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What kind of world are we creating for ourselves by what we tell ourselves?

Copyright © 1997, Dorian Scott Cole

In telling others about our lives in narrative fashion (story-telling), we our stating how we see the world and how it influences us. Sometimes we may confuse our view with another's view, such as our parents, or religion, or our nation. The American Dream is just such a story that we buy into. Living the American Dream involves working hard to learn and save money, possibly getting an even better job, knowing that at some point in time you can buy a house and raise a family. Of course dreams vary, but the thing is, people believe that in America this kind of dream is possible. 

The American Dream isn't something that necessarily pops into a narrative. When people are thinking about what shaped their lives, they are more likely to think of other people and events. The dream is just an open door through which many people are walking. It isn't necessary to state it, we all know it. And there are a lot of things that "we know" about our world and never state. One of them is the idea of free will. We are in a relative state of freedom. We control our destiny, within limits. We have freedom of choice about what we eat each day, and who we put in office. It is our choice, isn't it? Hmmm - the answer is not so easy. 

If we look at what is available for our table, we can see in each item a set of circumstances that mean it is there, or potentially might not be there. Take lettuce, for example. Not many of us raise our own lettuce anymore. In fact in many areas it is strictly an import - not raised locally at all. So if the harvest fails in California, the amount of lettuce diminishes, so there is not enough to put on every table. But we might be able to purchase lettuce if we are willing to pay a higher price. So whether or not we eat lettuce is determined by the climate, insects, gasoline supplies, transportation, time of year, bacteria, electricity and refrigeration, our income, and our... freedom(?) of choice. 

Whether or not we want lettuce may be governed by a number of things that are currently inside us. Did our parents introduce us to lettuce? Did we have a bad experience with lettuce (a disease, an insect, etc.) that forever made it look like poison to us? Are we just too cheap to buy it? Do we prefer some other green or condiment? Are we hungry? A long and undefinable list of influences within us may influence whether or not we want lettuce. So is this really freedom of choice? When lettuce is placed on the table, do we lash out at others claiming the devil has made us not eat it, or that our parents ruined us on lettuce so it's their fault? Uh, why not? We do that about other things. Hmmmm. Are we truly as free as we think we are?

This isn't a new puzzle. The battle over freewill has raged for centuries. It has split religious institutions, and is seen today in a number of causes. When behavior is dismissed as acting out, the person is saying in effect, "The person is being controlled by their emotions - he does not have free choice." For many this had been recited so often to excuse behavior, especially in youth, that it has almost become a chant. Juvenile courts are reeling under this influence, totally incapable of dealing effectively with young offenders. 

How true is it? When a guilty person is given a reduced sentence or is set free by a judge or jury, the verdict in essence is saying that either the person's freedom of choice about committing the act was impaired or he did not have freedom of choice at all. For example, the person didn't know the law, or he flew into a justifiable rage and did something terrible, or his mind was under the influence of some disease. As a society, we recognize that freewill is not always within our grasp.

The opposite of freewill is called determinism. Determinism means our behavior is determined by things outside of ourselves. A hungry dog is shown a steak, he salivates. He doesn't start salivating (his behavior) until someone sticks the steak in his face. The behaviorist psychologist, B.F. Skinner, developed an entire science of personality theory around this mechanistic view of behavior. Cause and effect. This is a very seductive theory in that theoretically you can probably find some causal factor behind everything that people do. In this sense, people are made to do things. 

From a deterministic point of view, people only have the illusion of free choice. They want to do something, so they do it. They are satisfied because they are doing what they want. Never mind where that drive to do it came from. He was hungry and wanted to eat so he did. He ate until he was satisfied. He did this every day for a month and gained five pounds. At that point his girl-friend decided he was too heavy and stopped seeing him. He wanted to see his girl-friend, so he ate less every day for a month and lost seven pounds. The causal factors of his behavior were hunger and sex. His perception was that he had free choice to eat or not eat. Yet, did he? In the absence of the girl-friend, would he pork out and become morbidly obese? Possibly. In the absence of hunger, would he become a slender sex-god for his girl-friend? Possibly. The determining factors of his behavior seem to be outside of him. 

Is the behaviorist model at all true? Are people just stimulus-response mechanisms? Ask any dieter - there are major problems with gaining and losing weight and having control over eating. Eating seems strongly influenced by a number of factors. This model, and this question of freewill, is especially poignant for alcoholics. On the one hand, they often seem to have a physical predisposition toward alcohol consumption. There are many other influences as well, such as culture, peer, and habit. So staying away from alcohol becomes a supreme struggle. It is a battle the alcoholic can lose, and which can repeat over and over again. 

Is it a matter of will-power? If a person is just strong enough in character, can he stand up to things that would control him? For example, can going through Marine boot-camp make you better able to resist pain - both physical and psychological. Very possibly, but then you are just subject to a new level of control. People do things all the time. When you do something, what is now influencing your behavior? Behavior isn't arbitrary - your behavior is still determined by something. If the person wanted to be more macho or feel more in control of himself, he can certainly have that feeling. If he considers some behavior immoral, and wants to feel in control of it, he probably can be after completing Marine boot-camp. But anytime he does something, his behavior can still be traced back to some causal influence. 

