Nature’s Monsters?

Every tragedy generates questions. After monstrous mass shootings, we wonder if our gun laws are as insane as they appear. After monstrous hurricanes, we wonder if man-made climate change is making the storms worse. After a monstrous presidential election, we wonder if our cultural institutions, and too many of our people, are hopelessly lost.

As important and vital as all those questions are, what happened in Las Vegas last Sunday night, and the mystery surrounding the motive of the killer, has me asking even deeper questions. I am inviting you to explore some possible answers to those questions. This lengthy journey is not for everyone, but it represents something I believe is important for thoughtful people to do: address the hard stuff. In doing so, I do not want to leave the impression that I am minimizing the suffering involved in this tragedy or disrespecting and ignoring the victims of this horrific crime. Obviously, the victims and their loved ones are owed our sympathy and compassion. The following examination, though, is focused on other issues.

I am fully aware that most of you will not read through this piece in its entirety nor watch the lengthy video at the end. We are, after all, living in the age of tweets. But I encourage you to take the time to read and listen. You may not agree in any way with what is said or claimed. We can discuss that in the comment section. But we can’t discuss it intelligently if you don’t invest the time and your thoughtfulness in what follows. I have pondered these issues and the questions they raise for most of my life, beginning with, as a kid, asking my father why it was that random thoughts, thoughts I didn’t like, popped into my head against my will and beyond my control. He had no answers. That phenomenon was then, and remains so today, mysterious to me.



I stayed awake all night as the tragedy in Las Vegas was unfolding on television. When I found out the killer was a 64-year-old affluent white man with no apparent political or religious or even personal motive for killing innocent people, the first thing I thought of was a man named Charles Whitman, another seemingly “ordinary guy” who killed a lot of people. Since Sunday, a lot of people have mentioned Whitman and his role as the first mass-murderer in American television history, the man whose crime gave us SWAT teams.

I thought of him for a different reason.

Whitman was 25 years old in the summer of 1966, when the Marine-trained sharpshooter “decided” to ride an elevator to the top of the University of Texas Tower and use the many weapons he brought with him—all of them packed, along with supplies such as “canned peaches, deodorant, an alarm clock, binoculars, toilet paper, a machete, and sweet rolls,” in an old Marine footlocker that he moved with a two-wheeler—to kill innocent people. Here’s how David Eagleman, writing for The Atlantic in 2011, described what happened:

Front page coverage of UT sniper, Charles Whitman. Aside from standard A1 features like the brief weather forecast and a daily humor feature, the front page of the next day’s San Antonio San Antonio Express was wholly dominated by shooting coverage. The Photo: Digitized Microfilm / Digitized MicrofilmAt the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell; he shot at them at point-blank range. Then he began to fire indiscriminately from the deck at people below. The first woman he shot was pregnant. As her boyfriend knelt to help her, Whitman shot him as well. He shot pedestrians in the street and an ambulance driver who came to rescue them…

By the time the police shot him dead, Whitman had killed 13 people and wounded 32 more. The story of his rampage dominated national headlines the next day. And when police went to investigate his home for clues, the story became even stranger: in the early hours of the morning on the day of the shooting, he had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep.

Now, I was almost 8 years old on August 1, 1966, and have only a vague recollection of that story as it appeared on the evening news—CNN wouldn’t come into existence for another 14 years. But I can guarantee you that plenty of people labeled what Whitman did, just as Tr-mp labeled what the Las Vegas killer did, as “an act of pure evil.”

Evil. Pure. If it were as easy as that.

Just what is evil? Why do we use the word? Do we need the concept of evil to help us live with the mysteries of our existence, the mysteries of human behavior?

I don’t recall hearing anyone refer to the series of hurricanes that have recently brought with them much death and destruction as “evil.” No one, as far as I can tell, said that what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico and elsewhere was “an act of pure evil.” Why is that? Maria has killed more people than the murderer in Las Vegas killed. Why is one killer seen as evil and the other not?

It seems obvious that the reason we put what hurricanes do in a different context than what human beings do is because storms are seen as natural events that have no intentionality. We know there is no “Maria,” in the sense of a personality making willful decisions to target innocent islanders in the Atlantic. Hurricanes are complex low-pressure tropical weather systems fueled by the evaporation of warm ocean water and “steered” by environmental conditions, such as prevailing winds. They begin life as mere tropical disturbances that may or may not become “monsters” that kill and destroy. Why some do and some don’t is a matter of “organization,” the process of which is not completely understood.

