Whenever I get into a conversation with someone about free will for the first time, they will usually end up saying something like this: “But I experience the world as if I have free will.”
They are, of course, wrong. They experience the world exactly the same as someone who doesn’t believe in free will (like, for example, me).
We both experience the same thing. What is different is the way we interpret what we experience.
Here’s a good analogy.
One thousand years ago, if you asked most people about the relationship between the Earth and the Sun, they would have told you that it was obvious: the Sun revolves around the Earth. If you tried to tell them that, in fact, the opposite was true, they would have laughed in your face.
“But I experience the Sun revolving around the Earth! It’s obvious that the Earth isn’t moving because we can’t feel it moving. We don’t experience it moving. But we look up into the sky and we can experience the Sun moving around the Earth. You dumbass.”
Of course, what they were actually experiencing was the Earth revolving around the Sun. They had the exact same experience as Copernicus when he published “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” in 1543. What was different was how they interpreted that experience.
So it is with free will. We all experience the same thing. We walk around, decisions are made; actions are taken.
The difference is that some of us interpret those things as “the laws of physics”. And some of us interpret those things as “free will”. Same experience – incorrect interpretation.
The same is true with our relationship to the universe. Most people imagine themselves as being somehow separate from the rest of the world – in it but not of it, independent from it. Again – same experience, incorrect interpretation.
There is only the universe. It’s just one thing. One construct. We are not in the universe – we are the universe.
The atoms that you’re made of are the universe. The universe isn’t some kind of blank canvas that you’ve been painted on. The universe is both the canvas and the paint. The universe is the sum total of all of the matter and the energy and the anti-matter and everything else. It cannot be divided into universe and non-universe.
Most of the atoms that make up your body today were something else 20 years ago. And they will be something else 20 years from now. They continue. The universe continues. You are those atoms. There is nothing else.
You can only be the universe. Nothing else makes sense.
I’ve always been paranoid about allowing other people to have any level of control over my business and today I got another lesson in why that’s a good policy.
For about 7 years I’ve run a Facebook group called “Cigars Australia Forum”. It was originally a standalone forum that I ran back when I was in the cigar business. Then, when the software behind the forum became too clumsy, I moved it over to Facebook. Just a bunch of 1000 (mostly) guys harmlessly comparing notes on cigars. Occasionally it got a little rowdy and I had to tell them to be nice. One a rare occasion I had to block a couple of people who were outright rude and nasty.
Yesterday, I got a message from Facebook that something about the group contravened their “community standards” – no details, just “your group has been disabled until you bring it into line with our standards”. This, of course, is coming from the company that let people like Cambridge Analytica have access to the personal data of millions of people. But I digress.
So I looked through their “community standards” page, couldn’t see anything that would my group would contravene, so I asked them to review the group and their decision.
Today I got a second notification from Facebook that the group, which had over 1000 members, has been permanently deleted. No explanation apart from “community standards”. Nobody to talk to. No way to protest or get clarification.
Now, luckily, I don’t care. This group had nothing to do with any business of mine or revenue source. I maintained it just as a service to Australia’s diminishing cigar appreciation community. But imagine if it was something important to my business or my brand and Facebook just decided to delete it? It could be devastating.
So that is why you should never trust Facebook, or Instagram (also part of Facebook) or Google or eBay or PayPal or Patreon or any other service provider with running the delivery platform for your business. If you can run it yourself, do it. If you can’t, make sure you have a backup plan if the service provider decides to pull the pin on you.
While psychopaths have probably always been around us, in feudalist societies it would have been much harder for them to rise to positions of wealth and power. Unless you were born into the nobility, it was pretty tough to get out of your class circumstances and engineer yourself into a place where you could rise above.
Think about it this way – if, as guys like Robert Hale suggest, about one percent of the population rank highly on the psychopath test – and, if this has always been true – then up until the Industrial Revolution, if you were born a psychopath but were not a member of the aristocracy or nobility, let’s say you were the son of a blacksmith, then what could you do? You didn’t have much chance of putting together an army or rising above your stations in terms of wealth creation opportunities.
If you were a plebeian in the Roman Republic, your chances of rising to power were kept in check by the tools of the aristocracy – the Senate, the army and paid mobs. During the Roman Empire, a few plebs made it to become generals and even Emperors, but they were few and far between. A number of centurions of plebeian extraction were rewarded by Augustus after his civil war with Antony with property and suddenly found themselves as the nouveau riche and a seat in the Senate – but again, these stories were rare.
Oh sure – if you were a Hun in the 5th century, you could brawl it out with some other guys to see who would be the king of the tribe, and go from there. But in the Middle Ages, these opportunities were scarce. You might be someone like Francesco Sforza who, in the early 1400s, managed to turn his father’s private army of mercantile soldiers into becoming the Duke of Milan by winning some battles and marrying his illegitimate daughter – but again, those stories are quite rare in the annals of history.
For most of history, if you were born poor, for the most part, you stayed poor.
So if 1% of the population were psychopaths, and 99% of the population were poor, that means 99% of the psychopaths were poor and, while they probably caused trouble for their immediate family and village, they never went further than that.