It is at this point that it becomes easy to believe that we are as programmable as computers. Put the right things in and the desired behaviors will come out. Instead of chaos, we become ordered chaos. In trying to define destiny - the road that each of us seems destined to follow - the psychologist Rollo May (Freedom and Destiny) defined the environment as cause. The environment includes where we live, who are parents, siblings, and peers are, our culture, religion, nation, etc. The environment exists to shape our future. What difference does it all make? Why not let narcissism rule? 

Human beings differ in at least five definitive ways from machines or computers:

1. Core values or drives. Less specific influences, more general. 

2. Critical mass of complex intelligence. 

3. Feelings - makes a difference to us as individuals and as a group.

4. People learn, grow, change - are becoming as opposed to static. Become less deterministic, more self-directed.

5. People adopt higher values as general motivations.

Core values are very general influences at the heart of each of us. They vary from person to person, and each person might describe his core values differently than others - if he can identify them. Those values are along the lines of, to love, to be loved, to contribute, to have purpose, to have friends... These are things that seem to be at the root of what it means to be us, and what we want to do in this world. These values are considered irreducible - you can't find any other cause for them. They just are. 

During our early years of development, we each reach a critical mass of intelligence. This intelligence is things that we know about the world. These things become like our core values. They are a mass of ideas that shape our thoughts, rules, and expectations. They may transform later into other more complicated understandings of our world, but these things also define what it means to be us. At any one time, a specific thing within this group of ideas may be a motivation, but in total these things are general influences. They primarily define the world around us and how we can acceptably interact with it. In some religions, there is an age at which a juvenile is considered responsible. At that point he is no longer innocent and must answer for his behavior.

People are capable of being affected by the results of their behavior. Make your mate or your friend angry with you, and you suffer because of your behavior and the resulting isolation. Injure or kill a person you don't even know, and the feelings remain with you through your entire life. Screw-up your chances for the higher education you want or a better job and you anguish over your behavior for most of your life. We can see the consequences that our behavior will have. We can appreciate those consequences. We live with those consequences. And if we didn't understand consequences before, we learn to fully understand and appreciate them. We live with the results of our behavior especially in the sense that consequences have meaning for us and gain meaning for us.

People are not static stimulus-response mechanisms. People come to new understandings of things and completely change. They grow in wisdom. Knowledge and intelligence are the accumulation of facts and the ability to process facts. Wisdom is an understanding of the relatedness of facts and the consequences of behavior. We learn and grow from experience. With experience we become less influenced by outside factors and more self directed. My three children all believed they were skillful drivers and would never have an accident. I knew that within a month or two behind the wheel each of them would have one. I knew this from statistics and from an appreciation of the skill required for driving that isn't gained from watching. You know what happened. 

People voluntarily seek out higher values to give their lives new meaning, and which become general influences on their behavior. Children tend to have a very narrow focus. They tend to be ego-centric. They want what they want, and from others they want to know that someone is going to provide a roof over their heads. They take that as a given. Of course to some extent give love. As children they think as children. As adults most people tend to go looking for a Habitat for Humanity program in which to build houses for others. People want to do something for others, not just for themselves. The view people have of their religion when they die may have been transformed many times from the days of their youth. People gravitate toward a higher understanding. They want to make meaning of their lives.

Narrative story-telling is also called, meaning-making. With the stories we tell about our lives, we are trying to make meaning of our lives - or give meaning to our lives.

But in a very deep sense, what we tell ourselves about our lives creates the kind of world that we all live in. Perhaps that is in a sense our destiny, to live what we collectively believe, and to experience from that. I have to ask what kind of world we are creating for ourselves. We do have the collective freedom to choose. If becoming responsible is the key to personal freedom and having true choices, then what are we telling ourselves and our children about responsibility? That the government is responsible? That someone else is responsible for the trash we throw out? That juveniles aren't responsible for their own behavior - they are only "acting out."

I do believe that young children are much closer to the deterministic view of behavior than to the freewill view, but it doesn't take many years from the day the child says, "Bobby made me do it," to the day he can stand in front of a judge and say, "Drugs, peers, or brain hot spots made me do it." All it takes is denying responsibility (freewill). Or is that the very behavior adults model for children? 

- Scott

Other articles on this Web site on similar topics:

An article exploring the differences between a true "causal" device (the computer - artificial intelligence) and the human mind. The Human Condition, Computer VS Human.

Computer Relationship Systems. Discourse on what it would take for a computer to really understand a word, in What's In A Word Part III

Intelligence and Freewill. ( An article on this Web site exploring quantum mechanics and the potential for a causal relationship with freewill. The article also reports on recent findings in neuroscience that demonstrate the brain's ability to influence and even recreate itself.

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