Naturalism and Self-Control

How can naturalism help us make better choices, be more creative, be more productive, and achieve our goals? A presentation for Boston Causality Club.

How can naturalism help increase our efficacy as agents, our self-efficacy?  How might we make better choices, be more creative, be more productive, and achieve our goals?

 Clayton Tucker-Ladd:  

Step four:  Use the faith you have in the lawfulness of behavior to plan ways of achieving your goals. You become a confident self-helper.

The greatest barrier to improving is the lack of hope that one can change. Knowing that behavior is a result of cause and effect relationships and not the result of wishing or luck or fate, should encourage us to study behavior and try out different approaches.

Who or what’s the self in self-control?  When we say “I changed my mind,” who changed what?

The basic naturalistic insight: Not a separate, mental self that controls the rest.  Rather we exist as a system of motives in service to the overriding goal of survival and many sub-goals. We have the capacity to learn from experience, model outcomes, and anticipate consequences of behavior.  We are basically rational. Our behavior is controlled by this survival agenda and many sub-agendas that take over when survival isn’t at issue. 

So who’s in control?  Most of the time we’re in control, not any one else.  It’s our agenda that controls our behavior.  But who are we?  We’re the brain and body, character and predispositions, our agenda and our rationality.  But what controls us?  Again not usually anyone in particular, but a host of circumstances that affects our behavior, that have shaped what we are.   Bush’s bulge in coat pocket: suggested he was being controlled by someone else via radio-transmitted prompts to his ear!

We might find that given our goals, we’re not acting optimally to achieve them.  We see a gap between what we want and what we achieve.  Our behavior isn’t being optimally controlled by the goals, but by other conditions and factors. 

So self-control, at the highest level, would be to act successfully on our explicitly endorsed goals, the ones we endorse after careful evaluation and thought.

Some think that causality is the enemy of control, that we have to have contra-causal freedom to create ourselves in order to be in control.  They see the fact that we are caused as evidence that we aren’t in control.

Quote from The Matrix, in which the effete French Merovingian super-programmer rejects the assumption of free will, the supposed power of the individual to initiate behavior independent of causes.  He has programmed a special dessert:

Morpheus: Everything begins with choice.

Merovingian: No. Wrong. Choice is an illusion, created between those with power, and those without. Look there, at that woman. My God, just look at her. Affecting everyone around her, so obvious, so bourgeois, so boring. But wait... Watch - you see, I have sent her dessert, a very special dessert. I wrote it myself. It starts so simply, each line of the program creating a new effect, just like poetry. First, a rush... heat... her heart flutters. You can see it, Neo, yes? She does not understand why - is it the wine? No. What is it then, what is the reason? And soon it does not matter, soon the why and the reason are gone, and all that matters is the feeling itself. This is the nature of the universe. We struggle against it, we fight to deny it, but it is of course pretense, it is a lie. Beneath our poised appearance, the truth is we are completely out of control. Causality. There is no escape from it, we are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the `why.' `Why' is what separates us from them, you from me. `Why' is the only real social power, without it you are powerless.”

But the Merovingian's analysis can be improved.  He says “We’re completely out of control.”  No.  Wrong.  Control is not an illusion. We aren’t “completely out of control,” since after all it's our stable characters and motives that drive behavior.  We - cybernetic behavior-guiding systems - are in control of our actions most of the time.  But in turn we are a function of other factors, some of which we can learn to control for our purposes.  We have means of increasing self-control.  But all this is fully caused, it isn’t magic or miraculous.

So we aren’t “victims of causality,” since we remain causal agents ourselves, active agents in the world, we have effects on things.  And to be uncaused wouldn’t add to our powers.  After all, on what basis would the uncaused part of ourselves make a decision or choice?  To have such a part would simply tie us in knots. 

So, naturalism implies that the processes underlying self-control do not transcend causality or our connections to the world, but rather depend on those connections. 

Understanding this, naturalism can empower us.

If we stick with the traditional view of who we are and we suppose the will is really metaphysically and radically autonomous, that just introduces a mystery that blocks access to creativity and successful choices.  We have to transcend the traditional notion of free will in order to discover the real key to behaving effectively, whether as artists, technicians, policy makers, researchers, or whatever it is we do.  Otherwise we’ll become victims, not of causality, but of our own myth of being uncaused.  Self-help literature, e.g., Wayne Dyer, Your Erroneous Zones, sometimes indulges in the wishful thinking of radical autonomy, much to the consumer's peril. 

