The Brain Stem of Free Will

[cite] nameless:[/cite]If we do not need masters and teachers then why did Lao Tzu write the Tao Te Ching?

My Master(Sifu) teaches without words.
Well, let me see... When I go outside does that mean I need to see the sun, rake the leaves, chop wood, or go for a walk? So, why did 'he' write the Tao Te Ching?

Perhaps for the same reason I write what I do. The social instinct urges me to communicate with folks and pass along what I see. The most sticking point made in the Tao Te Ching is the view that, to quote D.C. Lau, [chref=47]without looking out of the window one can see the way of heaven[/chref]. If one need not look out his window, how much less does he need a teacher to know the way of heaven. Being profoundly social animals, the need we feel for a ‘master’ (leader, guru, teacher, boss, king, chief, etc.) is rooted in the social tribal hierarchical instinct. Also, this is often accompanied by the simple need to get ‘something’. Being social animals most folks feel a need to fit in as either leaders or followers to one degree or another. It is a symbiotic relationship based in emotion, and often accompanied by various forms of ‘ranking’ to boost credibility and prestige, e.g., “he studied with so and so; he graduated top of his class; he did this or that… etc”.

At least that is what I see when I peal away the hoopla and hype. Of course, believers and followers (especially in the religious and political arenas) are blinded by their allegiance to the 'unique' master they follow and thus are incapable of [chref=16]impartiality[/chref].


  • edited December 1969
    Ongoing research continues to further deflate the 'superior consciousness' status we have endowed upon ourselves. Perhaps the best long term consequence(*) of science will be how it will slowly but surely force us to see ourselves honestly, i.e., as simply one of earth animals, rather than one uniquely 'wise man' (homo sapiens). The following is a short summary on the brain stem's role in awareness (click the title to read the full article).
    Consciousness in the Raw,

    In October 2004, Swedish neuroscientist came to observe and document the behavior of one child in each family who had been born missing roughly 80 percent of his or her brain.

    Neurologists typically regard hydranencephaly as an anatomical sentence to a lifelong "vegetative state." Such children supposedly validate a brutally simple equation: Little or no cortex equals no awareness of any kind. In family activities observed, the kids quickly cast doubt on that standard assumption.

    His analysis generates a provocative proposal: Basic awareness of one's internal and external world depends on the brain stem, the often-overlooked cylinder of tissue situated between the spinal cord and the cortex.

    Self-awareness and other "higher" forms of thought may require cortical contributions. But Merker posits that "primary consciousness," which he regards as an ability to integrate sensations from the environment with one's immediate goals and feelings in order to guide behavior, springs from the brain stem.

    If he's right, virtually all vertebrates—which share a similar brain stem design—belong to the "primary consciousness" club. "To be conscious is not necessarily to be self-conscious," Merker says. "The tacit consensus concerning the cerebral cortex as the 'organ of consciousness' ... may in fact be seriously in error."

    Of 27 comments by mind and brain researchers published with Merker's article, nearly half agreed that the inner workings of consciousness lie in the brain stem."The roots of consciousness exist in ancient neural territories we share with all vertebrates," says neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University in Pullman. "By the weight of empirical evidence, all mammals are sentient beings."

    In his own research, Panksepp studies the ability of animals to experience biologically based states of mind or feelings that range from hunger and thirst to emotional delight and distress. For instance, Panksepp and a coworker reported in a controversial 2003 paper that rats express "joy" while playing with other rats by making ultrasonic sounds that represent an ancestral form of laughter.

    This gives me more insight into what is most likely a myth: free-will. Why do people the world over believe so strongly that we have such a thing? In the West, and integral to Judeo-Christian-Islamic beliefs, free-will is viewed as a God given reality, i.e., we can choose good over evil (if the devil doesn't mess with us?). In the East, free-will is more subtle and implied, always lurking there in the background. I mean, if the self is an illusion, how could 'I' possibly have free-will, or be enlightened for that matter. What is there to be enlightened? :lol:

    The primary role the brain stem has vis-a-vis consciousness in us, and all vertebrates anyway, suggests that our sense of free-will originates there. Thus, all the other vertebrates should likewise possess a sense of free-will. The major difference with us is that this 'gut level' brain stem induced sense of free-will bubbles up into a thinking mind. Thus, we tend to naturally believe we have free-will. Moreover, because animals can't talk, we assume that we are unique in that regard (and consciousness in general).

    Given that our sense of free-will is produced in the brain stem doesn't mean, of course, that we actually have such a thing. I imagine that this is just another one of nature's 'biological hoodwinks' to get living things to jump into life and get it done. What I find astounding is that, while there is no empirical evidence to support free-will (and indeed just the opposite), we truly believe we have it. Obviously it is deep rooted, sharing the same brain stem origin as the illusion of self.

    Another curious thing is that when ever the subject comes up, it seems to be a debate over free-will versus determinism. As though if one is false the other must be true. These two are not opposites like up and down. Indeed, both views are short sighted myths whose days are numbered, thanks to science. First quantum mechanics busted determinism's bubble, then neurological research is doing away with free-will, i.e., brain scans have demonstrated we initiate action a few milliseconds before we are cognitively aware that we are make the 'free choice' to do that action. :?

    (* ) The technologies arising out of science have all had unintended adverse consequence. Even so, the A-bomb, obesity, global warming, and general rape of the planet will be worth it if science can eventually help us understanding ourselves more honestly. Nothing else has worked so far, despite millennia of 'progress'. And the bonus: Greater wisdom to use technology with fewer unintended adverse consequences. Oh what a dreamer! Oh what a long post!
  • New comment to an old post I just read for the first time.

