Limits to Free Will:

Two Books Reviewed by Gregory Ellison
  • Information War, by Nancy Snow
  • Personal Peace: Transcending Your Interpersonal Limits,
    by Robert L. McKinley

For as long as humankind has questioned the meaning of life, the issue of free will has been at the top of the long list of unanswered mysteries.

Are we, in fact, free to choose our own values and actions, as both religious scriptures and our native intuitions tell us we are? Or are we rather slaves to a destiny over which we have no control, as some interpretations of karma and some modern schools of psychology assert? Are our actions really the result of our own choice and judgment, or are they just the inevitable outcome of all that has gone before ... whether we choose to call the long chain of cause and effect karma or neurochemistry and conditioned response?

Sensing that either side of the free-will dilemma leads to logical contradictions and circular reasoning if followed to its ultimate conclusions, most of us are content to leave the question to the philosophers and simply act “as if” our choices and actions were entirely the result of our own free will, because that’s how it SEEMS to us. But appearances can be deceiving. Astrologer Linda Goodman, while arguing passionately for the existence of free will, also asserted that most of us rarely taste it, being bound to the destiny reflected in our birth charts until we have thoroughly understood and mastered their lessons.

In this article we will look at two recent books which, while very different from each other (and from astrology), both point to the same conclusion: that free will does exist, but that exercising it is not nearly as simple as we think.

Information War, by Nancy Snow

Information WarAs both a journalism professor and a former propaganda professional for the United States Information Agency (USIA), Dr. Snow is a very credible commentator on the alarming collaboration between government and a mass media increasingly controlled by fewer and fewer corporate megaliths ... and how this tacit collaboration successfully manufactures consent for government policies that could not have been obtained from an objectively informed public.

Dr. Snow carefully documents the rise of the professional propaganda apparatus in the United States from the time of World War I, but focuses most closely on the alarming rise of propaganda’s two-edged sword — censorship combined with disinformation (a euphemism for lies) — in the United States today. She contends that the American propaganda machine is so successful, in part, because it is largely hidden. In a controlled society such as Nazi Germany or the former Soviet Union, propaganda is obvious … and is “tolerated” by the people out of fear of the negative consequences of opposing it. In an open society such as the United States, she writes, “the hidden and integrated nature of the propaganda best convinces people that they are not being manipulated.”

In the United States, we give great lip service to the jealously guarded “freedom of the press,” and this reassures people that the mass media can be trusted to deliver accurate and objective information. Media is not a branch of government, and we all know journalists of high ideals who entered the field precisely because of their dedication to the free press ideals. How, then, does repressive propaganda “work” in this environment?

Dr. Snow outlines several of its mechanisms. One of them is the close relationship between commerce (salesmanship) and government (statesmanship) in the United States, unprecedented in any previous society. The so-called “revolving door” between business and government assures that government policymakers are largely aligned with corporate business interests; and, conversely, that corporate leadership is strongly beholden to the interests of government policymakers who, often as not, sat on their boards of directors before assuming public office and will return to them after their terms of “public service.” News organizations which are increasingly owned by a very small number of huge corporations with close ties to government often willingly collude with efforts to censor because the media owners themselves are members of the political elite and therefore share the goals and outcomes of government leaders. As Nancy Snow puts it, “Profit ranks higher than truth-telling in the minds of media owners and many of their employees.” Of course, this attitude certainly doesn’t apply to everyone in media, but it is increasingly true that “should some idealist buck the system, s/he’ll pay for it, while those who play along and follow the rules will benefit directly and rise in the ranks.”

As an example of this close collaboration, using CIA documents, the American reporter Carl Bernstein was able to identify more than 400 prominent American journalists who carried out “information” assignments for the CIA, including William Paley, President of CBS, Arthur Hays Schulzberger of the New York Times and Henry Luce of Time. These prominent media executives, along with hundreds of other professional media employees, were actually in the pay of the CIA with assignments that included the deliberate injection of disinformation and the suppression of other information in “objective” news reports while entrusted with delivering the “news” to the American public through the free press! But these prominent journalists and executives did not see anything dishonorable in their actions. On the contrary, they saw such cooperation with the government as fulfilling their “patriotic” duty!

The means by which government propaganda has gained access to mass media, however, is the smaller portion of the book. The remainder of the volume Dr. Snow devotes to elucidating the particular techniques of propaganda and how they are employed to create compliance.

For example, leading up to the invasion of Iraq we were told repeatedly that it was a “certainty” that Iraq possessed a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, an active nuclear program, and was an imminent threat to the security of the United States. Of course, we know today that this “information” was simply false. Yet these false allegations, even when delivered by our top national leaders, would
not have been enough on their own
to mobilize the nation to accept the Iraq invasion. Why? Because there was plenty of evidence around at the time to indicate that these claims were either outright lies or at best wild exaggerations, and any open and informed discussion would have quickly uncovered it. But we the people never heard that evidence or participated in that open discussion, because it was systematically suppressed by the mass media, on the premise that criticizing the President and our leaders in time of crisis was “unpatriotic.” Propaganda mission accomplished: Americans made their decisions about supporting the war based on a perception of reality that was patently false!

