The Mystery Of The Will: Clan, Tribe and Hope

While this blog is largely philosophical it touches on the essence of how to live long and well.

The agency of the will is what makes us sick or well. The argument between the role of biological determinism- hormones made me do it- and free will- If I can do it then something is wrong with those who can’t- is played out in my office almost every day.

You can guess who takes each side in the discussion by looking at the numbers. I confess to sympathy for both sides of the debate. This blog is my attempt to show you the bridge or middle way between these two positions and to empower those who feel helpless in the face of the demands of their biology.

The universe is immense and beyond our fully knowing. The inner workings of our bodies are also complex and beyond our fully knowing. The will is the interface between the intertanglings of these infinitely complex domains. I will show some of the biological boundaries around the freedom of the will. This is a big topic so please bear with me.

So many people fail at being well that something more than another aphorism-‘eat right and exercise!’- is needed. My patients are not typical, after all my blog is called ‘When You Are Serious,’ and they make very untypical commitment to change and almost all achieve their goals. I’ve heard hundreds of stories about their attempts to get their friends and families to make similar changes and of their frustration at getting others to adopt the same changes; even as their friends and family rave about how well they look and how much they covet their vigor.

The next few sentences are my ‘wink and a nod’ to those interested at the more conceptual level in the ontology of ‘free will’ in human agency. Just get past these few sentences- heck, don’t even bother reading them -and then I will get back to sound and useful reasoning.

Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris imagine that their logic entitles them to circumvent the computational limits that Turing well understood. They imagine that some simple on/off switch allows them escape from the limits of logic that Kurt Gödel so elegantly demonstrated; they imagine that such limits do not apply to the exhaustiveness of their theoretical materialist reductionism.  They don’t even bother to invoke some of Wittgenstein’s linguistic escape hatches. They are wrong in detail to be so deluded. And here is where Elon Musk’s musings about the dangers of artificial intelligence come in: intelligence confers a degree of freedom. Great intelligence, AI, affords that intelligence a functional domain of moral freedom; we cannot see the nature of that moral domain. ‘It’ may well decide to kill us all.

OK, back to earth. That people fail to choose to be well is indisputable. It is further true that they could choose to be well but don’t. My claim is this failure is from not giving biology its due in the failure of the will to freely choose health. The fact that people don’t all just ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ does not mean they don’t desire the end enough or even understand the rewards of the properly chosen end of well-being. It means they don’t honor their ancestors enough. They lack the speculative imagination, actually the cultural reminders don’t exist, to see the long, tortured and elegant chain of life and struggle that is buried in their behavior and genetics.

Humans survived the pageant, the epics of our struggle to become the dominant predator of biological life on earth as clans, as tribes, as social beings. We hunted in packs, we ate as families and clans and tribes. The will of our ancestors ranged freely over many choices; hunt alone, hunt together, eat alone, eat together. Our ancestors were every bit as intelligent as we are and were great scientists of the possible and the actual that worked so that they might live another day to thrive or die in the death haunted beauty of the world. This success story became embedded in our facial recognition coded genetics, in our auditory lie detectors, again genetically encoded, in our sensory world as the oxytocin enhanced desire for the touch of another’s skin. Simply put, our genetics, the bountiful fruit of millions of years of perfect honing, play a powerful role in how and what we choose. Our cortex, our ‘higher mind’ sees the incoming waves, but our biology remains as a riptide to wash us out again into the deep waters of genetic history; the deep ocean of clan, tribe and cultural behavior.

I am not a biological determinist- Eeek, heaven forfend, my genes made me do it! – but I think if we don’t adequately take into account the riptide of the genetic signals we cannot stand, informed by our intelligence and liberated as agents of free will to make the right choices, to choose to be healthy. The genetics pulls as biological determinism, the moral imagination pulls into an unseen but imagined better future; but in this day, this very day, we are balanced between the dreary abyss of our mortality and the eternal longing of our family, clan and tribe: we must survive, work too late, eat too poorly. We succeeded, we lived another day. “I” failed because I died too soon, became unhappy, weak and sad. I chose what my genetics foretold. The problem is that our genetics are lost in this place in time and space. Our clan is lost in this time and space. We must construct a clan deferential to our ancestors, the anthropology of our biology, and informed by the higher mind, the neocortex, but empowered by our very free, very human will.

Smile, Have Fun, God Speed,

Dr. Mike

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