Do We Have Choices or Are They Illusions?
An article on forgiveness in The Times of India appeared today. I base this blog post on the following quotation from the author of this piece:
“Everything we do, while we are identified with body and mind is the result of conditioning and the choices we make are also influenced by this. Also, we don’t choose our parents nor siblings. Or the environment you lived in as a child or teachers at school.
Yet all these elements conditioned you into the person you are today. And they impact your choices. To know this is the beginning of awareness and compassion. The paradox is that real choice happens when we realize that there is never any real choice. So forgive and let go.”
We just had a materialist bomb drop on us. A “materialist bomb” is this: A person reduces human psychology to one and only one narrow area to such an extent that it looks like we have no free will. If we take neurobiology to an extreme, we could say that our brains make us think and behave in certain ways with no flexibility built in for our own innovation, creativity, or choice.
Or, rather than looking within for a material cause of our actions (the brain is an interior material cause), we can look to social conditioning such as positive reinforcement or punishment to explain why we behave as we do. After all, if someone bops you on your head every time you say the words “free will,” for example, you will probably end up cringing whenever you hear those two little words. You have been materially conditioned to cringe at the words “free will.” It is not your choice to cringe. Something in the material world is making you do this.
All well and good until we practice reductionism and make the rather difficult-to-make claim that none of us really has any choices at all. It is our brains and social conditioning that make us who and what we are.
Is that all there is to us as persons? If so, then there is no true right and wrong, no injustices against you because, well, the person’s brain is wired in a certain way and the social conditions of his or her environment have made the person this way.
There is nothing to forgive because no one chooses to hurt you. The person could not help it. Forgiveness is rendered useless. More dramatically, forgiveness is an illusion.
But, is it true that there is nothing but brain structure and social reinforcements to explain who we are? Whoever says “yes” to this, then I have the following thought-experiment for you. It comes with a warning label because the thought is violent.
Imagine that you are a parent. Your daughter was raped in Central Park. You are fuming. At the trial, the defense lawyer says this, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. We all know that our society has perpetuated the idea that women are men’s property. This has fostered an unintended sense of aggression in my client toward women. We all know that our society reinforces men to exploit women, not that they want to do so, but they are taught that. There is nothing my client could do but rape the one woman who happened to be jogging by that day. And let us not forget testosterone. That, combined with negative norms about women and the social reinforcements all ganged up on my client. He could not help himself. Therefore, I strongly request the dismissal of all charges against him.”
A show of hands, please, from anyone who agrees with this lawyer. We all know why we disagree with the request. It is because no matter what the norms are in society and no matter what the accused man’s social conditioning or testosterone levels were on that day, he had hundreds of choices of how to act. To say that he had to act in this and only this way is to deny reality. It is to deny the raped woman justice. It is to deny her the possibility of forgiving because forgiveness is an illusion that we need to guard against, not embrace.
There are no choices? I choose not to believe it.
Forgiveness is alive and well because injustices do happen by people’s freely chosen actions, and sometimes those actions are wrong and punishable, not dismissed for the illusion of an exclusively-materialist cause to our behavior.
Forgiveness as an illusion? No. When someone harms you, he or she could have behaved in many other ways, including choosing—choosing—to be respectful and kind.