We must understand the conditions of successful choice and productive creativity – knowing the causes, we can set up conditions in which creativity flourishes.  So the very deliberate design of our work environments and our play environments, the learning of techniques and skills, set up the conditions under which creativity can flourish and in which we can be productive.  Twyla Tharp:  The Creative Habit.  B.F. Skinner: be Skinnerian. 

The will, like everything else, is a function of conditions: so we have to understand the causal dynamics of motivation.  What are the conditions that will inspire me to stay on task and finish a project?   What sorts of situations are most likely to sustain motivation?    We’re not controlled by some non-physical mental agent, but we are controlled by our motives that are in turn controlled by various conditions. This gets into the advanced technology of self-control.

It’s often said that people (e.g., prisoners, addicts, the obese) have to want to change before they can be helped, as if the desire to change is itself some independent factor undetermined by conditions.  But obviously the will (desire) is itself a function of conditions, so that we can work to create conditions that can bring about the very desire to change.

Even the so-called “political will” to do things can be understood as a function of circumstances, like everything else.  So we will know better how to motivate people for a cause, which again is empowering. 

So my point is that by transcending the myth of free will, we are empowered - we’re given access to the methods and tools by which we can become more creative, be more productive, and which help realize our goals.   To do this, we have to study human nature carefully, and make sure our strategies, tactics, methods, and frameworks of understanding are based in science.

Causal Analysis Tool and Techniques of Self-Control  (see below

Online resource: Clayton Tucker-Ladd’s online book, Psychological Self-Help, especially Chapter 4.

Skepticism about managing one’s behavior –  Breakdown of Will (George Ainslie) shows that there is no ultimately right way to choose between long-term and short-term goals.  We’re biased toward short-term satisfaction, but feel we should work for long-term.  But if we only work for long-term, then this may not maximize satisfaction, since we’ll have missed out on current rewards.  What to do?   Laugh and make the best of it.  We are in a very curious situation indeed.

TWC 11/04

Causal Analysis Tool for Self-Control

Step one: assume that each and every aspect of your situation is caused.  That is, each aspect has antecedents in space and time, such that if these had been different, then that aspect of your situation may have been different.  At this very moment, each aspect of you – your feelings, motives, thoughts, hopes, fears – is being caused, as is the situation surrounding you.  The causality works both ways: from you to your situation, and from your situation to you.  There is nothing in you or your situation exempt from causality, from being influenced.  And likewise, each part of you and your situation acts as a cause itself, influencing other things.

Step two: identify that aspect of yourself or your situation you wish to change.  This means taking a close reading of your current state of discomfort, fear, hope, longing, ambition, or frustration. What precisely is it that’s the problem, the desire, or the goal?  This is sometimes difficult, since often our goals, fears, frustrations, and hopes are ill-defined.  Do the best you can to pin down precisely what it is you want to change or work towards.  Note that there might be a conflict among goals you endorse, that they pull in opposite directions.  The death bed technique: imagine you’re looking back at your life.  What should you have done that you didn’t do?  What are your regrets?  This forces you to consider the big picture, which then can drive the day-to-day picture. 

Step three: identify those causal factors and influences that relate to your fear, frustration, goal, or desire.  What are the current conditions that that control your behavior and that therefore are contributing to being stuck?  Again, this isn’t easy, since many factors could play a role, including conflict between goals (see above). 

Step four:  take steps to change those factors and influences in ways that will permit effective behavior.  When all the information is present, the choice about what to do might be reasonably clear.  Increasing motivation, setting a clear agenda, might require that a certain goal or motive win the competition such that a real commitment arises.

A few techniques of self-control

Create external “commitment devices”:

  • State goals publicly, creating expectations among others that will in turn have the effect of driving your behavior. 
  • Agree to a deadline, with actual consequences, e.g., preparing a paper for a conference. 

Set up a plan and performance schedule to measure progress.

“Be Skinnerian”:

Set up contingencies to reward behavior that isn’t intrinsically rewarding.  Do less interesting tasks first - do the tough stuff first - then reward yourself with what's more interesting or fun.

Other examples:

For many other examples, see Clayton Tucker-Ladd’s online book, Psychological Self-Help, especially Chapter 4.

Date: 
Saturday, November 20, 2004