When I was a kid, all enlightened people knew that gender stereotypes were the reason that boys preferred playing with trucks and girls preferred playing with dolls. The only people who didn't believe that gender stereotypes controlled childhood behavior were the uneducated and . . . parents trying to raise their kids in stereotype-free conditions. For some reason the little boys were fashioning imaginary guns out of bananas, sticks, and their own genitalia while little girls were doing whatever you do when you're not pretending to shoot people. The common explanation for the differences in boys and girls was that there's no such thing as a stereotype-free environment. There's always leakage, and kids are like sponges when it comes to role models. That explanation sounded reasonable to me for years.

Recently scientists have discovered that adolescent male monkeys prefer playing with trucks while adolescent female monkeys prefer dolls. As it turns out, toy preferences are more about chemistry than society.

You might say the monkey study is one more step in humanity's slow-motion "discovery" that human behavior is caused by whatever chemicals are sloshing around in our skulls. On one hand we all know that the physical composition of our brains at any given moment dictates our choices, and yet we cling to the superstition that we exercise some sort of free will. Science, being awesome, keeps chipping away at that magical thinking.

In another study that I find more mind-boggling than the monkey research, scientists have found that women change their preferences in men when they go on birth control. Before the pill, women prefer men with high testosterone. After the pill, they prefer men with low testosterone. That process sounds like this: "Gee, Ted, I was hot for you until I started taking birth control pills. Now you look like an arrogant douche."

The interesting thing is how a woman would interpret this revised view of Ted. I think a normal human in that situation would assume that either Ted became a worse human being or his existing bad qualities became harder to hide over time. No one would ever say the apparent changes in Ted are caused by a pill, or diet, or exercise, or any change in the observer's brain chemistry. We believe our changes of opinion are caused by changes in the environment. It's similar to the way parents once believed gender stereotypes caused little boys to prefer toy trucks. Our reflex is to blame the environment and not our own brain chemistry.

Yesterday I found myself getting angry because something that had been in a closet in the garage wouldn't fit back in. I had two conversations happening in my head at the same time. The irrational part of me was pretty sure my anger was sparked by the frustrating closet situation, i.e. my environment. The rational part of me realized that I hadn't exercised for two days, which is unusual for me, and I get grumpy 100% of the time in that situation. So today I'll play tennis to fix my brain. By tonight I will be immune to the frustration of uncooperative storage spaces.

My neighborly advice for today is this: If you think your environment has taken a turn for the worse, consider the alternative explanation. Maybe the only thing that changed is your brain chemistry. Take a nap, drink some coffee, go for a walk, pet the dog, and try again.

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Sep 6, 2012
@jferguson75 you keep saying "hard wired" when the analogy is a computer. A computer isn't hard-wired to boot into windows. It has a near-infinite capability to do all sorts of amazing and interesting things, most of which would never be imagined by even the most infinitely gifted engineer or computer scientist with a perfect comprehension of every single wire and capacitor in the machine.

Nonetheless, a computer doesn't do random things despite its infinite potential and lack of hard-wired directives, because a computer does things predictably according to measurable and configurable influences -- the kinds of inputs it receives, the current electrical charge of incredibly small components, and the magnetic polarization of microscopic ferromagnetic particles.
Sep 6, 2012
If only I could get my wife to read your blog. My daughter wore a shirt to school that didn't match her pants, and didn't want to change since she was late to school. My wife is pissed at me, because I apparently "didn't sound like I agreed" that this was an important problem for an 11 year old when she called me up to complain about the incident.

I told my wife that something else has to be bothering her, because she doesn't normally get upset about something like this. (My wife is not remotely a stylish person, fwiw). I've had an endless stream of SMS expletives from my phone since.
Sep 6, 2012
Wise words.
Sep 6, 2012
Freewill: the degree to which we are consciously aware of having made a choice. What to eat for lunch: somewhat; breathing, walking: not so much.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 6, 2012
swp: "http://homepages.luc.edu/~avande1/free-will-args.htm"

Regarding the definition, the problem is here: "[...] X chose to do A, and (2) there was no cause that caused X to choose to do A"

There is always a cause, be it the combination of sensory input and inner state, some chemical stuff or whatnot.

Nice try, but the lack of a definition of "cause" kills it.
Sep 6, 2012
If I choose to follow your advice, will I be exercising freewill?
-7 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 5, 2012
http://homepages.luc.edu/~avande1/free-will-args.htm --- you believe in argument #20 from this site.

I believe in free will. There is no way to tell how to spell the word two in this sentence when spoken aloud. If you try to guess, I'll change the answer using my free will.

On a related note, "Instincts" are those things which are 'hard wired' into animal brains through evolution, and which we as humans try to rise above.
Sep 5, 2012
Sometimes you really hit the nail on head.
Thanks for the advice.
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Sep 5, 2012
I think free will is a very convenient simplification. Here's what it means for me:

Someone is reacting to learning, punishment and peer pressure to such a degree that you can expect to get him to be non-harmful to the society we all are living in by applying those aforementioned means.

We define this degree of controllability as "having free will" because we can treat him as "being responsible/answerable for his actions".