Similarly, the implications of the Patriot Act were systematically glossed over, their suspensions of constitutionally protected civil liberties portrayed as nothing that anyone need worry about “unless they have something to hide” … when in actuality they represent a complete reversal of some of the most important principles Americans have fought for and jealously guarded since the country was founded. With a few minor exceptions these sweeping issues were never brought before the public, and those who DID bring them up were summarily branded unpatriotic and ignored or penalized. The propaganda machine had succeeded in creating a “reality” in which dissent of any kind, regardless of the merits of the underlying complaints, was unpatriotic and not to be tolerated.

Dr. Snow concludes an exhaustive analysis of how government propaganda works and how it has explicitly manipulated events in the recent past, with a warning and a call to action. If the present trend continues, she believes we are perilously close to the “big brother” society of Orwellian prophecy, in which government, or vested interests within government, has near-total control of our information and worldview, and uses that control to secure authoritarian power over individuals and every aspect of life. We can be nominally in a Democratic nation, but if our “free choices” are based on false premises and emotional manipulation, then they are not free at all. To counter this trend, she argues, we must broaden our information sources and defend the voices of dissent, even when we disagree with them. We must stop our reliance on “official” sources of news … the government leaders, the White House press corps, whose careers depend on the privileged access they enjoy and cannot afford to upset the applecart, the top mass-media anchors and journalists with their predictable stable of “experts” to tell us what to think. It is not that these sources cannot provide useful information, they can. But they cannot provide the ONLY useful information, nor the “authoritative” answers to legitimate questions. When we deprive ourselves of wider information sources, or refuse to consider them “seriously,” we cripple our ability to know, to think, to make our own informed decisions and act on them. In short, we give up our freedom of mind, after which every other freedom quickly follows.

Personal Peace: Transcending Your Interpersonal Limits, by Robert L. McKinley

Personal PeaceOur second book, Personal Peace, by Robert L. McKinley, could hardly be more different from Nancy Snow’s Information Wars. Not only is it entirely apolitical, Dr. McKinley is a psychiatrist of the behaviorist school, an influential psychological theory that typically debunks free will entirely!

In this slim but powerful volume, Dr. McKinley argues that much (perhaps most) of our interpersonal behavior and decision-making is an uncritical “acting out” of simplistic pre-verbal strategies we learned in infancy for eliciting desirable responses like cuddling and breastfeeding from mother.

He shows that because these habitual behavior patterns were learned in pre-verbal infancy, they are invisible to our cognitive consciousness even when updated with sophisticated adult content ... thus creating a situation where we are virtual slaves to repeatedly “operating” on each other with infantile strategies that we aren’t even aware of!

For example, some of us learned in infancy that throwing a temper tantrum was a sure-fire way to get Mommy’s attention. In other circumstances we learned that smiling and cooing was rewarded with favorable attention, stroking and breastfeeding. These behaviors have no actual “content” … that is, they don’t “mean” anything, because they were learned before we learned language, before the concept of “meaning” even entered our awareness. Rather, they are simply operations that we learned to perform in order to elicit particular responses we desired.

As baby operates, mother (or the mothering person in baby’s life) responds. Her responses reinforce baby’s operations. If mother responds more frequently and satisfactorily to temper tantrums than to cooing and smiling, baby uses the temper tantrum operation more often, and so on. In this way, baby develops a complete repertoire of operations for interacting with mother — and increasingly with others — before the age of five. This set of operations becomes what Dr. McKinley calls our interpersonal habit, and it is thoroughly mastered before we have developed the ability to make our words stand for things other than simple objects; therefore, we cannot talk about them. In a very real sense, we are unaware that they even exist, even though they provide the basis for all our interpersonal relationships. In much the same way that fish may not “see” the water because they are completely immersed in it, we cannot “see” our interpersonal habit although we are immersed in it.

This idea of conditioned response is one of the cornerstones of behaviorist psychology. We’ve all heard of Pavlov’s dog, who was taught to salivate at the ring of a bell repeatedly offering food along with the bell ringing. Once the dog had become conditioned to salivate in anticipation of food when the bell was rung, the food was no longer necessary. Ringing the bell alone was sufficient to cause the dog to salivate. Similarly, when mother responds with affection or feeding to one of baby’s operations, she conditions baby to perform that operation. Although baby’s primary goal is attention and nurture, the operation is established as an intermediate goal, because it leads to fulfillment of the primary goal. When a path leads to the fulfillment of a goal, we end up wishing for the path itself. Thus we learn to wish to be angry. We wish to be helpless. We wish to be cute. When mother responds to our suffering, we learn to wish to suffer.

