I thank whatever Gods may be for the small modicum of success I have enjoyed during my life. As a rational being I am tempted to take full credit for my decisions that led to favorable outcomes. However, if I am able to surmount my narcissism I am forced to admit that much of the credit lies elsewhere. Without the genetic endowment from my parents I would have achieved little. Social factors were equally important. They raised me in a stable environment and immersed me in religious values that frowned upon sloth and self indulgence. The highest calling in their religion was to become a preacher or a physician. I’m certain that I was drawn to psychiatry as a profession because it contained elements of both. In a sense a psychiatrist often functions as a modern day secular priest.

I refer to the story of my life to suggest that behavior can be guided by powerful forces outside of our awareness. A time existed when people believed that all of their life choices were under conscious volition. The individual was akin to a captain steering the ship of his soul. As captain he could control all of his decisions. By willpower alone he could fashion his behavior. Yet, even the ancients were aware that forces could be operating outside the conscious will the individual. Saint Paul commented that the things he wanted to do he often did not do. In contrast, the evil things that he did he did not consciously want to do. Such negative behavior was frequently attributed to a personal devil. He had the power to make good people go astray. In the Lutheran hymn he is described as being armed with cruel hate and that no one on earth is his equal. Prayer and priests could repel him. By blaming Satan the sinner could avoid full responsibility for his bad behavior. It used to be that he devil made a person do it! In modern parlance the unconscious is blamed for actions a person doesn’t want to own.

Almost two millennia later Freud postulated that the primitive psyche was a cauldron teeming with passions. He labeled that instinctual part of the mind the “id”. Another part of the psyche served as a dam to impede the flood of these emotions when they are inappropriate. He called that governing body the “superego”. In present day parlance we would call it the conscience. According to Freud the id and the superego are in continual war with each other. In this battle between the expression of the primitive, and often socially inappropriate, urges the self acts as a referee. Freud called that mediating mechanism the “ego”. Sometimes the primitive urges prevail. For those who pride themselves on being rational these phenomena offer some explanation to the occurrence of stupid behavior. If the superego dominates the person might be inhibited and conscience stricken. He postulated that these mechanisms frequently operate outside of conscious awareness. The neural networks operate automatically.

Studies at Duke university suggest that almost half of our behavior is habitual. Our choices in most areas of our life are automatic ranging from the products we buy to how we respond sexually. In reality most of the truly important decisions we make might result from social and biologic forces outside of our conscious awareness. They might include choices of career, the choice of whom we marry, how we raise our children and to our political and religious beliefs. In a sense they are not truly decisions but automatic responses to social and genetic programming. Of course this raises the question of free will. How truly free are we? I would be presumptuous to claim that I have the answer to this age old question. In my next communication I will attempt to throw additional light upon this subject.

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  1. Vern, Thank you for your good thoughts – which are interesting and I agree. It is also interesting to see more fresh expressions on this same topic reviewed in last Sunday’s NY Times Book Review. It is an 83-page essay by Sam Harris called FREE WILL. (Because of its 83-page size I’m calling it an essay). Typical of Harris’s absolutist style he says “Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making . . . etc.” He refers to “the famous EEG experiments conducted by Physiologist Benjamin Libet . . . in the early 1980s showing the brain making decisions before consciousness becomes aware of them.”
    Well, there’s more from Sam Harris and the reviewer, but I’ve probably used up my space.
    Ed Mulvaney

  2. Bob Levis says:

    This item just appeared in my inbox. Like many of the others I find it provacative!! Thus a few initial comments:

    1. I am reminded the view of Kierkegaard that WE UNDERSTAND OUR LIFE BACKWARD; BUT WE LIVE IT FORWARD – or something to that effect. And we can get lost in our effort to understand life as it has gone by. One of the joys of attending a cocktail party is that encounters can occur which shake us out of our STUCKNESS, to use a word that appears in Zen and the Art of Motercycle Maintenance!!

    2. One of my goals in teaching my philosophy classes was to attempt to communicate the meaning that the word FREEDOM has had for me over the years. Thus I adopted as one of my texts, Rollo May’s, Freedom and Destiny, etc.

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