Home » Evolutionary psychology, Mind, Neuroscience, News » Will power: Cutting through the bunk to discover that the problem was solved millennia ago

Will power: Cutting through the bunk to discover that the problem was solved millennia ago

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength In “The Sugary Secret of Self-Control” (New York Timesn September 2, 2011),
Steven Pinker reviews Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s Will Power: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, noting,

In experiments beginning in the late 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel tormented preschoolers with the agonizing choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows 15 minutes from now. When he followed up decades later, he found that the 4-year-olds who waited for two marshmallows turned into adults who were better adjusted, were less likely to abuse drugs, had higher self-esteem, had better relationships, were better at handling stress, obtained higher degrees and earned more money.

Who’s surprised? From there, it goes downhill,

Together with intelligence, self-control turns out to be the best predictor of a successful and satisfying life. But Baumeister and Tierney aren’t endorsing a return to a preachy puritanism in which people are enjoined to resist temptation by sheer force of will and condemned as morally irresolute when they fail.

Oh? That’s too bad. If there’s no net, you can’t play tennis. If you can’t play, you can’t win. A person has to be really smart and well educated to not understand that proposition. And, sure enough, we hear,

The “will” in willpower is not some mysterious “free will,” a ghost in the machine that can do as it pleases, but a part of the machine itself. Willpower consists of circuitry in the brain that runs on glucose, has a limited capacity and operates by rules that scientists can reverse-engineer — and, crucially, that can find work-arounds for its own shortcomings.

In other words, Baumeister’s theories, like many modern currencies, are based on an illusion. Well, whose illusion is it then? No one’s? Then no one can make the changes.

Pinker complains,

The authors appeal to evolutionary biology to explain these anomalies, and elsewhere bring up ideas from neuroscience and economics. But the visits are perfunctory, and the authors offer no systematic account of the trade-offs the brain must make among goals that differ in their likelihood of success, their time horizons and their evolutionary impact.

because evo psych – of which Pinker is a leading proponent – is bunk anyway. The book would be an even bigger pop flop – much-heralded, little used – if Baumeister had made any more use of it than Pinker says he does.

As it happens, this problem was solved thousands of years ago. The Catholic Church teaches,

1733 The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.”

This thought is not exclusive to Catholics or Christians; other religions frequently express the same thought in different ways. And, almost everything else written on the subject is bunk. And no neuroscience find is going to change that. It’s just part of the fabric of reality. A part many find hard to accept … which changes nothing.

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See also: Sometimes smart people just don’t notice the world around them as closely

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13 Responses to Will power: Cutting through the bunk to discover that the problem was solved millennia ago

  1. “The “will” in willpower is not some mysterious “free will,” a ghost in the machine that can do as it pleases, but a part of the machine itself.” What is Pinker talking about? Having free will means having the ability to make choices and/or decisions in various situations. Is Pinker actually stating that no person alive, him included, has that ability? How utterly nonsensical.

    To quote Professor Farnsworth of Futurama: “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore,” especially if Pinker is considered one of its intelligentsia.

  2. Maybe both things are true.

    Let’s start from the beautiful “summary” given in the OP:

    “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes.”

    The best way to explain that, IMO, is to distinguish between “free will” and “freedom”.

    We always have free will. But the range of “power” of our free will can be very different. That “range” is our “freedom”. One of its expressions is our “will power”.

    Now, if we have free will and only little freedom, our range of free action will be comparatively small, but still very important. We may be able maybe to resist a little our bad habits, or change our inner perspective a little at a time, and nothing more.

    But if we have free will and a lot of freedom, then our free actions will be of great impact, both on ourselves and others: we will be able to change ourselves quickly and to influence others for good. IOWs, we will be persons of great “will power”.

    Now, the important point is: our range of freedom is the cumulative result of our past use of free will: a good use of free will makes our freedom grow, and vice versa.

    IOWs: “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes.”

    But then, our free will is always “free” (that is, metaphysical, transcendental: it can change the course of things, and especially our personal destiny).

    But our “freedom”, being a result of our past use of free will, is a determined factor at each moment. It is, in a sense, “part of the machine”.

    IOWs, we can increase (or decrease) our “freedom”, but only through the gradual, patient, persistent, good (or bad) use of our free will.

  3. What is Pinker talking about? Having free will means having the ability to make choices and/or decisions in various situations. Is Pinker actually stating that no person alive, him included, has that ability? How utterly nonsensical.

    No. He is stating that making choices and/or decisions is done by the brain – not by some mysterious additional power called free will. He and most people have brains and that is why they have free will.

    What I find is nonsensical is:

    The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.”

    There are plenty of people who done good and found their freedom drastically curtailed as a result and plenty of people who have done immense harm and thus greatly increased their freedom. It seems that this quote can only be true by interpreting “free” in some unusual way and then calling it true freedom.

  4. markf Do you have any example of the persons loosing or gaining freedom?

  5. Blas, anyone who has fought against a dictatorship and been consequently silenced.

  6. I haven’t read this book, but from what I understand from other reading, the more investigation that neuroscientists do, the less space they can find for free will. We already know the unconscious parts of our brain control our bodily functions – ie we do not “decide” to make our heart pump. what is being discovered is that this is in fact the case for many areas where we believe we are exercising a conscious choice – for example, who to fall in love with. We are in fact, being controlled by our brains (according to these findings), and our feeling of being in control is simply an illusion.

  7. markf writes: “No. He is stating that making choices and/or decisions is done by the brain – not by some mysterious additional power called free will. He and most people have brains and that is why they have free will.”

    I don’t think free will is an additional power, just a facet of humanity that separates us–by a huge margin–from the lower animals, who operate on instinct.

  8. We aren’t being controlled by our brains – we are our brains. Our brains exercising control is the same as us exercising control and free will is what it feels like to do this.

  9. I am sure Pinker would agree with that (and I certainly do)

  10. Good person losing freedom: Aung San Suu Kyi
    Bad person gaining freedom: Stalin

  11. I’m just a layman on the subject of free will, but I would define it as follows. Part of human consciousness includes the (mysterious) ability to create new thoughts. That is our freedom. Will power is the not very mysterious act of promoting or denying a thought.
    Given the marshmallow example, I must first have the thought that I will be better off if I deny myself the single marshmallow. Then, if I choose to wait, I need to promote the thought that I will be better off and prevent myself from thinking about how much I like marshmallows.

  12. Is there any difference between how other animal’s brains work compared to ours, that makes the concept of free will non-applicable to them?

  13. Aung San Suu Kyi is a goog d person according to whom?Not the Birmanian authorities. Stalin is a bad person according to whom? Not for russian comunists and european leftists between 1930 and 1945.

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