Do You Truly Have Free Will?
Do You Truly Have Free Will?
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Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
~ Carl Jung
I love that Jung quote. I’ve used it generously in conversation, seminars and writings throughout the years.
Initially, I assumed that the “unconscious” he referred to the place in our brains where our experiences, beliefs and memories are undetectably stored. You know, psychology stuff: ego, subconscious, id. Old memories from childhood lurking beneath the conscious frame of reference, directing thoughts and coloring our current experiences.
In other words, post-birth experiences that came from nurture; the environment in which we were raised. As if we’re born as blank slates written upon by our parents, friends and the larger culture we grow up in.
Perhaps given the state of science at the time, that’s all that Jung did mean.
But now we have a lot more science to expand that quote out into some truly mind-boggling territory. In my mind, it’s now a case of including both nature and nurture into the equation.
More and more scientific research is revealing that our slates are only partially blank at birth, ready to accept whatever chalk lines might get drawn by life. But the majority of the remaining territory is already marked at conception with engraved instructions.
What Makes You “You”
For me personally, it has been incredibly liberating to discover that only some of my unconscious scripts were installed after birth.
The person that I call “I” or “Me” is a bundle of reactions, some of which were pre-programmed and some of which have been learned, and most of which are a combination of both. The same is true for you. Our lives are a complex combination of both nature and nurture mixing like fluids to influence our experience of life.
This knowledge offers extraordinary power to those who can master their wiring, understanding which cerebral hacks and hijacks exist to create a richer and more engaged experience of life. When applied at the collective level, these insights offer a helpfully predictive ‘most likely’ view of the future.
Bluntly, the odds of a group of humans rising above their core programming is pretty low, especially when various self-interested entities have learned to hijack the programming for fun and profit (and other often nefarious motivations). This encompasses the media (both mainstream and social), politics and advertising.
So back to the Jung quote.
I now more broadly interpret “unconscious” to mean anything that you aren’t aware of that’s causing you to respond with certain actions, or experience things in a certain way. It could be something from your past long buried (nurture) or it could be hard-wired into your neurochemical response set (nature).
Similarly, as long as it’s operating undetected by your conscious mind, yet resulting in certain responses, I’m calling that the “unconscious”, too.
Simply knowing that such scripts are running in your brain is truly life changing once you become aware of them.
As a topical reference, the current Epstein sexual predator case just reminds us that many men often live out their lives thoroughly subject to the biology of sexual hormones and the drive to reproduce, with about as much free will as a rutting elk during mating season.
The book Sex At Dawn presents a number of such science-based examples of the role of our genes in directing our behaviors.
In one famous experiment, men wore t-shirts for three days, then took them off and placed them in zip-lock bags. Randomly selected women of childbearing age were then asked to open the bags, sniff the contents and rate the men’s attractiveness from one to ten. Their rankings were based solely on smell, no other information was given.
The women all had very clear preferences. Some smells attracted them, some repulsed them. The t-shirts were ‘hot or not.’
When the researchers then genotyped both the women and men, they discovered that the women’s noses had unerringly selected potential mates whose specific genetic make-up would yield offspring with particularly robust immune system combinations (via MHC typing for the science-wonks reading this). Using just their sense of smell, the women were able to accurately determine very important information about a potential mate’s DNA.
Wow. Go science!
It turns out we can tell something about the elemental molecular constituency of the people around us, all the way to decoding an algorithm as ridiculously complex as the combination of two dissimilar immune systems. Well, at least women can.
But who knows what else we’re going to discover with the passage of time?
The invitation here is to keep a very open mind, and a strong sense of humility, for the genius of 3.8 billion years of evolution and for what we humans are going to further decode over the next 100 years — should we make it that far.
Okay, so women can somehow detect better genetic matches using their noses. But where the study got really interesting — and made the Jung quote explode in many directions for me — is when it further revealed that women who are on birth control pills lose this nose-DNA-detecting superpower. The pharmaceuticals act as a disrupting agent.
Now imagine the poor woman who gets married, decides it’s time to have children, goes off her birth control pill and then, once her hormones have shifted back to her natural baseline, wakes up one day thinking “Crikey, who is this loser?” Somewhere deep and ancient inside her, the former ‘man of her dreams’ now smells entirely wrong. A bad match.
So, they break up, at great emotional, logistical and financial disturbance. She moves on, goes back on the pill, marries another great guy and then repeats the whole process. Again, the new man just smells wrong.
Lacking the proper frame for what is happening, she manufactures all sorts of stories to match the experience. “He’s a bad provider. Doesn’t share my interests. Doesn’t speak my love language. Has bad hygiene…”
The unconscious operation running, however, is none of those things. It’s that he’s a bad genetic match and her biological hardware — which was blocked from operating correctly earlier — has now finally been able to detect that.
Perhaps after the second ‘failure’ this woman has concluded that her luck is bad. Fate has ruled against her. She’s cursed in some way, destined to fail at love. But it wasn’t fate at all. Rather, it was a biological response generated from the root code of her mammalian programming; unseen and undetected.
The unconscious had not been made conscious. It had directed her life, and she’d called it fate.
Had she known about the effect of birth control pills on mate selection, and been properly instructed in it by her MD at the time of first going on them, she would have been in a position to know to go off the pill while dating a potentially serious mate to determine if that changed how she felt about them.
It was only because she and her partner(s) were unaware of the silent biological, genetic script running in the background that so much “fate” happened to them.
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
~ Carl Jung
There are literally hundreds of studies coming out all the time that reveal the subtle and powerful ways that both our genetics and epigenetics encode all sorts of pre-programmed and even acquired/learned behaviors into us, and we’re learning more all the time.