People, on the other hand, are almost universally viewed as moral actors. That seems as obvious to us as the idea that hurricanes don’t have intentions. Human beings, we believe, have free will, and consequently their actions can be judged as right or wrong, good or evil, or somewhere in between. In the case of Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower killer, his actions, like the actions of the Vegas killer, clearly appear to most people as “pure evil.” As noted, Whitman stabbed both his devoutly religious mother and his wife in the heart with a hunting knife before he went to the Austin campus and began his killing spree there, including shooting that pregnant student in the stomach, her boyfriend in the neck, and another student in the mouth. Here is what he wrote in a note he left at his murdered mother’s apartment:

To whom it may concern,

I have just taken my mother’s life. I am very upset over having done it. However I feel that if there is a heaven she is definitely there now. And if there is no life after, I have relieved her of her suffering here on earth. The intense hatred I feel for my father is beyond description. My mother gave that man the 25 best years of her life and because she finally took enough of his beatings, humiliation and degradation and tribulations that I am sure no one but she and he will ever know—to leave him. He has chosen to treat her like a slut that you would bed down with, accept her favors and then throw a pitance [sic] in return.

I am truly sorry that this is the only way I could see to relieve her sufferings but I think it was best.

Let there be no doubt in your mind I loved that woman with all my heart.

If there exists a God let him understand my actions and judge accordingly.

Charles J. Whitman

He apparently wrote that note, on a legal pad, after he had moved his mother—whom he likely strangled and hit in the head with something heavy before he stabbed her—into a sleeping position on her twin bed, and after he washed his hands and knife. He placed the note on her body and covered her up with a bedspread. He left her apartment around 2 A.M. and headed home, home to kill his sleeping wife with the same hunting knife, plunging it into her chest multiple times. At that crime scene he also left a note—most of which he had typed the evening before—one that he finished in his own handwriting after the murder. Here is the entire note, beginning with the typed portion:

I don’t quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks. In March when my parents made a physical break I noticed a great deal of stress. I consulted a Dr. Cochrum at the University Health Center and asked him to recommend someone that I could consult with about some psychiatric disorders I felt I had. I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt come overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail. After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder. I have had some tremendous headaches in the past and have consumed two large bottles of Excedrin in the past three months.

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight after I pick her up from work at the telephone company. I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationaly [sic] pinpoint any specific reason for doing this. I don’t know whether it is selfishness, or if I don’t want her to have to face the embrassment [sic] my actions would surely cause her. AT this time, though, the prominent reason in my mind is that I truly do not consider this world worth living in, and am prepared to die, and I do not want to leave her to suffer alone in it. I intend to kill her as painlessly as possible.

Similar reasons provoked me to take my mother’s life also. I don’t think the poor woman has ever enjoyed life as she is entitled to. She was a simple young woman who married a very possessive and dominating man. All my life as a boy until I ran away from home to join the Marine Corps [at this point, Whitman was “interrupted” by “friends,” which he noted in handwriting in the margin; the rest of the note was handwritten after he murdered his wife] I was a witness to her being beat at least one [sic] a month. Then when she took enough my father wanted to fight to keep her below her usual standard of living.

I imagine it appears that I bruttaly [sic] kill [sic] both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job.

Years before the killing began, Whitman kept a diary. After he murdered his wife, he took the time to go through some of the old diary entries before he left his home to prepare for the killing to come later that day at the University of Texas. One such entry was dated February 23, 1964, and its subject was mostly about how much he loved and valued his soon-to-be wife (they married in August of 1964). Using the same pen that he used to finish his explanation for brutally killing his mother and his wife, he jotted just above the entry:

I still mean it. CJW 8-1-66

That February, 1964, entry had ended with this:

My Darling Kathleen, I love you very much. That statement is so simple but maybe someday I’ll be able to convince you of all the emotions and feelings that it encases. My wife, you are wonderful.

