose the cognitive dimension of our beliefs from those offered by our culture. This allows humans to have many different societies that all operate according to the same motivations but have vastly different details. Perhaps right below gender and sex are our identity beliefs associated with our profession or role in life as a parent or student, our religious and philosophical beliefs, etc. Then below those are the thousands of beliefs that are less emotionally attached to our sense of identity - but still must be supportive and not contradictory of those beliefs above them in our belief system hierarchy.

10) That explains how the paradigm works. If you are exposed to an idea that says that emotion, not intellect governs human decision-making - that will violate the higher level belief (paradigm) that most of us have about the world and our place in it. We all like to believe that our behavior choices are the sole result of our powerful intellect - and that people who disagree with us just don't think right.

11) I propose that the emotions from our beliefs, not from our intellect, are the largest single source of the emotions that guide us through most important behavior decisions. What we like to think of as reasoning is usually just referencing the emotions from our strongest beliefs associated with that mental image. We may then use our intellect to figure out how to justify the use of those beliefs in that situation - but we seldom consider the logical validity of our beliefs. They form our identity after all, and we are instinctively protective of our identity.

12) In general, I believe this is how the human brain usually operates. We occasionally add a new belief - if it supports those beliefs above it - but we normally use our intellect to justify our existing beliefs and in a utilitarian way to execute behavior decisons once we've made them. For example, we will use our higher level identity beliefs to decide to become a scientist. We make that decision because by tenth grade or so we believe we are a scientist kind of person and we want others to see us in that role (identity). Then we'll use our intellect over the next several years to get us through grad school.

I could go on for many more pages describing some of the interesting implications of seeing human behavior choice through this paradigm window - but this is too long already and it's more than enough to establish why I think Bob punched Brad yesterday. Thanks for taking the time to read it.


PS - Talk about timing here's an opinion piece in the NYT today by Danial Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor, who hits on a lot of of the perplexing human behavior explained in this theory. It's called "You're Biased, I'm Not".

Last edited by Margaret McGhee; May 17th, 2006 at 01:17 PM.
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Unread April 17th, 2006, 12:14 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Re: Somatic Behavior Choice Hypothesis

This interesting AP article caught my attention. GOP Campaign to Focus on Flag Burning, Gay Marriage, Abortion

I've always suspected that Karl Rove had a good understanding of my theory. The modern success of his party is largely due to exploiting emotional wedge issues to increase the emotional heat in politics to the level that the baser, but potentially more powerful instincts of voters such as protection of imagined babies (abortion), fear of difference (anti-gay) and the strong beliefs those emotional issues foster - could overpower the more human (but inherently weaker) motivation of their intellectual conclusions when voters enact the behavior of voting for a candidate.

This strategy ultimately serves also to divide the country into two bitterly opposed camps so that Republican voters won't be bothered by worrying about what Democratic voters think of them (social instincts). They come to see Democrats not as fellow citizens but as enemies outside their zone of social influence - and justifiably punished for their heresy.

Meanwhile the Dem Pols wonder why their complex, but more carefully reasoned policy proposals get no traction. I guess I should be pleased that he is proving my theory correct.


Last edited by Margaret McGhee; April 17th, 2006 at 12:58 PM.
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Unread April 18th, 2006, 01:38 AM
Carey N Carey N is offline
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Default Re: Somatic Behavior Choice Hypothesis

exploiting emotional wedge issues to increase the emotional heat in politics to the level that the baser, but potentially more powerful instincts of voters such as protection of imagined babies (abortion), fear of difference (anti-gay) and the strong beliefs those emotional issues foster - could overpower the more human (but inherently weaker) motivation of their intellectual conclusions when voters enact the behavior of voting for a candidate.
So essentially you're saying (in a guarded, politically correct way) that this politician caters to dumb brutes who can't overcome their baser instincts in favor of intellectual conclusions.

Last edited by Carey N; April 18th, 2006 at 01:54 AM.
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Unread April 18th, 2006, 03:08 AM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Re: Somatic Behavior Choice Hypothesis

No. I'm saying we all can be more like dumb brutes when we become emotionally aroused - like fearful, angry, defensive, etc. We become more likely to follow our strong emotions (that come from instincts and beliefs) - than engage in calm deliberation. Enraged people (especially in groups) rape and get into genocide and lynching parties - and following leaders who enable and feed those strong emotions.