If hormones or other things have so much sway over someone that he is not controllable by "conventional means", we use medication or therapy. We regard him as having no "free will" so that we can manipulate his personality and hiswhole being without his consent.

Therefore "free will" is nothing but a label most of us are allowed to wear in order to limit the means used to keep us in line.

No idea how the death penalty fits in. Strangely enough you only get killed if it is estimated that you'd react to normal means, i.e. no therapy or drugs.
Sep 5, 2012
[I decided in the same way my computer decides to boot up when I press the power button. Our language has a built-in supposition of free will. -- Scott]

True, while there is a ton of science behind how chemicals change the nature of how we think, how we react to those chemicals may or may not be something science can determine. You know how nature vs nurture has come out to be a little of both? Free will might be the same way. Nurturing free will, ie doing X when the chemicals tell you Y, is still a possibility.

Note, this is only when there hasn't been significant impairment to the brain. That happens, all bets are off.
Sep 5, 2012
So the secret to finding and keeping the mate of your dreams all boils down to keeping them hopped up on whatever chemical combination necessary to make you seem sexy. Next thing you know, you'll be wearing perfume and cologne that makes your type see you as being sexy while counteracting all the other chemicals and whatever she's taking.

We need cyborg smart-pheromones! They hunt down hot people and wreck havoc with whatever chemicals that are in there making you appear to be the sexy icon you've always wanted to be. Obviously these smart pheromones will also switch the sexual preference of any competitors as well to eliminate the competition. Ted-brand deodorant: makes other guys gay, keeps you straight! Now in extra strength!

BTW, as an aside, part of me wonders if the birth control thing is related to the adultery and divorce rates. If they are linked (seems possible), if society demands to lower those two things, and there are other options for birth control, you might see big brother/big sister step in and ban the pill. Or you could have the trial lawyers sue for everyone to switch their pill status because divorces are good for business. I can also definitely see lawsuits by guys to put their SOs back on or off the pill if a relationship goes south. Kids might sue their parents if a divorce is happening to prevent it.

Things could get ruthless no matter what until someone finds the chemical combo for free will.
Sep 5, 2012
I wonder what would happen if you applied the reasoning on changes of opinion due to hormones to polls on political candidates. As excess hormones in the system can many times cause sociopathic responses, if you varied hormone levels and then took multiple polls, you could determine which candidate is the favorite of sociopathic behavior. Yeah, I know, it's probably already been done, but I'm too lazy to search for it.
Sep 5, 2012
For those who believe in free will, about how far into the future does free will take over for predictablility. I could predict that the vast majority of those who started reading this response will have gotten this far. Is this free will? When do some of you start dropping out? A driver in a car going down the road, I can probably predict with almost 100% certainty that 1 second later he will still be driving down the road but be a few feet forward (depending on velocity). Is that free will? How much of free will is predictable? Does brain chemistry increase the predictablility and if it does, by how much? Is the only reason that we can't predict farther out is that there are way too many events simultaneously happening which currently can't possibly be included in current models? Yet any one event could easily be predicted out for some length of time, with each new variable decreasing the time. But is the whole model increasing in predictability (going forward in time) as our systems can take in more variables? And we begin including brain chemistry. I think back on Welles 'Country of the Blind' where the sighted person could 'predict' peoples' movements, yet they denied this ability because they didn't want others knowing of their movements (free will, in a sense they were being denied that, and they didn't like it at all)
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 5, 2012
My environment has taken a turn for the better.
I've got an interesting project at work, the woman I'm dating still hasn't run away and on saturday I'm invited to a barbecue with some friends I haven't seen in a while.

So, now I'm to think that my boss, the woman and my friends have nothing to do with it and it's just my wonderful brain chemistry making them do that?

I'd say, just believing this is a sure fire way to get "back to normal" pretty soon.

Thanks for the idea but I think this time I'll pass.
Sep 5, 2012
"[I decided in the same way my computer decides to boot up when I press the power button. Our language has a built-in supposition of free will. -- Scott] "

So you're hard-wired to pre-suppose you have free will but it isn't actually there. With this hard-wired non-existant thing that we have, we actually can make decisions to do things that change our brain chemistry but we aren't actually deciding because decisions are a result of this hard-wired non-existant pre-supposition of free will and/or brain chemistry.

Even if it's true, how can you distinguish that from "true" free will (whatever that is)? If it's indistinguishable, then isn't it really the same thing?
Sep 5, 2012
"The rational part of me realized that I hadn't exercised for two days, which is unusual for me, and I get grumpy 100% of the time in that situation. So today I'll play tennis to fix my brain. By tonight I will be immune to the frustration of uncooperative storage spaces."

So what I don't get is if there's no such thing as free will then how did you decide to do something to change your brain chemistry, or was that brain chemistry too?

[I decided in the same way my computer decides to boot up when I press the power button. Our language has a built-in supposition of free will. -- Scott]
Sep 5, 2012
I'd like to follow your advice. I really would. It's excellent advice with no downside. A little less television, and a little more exercise would do me a world of good.

But my brain chemistry won't let me.

Oh well. No sense stressing about it, since I can't change it.
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