In the past we have had enlightening discussions on Secondsightblog.net about the nature of free will. I think that contributors will agree that it has been a most difficult subject to understand. I have certainly found it so. But this week I am happy to eschew the profundity of the philosophical approach, and look at some of the plainer aspects of human judgment.
Let me start with a little experiment. Take three bowls: one of cold water, one of hot water, one of lukewarm water. Soak your left and right hands in the hot and cold water respectively, then plunge them both into the lukewarm. To the left hand it feels cold, to the right hand it feels hot.
When I carried out that simple scientific experiment as a youngster I found it interesting but not momentous. I certainly did not appreciate that I was encountering one of the most basic and important phenomena of the human brain: that we exercise our judgment not absolutely but through change, contrasts and comparisons.
The brain faces a big problem: how to cope with too much information. The stimuli which present themselves to our senses are vast in number and variety. There are countless smells available to the nose, countless lights and colours in front of our eyes, countless different noises presented to our ears. Yet we have to respond appropriately to this immense environment – often at great speed, sometimes instantaneously. The fastest and largest computer in the world could only deal with a tiny fraction of the task, but we have to do it with a brain weighing less than 1.5 kg.
In order to cope with this task the brain uses short-cuts which reduce the processing work, and therefore the processing time, by a very large factor. And the central strategy employed is to compare new information with what is already present. In this way, the brain needs only to focus its full attention on the differences; it does not need to waste its processing power on analysing the full situation from scratch. The senses assist this strategy by responding quickly to stimuli which the brain recognises as an important change, while ignoring other stimuli which are unlikely to be significant for it.
Because of the brain’s limited capacity these short-cuts are essential. Without them, we could make little sense of the world. But there is a price to pay: if judgments are made by comparison with previous experience then their accuracy will depend on the reliability of that previous experience, and whether the piece of experience chosen for the comparison is appropriate.
Those who seek to influence others must accept that rational judgment and objective assessment of the arguments ordinarily play a rather small part in decisions; much more important will be how new proposals and ideas compare with what is already in the mind.
Let’s put this to the test. Imagine that you received a memo from your employer today informing you that your salary will be increased by £1,000 a year. How do you feel about it? If you had suspected that, in these difficult times, your salary might be frozen or even reduced you will probably be pleased. But how pleased? That depends, doesn’t it? If you are currently earning £10,000 you may see it as generous. If you are currently earning £100,000, you may see it as mean. You judge its value by comparison with your existing state.
The process through which the brain evaluates the new experience in terms of existing experience is simple in principle, although complex in practice. If you show a chess expert a board with the positions which the pieces have reached halfway through a game he will be able to grasp the situation quickly by making use of the patterns he has stored. He can make an intelligent guess about what moves led up to that position, and perhaps forecast the outcome of the game. Ask the same question of someone who does not know the game – and therefore has no stored patterns – and he will be flummoxed. The expert only has to notice and analyse the similarities and differences from the patterns he knows; the non-player, without the patterns, would have no basis for judgment or understanding of what is happening.
Now, each of us reading this column has built up over the years a myriad of patterns of which we are largely unaware. Genes may have been responsible for our innate tendencies but innumerable experiences will have added to our stored patterns over the years. That means that our judgments or decisions will be assisted, or tainted, by comparisons over which we may have little control.
I look forward to returning from time to time to the different patterns which we use, but now I want to propose just two points. The first is that we should be prepared to be humble about our opinions. After all, if they are based on comparisons of which we are often unaware, we should be cautious.
The second is that, even if at the time of decision we are making an immediate comparison, we do have some control over how our patterns are built up. Among the many ways of approaching this I would suggest that the development of virtues which, the Fathers agree, are the habits which guide our actions in practice. They are in fact the key patterns through which Christians should filter all their experience. It may be that neither sin nor merit are gained at the time of conscious decision, and that the quality of our choices automatically follows from the sort of person we have allowed ourselves to become.