Commusings: Jesus, Guns, and Free Will by Jeff Krasno

Apr 02, 2021

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Hello Commune Community,

Happy Easter! In an effort to avoid controversy, I penned an essay called Jesus, Guns and Free Will ;-). 

Over the past 12 months, I have written more than 50 of these weekly missives. Schuyler often asks me, “How do have anything else to say?” Sometimes you must empty your cup in order to fill it back up.

This week’s essay is inspired by recent research into the nature of free will. Candidly, I am still wrapping my prefrontal cortex around this vastly complex topic, and I appreciate the opportunity to audition some of my fresh cogitations here. 

Examining the character of the human mind can be confounding, but I find it yields insight into the nature of reality and suffering, and thus can enhance our experience of life.

Reach out to me at [email protected] or on IG @jeffkrasno.

In love, include me,

• • •

Jesus, Guns and Free Will

by Jeff Krasno 

Friday, April 3, 33AD

As Jesus of Nazareth hung upon the cross, the Roman centurions cast lots for his clothing; the thieves on the crosses to either side reviled him; the religious leaders mocked him; and the crowd blasphemed him.

Even in his agony, Jesus summoned grace for those who scorned him, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

Two days hence, Jesus was resurrected, appearing to his Apostles before ascending to Heaven. Today, Christians celebrate this miracle. 

• • •

March 22, 2021AD
Boulder, Colorado

Ahmad Al Aliwi Al-Issa, 21, walked into a King Soopers grocery store with a Ruger AR-556 pistol and proceeded to shoot and murder 10 people. According to police and witnesses, the gunman was laughing and occasionally mumbling.

Eventually, the Syrian-born U.S. citizen was injured and surrendered to authorities. He was charged the following day with 10 counts of first-degree murder, which, in Colorado, carries a penalty of life imprisonment without parole.

Once again, we are besotted with grief, left to bury our heads in our hands and fathom the unfathomable. Initially, we are stricken with sorrow for the families of those who perished. We stand in their shoes for just a moment, don their emotional clothing, offer them lovingkindness in the presence of suffering, and reflect on our own good fortune. And then we grab an ember of rage and cock our arm. Anger holds the weight of our pain without the vulnerability of tears. We direct our fury at Al-Issa, as the well-oiled gears of our crime and punishment system churn again. And with fingers pointed like pistols, politicians snipe over unfettered access to assault rifles. 

In the emotional alpenglow, I, like you, want to make sense of this senselessness, to mitigate this type of horror by attempting to understand it. And this inquiry can only be done when the snow globes of our minds settle. 

Why do we mourn the deaths of these ten victims more than the loss of the five people who fell victim to the tornado that ripped through Calhoun County, Alabama just three days after the tragedy in Boulder? 

It is impossible to hate a tornado or an earthquake or a flood. We are not free from the random cruelty of natural disaster, but we feel as if we should be free from the moral turpitude of man. We despise Al-Issa because we presume he is the sole author of his actions and that his gruesome deed reflects an unredeemable and reprehensible choice. What distinguishes the depth of our feeling for the tornado and the shooter is the presumption of free will.

Undoubtedly, Al-Issa must be incarcerated, probably for life, if only to stop him from inflicting future harm. Punitive measures provide a limited degree of social protection from predators and there is an argument to be made in support of punishment as deterrent. However, I wonder aloud if our instinct for retributive justice leads us to ignore the true source of most crimes and, by extension, curtails our ability to thwart others like them. 

Mr. Al-Issa’s lawyer has indicated his client is mentally ill. His brother described him to the Daily Beast as paranoid and antisocial. The court will need to determine his mental state through formal psychological analysis. 

I cannot possibly understand the nature of Al-Issa’s mind, but I can examine my own in service of better understanding human behavior and the degree to which free will exists. And, you, too, can shine a flashlight into the nature of your own mind. 

Much of our belief in free will hinges on two assumptions (and I borrow liberally from Sam Harris here): 1) We could have made a different decision than we did, which would have produced a different outcome. 2) We are the thinker of our thoughts and the sole originator of our actions. Both of these beliefs seem intuited as a product of our lived experience. However, the life sciences have largely destabilized these suppositions. In the following paragraphs, I will stress test them. 

• • •

Let’s begin with nature. We do not choose our parents. By extension, we inherit a pre-determined genetic code that governs our morphology, physiology, and certain behavioral proclivities. Our genes create a unique scaffold for learning, memory, and cognition, mechanisms that allow us to acquire information about our environment and impact our conduct. Through no choice of our own, our genetics determine our height, eye, hair, and skin color. And the relationship between these traits and the circumstances in which we live heavily influences our behavior. 

