Conditioned Decision Making
Time's Paradigm is a philosophy of science paper exploring the complex subject of Time. This supplement on Free Will debates our ability to create our own destiny, and examines the psychology behind 'making choices' that might influence our future.
To Wonder: the effervescence of rational thought.
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The conditions for a Choice.To suggest you chose to do this rather than that, and therefore changed your future, implies that there was a future that now is different.
If, rather than doing this thing, we make a choice and decided upon a different course of action, we assume this will change our future outcome. Do we have this ability to freely control our destiny? Here we look at what making a choice really entails, and how that could affect whether we can alter progress and the flow of time.
An evolving world does not need there to be intelligent life on board to question its validity. Apparently, progress can happen without us. So, why do we make a difference? Do we? Might we not be just as inanimate as a rock or as mindless as a mushroom?
'Free will' suggests intelligence, control, ambition. Having no ability to freely choose ones fate, puts us squarely in the bracket with invertebrate plasmids and jelly beans. Clearly, we would want to be classed above amoebas, and we have long fought to establish this fact by claiming our intelligence as an example. We have gone so far as saying that we have the insight to consider time and see both into the past and, even, somehow influence the future. This sets us apart from the likes of mushrooms and millipedes, we proclaim.
Is that so? Do we really have such magnificent attributes?
Things have to happen. Time flows on regardless of us. How many times have you been in a situation where a decision was required but you did not have the time to come up with one? So, you simply said: "To hell with it". Nevertheless, something did happen. Perhaps you turned around, without thinking to ask yourself, should I?
It must be said that very little, if anything, happens because one person decided as much. We are influenced by so very much in our lives that it almost appears as if we are completely entwined in every aspect of the World around us. We cannot make the simplest choice about our future without one hundred or so things pulling and tugging at our thoughts; things that we did not even know where truly influential, minor fluctuations; things perhaps hundreds of miles or many days away from our present location. Look no further than Chaos Theory.
We feel as if we live in a world of multiple choices. We have a vast range of decisions to make on a minute by minute bases. Our life is constantly bombarded by seemingly mountains of queries all at once. So, how do we process this information and how do we deal with such enormous challenges so that we can arrive at just one decision?
The answer is, we compartmentalise. But, is it free will or by obligation? Do we decide to do this, or are we conditioned to do so by habitual custom; in other words, evolution? If conditioning, then perhaps we are not as superior as we thought we were.
A simple multiple choice questionnaire might look like this:
Four options confront us. But, rather than swirl all these choices around in our head simultaneously, we divide, then divide again as necessary, by default. We end up with a choice between the two most likely. Between A and B, for example, if we are unhappy with the performance we have been asked to asses; B and C, if the performance was average; C and D if we were happy with the performance.
This process of cutting up and parcelling the multiple options into small 'yes or no' answers, speeds up the decision making nightmare and boils everything down into a simple toss of the coin; mathematically speaking, a binary function.
Once we have compartmentalised, the decision we are left with is between two similar options. Here, our personalities take over. If we have gone for the A-B compartment, is it 'really bad' or just 'not very good'? Should I be brutal, or should I consider that people make mistakes so it wasn't all that bad?
However, our personalities are made for us, we evolved into who we are, we are as it were, programmed; so, it could be said that we do not make decisions, we just followed orders. From earliest childhood we are, to a large extent, given our parents personalities. Children like to mimic their elders, learn their quirks and antics, becoming mini versions of their parents. Moreover, each child also has their own set of character traits from birth that make them individual. They develop as they grow, absorbing their surroundings, and at maturity there is little evidence to suggest the personality of an individual was created by themselves. Even a decision to better oneself is due to previous personality strengths, because not all of us have the will power to change.
Most of us make so called decisions every minute or so, with little effort and minimal delay. Many decisions require only to repeat an earlier decision, life becoming a chain of near identical choices with which we are familiar and perfectly comfortable. It worked before so it will work again.
Decisions could be considered habits. Repetitive behaviour is key to our success as a race, as it is for other creatures. We will habitually choose an apple over an orange, but just occasionally, we will take the orange because we happen to have a craving, that afternoon, for the sharper tang of citrus and that is what we always choose under those circumstances. Was any of that free will? Imagine a creature that acted unpredictably in any given situation and chose a course without regard for themselves or past familiarities. What kind of personality would simply toss a coin?
Every now and then you hear someone say they threw caution to the wind, and decided to go zip-lining, for example, because their boyfriend convinced them to have fun and try it - even though they are a bit afraid of heights. This scenario has just adequately displayed for us their personality: She is cautious and caring, but likes to take the odd adventure, and is swayed by trust; she is also affectionate and honest.
Free will it could be. We are all free to toss a coin. But we don't. And if occasionally we do, that is the kind of person we are. It feels like freedom of choice. But it isn't, really.
Do we actually make such decisions and, therefore, create an outcome that might otherwise not have occurred? It appears not! When we want to do something, the decision has been instilled, we just act it out; we don't create options we just make them up.
We commonly say, "I decided to this, instead of that." Or, "I went this way rather than that." These statements are misleading. It is not possible to say the outcome of something that did not occur, so the thought that we might have altered our future by our actions is flawed. And secondly, there are not just two options to any given scenario, there are millions.
