Chapter 7 – Free Will, Habit, and Addiction


“Free Will” was popped into the last paragraph of Chapter 6. At first I thought it was a throw-away expression. As I thought about it in preparing to write this chapter, it grew in prominence as a color of perspective. It is one of those expressions that is wrapped around or within so many of our ruminations about our species in the last 2000 years and has gained center stage on and off again in the last few hundred. While not a central discussion piece in most gatherings, it is often one of those “taken for granted” beliefs and assertions. Many philosophers in the West wrote, reasoned, and debated whether or not we have free will. Western and Middle Eastern religions had their variations on the concept made to fit within a larger belief system. Eastern thought was less concerned with the debate seeing so much as driven by fate and karma.

How did that concept come to such prominence and continue strong to this day? I suspect it goes back to the way we have learned and adopted ideas, beliefs, skills, and behaviors over the eons. While observing, debating and reasoning, converts grew because the results to one’s self, to the group and, ultimately, to the community of mankind seemed to work for our betterment and our survival. It proved superior to other forms of behavior and thought.

Let me go out on another limb here to support the last paragraph. Travel back in time when monarchs, royalty, and the Catholic Church pretty much “ruled” our behavior. For our families, tribes, group, and individual survival that made sense for many centuries. Certainly, when things were good in the kingdom, it was reasonable to “go along to get along” and live. When things were “bad”, it is likely many individuals felt and knew that there had to be something better for them and the survival and progress of the masses. They felt powerless and chose, wisely perhaps, to conform to their inherited regimen in life. Resigned to their fate and station, they remained committed to the preaching and majesty of their church which bestowed divinity on their ruler. Free will was intertwined with an omniscient power and thus encumbered by it.

But the inkling of awareness that things could be better was nascent in spite of all. The notion that “I” can make a difference if given the chance and taking the risk was there but dormant. Eventually, the “I” grew to become a greater “We”. Skipping a lot of history, this phenomenon inspired philosophers to revive the debates on “free will” and the responsibility of each human to exercise that gift in their own life and that of the community. Catholicism split into new tribes and new “churches” emerged. While they continued the marriage of free will with their teachings of Jesus and God, their act of separation demonstrated the power of free will’s exercise collectively. A sort of liberation was achieved. As this happened, free will was viewed differently; the free will to make risky choices to bring about change in the wider system. The “god within” was released. At one level, we freed ourselves to have a personal relationship with god. That instilled the power to view life as more within our control rather than ceding that power to old authority. So we went about creating new authorities and collective structures and processes which supported individual choice and free will to a greater degree.

Free will brings with it the notion of taking personal responsibility for our beliefs, choices, and behavior. How those beliefs become internalized, how we make those choices, and what prompts and motivates behavior is increasingly studied and unveiled, especially through neuroscience and the behavioral sciences. And old concepts and words take on new meaning as those sciences mature.

It may be premature but it may be expeditious to make more leaps in reasoning. Let me start with reviving the debates on “nature/nurture”. I don’t see them as “either/or” concepts. They are “both/and” to me. However, I would simplify the nature discussion by saying that, as it relates to habits, our different “nature” likely limits the choices, or expressions of free will, available to us. We have preferences for different behavior – actions, reactions, beliefs, values, etc. We don’t follow those rigidly but the patterns of our life affirm my statement. So, we don’t “reason” or make choices in that way but rather find ourselves fairly automatic in how we live our life. This is not a rigid construct because we haven’t accounted for “nurture”. It also doesn’t mean we are locked into the involuntary preferences of our nature.

Before I talk about nurture, I imagine you have heard parents say that each child was different from birth and if somewhat similar in temperament, how they seemed to have different actions, reactions, preferences, and “wills” to similar stimuli and living conditions. You may have had the joy of experiencing those differences and wondered “how could that be? They are only a few days old.” Or, why is it that boys seem to be more physical and curious about some things than other things like cars, trucks, toy guns, digging, taking things apart etc.… And then you hear the refrain: “Aww, he’s just a boy.” While young girls mostly are attracted to, well, female things: dolls, playing house, less “rough-housing”, more quiet and subdued play. “Aww, isn’t that cute how she hugs her doll?” And this all is happening in front of the parents before there has been apparent “socialization” along gender lines. Behavioral studies confirm this with infants.

So what is nurture in this emerging painting now differentiated by colors that define preferences whose origins are not fully known? In my view, nurture may be the more evanescent of the two concepts. It is the one that changes more with the passage of Time, versus time in your life’s moment, as well as the life situation each person is born into and lives through.

Let me simplify that statement which covers a vast area. I think we can all agree that each family introduces each child to a set of unwritten rules, many of which may be outside of the awareness of the parents. Let’s call them “norms”. They are the informal structures that influence and define individual, family and collective behavior. (Formal rules may be found in biblical or religious writings and verbal guidance that parents adhere to.)

Agreeing on that, those norms are influenced by the norms we see around us in our tribe, neighborhood, social class, etc.…. Going up another level to a higher order collective, villages, cities, states and nations have a set of “norms” peculiar to them which we all, more or less, consent and decide to abide by. Those are in addition to codified laws, ordinances, legal decisions or constitutions.

With a broad brush stroke of rainbow colors, evolutionary psychologists and cultural evolutionists would say that nurture and nature define who we are in the temporal moments that are the boundaries to our lives. It has and will be on into the future as we have discovered it has been over the eons.