Whitman, again, just after he stabbed his wife to death and covered her bloody body, took the time to comment on that diary entry:

Only time has shown me how right I was in these thoughts over 2-1/2 years ago. My wife was a true person. CJW

This former Eagle Scout—at age 12 he was nationally recognized as the youngest Eagle Scout in the world—also took the time just after murdering his mother and wife to write brief notes to his brother Johnnie and his brother Pat. To Johnnie he wrote:

Kathy and I enjoyed your visit. I am terribly sorry to have let you down. Please try to do better than I have. It won’t be hard. John, Mom loved you very much.

Your brother, Charlie.

To Pat he wrote:

You are so wrong about Mom. Maybe some day you will understand why she left Daddy. Pat, Mom didn’t have any desire to harm Daddy whatsoever. She just wanted what she had worked for. She really needed that $40.00. Thanks for sending it. She’ll never know about that Grandmother or not.


Perhaps now is a good time to say a little more about Charles Whitman and what is generally known about his life, since the point here is to try to understand how a human being could commit such murderous acts, acts that people call pure evil.

Whitman first attended the University of Texas on a Marine scholarship, majoring in architectural engineering. His IQ was reportedly above 130. He played the piano, some say “beautifully.” He took amphetamines. He had a bad temper. He was very comfortable with guns. He was apparently a domestic abuser “who expected too much from” his wife, according to a close friend of his. That friend also said Whitman was a “perfectionist,” who “would wipe his hand behind pictures hanging on the wall looking for dust.” The same friend told police that Whitman “had turned atheistic in his belief,” despite the fact that he had attended Catholic parochial schools most of his life. He also “talked frequently about his father” and how much he “hated him.” His father, who ran a successful plumbing business in Florida, was allegedly “very strict and domineering and ran the household with an iron hand.” In the spring of 1966, Whitman went to Florida to bring is mother to Texas, after she reported to him that there were “family problems.” And, as already mentioned by Whitman himself, he suspected something was wrong with him.

Whitman liked to make lists. One such list he titled, THOUGHTS TO START THE DAY.Here are the items on that typed list:


STOP procrastinating (Grasp the nettle)
CONTROL your anger (Don’t let it prove you a fool)
SMILE–Its contagious
DON’T be belligerent
STOP cursing, improve your vocabulary
APPROACH a pot of gold with exceptional caution (look it over – twice)
PAY that compliment
LISTEN more than you speak, THINK before you speak
CONTROL your passion; DON’T LET IT lead YOU — Don’t let desire make you regret your present actions later (Remember the lad and the man)
If you want to be better than average, YOU HAVE TO WORK MUCH HARDER THAN THE AVERAGE
NEVER FORGET; when the going gets rough, the ROUGH get going!!!!!


Attached to that list was another list, handwritten:

1. Grow up (think-don’t be so ready with an excuse)
2. Conduct with superiors (time and place for everything)
3. Know your status and position and conduct yourself accordingly.
4. Courtesy (Generally show respect for seniors but lets personal feeling towd. indiv. show.)
5. Organize yourself and your work so that the insignificant is not a major crisis.
6. When time permits exhaust all effort to find answers before asking the simplest of questions.

Just below that list, was another typed list referencing his wife:

1. Don’t nag.
2. Don’t try to make your partner over.
3. Don’t criticize.
4. Give honest appreciation.
5. Pay little attentions.
6. Be courteous.

On the day of the murders, Whitman wrote at the top of the first list the following:

8-1-66whitman's list
I never could quite make it.
These thoughts are too much for me.

Now, what do we make of all this? What do we make of someone, widely seen as an “all-American boy,” who goes to the trouble of trying to improve himself by such measures and then, with much planning and forethought, brutally murders his mother and wife and fourteen others (one of those shot from the Tower died in 2001 and the death was ruled a homicide connected to Whitman) on a summer day on a college campus in Texas? Why did he commit such a monstrous act? Was he a monster?

Remember that Whitman had asked in his “suicide” note that an autopsy be performed on him. And I believe that Texas law, under the circumstances, required one. So, an autopsy was done. The Atlantic’s David Eagleman explains:

Whitman’s body was taken to the morgue, his skull was put under the bone saw, and the medical examiner lifted the brain from its vault. He discovered that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. By the late 1800s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. In the 1930s, the researchers Heinrich Klüver and Paul Bucy demonstrated that damage to the amygdala in monkeys led to a constellation of symptoms, including lack of fear, blunting of emotion, and overreaction. Female monkeys with amygdala damage often neglected or physically abused their infants. In humans, activity in the amygdala increases when people are shown threatening faces, are put into frightening situations, or experience social phobias. Whitman’s intuition about himself—that something in his brain was changing his behavior—was spot-on.