If we are that predictable, then our future is also. This predictability stems from the past, our conditioning. There are no real choices being made, it just feels that way. By associating a choice with a particular event, we create the necessity, when actually we didn't need to imagine we were making a decision at all.
Once again, we appear to be misguided in our belief that we actually control our future and the course of time.
We all dissociate on a regular bases. We can be doing a regular task, like driving a car, and suddenly we are aware that we have been 'day dreaming' for the last few minutes and have no idea how we could have been driving without actually being aware. Likewise, we can move about in a known environment without any decision making at all, while we are thinking about what we are going to have for supper or while tussling with our mind over an algebraic calculation.
After a night of heavy drinking we wake up the following morning without remembering much of the night before. We were drunk, yet capable of function. Our conscious mind was not paying attention, not gathering information, and we lack memories. Nevertheless, we danced, we sang and we passed the time.
The World - our lives - keep on going without our input. We don't need to be steering, making decisions, choosing our destiny; it seems it is already out there. We are put in positions, we do not put ourselves in them. Choices are delusions we create consciously, out of necessary relevance. By questioning progress and demanding the option to choose, we become aware of time.
The second you start thinking about your present situation, is the second 'time' becomes a factor. When we ask a millipede which leg he is going to move next, he trips up. If we do not bother with choices and decisions we merrily meander onward to our destiny. This dream-like state is a timeless passage devoid of cognitive reasoning: an anemonoid existence.
If we were deprived of our senses, being then somewhat like an anemone, we would have no awareness of time. Receiving information like sights and sounds gives our brains the opportunity to rationalise, to relate and to merit information. That is their purpose, that is what they want to do, are programmed to do.
The greater our capacity to reason, the more it becomes necessary to do so. We find choices appealing, rewards fundamental to our well being, and we develop an enormous database of memory into which we can crawl. We need sleep, an anemone does not. Being awake, consciously aware, takes effort. It is much easier to dream.
A dream state is without fluid time: Time is staggered, often runs backwards, skips chunks, or repeats itself. When we wake up we can remember bits of the dream and vaguely recall some sense of movement, but if you really try hard to re-play it like a video it doesn't happen. In dreams, the subconscious mind is trying to put together material gathered by the conscious mind, but unlike the conscious mind it does not need to interpret time. The conscious mind can make use of time by concentrating on various key events in life, the dream state is only borrowing thoughts from the archive.
Most creatures on this planet are invertebrates. The few more evolved species like ourselves have a real sense of survival because we are aware. Being conscious is a means to analyse motion, protect ourselves and gather information.
If we had evolved as an anemone we would have little need for defensive mechanisms. Like pollen, they scatter millions upon millions of simple eggs into the ocean currents. This requires very little energy as their offspring are not complex organisms. The eggs become larvae in the plankton cloud, their success based on quantity rather than quality, with a probability that at least a tiny percentage will survive and attach themselves to the reef. Those, like us, that only produce a few multi-functional offspring must protect them, and they in turn must later protect themselves.
A species with out much autonomous mobility, that relies on ocean currents to both disperse and feed, has little need for reasoning. However, with mobility comes a need to contemplate time, because it takes time to get from A to B. Many invertebrates have mobility. Insects and crustaceans are among the most mobile. Their 'Central Complex' is very similar to our brains' 'Basal Ganglia', suggesting that such evolved invertebrates can also make use of time. For the anemone this sense of time would be akin to a whole new dimension. In contemplating time, one can thus contemplate distance, and vice-versa.
Having such awareness gives flourish and garnish to our existence. Because we can visualise time, we can use it, we can remember stuff. We are not always in the same place, whereas an anemone is most often stationary. Mobility gives us a need to gather information; the conscious self being not a decision maker, merely a tool.
We, as do anemones, have simple reflexes to fall back on to protect ourselves from danger. An anemone withdraws when a predator swims by, not however due to any thought process. We withdraw our hand from the fire, seemingly without thinking. It's all down to our primitive spinal cords, which all animals, however basic, possess in one form or another. We, on the other hand, have grown an enormous tumour on the end of ours, called a brain.
It's that ugly lump of neurons that has created a more elaborate way of protecting itself. The development of a brain was an evolutionary branch from the rest of the teaming population of immobile invertebrates and far more elaborate than the mobile ones. But it came with a price: less offspring, longer adolescence, conscious deliberation. So, it needed more than just simple reflexes to survive in a world of time and distance: it created conditioned reflexes.
When the bell rings, we salivate (or pick up the phone). When we approach the curb, we look left and right. Life is complicated when you are constantly on the move. We cannot survive and progress in that dream-like subconscious state without the conscious gatherer to collect information. Once we have memories, our brains do the rest.
We have evolved through the millennia as much as we have evolved in our own life times. This enormous tapestry we are, may seem as impossibly intricate as a Persian rug, but it too has designs following paths and patterns, repetitions and similarities. Life is about repeating patterns, habits. Everything is alive, everything grows, everything progresses, even mountains and moons, and this flow towards the future has to be reasonably well rehearsed - it can't be just a haphazard stumbling progression with random disregard - or things in the future would no longer fit together.
So, when we make a choice, it is really just a compartmentalised series of avenues with only one outcome. We call it two and become aware, but, truth is, we are programmed to follow just one course. No choice - or we could flip a coin.
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A synopsis of a work in progress. Copyright: A. Graham, 1988 - 2016
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