Our personality also appears heritable. Scientists have spotted a gene linked to shyness in children and introversion in adults. Variations in that gene (RGS2) may also make social anxiety disorders more likely. A British research team recently isolated a gene that appears to be prevalent in multiple family members with depression. As part of the study, the chromosome (3p25-26) was found in more than 800 families with recurrent depression. 

In 2003, scientists concluded the Human Genome Project. To their utter surprise, they discovered that Homo Sapiens house a scant 22,000 genes – scarcely more than a fruit fly. This has precipitated research in the emerging fields of epigenetics and the microbiome. It turns out humans play host to trillions of bacteria and fungi in our gut and mouth and on our skin. This microbiota mediates digestion, our immune systems, and our nervous system among other biological functions. We don’t choose our DNA and, while we can eat sauerkraut all day to bolster a plethora of healthy gut bacteria, many of our bodily functions are controlled by the gene expressions of organisms we cannot even see. 

There is no freedom to be found from nature. We will die without oxygen, much of which is produced during photosynthesis by algae and zooplankton floating atop the sea. The workings of the autonomic nervous system carry on completely independent from conscious thought. Our heart rate, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal all function completely unconsciously. If you become aware of a charging bear, your fight-or-flight response will involuntarily spring into action. 

Our free will is equally limited by nurture as it is by nature. We don’t choose the nationality, socio-economic status, native language or culture into which we are born. Nor the religious and political affiliations of our parents and community, which profoundly bracket our sense of ethics and acceptable behavior. We also do not choose our trauma or abuse or the hegemonic influences of our media. 

If your parents hail from Indonesia, the shortest country in the world, you are all but guaranteed not to be in the NBA. If you are born into a Tutsi tribe in Rwanda, you are almost certainly going find the Hutu odious for the genocide committed against your people. If you were born a woman in Saudi Arabia, you were guaranteed never to drive a car until the law changed in 2017. And if you’re wondering what the psychological impacts are of a culture that continually underwrites gender inequality then look no further than a 2006 Saudi government poll that found that 89% of Saudi women did not think women should drive. 

If genetics and environment conspire to leave the door of free will barely cracked, determinism and randomness resoundingly slam it shut.

Take a moment to examine how and why things happen. I’ll employ a banal but illustrative example of such a study. 

I have a new compelling project brewing with a friend, which blossomed as a result of a chance meeting at Firestone Tire. I was visiting this fine establishment because my Toyota had a flat. I wasn’t sure if the tire could be patched or if I needed a completely new one. So, I went to Firestone because they had the proper model in stock for a 2021 Prius. Upon inspection, I noticed a screw lodged into the tread, which was certainly the agent contributing to the slow seepage of air. The screw was likely lingering about my driveway because we are building a shed and we’re traversing the driveway with tools and such with great frequency. More than likely, a screw fell to the ground as we labored. We are building the shed because we need more storage due to Jake & Julia having a baby and requiring additional space. They are having a baby because … well … I won’t go there. But clearly if Jake had kept it in his pants, I wouldn’t have a flat or a new venture! 

If you want to spend your life understanding the causal chain of events that lead to flat tires and serendipitous rendezvous, then that endeavor will likely take you all the way back to diapers. Every event that occurs arises from some prior cause or randomness. 

Why my friend was also at the same Firestone on the same day dealing with the same problem is fortunate coincidence. Why Denny Stong was working at King Soopers was certainly a product of prior causes. He needed a job to pay the bills. He applied. He was accepted. Why he remained in the store even though he was off-the-clock when Al-Issa entered was a product of tragic and unfortunate luck. When Stoops heard the gunfire, he purportedly ran toward Al-Issa and wounded the gunman’s leg with his knife. His heroics may have saved the lives of many others but not his own. Stong was 20 years old. 

Again, much of our sense of free will is based on the idea that we could go back in time and make a different decision that would have yielded a different result. 

But if you examine this more closely, at what moment would have it been possible for Al-Issa to exercise this freedom? He got out of the car with the intention of shooting his weapon, which he purchased days before. Is it realistic to think that before entering the parking lot he would have a change of heart when every single prior event had led to that moment? It’s doubtful. 

I am not contending here that the future is fixed. There is a difference between fatalism and determinism. Two years ago, would it have been possible for a psychologist to treat Al-Issa? Perhaps, but that did not happen. And the fact that it did not occur is also a product of prior causes — including a lack of mental health services. Could it have been possible to deny Al-Issa the ability to purchase a gun? Yes. But, again, that did not happen because of chains of causal events that allow semi-automatic weapons to be easily purchased.  

Our intuition validates free will because it appears to comport with our lived experience. We want to do something and then we do it. But this is an illusion because we don’t choose our desires. This is not a philosophical stance but a conclusion of scientific experiment. Scientists have used brain scanners to predict people’s desires and decisions before their own awareness of them.