So, can we blame a brain tumor, affecting the amygdala, for Whitman’s actions? Or was it some combination of the tumor and genes and environment? Or was he simply an evil man, with an evil soul, who made evil choices?

As Eagleman points out, there are many cases in which brain tumors are suspected to be major contributing factors to psychopathic criminal behavior. But not all psychopaths are violent criminals and not all psychopathy is caused by brain tumors (and, to be clear, there is a difference between psychopaths and psychotics, which you can learn here).

To move away from the issue of tumors altering feelings and behavior, there are other brain impairments that are connected to psychopathy.  A neuroscientist named James Fallon has been studying the brains of psychopaths for two decades. Four years ago he published a book, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain.” Here’s how the stunning revelation in the book was described:

While researching serial killers, he uncovered a pattern in their brain scans that helped explain their cold and violent behavior. Astonishingly, his own scan matched that pattern. And a few months later he learned that he was descended from a long line of murderers.

Those close to Fallon had known that he wasn’t “normal.” Here’s how Tanya Lewis of Business Insider told the story:

When Fallon saw that his own scan fit the pattern of brain activity he had found in the psychopaths, he started to question his theory. He thought to himself, “I’m okay, I’m not a bad guy.”

But when he went home and told his wife what had happened — how his brain resembled that of a psychopath, at least according to his theory — she reacted very strangely.

It wasn’t that surprising, she said.

But it wasn’t just his wife who reacted this way. Friends and colleagues told him the same thing, that he was “kind of not there emotionally,” Fallon recalls. Even his daughter thought so — as a young child, she painted her dad as a “dark figure.” Fallon’s psychiatrist friends described things he had done in the past that they said showed a profound lack of empathy (one of the telltale signs of psychopathic tendencies), like skipping a friend’s funeral because he thought it might be boring. His friends and family agreed. “I realized people had been telling me something for years, I just didn’t put it together,” Fallon said.

It’s important to keep in mind that scientists are still researching psychopathology and they don’t have all the answers yet. But they think that people like Fallon have a connection with the world that’s very different from others.

According to some of this research, psychopaths understand when there are people in need or in pain, but they don’t feel it viscerally the way most people do. As Fallon put it, “I don’t get the interpersonal warm and fuzzies.”

So Fallon started looking to his genetics for answers. It turns out he has a gene that’s been linked, in several studies, with an increased risk of violent and aggressive behavior.

An ABC News report continues Fallon’s story:

Two of his distant relatives were notorious: One, Lizzie Borden, was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with a hatchet in 1892. Another, Thomas Cornell, was the first in the American colonies hanged for killing his mother in 1672.

Fallon said he escaped the same fate because of the interplay between nature and nurture. He was raised in a loving family. Still, he had some other telltale signs, such as panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and social anxieties.

“Looking at my genetics, I had lethal combination, but I just had the happiest childhood growing up,” he said. Fallon’s mother had four miscarriages before his birth and, as a result, he said he was, “treated well because they didn’t think I would be born.”

“There were dark periods I went through, but they didn’t bring me to a psychiatrist, but they told my sisters and teachers to watch out for me,” he said. “My mother instinctively knew there was a problem.”

Conscience and a sense of morality and impulse control lie in the limbic system and in the orbital cortex in the brain, according to Fallon.

“They connect and inhibit each other not unlike the super-ego controlling the id,” he said. “It’s the interface between the intellectual mind and the emotions attending to them.”

Fallon’s brain scans show low activity in both regions of the brain.

“No behavior is really evil or bad — it’s all contextual,” he said. “There is a time for sex and a time for killing, when someone attacks the family. But it’s done in context. The orbital cortex adjudicates the idea of morality and interacts with the amygdala’s drive to eat, drink and screw. There would be mayhem if it didn’t exist.”

As a neuroscientist, Fallon said he always believed humans were ruled solely by their genes and not their environment in the nature versus nurture debate.

“I never took it seriously,” he said. “I was the poster boy for genes causing everything. But I had to eat crow and say I was wrong.”