However – then the Industrial Revolution came along and we entered the rise of capitalism. Now those 99% have a much better shot at unleashing their psychopathy on the world. They could get an education, get a job, and use their inherent psychopathy to climb the ladder of power inside an organisation – business, political, religious, academia or military. Suddenly, after 1000 years of being kept down in their villages, the psychopaths had a ladder to wealth and power unlike anything before.
Studies show that most people who are born poor continue to stay poor, it’s true. But we live in a world where the psychopaths who are born poor, and have no qualms about fucking other people over in their march towards power – who care as much about committing an unethical act as you or I do about what we ate for breakfast a week ago – have an open playing field.
Capitalism has unleashed the psychopaths on the world.
Now our job is to figure out how to ring fence them and keep them in check before they destroy the planet and all of us on it.
This article on the neuroscience of trust raises some interesting questions regarding testosterone and psychopathic behaviour. One of the key characteristics of psychopaths is their lack of empathy which, as it turns out, is also a side-effect of high testosterone:
High testosterone convinces the brain that others find you desirable and socially powerful. It also inhibits the brain’s release of oxytocin, reducing empathy and the desire to collaborate. What’s more, testosterone’s aggression is contagious, inhibiting oxytocin and trust in team members.
In my book “The Psychopath Economy”, I don’t get much into what makes people psychopaths, I just assume they do, and will always, exist. But this article made me do some further reading on the link between psychopaths and testosterone. At least one study in the last decade concluded that “psychopathy scores were associated with an increased ratio of testosterone (baseline) to cortisol responsivity to a stressor. Psychopathy was not associated with either of these measures independently, or with baseline cortisol levels. These findings suggest that these highly interconnected hormone systems may work in concert to predispose to psychopathy.”
Both testosterone and cortisol play a role in our appetites for risk, which tend to be high in psychopaths.
Another recent study looking at emotional control found that “people with psychopathy, and especially in patients with high endogenous testosterone levels” demonstrated “significantly less activity in the prefrontal brain regions and less communication between the prefrontal brain and the amygdala was observed”.
I wonder if, in addition to making organisation leaders sit the PCL-R (the standard psychiatric psychopathy test), we could also have them sit for testosterone and cortisol tests?
Four Corners has a story about slavery in our supply chain. Do Western manufacturers know (or care) about the practices of their supply chain? Should Western governments do something about it? According to Four Corners the Australian government recently passed something called The Modern Slavery Act 2018, which “requires businesses of a certain size to report their efforts to keep their supply chains slavery-free”. Unfortunately, the government “has the power to publicly name those that fail to comply, but not to fine or penalise them in other ways. It is hoped fear of shaming will be enough incentive to avoid the reputational, financial and other risks that might arise from public scrutiny.” The problem with shaming is that psychopaths (and, by extension, the companies they run), are pretty impervious to shame. All they care about is winning. They don’t give a shit what you think about them.
Why would the government not put throw-the-book-at-them penalties in place for slavery in the supply chain?
According to antislavery.org “an estimated 25 million people around the world are in forced labour” and it generates US$150 billion in profits for the private economy every year.
That’s Capitalism in action, folks.
I was just thinking this morning that Donald Trump has been POTUS for 2 years and 172 days (6 hours, 42 minutes and 40 seconds but who’s counting?). I remember when people said he would be impeached within his first year. Some said six months. I personally thought he would quit when he realised there was work involved. We were all wrong.
So roughly two-and-a-half years. I was wondering what Germany looked like two-and-a-half years into Hitler’s regime? Say, around 1936? The Nuremberg Laws had been passed in 1935 but weren’t implemented until after the the 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin. While there was some debate around the world about boycotting it, the only countries not to attend were Spain and the Soviet Union.
It feels like Trump has slowly become normalised. I stopped paying much attention a long time ago. My wife, an American, stopped paying attention almost as soon as he was elected. She was just too disgusted to get sucked up into it.
Trump is probably a narcissistic psychopath. But are fascists psychopaths? Jon Ronson doesn’t seem to think so but I disagree. Ronson says psychopaths don’t tend to believe in anything except themselves, and I agree. But I think they also look for organisation and institutions that will help them to get access to the power they crave. They don’t truly believe in any creed or philosophy. But they are willing to commit acts of violence to get what they want – and fascism is inherently pro-violence, which makes it the perfect landing place for psychopaths.
“The only unique feature of the fascist relationship to violence was the theoretical evaluation by many fascist movements that violence possessed a certain positive and therapeutic value in and of itself, that a certain amount of continuing violent struggle, along the lines of Sorelianism and extreme Social Darwinism, was necessary for the health of national society.”
There hasn’t yet been a dramatic rise of state-sanctioned violence in the US (and crime itself is at historic lows, as it is in most developed countries) but hate groups are on the rise and at an all-time high (although they were nearly as high a few years into Obama’s first term), according to some sources. There’s no official paramilitary support for his rule, although he does claim to have “the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people”. And over the last couple of years, a number of GOP organisations have invited white supremacist groups to provide “security” at their events, and of course there was the infamous Unite The Right rally. The combination of authoritarian leaders and armed militias has never been healthy for a democracy.
