Neurons and Sustainability

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While preparing for a few presentations, I came upon a 2008 article on free will from the Scientific American. The article asks, if our actions are determined by neuronic structure, are we responsible for them?

Many scientists and philosophers are convinced that free will doesn’t exist at all. According to these skeptics, everything that happens is determined by what happened before—our actions are inevitable consequences of the events leading up to the action—and this fact makes it impossible for anyone to do anything that is truly free. This kind of anti-free will stance stretches back to 18th century philosophy, but the idea has recently been getting much more exposure through popular science books and magazine articles. Should we worry? If people come to believe that they don’t have free will, what will the consequences be for moral responsibility?

Sustainability rests on restoring consciousness of caring, that is, intentionally acting to satisfy one’s concerns about self, others, and rest of the world out there. Further, sustainability rests on breaking the addictive patterns of consumption associated with the dominant “having” mode of social behavior found in the US and other consumerist cultures today. Taking-care-of is, I believe, the fundamental structure of being. Language probably arose in the context of social settings in which an actor wanted to direct the caring iteratively and created language for that purpose. Over time taking-care-of became embedded in language as a set of responsibilities.

If our actions are determined by neuronal structure, then changing habitual behavior to embody more responsibility might seem problematic. I see no fundamental contradiction, however, if one adopts a model of action based on coupling neuronal control to multiple choices, based on past experience. I imagine the cognitive system to be something like a great database with a great search algorithm, rather than the logical computer of the rationalists. It stores rules of behavior built up through experience from the moment of birth and probably in the womb as well. From my book:

In the model of Being and behavior on which this text is based, actors follow rules that have become embedded during their life. Each moment builds on the accumulated body of rules or norms. Like explicit rules in a game, for example, these rules prescribe (must rules), proscribe (must not rules), or offer options (may rules). The existence of “may” rules lends the appearance of free will to the actions of individuals. Some forms of insanity might be said to arise from the absence or suppression of “may” rules in one’s body. Patterns of behavior are then so constrained that the actor has no choice but to follow the same course over and over again, even if the concerns behind the action continue to be unsatisfied.

The important feature of this model is that by introducing interruptions in the flow of action, individuals reflect and learn. Learning is the creation of new cognitive structure that adds to the actor’s repertoire. By designing objects we use everyday and public decision-making processes we use to base social choice to force and inform reflective moments, we can slowly wean actors away from addictive patterns that leave them unsatisfied and always clamoring for more.

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