Would it surprise you to learn that evolution had found a way to encode PTSD-inducing experiences into a parent’s DNA to pass on to their own offspring (and subsequent generations)? Well it has and this has been proven out in both humans (here also) and mice.
Quite to the surprise of scientists and students everywhere who thought the Darwin vs. Lamarck (nature vs nurture) debate was a decisive first round knock-out for Darwin, it turns out that mice and humans (and presumably many other creatures) can encode experiences into their DNA and pass them along to their offspring.
Rather than waiting for a random mutation to confer a new behavior that improves survival (Darwin) both mice and humans can encode a traumatic experience and pass that right along to their children. Babies born to war-starved women store fat with miserly fanaticism and experience far higher rates of chronic health issues. Children of holocaust survivors are prone to anxiety and have elevated stress hormones throughout their own lives. The sons of Union war prisoners were far more likely to die early than the sons of soldiers who were not prisoners.
In other words, our DNA is busy talking with the world around us and storing what seems to be useful information to pass along and/or use. The DNA is the hardware, that’s the part Darwin got right. And epigenetics is the software, which is the part that Lamarck understood.
Carl Jung perhaps understood more of this duality than I’ve appreciated:
Without knowing any of this, the children of women deprived of nutrition during gestation shame themselves as fat and unhealthy. Fate has dictated that they be this way. Fate has also frowned on children born to holocaust survivors and other similarly traumatized people. The children of the tens of thousands of war-wounded US soldiers will be similarly afflicted.
(Self-) Knowledge Is Power
Knowledge is truly power if one is interested in moving towards free will and away from unconscious choice.
I’ve given up the fantasy of making it all the way to pure free will, but I can certainly move myself closer to it along the spectrum.
“Making the unconscious conscious” has been an area of great interest for me for many years, and I consider it to be incredibly liberating each time a new awareness can be brought into the light of consciousness. “Fate” can be transformed into identifiable behavior patterns, that once recognized, can be embraced or abandoned at will.
If you share the life goal to operate with as much conscious intent as you can, then we are fellow travelers. After many years of inner exploration and outer scientific curiosity I can report significant progress in my awareness and command of my own inner programming, though I remain constantly surprised by the many ways I’m still hard-wired for stimulus-response.
An important part of my progress resulted with the discovery that it’s possible to partially immunize myself to the dopamine-hijacking methods employed by advertisers and social media. In some cases, I’ve determined that I’m simply unable to resist, that my wiring is fixed and ‘they’ are simply too adept at juicing the pathways, and so my best defense is to limit my exposure. Similarly, I’m currently wrestling with admitting my biological limitations and giving up my smartphone in favor of reverting to a much more basic flip phone.
Huge benefits have also resulted from understanding the ways in which emotionally manipulative language (a.k.a. “propaganda” or most of what passes for mainstream news) operates. Once you’re able to spot it, you’ll see it everywhere and it will no longer sway you. In fact, it might even elicit the opposite reaction. I wrote a long piece on this which is well worth re-reading.
More broadly, I’m keenly interested in how our pre-programmed behaviors are nudging us as a society closer towards certain futures. These play out in economics, finance, energy and environmental issues. Evolution has saddled us with both a severe time bias favoring the immediate over the distant, and a default setting for linear vs. complex (or systems) thinking. These preferences combine to strongly compromise our ability to respond intelligently to the really big predicaments the world faces today.
For instance, there are countries (Pakistan, 35 others) and massive cities (Chennai India, and 19 others) that are close to or have already run out of water. That predicament was in plain view several decades ago. Yet the societal response in every single instance was to continue population growth and hope for the best.
Farming is becoming more uncertain as weather-weirdness piles up. Soils are degrading slowly and steadily, mined for macro and micro nutrients that can only be replaced by geological processes (over millennia) or continued use of affordable fossil fuel energy (which is depleting).
Global debts are piling up far faster than economic growth. And economic growth cannot continue as it has for resource-based reasons. Stocks and bonds are priced as if that were not the case, and perpetual exponential economic growth were assured. Nobody cares. The Fed has rescued stocks for another few weeks or months. Whew!
All in all, there’s huge change being thrust upon us. But our social skills are optimized for collaborating on a hunt or remembering where the berries ripen next. The social cooperation skills necessary for elegantly navigating the massive, complex, and systemic issues facing us may not be coded in our default neural programming. They remain latent if they exist at all, perhaps requiring a severe population bottleneck to arise to provide the right epigenetic stress to turn these genes on.
Knowing that we’re not well-suited to the tasks at hand is the first step on the path to recovery and repair. Both psychological and biological scripts are operating at the unconscious level. Being aware of and alert to this truth is a critical early step towards claiming real agency in our own individual lives and hope for our collective future.
Until and unless we do that, it will be business-as-usual until a painful systemic crash of some sort. And what a doozy the next one will be.
As the data stands, you need to be ready for business-as-usual to be the most likely path society chooses to pursue, right up until things fall apart.
But that doesn’t mean you have to be so blind. More and more people are waking up to reality; especially younger folks, who are increasingly losing any interest in following in their parent’s footsteps.
If we really apply ourselves, and with a little luck, our biology doesn’t have to be our destiny. It all begins with each of us becoming “conscious of the unconscious”.
In Part 2: The Choice Facing Us: Greatness or Oblivion?, we delve into how to do just that. What are the keys to “hacking” our biological programming and re-wiring it to better work in our long-term interest?
The scientific learnings here are exploding right now. And they provide the keys to our salvation in this story, as individuals and as a species.
– Peak Prosperity –
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