The recent discussions here about free will reminded me that I wrote an article a long time ago on the subject. In fact, it was the very first article I published here on November 30, 2015. I just read it, and I don’t need to change anything.
I spent a good part of my working life programming computers. I started in the late 60’s, almost fifty years ago. Back then, computers were the size of houses, and the programs were punched on cards. Data storage was on magnetic tape. Processors were slow and memory was small. But in the early 70’s when the microelectronics explosion happened, memories grew from kilobytes to megabytes to gigabytes to terabytes. Processor speed accelerated from kilohertz to megahertz to gigahertz. And of course the cost went down and down and down. Today, computers are cheaper than a good bottle of wine.
The basic architecture of computers has not changed over all that time. The processor executes a set of instructions called a program, accesses data from data memory and/or mass storage, and provides a (hopefully) useful or entertaining output. The processor can only execute one program “thread” at a time, but many programs need to do several things, like accept and process inputs from a keyboard, update a display, operate various peripherals like printers, scanners, modems and many other gadgets while performing the main work of the program which might be an accounting program, a video game, a scientific analysis or a simulation of the earth’s weather systems. Because of its speed, a computer can do all these things by “multitasking.” Doing a bit of each task and then moving on to the next. Some of the newer computers have multiple processors so that the tasks can be divided up among them. This is called “multiprocessing” or parallel processing. Some very large tasks require massive parallel processing…like the weather system simulation I mentioned earlier. Don’t try that on your desktop toy!
With my computer background, it was natural that I would think of the brain as a computer. It has memory…a lot of it. And it obviously has some kind of processing capability. How else could we make decisions? It must have truly huge parallel processing capability. Think of all the tasks it performs subconsciously…like controlling heart and respiration rate, and secretion of those juices to digest your dinner. I am sure there are many more that brain scientists could list. And then there are the conscious tasks. Like playing the piano or solving an algebra equation or even listening to Fox. (I will not call it Fox News.)
The human brain is a helluva lot more complex that any computer ever built. Neuroscientists tell us it contains around 100 billion neurons. How does 100 giganeurons compare to 100 gigabytes in a computer? I have no idea. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.
And speaking of fruit, I just read that the brain of a fruit fly has about 100,000 neurons. That’s about one millionth as many as yours. It’s about the size of a grain of sand. Think about what the fruit fly can do with that tiny speck of brain. It can find food, find a mate, and when it finds a mate, it knows how to be fruitful and multiply. But here’s the most amazing thing: It can fly, and do aerobatic maneuvers that would make a Blue Angel pilot turn green with envy. When you think about all the things that a fruit fly can do with that tiny brain, it makes you wonder how much of our brains we actually use. I don’t think some people use much of theirs. I have watched some Fox commentators who are nowhere near as smart as a fruit fly.
Does anyone really understand how the brain works? I don’t think so. Ambrose Bierce saw the problem over a hundred years ago:
Mind: A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with.
— Ambrose Bierce ( from “The Devil’s Dictionary”)
The mind is the source of what we call “consciousness.” There is a school of philosophical thought called mysterianism. Mysterians believe that the workings of the mind are beyond human comprehension. Colin McGinn, a leading proponent of mysterianism, says that “consciousness is a mystery that human intelligence will never unravel.”
Consider the following scenario:
You are cooking a pot of soup on the stove. You taste it and think it might need salt, but you are not sure. You taste it again and you change your mind. Change your mind? What does that mean? What happens in your mind when you change it? Despite what Colin McGinn says, I’ll give you my programmer-oriented theory. The mind is the main program the brain is running. It gets inputs from who knows how many subprograms that are running in other parts of the brain. When you “change your mind,” the inputs to the “mind program” have been changed by adding or deleting subprograms, so the answer comes out differently. That’s probably an oversimplification of what actually happens, but it gives the general idea. How does the “mind program” decide what inputs should be changed? Good question.
Where did all the subprograms come from? Some of them are “hard wired” like the ones that control subconscious functions. Those are needed to keep the body alive so you are born with them. But all the other “cognitive” functions are learned. The brain programs itself. From the time a baby is born, the brain is using all of its sensory inputs to accumulate information and build a structure of response programs that it needs to adapt to this strange new world it finds itself in.
So…and this is an important point…most of the programming of the conscious functions of the brain is the result of life experiences. Those experiences can vary quite a bit in our society. An individual who grows up in a middle-class or higher neighborhood has a much different set of experiences from one who grows up in an inner city slum.
To illustrate that, let’s do a little thought experiment. You are walking along a city street, next to a row of parallel-parked cars. You pass one with the window open, and when you glance inside, there is a twenty dollar bill lying on the seat. “What a silly thing to do,” you think. And you walk on and forget about it.
Now put yourself in the shoes of an 18-year-old kid who grew up in an impoverished neighborhood, raised by a single mom who was mostly unemployed and on welfare. Here’s what your growing up experience was like. You went hungry a lot, stole a piece a fruit from the corner grocery when you had the chance. Most of your friends are dealing drugs or doing burglaries. Some are quite successful. They own fancy cars and have nice clothes. Many of them have already spent time in jail. You dropped out of high school at 16. You have no job skills, no prospects for employment. You have nothing to look forward to…except trying to survive.
So now, walking in this person’s shoes, you pass that car with the open window and the twenty on the seat. What do you do?
“It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright”
— Benjamin Franklin (from “Poor Richard’s Almanac”)
As Ben says, maintaining a strict moral code is a lot harder if you are struggling to survive. Poverty is a fertile field for crime to grow. Putting poor struggling people in prison protects the rest of society from their criminal actions, but it does not solve the problem of reducing crime. It would help if prisons were actively engaged in rehabilitation, but our growing for-profit prison system has no interest in rehabilitation. Profits depend on keeping people behind bars as long as possible.
Our system of laws holds every person accountable for his/her actions. Life experiences are rarely considered in meting out punishment. Incarcerating criminals treats the symptoms but does not attack the root cause of most crime…poverty. The growing divide between the rich and the poor is making things worse. If our society takes little or no action to solve the poverty problem, aren’t we at least partially accountable for the criminal acts of desperate, hopeless people?
One more subject needs to be addressed before I end this little meander, and that is sin. God made no allowances for economic conditions when he (allegedly) carved those ten stone tablets. A sin is a sin. Whether you are Bernie Madoff stealing billions from investors or a poor kid stealing an apple because he’s hungry, it’s the same thing, and the punishment is the same. Unless you repent, of course. Both Bernie and the kid can erase their sins by the simple act of repentance…plus believing in God, of course. Failure to do both will result in endless, eternal torture in what Jesus called “a lake of fire.”
What kind of all-powerful, all-knowing deity would make such an absurd rule?
Hardly. The honest nonbeliever suffers forever, and Bernie Madoff sits on a cloud strumming a harp, looking down on all those poor suckers getting toasted.
It’s a pretty ridiculous idea when you really think about it. It leads to the ultimate question: Did God create Man or did some very crafty and manipulative individuals come up with the idea of God?