I consider all these insights to be the most important scientific discoveries of our time. And the research continues. A recent Harvard study concluded:

Psychopaths’ brains are wired in a way that leads them to over-value immediate rewards and neglect the future consequences of potentially dangerous or immoral actions.

The senior author of that study, Josh Buckholtz, an Associate Professor of Psychology, said (emphasis mine):

For years, we have been focused on the idea that psychopaths are people who cannot generate emotion and that’s why they do all these terrible things. But what we care about with psychopaths is not the feelings they have or don’t have, it’s the choices they make. Psychopaths commit an astonishing amount of crime, and this crime is both devastating to victims and astronomically costly to society as a whole.

And even though psychopaths are often portrayed as cold-blooded, almost alien predators, we have been showing that their emotional deficits may not actually be the primary driver of these bad choices. Because it’s the choices of psychopaths that cause so much trouble, we’ve been trying to understand what goes on in their brains when the make decisions that involve trade-offs between the costs and benefits of action. In this most recent paper…we are able to look at brain-based measures of reward and value and the communication between different brain regions that are involved in decision making.

“Trying to understand what goes on in their brains.” That’s what scientists do. That’s what all of us should do. And while there is so much more to learn, and while some of the tentative conclusions may turn out to be mistaken, the overwhelming evidence points to the connection between the physical brain and psychopathy, a connection that only gets more complicated as we throw genetics and environment in the mix. The ScienceDaily article featuring that Harvard study elaborates on the physiology:

What they found, Buckholtz said, was people who scored high for psychopathy showed greater activity in a region called the ventral striatum — known to be involved in evaluating the subjective reward — for the more immediate choice.

“So the more psychopathic a person is, the greater the magnitude of that striatal response,” Buckholtz said. “That suggests that the way they are calculating the value rewards is dysregulated — they may over-represent the value of immediate reward.”

Buckholtz zeroed in on what appears to be the culprit. And I include his lengthy explanation here, even if we laymen aren’t familiar with the terminology, merely to emphasize that we are talking about something physically wrong with the brain:

“We mapped the connections between the ventral striatum and other regions known to be involved in decision-making, specifically regions of the prefrontal cortex known to regulate striatal response,” he said. “When we did that, we found that connections between the striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex were much weaker in people with psychopathy.”

That lack of connection is important, Buckholtz said, because this portion of the prefrontal cortex role is thought to be important for ‘mental time-travel’ — envisioning the future consequences of actions. There is increasing evidence that prefrontal cortex uses the outcome of this process to change how strongly the striatum responds to rewards. With that prefrontal modulating influence weakened, the value of the more immediate choice may become dramatically over-represented.

“The striatum assigns values to different actions without much temporal context” he said. “We need the prefrontal cortex to make prospective judgements how an action will affect us in the future — if I do this, then this bad thing will happen. The way we think of it is if you break that connection in anyone, they’re going to start making bad choices because they won’t have the information that would otherwise guide their decision-making to more adaptive ends.”

The effect was so pronounced, Buckholtz said, that researchers were able to use the degree of connection between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex to accurately predict how many times inmates had been convicted of crimes.

If you have read this far, you may or may not be ready for what Dr. Buckholtz says next:

Ultimately, Buckholtz said, his goal is to erase the popular image of psychopaths as incomprehensible, cold-blooded monsters and see them for what they are — everyday humans whose brains are simply wired differently.

“They’re not aliens, they’re people who make bad decisions,” he said. “The same kind of short-sighted, impulsive decision-making that we see in psychopathic individuals has also been noted in compulsive over-eaters and substance abusers. If we can put this back into the domain of rigorous scientific analysis, we can see psychopaths aren’t inhuman, they’re exactly what you would expect from humans who have this particular kind of brain wiring dysfunction.”

That may not be what most of us want to hear after what happened in Las Vegas. And I understand the intense anger directed at the killer. If he had murdered someone dear to me, I would be out of my mind with anger. But consider that the man who killed at least 58 concert-goers in Nevada had a father who was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for years after escaping from a federal prison in Texas, where he was serving time for bank robbery. Just before that, the father tried to escape from a jail in, of all places, Las Vegas, where, according to the FBI, he attempted to run down an agent with his car. The FBI also noted at the time (1969) that the father had been “diagnosed as being psychopathic.” That’s the father. As for the son who would go on to become a killer, one writer noted,

It seems he was 8 when his father was convicted of armed robbery and sent to prison; 15 when the old man escaped and went on the lam; and 26 when he was re-apprehended.