It's human nature. I saw a new taxonomic study that kicks chimps out of the pan and into the fire (homo) based on a more accurate reading of their genotype - and they exhibit the same kind of mob behavior.

Last edited by Margaret McGhee; April 18th, 2006 at 03:26 AM.
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Unread April 18th, 2006, 02:22 PM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
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Thumbs up Re: Somatic Behavior Choice Hypothesis


Interesting posts. I agree with a lot of this picture, and I'm not sure I understand the pieces that I think I disagree with. I'm thinking that you and I may have a very similar view, though we seem to express it in different ways.

First, from various lines of evidence in experimental psychology, I consider it very likely that the "everyday automaticity" hypothesis is right. (see Kirsch) The vast majority of our behavior is automatized rather than consciously willed. What little can be referred back to our conscious capacity for self-direction is probably mostly inhibiting our automatic behavior so we can change direction.

Combined with the findings on change blindness and inattention blindness in perceptual psychology, I strongly suspect that this tells us that conscious attention is really a mechanism for noticing things that require us to inhibit our automatic behavior and shift gears. Rather than a mechanism for driving our goal-directed behavior. The goals and motivations are already there, I think our "ego" takes illegitimate perceived ownership of them as a useful illusion. (see Wegner)

As a result, I think it's a serious error to propogate the longstanding tradition that intellect and emotion are two different sorts of thing that are somehow in competition with each other. That's how we perceive it, because we are compelled by the way our mind works to take ownership of "intellect," but I don't think it works that way in the brain. I don't think there is such a thing as pure intellect in the sense of having a computer side and a beast side of our neurology. There are probably domain-specific mechanisms that trigger both subjectively experienced emotions and reasoning, and then there are whatever properties allow us to combine or bridge those mechanisms to simulate or produce domain-general effects.

I do think we can isolate the brain circuits that help us self-regulate, and a lot of human uniqueness is probably built on top of those mechanisms. Human beings have this odd ability to inhibit ourselves in purposeful ways, which used poorly leads to analysis paralysis and used skillfully can lead to wise reflection. But I don't think that is really a distinct faculty for intellect separate from emotion.

It seems to me that the data from neuroscience are converging quite strongly on the conclusion that the same unconscious circuits that serve what we feel as emotional responses also serve a central role in reasoning. That is, reasoning is probably never divorced from the underlying mechanisms of emotion, it is driven by them.

I think the place where we experience something as strong emotion is really an extreme of the normal process, where a particular motivation circuit becomes very dominant and we lose our somewhat more ephemeral capacity to self-regulate and self-inhibit.

One important implication, if I'm right, is that I suspect we can reason from "fear" or "anger" even though we are completely calm physiologically. The arousal we associate with emotion is just an extreme motivational state. The "fear" machinery (as well as others) probably helps drive reasoning even when there is no observable arousal or any experience of emotion.

I think this can be tested by sufficiently high resolution high speed imaging during reasoning experiments. My suspicion is that a lot of what experimenters have been calling "subliminal" or "marginal" priming effects will turn out to simply be a matter of isolating the "emotional" machinery underlying reasoning.

Here's a review of a recent book on emotion and reasoning that addresses some of these issues.

Related online reading:

Kirsch refs:
Kirsch and Lynn on automaticity
on automaticity in clinical psychology

Wegner refs:
Wegner papers
MIT Review of Wegner
Harvard Gazette Review of Wegner
Nancey Murphy review of Wegner
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Unread April 19th, 2006, 01:07 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default Re: Somatic Behavior Choice Hypothesis

Hi Todd, Thanks for your thoughtful reply. That's just what I was hoping for. I am in Hawaii this morning (arrived last evening) to visit my son and his wife for a few days. I will be considering your comments but am far from my reference library.

We may have some common pov's because I started a company a few years ago (based on a novel software concept) that produced computer sysytems for real time control of industrial processes. Tom mentioned that you are involved in some sort of machine intelligence?

Expect a more complete reply soon. We're off to do the tourist thing on Muana Kea.

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Unread April 27th, 2006, 10:12 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default SBCH Part I

Todd, Getting further into The Blank Slate while in Hawaii has been good. I think I can stand only so much paradise and the break each day was welcome. My Somatic Behavior Choice Hypothesis (SBCH) seems to be affirmed by some of the things I read in The Blank Slate as well as those links you provided. I also see where I need to explain some things in more detail to show where I am going with this.