In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Harari recounts the following experiment in which people don brain scanners while holding two switches. They are asked to press one of the switches whenever they feel like it. Scientists observing neural activity in the brain can predict which switch the person will press well before the person actually does so and even before the person is aware of their own intention. Neural events in the brain indicating the person’s decision begin before the person is aware of their selection. Pressing one switch or the other was certainly a choice — but it wasn’t a free choice. 

Pressing the right switch is a result of biochemical processes in the brain. We feel like we really want to press the right switch and that leads to the assumption that because we want to press the right switch that we choose to press it. But we don’t choose our desires, we only feel them and act accordingly. 

Try this on for a moment. Are you interested or confounded by this article? Regardless of your response, notice that you didn’t choose either of those feelings. They simply arose. And, likely, throughout the course of reading this missive, a dozen other thoughts have randomly appeared in consciousness. You didn’t choose those either. 

You are not the thinker of your thoughts or the creator of your desires. They simply arise and subside as transitory phenomena in a field of consciousness. There is no free will here. In truth, there is no stable, quantifiable self to possess the free will. 

Put your phone down for a moment and try to stop thinking for sixty seconds. Go ahead. 

You’ll quickly notice that you have no ability to quell the mad onslaught of thoughts and your mind swings between them like a monkey swings between branches. Notice how you didn’t produce those thoughts or put them there. And not only can you not prevent thoughts from arising in consciousness, you also cannot control the nature of the specific thoughts that arise. They are simply appearing and disappearing moment by moment. 

This absence of freedom seems like an affront to our ability to thoughtfully apply reason to life’s choices. In order to make good decisions, we need to contemplate matters through a lens of ethics and rationality. In pursuit of well-being, for example, we may exercise or volunteer at the homeless shelter. Both of these activities are biochemically rewarded with the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. And, because of our prior experience with the sensations produced by these actions, we repeat them. The choices are good in that they maximize well-being, but they are not free.

Perhaps Al-Issa meditated on his attack for weeks, discussed it thoroughly with a confidant, and processed the entire plan rationally. We don’t know. But, if he did, that would point even more decisively to the character of his mind as a murderer. If your intrinsic nature is to engage in horrific violence, how much free will do you have? And, if you are not the sole author of your actions, to what degree is punishment justifiable, beyond the obvious need to protect others?

The absence of free will is deeply unsettling, for if all events are determined by prior causes and randomness, that seems to rob humanity of the responsibility of making moral choices. 

But consider this. There are multifarious components that may have contributed to Al-Issa’s actions. Perhaps he was born biochemically imbalanced, perhaps he suffered significant trauma during his childhood in Syria or epigenetically inherited trauma experienced by his parents. Perhaps he endured cruel taunting because of his Muslim faith, perhaps he fell prey to online radicalization. Perhaps chemical processes in his brain shaped by his genetic code under the pressure of selection and chance mutation propelled a neuron to fire an electro-magnetic charge to pull the trigger of his gun. When you sum up the freedom-less inputs that conspired to make him a mass murderer and doomed his life to imprisonment then it is hard to hate him any more than one can hate a tornado. 

Despite his horrific act, when we examine Al-Issa through the lens of determinism, we might find a measure of compassion. And that compassion itself becomes a prior cause for a future that treats the mentally ill, ends xenophobia, and can help solve geo-political skirmish. 

Further, the acceptance of the notion that people are not the sole author of their actions should point us toward sane gun reform. 400 million guns amidst a population that is increasingly suffering from mental illness is not a good combination. 

It’s counterintuitive to think that a lack of freedom would produce a world with more love. But consider for a moment the nature of love. It’s not something we choose. It is a feeling that wells up in us. There’s a certain way that Schuyler looks at me that conveys her profound love. This look melts me not because she chooses it, but exactly for the opposite. Those eyes are prior to thought and contrivance. It is the absence of freedom in a glance or a smile or a laugh that conveys true love.
The great prophets, mystics, and sages seem to have insight here. They urge us to abstain from judgment, to forgive the seemingly unforgivable for they have an intuition that tells them those who do wrong “do not know what they are doing.” Instead of meeting evil with another evil, Jesus, Gandhi, Mandela, King — they urge us to turn the other cheek. They are able to shine their light of love as a means to illuminate the way forward.  

This is where meditation is invaluable. Through examining the nature of the mind, certain insights are revealed, most notably, the realization of the non-self. That there is no locus of consciousness crouching like a tiger behind our eyes. There is only the experience of consciousness intersecting with ephemeral personhood, the content of consciousness. 

It is here, in the quiet mind, beneath the veneer, where we find the interconnectedness of all things, where compassion and love emerge. Irrespective of faith, the Easter holiday reminds us that each day is an opportunity to resurrect our lives, to become a prior cause for a more loving and just world. 

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