This interpersonal habit becomes the matrix or blueprint for all our interpersonal actions. When we get older, we fill these forms with more sophisticated content, but the forms themselves do not change. If we have learned the suffering operation in infancy, we may find ourselves married to an abusive spouse in later life. It is well known that women in abusive marriages will often return to the abuse again and again, even after grievous injury and bodily harm. Even when such an abusive relationship ends in divorce, the injured party frequently begins another relationship that turns out to be just as abusive! Because our “suffering” operation was rewarded in infancy, we learned to wish for suffering as an intermediate goal. We do not “know” we have this wish, we cannot think reflectively or talk about it because it was learned before we had the power of abstract thought and speech. We just “find ourselves” in the same situation over and over again.

If we had success with the “angering” operation as infants, we may blossom into people with perpetual chips on our shoulders. If the “crying” or “sadding” operations were successful for us, we will likely find ourselves sad or depressed in the situations we encounter as adults, and so on.

Dr. McKinley argues that most (though not all) of the interpersonal operations we learn as infants entail giving up our sense of personal peace and contentment for the sake of the operation ... thus the title of the book. We learn to operate on others for the satisfaction of our wishes by means of angering, sadding, helplessing, badding, suffering, performing, whimpering, messing … and all of these operations entail sacrificing our personal peace for the sake of the operation. In short, most of us go through life constantly feeling that something is “wrong,” never able to relax and feel true contentment ... even when all our needs are met and we are not in pain or want or physical discomfort ... because “contenting” was not a successful strategy for operation on mother for most of us. Most likely contenting gave mother the necessary excuse to take a breather from giving us attention, because “everything was all right.”

The picture this view of human psychology paints is not a pretty one. It shows us to be largely slaves to infantile behavior patterns that we repeat over and over again ... with updated content that makes us feel that we are thinking independently and choosing our own behaviors, but in reality are locked in a very mechanical and pre-determined stimulus-response mode. It is this aspect of behaviorism that I have always disdained, as it does not allow for all the qualities that we think admirable in human beings: genuine courage, compassion, conviction, independence of thought, freedom of will.

Here McKinley departs from the behaviorist mold, however, and offers therapeutic guidelines drawn from his own many years of practice for transcending the limitations imposed by interpersonal habit. In a nutshell, they consist of techniques for bringing these pre-verbal operations into conscious awareness and learning to recognize and talk about them in the here and now. When we can see and talk about them, they no longer operate from the inaccessible nonverbal realm, and we can choose to forego them when they are not appropriate. He offers a number of case histories to show this process at work.

As befits a book entitled “Personal Peace,” Dr, McKinley shows that the end result of this process is the ability to reclaim the experience of personal peace and well-being that eludes most of us most of our lives ... not because of life challenges or external circumstances, but simply because our own interpersonal negotiations required sacrificing our peaceful state to the acting out of operations on others in the pursuit of our wishes. The final stage is an experience of enlightenment he calls the Candle experience … a here-and-now awareness that we create our own experience of reality moment to moment, able to enjoy and interact with others while feeling no compulsion to change or operate on them, free to act and respond and choose, free to be fully ourselves while appreciating and allowing others to be fully themselves.

I never thought I would enjoy and recommend a behaviorist psychology book. Thank goodness I have Emerson’s famous “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” to rescue me from embarrassment in recommending this one wholeheartedly.

And the moral is … ?

The idea behind this odd juxtaposition of book reviews (other than that I happened to read them both in the same week) is simply to meditate on the awareness that there are many forces acting upon us to “compel” our actions or beliefs, even while we like to think that we are acting freely, choosing our own behavior and forming our own well-reasoned opinions. The science of “mind-manipulation” is one that has gained enormous power in recent years. Techniques of propaganda are extremely savvy about the interpersonal habits and unconscious drives that dominate much of our behavior, and they make use of this knowledge to deliver powerful messages that directly affect our behavior and emotions in indirect or subliminal ways. Whole new areas of mental research and “therapies” such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming utilize this knowledge to “install” new behaviors and beliefs … powerful techniques when used to support positive growth and change, but downright scary in their implications when used for less open and compassionate purposes.

If there is a “moral” to the story, it is that we have the potential to exercise genuine free will, but that it is nowhere near as easy or as common as we suppose. In fact, we are all misled much of the time into assuming that we are exercising free will in our actions and decisions when we are actually responding to stimuli in very predictable ways that lie below our normal conscious awareness. Breaking free of these limits to free will is possible, but no easy matter: it involves much introspection and self-examination, along with constant vigilance, to discover and transcend these influences and exercise genuinely free will and judgment.