Note that I use Damasio's very useful separation of emotion and feeling throughout my discussion. Emotions are responses (changes in body state) to our environment or when we mentally notice or consider some things in our minds - that we do not control. Feelings are our mental images of our emotions when we are aware of them. Some times feelings can produce additional emotions.

According to my hypothesis emotions are what provide the inputs to our decision-making mechanism. Environmental changes as well as perceptions and conceptions that we experience in our minds produce emotions that vary with the context of the consideration. Far from being a distraction to effective (survival enhancing) decision-making, these provide the actual values that are weighed in all our decisions.

Without appropriate emotions, like with Phinneas Gage who lost his prefrontal cortex, or with children who have sparse memories and belief systems, or with low-functioning adults who can not reason effectively, or with religious extremists who trust their childrens' health to their belief in God rather than modern medicine, etc. - effective and objective decision-making suffers when appropriate emotions are not available.

To clarify,

a) The SBCH describes the mechanism whereby human behavior choices are made. This works subconsciously by way of emotional forces that are summed at the moment a decision is made. These have a dynamic component. Being drunk can inhibit social emotions, for example. But individually we tend to produce consistent emotions under similar circumstances as part of our personality. The emotions are based on our emotional prediction of the outcome of a decision as it will affect our happiness (or survival).

b) I have identified several sources for these emotional forces that I believe lie in separate brain structures. The evolutionary purpose for those structures is to provide emotions when certain mental images are produced in them - and thereby allow us to make the millions of behavior choice decisions that we must in order to survive / reproduce. These sources include areas for instincts, dispositions, memories of past events, beliefs, social instincts and intellectual conclusions. This list is my best guess at this time but it could need editing.

c) Instincts and dispositions both provide emotions from inherited content and provide the human nature that EPists like to focus on. The fear of snakes or pleasure at the taste of sweetness, for example are instincts that provide strong and reliably predictable emotional forces.

d) Dispositions are like instincts but provide weaker forces that are spread out over time. The effect can accumulate to affect personality and the development of belief systems in certain directions. Boys' dispositions for rough and tumble play and competition can result in memories and beliefs that support the development of athlete personalities, for example. Or, girls' dispositions for nurturing and aversion to physical violence can produce memories and beliefs that support the development of care-giver personalities. Instincts and dispositions therefore, can affect . . .

e) . . memories, belief systems and intellectual conclusions that are produced in inherited brain structure that acquires its content from experience and culture. These sources are essentially a blank slate when we are born. So I differ from Pinker here in that I allow for a form of blank slate in determination of behavior. But the content of these areas were often influenced previously by instincts and dispositions and therefore can appear as genetic influences in studies where certain behaviors or abilities are apportioned between genes and culture.

f) When a behavior decision is made, emotional forces from all these sources come to bear on the choice. When the emotional need for a response is high - as in a dangerous situation - instincts tend to provide stronger emotions. Children who grow up in chronically dangerous environments are more likely to develop personalities that are congruent with their inherited dispositions. Boys are likely to form personalities around violent behavior, for example.

g) Our society has reduced a lot of the danger that our recent ancestors had to deal with in their lives. They relied more on their instincts and dispositions to form their personalities and their culture. We have the luxury to rely much more on our hopefully more educated beliefs and intellect which can potentially produce better decisions under those conditions. This accounts for our enlightened, more altrusitic and compassionate modern societies, for example. This seems to correlate also with the characteristics of less enlightened, less wealthy, societies in the world (that are more dangerous). However, when danger appears, any individual or society can temporarily revert to more instinct dominated behavior. I believe the conservative shift in American politics after 9/11 is a good example of this.

h) I believe this bias toward instinct and disposition on the one hand or toward intellect and educated beliefs on the other - as determining influences in behavior choices accounts for the major differences between societies and in individuals. I think the EP focus on IQ is simplistic. Persons whose personalities develop in a less-dangerous environment will tend to develop more intellectually weighted emotions for decision-making. They will also develop more effective intellectual processing skills through practice and motivation and will score higher on IQ tests - although I agree that structure for different types of cognition is largely inherited. Yet, I suspect that structure, perhaps the wiring, can also be modified somewhat by experience.

To illustrate this decision-making process, imagine the following scenario in the next post (Part II).