No one knows what, if any, effect those experiences had on the Las Vegas killer. It is hard to imagine they wouldn’t affect him in some way, even if they didn’t contribute to his crimes. And no one, at this point, knows if the killer had any brain impairments. His brother, who is naturally upset and bewildered by all of what happened, said recently:

I hope to hell they find when they do the autopsy that there’s a tumor in his head or something because if they don’t we’re all in trouble. No one wants to hear this but I’m as touched by this.. my brother is dead who wasn’t this guy that did this. He’s dead… I liked my brother, he was a good guy. This is a horror story in every possible way.

Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo recently referred to the killer as “disturbed and dangerous,” which is a much more informative, if less satisfying, description than calling him “evil.” The sheriff also said that the killer “spent decades acquiring weapons and ammo and living a secret life, much of which will never be fully understood.” Perhaps Sheriff Lombardo is right. Perhaps the killer’s life, a life that led to such an unimaginable act of cowardly violence, will never be fully understood. After all, the life of Charles Whitman isn’t fully understood after all these years. And we must admit that there are plenty of people who have awful parents, troubled childhoods, and even damaged brains who don’t end up as record-setting killers. But there are scientists out there trying to understand psychopaths, especially those who turn to violence. And the closer we get to understanding them, the better off we all will be.



For years now, I have been wrestling with the issue of whether human beings have genuine free will. Certainly we have the sense that we are making free choices. And certainly the idea that we are all free moral agents is socially useful, even if it isn’t strictly true. No one can argue otherwise. But do we really have free will? Is it merely an illusion? And why does it matter whether we have it or don’t?

As for me, like many others, including scientists and philosophers, I have settled on the conclusion that we don’t have free will. We are not free moral agents. Whether we have what some call a soul, which, after our physical bodies die, lives in eternal bliss or torment, is not something that I or science can speak to. But science can, and does for many people, speak to the idea that what we experience as “our will” is just our brain fooling us. Here’s the way Sam Harris puts it:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

Free will is actually more than illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.

Now, that may seem strange to some people unfamiliar with the progress of neuroscience. And it may seem strange to categorically claim that none of us is directly responsible for what we do. But if you watch the video below, and carefully follow the argument, you will see the logical basis both for the illusion claim and how to deal with the issue of responsibility that appears problematic if that claim is true. No matter whether our choices are “determined by prior causes” or the “product of chance,” we are not morally responsible for the acts done at the behest of our illusory will, but—and this cannot be missed or misunderstood—we have to be held responsible for them in a social context. No one can have a get-out-of-jail-free card when unspeakable crimes are perpetrated. Until we solve, through science, the problem of how to fix defective brains or mitigate dangerous brain states, we have to quarantine the violent psychopaths. If they can be treated and made well, we should do that. If they can’t, we should keep searching for effective treatments—even as we necessarily isolate them.

I could write even more about the issue of free will. I could cite many learned people who don’t believe in its reality. But the video below does the best job I have seen of explaining the issues involved. If you have read to this point, obviously you are interested in this topic. I ask you to invest more time—with someone much more knowledgeable about the brain science and its implications (including the philosophical fatalism that denying free will suggests) than I could ever be—and then we can have a layman’s discussion in the comments section:

NOTE (January 11, 2018): For some reason the original video I posted below is unavailable. Too bad. I wish I had saved it in my own files. But here is another one that does a good job of explaining the issues:



  1. My apologizes to those of you who received the original version of this long piece, which contained several typographical and grammatical errors. I made the mistake of publishing it before the final edit. And I can’t guarantee that there aren’t even more mistakes that I missed. My defense is I have only one set of eyes and sometimes, as per the point of this piece, my brain plays tricks on me.



  2. Anonymous

     /  October 6, 2017

    When I read your blog lately, the screen often scrolls to the bottom of the story. Anyone else seeing this happen?

    K Beck


    • I’ve never had that happen on here, but have experienced it a few times on my phone’s browser on other sites. Don’t have any idea in this case if it is how your browser interfaces with WordPress or a glitch particular to either. Hope it is temporary though.


