Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Unified Command

Often I come smack up against what is probably my deepest ideological difference with most people: which is -- to simplify a bit -- that I don't believe people can control their actions. If you don't believe that, then you can find the bulky apparatus of praise and blame that everyone is trundling about with them a little exasperating. And it becomes difficult to participate in most casual conversation, which is, to a remarkable degree, about apportioning praise and blame. Michael Jackson was or wasn't to blame for whatever he did or didn't do with the children at Neverland. The Governor of South Carolina is less culpable or more culpable because he viewed his Argentinian lover as his soulmate. Whatever. To someone who views human action as I do, all this busy scuffling to scribble in the book of judgment is a little tedious. I prefer to leave that job to the angels, who presumably have the data and the skills to do it properly.

It's tedious because I can't even get into the conversation. Everyone thinks I'm saying that pederasty and adultery are fine (since I must be either approving or blaming, and I'm not blaming, then I must be approving.) Well, no. I don't think pederasty and adultery are fine. That's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that if you want to prevent these things, it's not enough to get everyone to recite the same catechism. Probably Michael Jackson thought pederasty was wrong. Certainly Governor Sanford thinks adultery is wrong. That's not enough.

Freud had an inkling of this, but he didn't have the brain science to back it up. He proposed a model of mental life which was (for Western science) revolutionary, and mostly wrong, but it got one crucial piece right: that there is no unity of command in the human brain. The brain has (again to way oversimplify) several layers, and all of them have at various times access to sensory processing and motor control. The mechanisms by which one layer or another takes precedence are extremely obscure. But if you want to understand why Governor Sanford, who wholeheartedly believes -- with some of the circuitry of his frontal cortex, anyway -- that adultery is wrong, engages in adultery, those are the mechanisms you want to investigate.

Or you can just say that he's bad. If you like. If you feel like that gets you anywhere. I don't.

I've been eating badly, again, and I'm completely fascinated by that process. I watched myself getting ice cream out of the freezer, and spooning it into a bowl. The part of my brain that intended to eat ice cream was in firm control. I could hear the part that thought I shouldn't do it. It wasn't completely shut out. The "still, small voice" the Bible talks about was there, saying I shouldn't eat it, I'd be sorry, the gratification would be fleeting, etc., etc. But it had no access to motor control. Something else was running the show. For simplicity's sake, I'll call it the hypothalamus, but I'm sure that's a very crude and inaccurate name for something that I imagine is really, insofar as it's an entity, a "software" entity, not a "hardware" entity.

Now, the hypothalamus doesn't do words. I couldn't have told you why I intended to eat that ice cream. I couldn't have given you a justification for it. I couldn't have given you an argument in favor of it. The arguments -- squeaking away in the background -- were all against it. They simply made no difference.

Perhaps I'm a bad person, and that's why I eat ice cream when I shouldn't. Or perhaps I'm weak-willed (though I must say that no one who knows me well has ever thought that about me: I am considered by my nearest and dearest to be one of the most stubborn human beings alive.) But that's not very helpful. If I'm bad because I want to be bad, what hope is there for me? If my will is defective, then -- how do I repair it? By an act of will?

The fact that the hypothalamus doesn't do words puts it at a disadvantage in the world of books and discussion. It always comes up the loser in a seminar, or a convention of theologians. To hear us talk, you'd think it didn't stand a chance. But somehow, in real life, it manages to get hold of a lot of ice cream and Argentinian mistresses.

But suppose we give up, once and for all, the delusion of the unified command. Suppose we recognize that there are multiple entities running the show. Suppose we even go so far as to grant that there may be very good reasons why the argument-generating part of our brains gets excluded from motor control from time to time. St Augustine's mother had the wacko theory that depriving her children of water would improve their willpower and make them better people. St Augustine thought she was right, of course. Mom is always right. He drank water anyway. If he hadn't, we probably wouldn't ever have gotten to read the Confessions: little Augustine wouldn't have made it out of childhood.

The thing is, the cerebral cortex is always coming up with wacko theories. It really can't be trusted to carry out the fundamental bits of survival: eating and drinking and sleeping and procreating. So it simply gets shunted aside from time to time. You can hold your breath until you fall unconscious, but you can't hold your breath until you die. Another piece of the brain cuts in and says, "enough, already!" and starts breathing again. It's not because you're bad. It's not because your will is faulty. It's simply the way the nervous system works.

If we accept that the moralizing, theorizing part of our brains is just one constituent among many, rather than the lord and master of all it surveys, I think we will be both happier and better at regulating our actions. I think, for instance, that the reason so many priests have abused children is that they see the problem as being that they're not trying hard enough to fight down temptation. If they simply took it as read that there were temptations they couldn't fight, the actions to be taken would be obvious: get the hell out of the priesthood. Stay away from children. Tell the people close to you that you're not to be trusted with them. Instead of engaging in titanic struggles at the point of temptation, structure your life so as to avoid the temptations altogether. But of course they can't do that: they can't enlist the help of others because that would be admitting, in effect, that they are so bad they won't even try to be good. If you hew to the theory of the unified command, there's no other way to think about it.

I don't believe that things are this simple. I don't believe the entities I refer to as the hypothalamus and the cortex are the only two players. I don't believe they're even distinct. I think they, and others, reconfigure wildly on the fly. I think the variety of things we airily call "will power" probably do have tangential influences, here and there: enought to keep the mythology going, anyway. But one thing I'm dead sure of: that if the schema I've proposed here is oversimplified, the "unified command" schema is even more so. It doesn't even begin to save the appearances.

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