Last edited by Margaret McGhee; April 28th, 2006 at 10:44 AM.
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Unread April 27th, 2006, 10:13 PM
Margaret McGhee Margaret McGhee is offline
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Default SBCH Part II

To illustrate this overall decision-making process, imagine the following scenario. (I recommend you read Part I first.)

Part I

A young man who lives in a town with a ski resort pulls into the parking lot of his local bar around midnight. He parks next to a car with some shiny new skis on the roof rack. Getting out he notices that the car is not local and that the skis are a particular new model that he has wanted to buy but could not afford.

The thought occurs to him that it would be easy enough to remove the skis from the unlocked rack in a few seconds. But immediately, he thinks of the embarrassment of getting caught, the possible criminal punishment, the loss of his reputation among his friends. He recalls that his mother taught him that stealing is wrong - and that cinches it for him - he dismisses the idea and starts to walk into the bar to meet his friends.

But, after a few steps he thinks again about how cool it would be to own those skis and how much he has wished to own a pair. He thinks of the warm admiration from his friends when he shows up with those skis in the lift line on Saturday.

He stops and looks back at the skis in the rack. It's dark, no-one is nearby and the street is empty of traffic. He knows that this is the time to decide one way or the other and that once the decision is made - he'll have to live with the decision from that moment on. What do you think he did?

It is my hypothesis that at that moment, several emotional forces came to bear in his decision-making mechanism (probably in his hypothalamus). They originated from his instinct to want to possess something that he admired, his disposition to be honest or not, his disposition to engage in risky behavior, his memories of past experiences when he may have been caught stealing - or may have resisted the urge and been rewarded, his identity belief that owning hot skis will make him an admired person among his peers, his identity and moral belief that stealing is wrong and his Machiavellian intellectual prediction of getting caught or not. Those forces all get weighed in the emotional summing mechanism that produces his final decision. And the relative strength of those forces is very dependent on his emotional identity - the emotional biases that he has previosuly attached to those considerations that make him different from everyone else in the world.

It is my hypothesis that this is how all our decisons are made. Most times we are not even aware that we are making a decision. We just feel a force in us that causes us to do something - like to take the next right turn to get to K-Mart or to scratch our dog behind his ears - and we do it. And at other times we reflect on some of the pros and cons deliberatively - yet still sum the others subconsciously.

But, in this way, all our behavior decisions are determined by this summing of emotional forces.

There is no ghost in the machine - but an imagined ghost in our machine can affect our decisions by way of the emotions produced by our beliefs. There is no blank slate but many of our decision-emotions come from brain areas that were really blank when we were born - and were written into by our experiences and culture. There is no noble savage in us either but we may feel strong emotions from our more primitive instincts and dispositions.

Our beliefs (not our intellectual conclusions) are possibly the most important input to our decision-making mechanism when we are not faced with immediate danger. More on that later.


Last edited by Margaret McGhee; April 28th, 2006 at 10:48 AM.
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Unread April 28th, 2006, 10:38 AM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Somatic Behavior Choice Hypothesis

An illustration of free will would be the moral responsibility that sane adults utilize when nobody is looking and/or things turn to shit. For example, how Bonhoffer behaved, to his own detriment and contrary to the instincts/morality of the dominant social group in Germany, the Nazis, and most Germans, at the time; although since Bonhoffer didn’t survive/reproduce, I suppose one could question his fitness.

But there’re simpler experiments to help you decide whether you yourself have at least some “free will.” Consider a most fundamental drive—thirst. Do something that makes you very thirsty, but don’t drink anything. Rather, with nobody looking, and with no potential physiological/emotional benefits from your abstinence, place your favorite drink in front of you and consciously decide that you will not drink.

Until you reach the breaking point where your thirst will ultimately compel you to drink, you should be able to exercise your free will, your self-restraint, to consciously decide, at least for short (perhaps three second?) intervals and as long as you remain focused, to not drink.

You see Margaret, free will/self restraint is really that obvious and simple. Or you can choose to not do the above experiment. And/or you can choose to believe that free will, self-restraint, moral responsibility are illusions, nothing more than a subconscious emotional summing mechanism crapshoot, and that LeDoux’s cognitive downward causation is an illusion . . . in which case the kid might as well steal the damn skis.

Last edited by Fred H.; April 28th, 2006 at 10:59 AM.
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