  3. ansonburlingame

     /  October 7, 2017


    Read the blog, twice, watched video and wrote LONG reply. Now I am keeping it on computer but not yet sending. I want to be sure I am “making the right choice” to go public with such views!!

    More later, maybe



    • Anson,

      I understand your reluctance to chime in. Once you go down the road I advocate here, it is both liberating and binding. It liberates you from the baggage of personal guilt and all that goes with that, as well as the nasty temptation to pile guilt on others for their behavior. But it obligates you to do the only thing that we know does have an influence on people: fix the environment, both physical and intellectual, in which we live. That means not only in our personal actions involving those around us, but in the kind of politics and policies we support.

      So, good luck on your journey through all this.



  4. Anonymous

     /  October 7, 2017


    After listening to Harris, and reading Hitchens, Dawkins, and Aristotle et al., it only becomes more abstract. Add in unintended consequences of your brain digesting everything you see, hear, feel and do and it staggers the mind. Dr. Fallon is proof that the genetics of psychopathy can be somewhat altered by education, environment, etc…. However, this recent article suggests we are still slave to our genes.

    We hold in our beliefs that we are superior to the animals, other mammals or even ISIS, although I’m sure the terrorists sleep just fine at night, if it weren’t for those Predator drones flying overhead. Should civilization lose technology for an extended period, I have no doubt we would revert to primitive actions. The gravelly-voiced Tom Waits song “Misery is the River of the World” has a great deal of truth in it.


    Hitchens did offer good advice to the young,

    Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence
    Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian

    I don’t know what the answer is to the psychopathy in the White House or society, but all one can do is what Dr. Fallon’s family did for him. Provide those you love with love, respect, and the best environment possible to overcome the challenges that life will most assuredly being your way


    • First of all, thanks for linking to that fantastic article on Neanderthals. I found the update on the state of the science in this area very exciting. I hope we find more and better DNA samples to analyze. These findings are quite humbling, aren’t they?

      That’s the first time I ever heard that song by Tom Waits. It sort of grows on you the more times you hear it, in a weird sort of way. In my old days as an evangelical, I knew many people who would have directly linked that song with the devil! And while there are way too many people in the world who experience mostly its misery and not its pleasures, I do think that, despite recent setbacks here in the USA, we are slowly, agonizingly so, inching toward a better place. So, if misery is the river of the world, there are more and more people at least trying to clean it up.

      Funny thing, a few months back I pulled Hitch’s “Letter to a Young Contrarian” from my shelf and started reading parts of it again. I like it more today than I did years ago. The idea that we should not be mere spectators while so much bullshit is going on around us is, and always has been for me, a powerful argument. I miss Hitch, one of the most talented public intellectuals we have ever had, despite how wrong I thought he was on several issues (his fanatic hatred of the Clintons, his Ralph Nader nonsense in the 2000 election, and, of course, his position on the Iraq war). And, like so many public intellectuals, he did not have much of a capacity for admitting mistakes and enjoyed, way too much it seemed at times, his notoriety as, uh, a contrarian. But he was a treasure of the world in so many ways, especially considering his fierce opposition to totalitarianism and fascism, particularly in its theocratic forms, and his campaigning for those who do truly live in a river of misery.

      Finally, you hit on the one certain thing we can do to better ourselves and others: create the best environment, the one in which we all live and are influenced by, as it is possible to create. Surely we can see ways to do this in our personal spheres of influence. And as for the bigger picture, like, say, “the psychopathy in the White House,” we need to fix our electoral system. We need to improve journalism and how it is delivered. We need to fix the holes in social media, some of them created by greed, that allow sewage to seep into America’s intellectual bloodstream. We need to drown out the voices of hate and bigotry with louder voices of toleration and reason. We need to improve our educational system. And so on.

      There are things we have done to make our country and the world a better place. And obviously there is so much more we can do. But those things that are still waiting to get done are in many ways the hardest to accomplish. And at this point in time it seems like we aren’t making much progress and it sometimes feels like we have regressed. But so far I have been able to resist the temptation of cynicism, of hopelessness. Neuroscience may reveal the illusions by which we live, but that revelation feels in my bones like liberation. I just hope it feels that way to others.