However, around the world, including here in Australia, we’ve been seeing the gradual normalisation of cruelty, usually focused on the poorest and weakest people, immigrants fleeing failed states, and usually carried out by people who claim to be Christian.
The increasing cruelty and violence should worry us, but like the old ‘boiling the frog’ story, we will probably just normalise it.
As Fintan O’Toole pointed out, fascism usually grows slowly over time, using “test marketing” to see how much they can get away with:
Fascism doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.
How do you handle people in your life who are being a pain in the ass?
Well, for a start, we know that we have no free will. So we’re going to handle them however our current neural state handles them. Our neural state is the current structure of our brain, the way our memories, experiences and genetic pre-dispositions have been encoded in the synapses and chemicals of our brains.
However, something you read or hear today can change that neural state for tomorrow. The brain it plastic. It changes over time with every new experience or insight.
So – we know we have no free will. We also know that the other person has no free will. They are behaving exactly as they have to, based on their own neural state. They are an actor on a stage, forced to read certain lines, to play a certain part. And it’s hard to stay angry at someone who has no control over their actions. You can’t be angry at the sky for being covered in rain clouds. You can’t be angry at tree for shedding its leaves during winter. And you can’t be angry at a person for obeying their nature. It’s like the old story of the scorpion and the frog (Google it if you don’t know it, and try to find the version told by Orson Welles).
If someone is acting badly towards you, it often means they aren’t happy. Happy people, with healthy self-esteems, usually don’t treat others badly. They try to build the people around them up, make them feel good about themselves. They lift people up, they don’t knock them down. So if the person treating you badly is unhappy and doesn’t have any control over their behaviour, they are probably upsetting more people around them than just you, which, in turn, makes those people dislike them, which makes them feel worse about themselves – and the cycle continues.
So when someone is lashing out at me, I normally feel sorry for them.
On top of that, we also know that the concept of “identity” is problematic. We have realised that there isn’t a “me”, a distinct collection of atoms that is separate from the rest of the universe. So when someone is being mean to me, who, in fact, are they being mean to? They are being mean to the universe, to themselves. Now – do you think the universe cares? Does someone on the other side of the planet care what this person thinks, says or does? Does a tree care? Does a dog? No? Then why should I care?
They can’t be attacking “me”, because there is no “me” to attack. As Bob would say, there is no “reference point”. It’s like water off a duck’s back. Insults and attacks slide right off. The hardest problem I have when being insulted is to fight back a smile, which itself is unkind and can make the other person feel worse. But it’s actually quite amusing when someone exposes their pain and anger so openly by turning it on someone else. Not that the fact that they are hurting is at all funny, but just that their behaviour is so transparent and immature. It’s like when my five year old gets angry about something and tells me that he’s the boss of the house. His defiance is hilarious but if he sees me smiling, he gets even angrier. It’s the same with mean people. They can be unintentionally funny. So try not to smile. Even when it’s blaringly obvious that their anger towards you is an indication of their own issues.
So, once we understand that we shouldn’t take their insults and attacks personally, how should we handle the situation?
Usually I’ll try to think about what they need from me at that moment. My goal is to initially defuse the situation, then try to turn into something positive, where there are no winners or losers. But that’s hard to do, even with the Three Illusions, because our brains are designed with a “fight or flight” response to threatening situations. When we are being attacked, our subconscious defense mechanisms kick into gear – adrenaline courses through our veins, and our conditioning kicks in. Even after 30 years of completely accepting that I don’t exist as a “me”, my F/F system still kicks in from time to time. But it gets nipped in the bud pretty quickly as my post-Three Illusions wiring kicks in. After a few seconds to a few minutes, I’m usually thinking about how to defuse the situation so it doesn’t escalate. And I’m still not great at this part of it. My instinctive response is to think “I don’t exist, they don’t exist, this is all just a story going on in my head, it’s all just atoms” and to disengage. Which honestly probably isn’t the best way of handling these situations. So I’m trying to get better at it.
People’s egos usually want to be assuaged and they want to be heard. So it’s helpful to say something like “I see where you’re coming from, let me think about it some more and come back to you with a more thoughtful response. Can we park this issue for now and talk about it more later?”
Buying some time for both parties to calm down.
The important thing is that I’m not left with any anger, resentment or anxiety over the confrontation, because I know neither of us has any free will and I feel empathy for the person who is attacking me. This helps me think about what the other person needs from me and how to create a positive outcome for everyone.
On average, about one percent of the population rank highly on the psychopath test. But there are certain kinds of organisations that have a higher percentage, they seem to attract psychopaths like poop attracts flies – the military, the police, politics, religion, finance. It makes sense – they are all industries that provide ready access to power over others, one of the things psychopaths crave. Psychopathic cultures occur when a lack of institutional checks and balances allow psychopaths in power to hire other psychopaths.
It looks like this is another sector that might be thick with them.
Having a “Free Press” means publishers are free to fire a cartoonist when he submits a cartoon that criticises Donald Trump. Please keep your free press within the carefully proscribed guidelines.