So to link that line of reasoning with free will it means that there are also boundaries around it defined by the above. Our decisions, choices to act and the acts themselves are restricted by societal norms, rules and laws of the time we live in and pass through and inherited. To make it easier on our brains, reasoning and energy, some good news is that those boundaries and restrictions set in motion routinized behavior or “habits”. At this higher level of analysis, it means we don’t really “think” much about what we do each moment or day. It is comfortable and sane and right “to go along to get along” without the sense of submission to a monarch or ruler for fear of our lives or shunning or being ostracized. And “free will”, inherent to all of us through time, is available to kick in when conditions demand that response to enhance our individual and collective well-being and group survival. This has played out through our cultural evolution. And if millennia tell this part of the story, we can feel relieved that the pattern will continue on for millennia.

But changing habits or routines to confront our personal or collective demons is, as they say, “Easier said than done”. Whether those demons are imposed from outside our physical space or undeniably self-destructive and self-imposed, the will to act when presented with, and aware of, new truths and possibilities often presents a mountain of personal and collective resistance to changing our circumstances.

On a personal level, look at the routines in your day that you are comfortable with or habits that you’ve had for decades. Many of us make New Year’s resolutions to change. What has been on your list over the years? How many have you executed and sustained by stopping or replacing them with new behavior? For me, for example, at age 75, I have times routinized to go to sleep and awaken every day. Now that I’m writing these days, I know that I am at my best earlier in the morning and then again in the early evening. But I have my “comfort zone” of life where that pattern and other habits that fill that time space have been hard to change. I am getting better at it but still submit to the old pattern.

For many people in our affluent, acquisitive society, losing weight is a classic “New Year’s resolution made, resolution failed or abandoned” habit change intention overruled by old habits – and not just eating too much. The reasons we gain weight, the habits that sustain that, often underpinned by neurosis make that resolution a daunting task given the challenges, behaviors and unconscious impulses to conquer.

And if you are unconvinced by the reasoning I use, think of the many simple habits and routines that, if you wanted to or tried, were hard to change. Things like: morning bathroom habits; what you do with dirty dishes; how clean or messy your bedroom or house may be; how often you clean your house or the mess in your car; letting go of your need for household order when that drives your spouse or partner nuts. Name some of those you’ve thought about for yourself or wished your loved ones would change.

So, why is this important? If from a “time usage” analysis, you will see that much of our lives aren’t occupied by thinking, reasoning and choice-making. We are on auto-pilot much of the time. Thus, free will may have come into play when these habits and routines started but, in the realm of intelligence differentiating us from other species, we suspend its use to cope with what would be an overwhelmingly complex daily existence. Or it may be simply a case of “monkey see, monkey do”: behavior that is repeated and habitual was copied from those around us who have made a lasting impression. But we are not trapped in that picture. The good news is that “free will” can change those conditions in our momentary lives any time we individually or collectively choose. But there are exceptions we know about and others that we are discovering through science.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate those exceptions, and there are many, let me focus on addictions.   There are the classic ones – drugs, alcohol, nicotine – that most of us wouldn’t argue about. We acknowledge their empirical existence and scourge to much of society. I think it is also indisputable to assert that once we are “hooked” by an addiction, using free will is very hard to invoke and sustain. Our reasoning, in the face of scientific evidence and personal, observable misery (our own and those we know), is often insufficient to break the addiction. Some other force like hitting rock bottom as desperation or religious conversion is necessary to exercise free will. Or a sustained commitment to a multi-step program with the support of a group of addicts or addict-guide are reliable exit doors to pass through to the other side.

Less agreed to are addictions to food and, especially sugar and salt. Believe it or not, Columbus and 1492 facilitated the production, trade and distribution of sugar to a ready global market that has grown with increase in our wealth and the changes in our diet. Most people have some access to both but heavy consumption was by the ruling, elite classes. This addiction has been supported by a number of factors. The food industry has diversified into prepared foods requiring boxes and containers to preserve their shelf lives. This was affected by urban and mass markets being further from agricultural sources easily accessible for daily purchase and home processing of fresh foods. The changes in demand and location necessitated using food science and packaging to make foods safe for medium and long term storage. Ground staple grains (corn, rice, wheat) needed preservatives and chemicals prior to packaging. They required seasonings of many kinds but the big culprits leading to addiction were sugar and salt. Both ingredients made flavor tolerable and pleasant that eventually triggers the brain to need and want more. Throw in advertising, food store shelf presentation, “monkey see, monkey do”, “keeping up with the Joneses” and other societal pressures and you have decisions taken out of the zone of intelligent reasoning and free will and into involuntary addiction. Simple test: just try to stop eating sugar or even cutting intake significantly. Same goes for salt.

At a societal level, these addictions have a price and cost we all bear. Even for those who are flaunting laws and norms by succumbing to their collectively recognized addictions, we don’t insist they bear full responsibility for the consequences that spills into society. We have spent billions on reducing smoking because we know the personal health damage and costs to society for the related illnesses. We do the same for drug addicts and promote preventive education to reduce its occurrence. The money spent on preventing drug crimes and the trafficking is enormous. Alcoholism is a more tolerated addiction but has huge attendant health and monetary costs to individuals, families and society also. Research explains addiction and the penalties we all pay for it but yet we have not, and probably never will, reduce those addictions to near zero.

For the more socially accepted addictions, we are coming to understand their costs to many people, their families and our larger collective, both here and globally. We also will face for decades the realization that the difficulty of shedding those addictions at the individual level is magnified for the rest of society. You would think that history and science would enlighten us to use our collective will to greatly minimize the damage they do to us all. Until our norms change, and the expectations we have of ourselves and supported by others, the costs of maladies like obesity, hypertension, cancer, and heart disease will be with us for a long time. I did not say: until laws change. We have tried laws with drugs, alcohol and, to some extent, smoking but they generally have not worked accept as they might influence norms, expectations of each other, and education.

The good news is that, in spite of all the costs and anguish surrounding reduction and eradication of addictions, we are committed to caring for those suffering, in the end. That, as we’ll see, is important to our adaptation and success as we evolve.

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