    Carl. I believe in your idea of no-free-will in the sense of our self-conscious fooling itself about it making all of the decisions.

    But this is not the Free Will that is knocked out by the "hard" determinism of today's science.

    Quantum Mechanics is a deterministic theory. (Probabalistic, but deterministic.)

    And. if consciousness arises from deterministic physical processes in the brain, there is no way you can have any free will. They are not opposites. They are just logically incompatible. What ideas even the brain stem initiates, are just epiphenomenal and don't make a difference to what has already been determined to happen.

    So, if there is no free will even at the level of the brain stem, what are we to do with this idea that we can change ourselves by studying the Tao? LOL.

    (QM does point to something that might break this view, but that's enough of my undergrad Philosophy of Science mash-up for now ;)
  • I reckon I agree with you saying, "Quantum Mechanics is a deterministic theory. (Probabilistic, but deterministic.)". I'd only change the "(Probabilistic, but deterministic)" to (Probably deterministic) seeing how we are skirting a realm where 'the image that has no shape' points the way.

    Now, who ever said "we can change ourselves by studying the Tao"? Certainly not I. That we only see a reflection of who we are makes me suspect that, after all is said and done, we are the blind leading the blind. Nothing more. However, realizing that sure helps my 'footing'.

    I look forward to hearing more from your Philosophy of Science background. Perhaps I'll learn something... Of course learning is like raising one's standard of living. Each level you reach 'zeros it self out' and your back to square one again - like that game Tetris when you 'win'. :-(:-):|
  • Ho! Are we going to have a discussion about what "change" means? (It was traditionally always London cab drivers who denied the existence of change. Or at least, they'd never have any of it on them. But I digress.)

    Exhibit 1:

    "The Tao Te Ching (the core Taoist scripture) invites you to contemplate your innermost sense of reality. It doesn’t tell you what to do or think, but rather stimulates you to think and reflect."

    Exhibit 2:

    "Stimulate 1: to excite to activity or growth or to greater activity : animate , arouse 2 a: to function as a physiological stimulus to b: to arouse or affect by a stimulant (as a drug)"

    Merriam Webster Online Dictionary

    I was careful to not say "improve" but I thought "change" was safe enough in its breadth.

    I beg to submit that we read the Tao Te Ching in the expectation that it will have some effect on us. Though in fact, all the time it is just those atoms and their collisions that makes us pick up the laptop and read. And it's the same cascade of physical interactions further down the line. which will determine whether we are stimulated or not, no matter what we may decide or think about the Tao.

    I rest my case for why Determinism makes a mockery of any decision to look at things differently. (*)

    (* This is tongue in cheek, and let's say I am representing Determinism as an attorney, without necessarily believing in it).

    Further QM and Philosophy musings in future comment. A little learning is a dangerous thing, especially coming from an amateur like me.
  • edited November 2008
    Exhibit 1:
    "The Tao Te Ching (the core Taoist scripture) invites you to contemplate your innermost sense of reality. It doesn’t tell you what to do or think, but rather stimulates you to think and reflect."

    I reckon it would be more accurate for me to say, "...It doesn’t tell you what to do or think, but rather IT CAN stimulate you to think and reflect." People can also take it as a proscription telling them how to be, "stimulating" them to never stray from virtue, for example.
    I beg to submit that we read the Tao Te Ching in the expectation that it will have some effect on us.

    Now surely that holds true for every thing we do. Our expectation is to gain some advantage for ourselves and/or our tribe. Not different than the blue jay that come up to the back door when it sees me; it hold some expectation that I will give it a peanut.
    ... which will determine whether we are stimulated or not, no matter what we may decide or think about the Tao.
    I suspect that there is no real line separating the two. "Decide, think" and "stimulated" are different names for the same thing.

    The Tao Te Ching's value for me personally lies in how it articulates a view that attempts to poke through the innate biological hoodwink that drives to do what we do. That is a very tall order considering how perception is a function of that hoodwinking biology. I suppose you could say it is like seeing your eyeball with your eyeball.

    So I too rest my case. I'm not sure what that case is though... darkly visible, it only seems as if it were there.

    Good heavens, time for bed :)
  • edited December 2008
    When we are reading a novel, and we see a character struggle with a decision, then make a choice, the outcome for rest of their story may hinge on *their* choice.

    But they have no Free Will. The whole book or movie is already in existence as we watch them debate in their head. It's the words in the book that give them their thoughts, and their thoughtful decision making cannot alter the written words which will follow in the book and direct their actions.

    I use this as a metaphor for our (real, live) Free Will and hard, physical determinism (where the atoms and physical interactions of our world take the place of the novel's author, causing both our thoughts and our actions.)

    But this is based, if I'm getting this right, on a Realist position (philosophically), and the interesting thing is that although most scientists (including biologists) implicitly believe in this, the philosophers of science aren't so sure (because of quantum mechanics).

    By the way, I've been doing a bit of reading. Turns out that the philosophers see a subtle difference between two anti-Realist philosophies: "Dialectical Monism" and "Non-Dualism". Some author on wikipedia reckons Taoism is a case of the former, and Buddhism and Vedanta the latter. Interesting distinction - which might lend something to the discussion of yin and yang vs "world of opposites" ("Shroedinger's cat")

    But both of these views of the world are having nothing to do with Dualism or Realism, and hard determinism.

    So - maybe we can have Free Will in those philosphies?

    Maybe that's enough meta-meta-physics for this forum.
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