      • Anonymous

         /  October 9, 2017


        I appreciate your optimism, it is refreshing after watching our country now directed to go full steam ahead on fossil fuels, nature preserves be damned. The gutting of the EPA, public schools, and on and on. It is a dark world for the majority on this planet, and hopes of reconcilliation prior to say a psychopath in the White House engaging in a global thermonuclear war despite adults in the room.

        Tom Waits is an excellent storyteller, perhaps you might like his song, “Road to Peace”, it’s about the Middle East war, specifically the young boy killed on the bus while on his way to Israel. Rightfully, he condemns both sides!


        • What a composition. 

          And what a seemingly insoluble problem (and one that seems to add evidence to the free-will-is-an-illusion claim). Wish I knew someone who had an answer, but the cycle seems doomed to continue. There has to be risk-takers for peace on both sides at the same time and obviously that ain’t happening anytime soon, particularly with Netanyahu in charge, a man who has ceded much if not all of the moral ground Israel once could tenuously claim (having to do with intentions, and all that) by needlessly and stupidly provoking the Palestinians with settlement expansion and other acts.

          By the way, how ironic that the line in the song about Kissinger, “we have no friends, America only has interests,” is a perfect description of the man Kissinger is supposed to meet today at the White’s House. Wow.

          Thanks for posting that video.


  5. Heady stuff, Dr. Graham.
    While I am sympathetic to the point of your essay — you have brought Sam Harris into the discussion in previous posts — it would be great if you could find someone else to serve as cited expert. Sam Harris is a prick and a liberal bigot. The solid points (or rather — interesting conjectures) he makes from time to time are obscured by his own exclusivity and arrogance. This doesn’t mean he’s wrong, but his condescension and insensitivity to people of all sorts of non-Sam-Harris belief disqualify him as an honest broker in the discussion — IMHO.
    That said, religion is an often messed up and can be very dangerous contradiction.


    • I appreciate your comments.

      There are two reasons why I used Sam Harris, despite his controversial reputation. One is that I have read his book on free will and have heard him discuss the subject many, many times. Thus, I am most familiar with his arguments, even though I resisted (!) their force for some time and had refused (!) to go all the way with him. Second, when I was researching this piece, I came across that video, one of the few Harris videos I had not seen. After watching the video, I decided (!) that Harris hit every point I wanted to make in Part 2 (which I had to rewrite). And there were a few excellent questions put to him at the end that, taken together with the first part of his talk, covered nearly everything, including all practical objections, that I could think of. (In other words, Harris saved me a lot of writing and editing.)

      Now, having said all that, I am fully aware of how Harris’ style rubs people the wrong way; how unnecessarily offensive some of his arguments are; how he picks fights that seem unnecessary; how he has ridiculously given credit to right-wing nutjobs, particularly but not exclusively on the issue of Islam, so much so that some of them quote him in their defense (although I think some of the criticism he gets from the left is overblown). There have been times where I cringed while listening to his podcasts or reading something he has posted on his website. But I can’t accept your claim that those things “disqualify him as an honest broker in the discussion.”

      The controversial ideas associated with free will, the self, and the nature of consciousness (all topics that I am hopelessly addicted to) are not ideas that Sam Harris invented. But, as a layman, I find him to be particularly lucid in discussing these controversial ideas. And I find he is getting better, perhaps because he is getting more mature, at discussing his ideas (especially about religion) more delicately—but still with withering logic—in public forums (I point you to an interview he gave David Gregory earlier this year).

      None of this will matter to folks who, like you, think he “is a prick and liberal bigot.” Those are judgments that are hard to overcome, particularly because he does appear (perhaps is) condescending and insensitive at times. But it is the ideas I am interested in. I try not to (!) idolize or demonize the messengers like I used to, although I slip up from time to time because there are just too damned many pricks and bigots out there. I am glad, though, that you are willing to acknowledge that Harris has made “solid points” or “interesting conjectures” despite how you feel about him.

      Oh—yes, religion is “often messed up.” For years I have had a pitched battle in my head about whether, on balance, religion does more harm than good. I suppose it depends on what one means by religion. But I confess that as the years go by I am more inclined to see the enormous harm most religious ideas do. I can’t think of anything, except hate, to which one can add “religion” and get a better product.

      Thanks again,


      Liked by 1 person

      • Duane —
        I want you to know how much I appreciate your putting this difficult topic into play. I always admire your hard work (and talent) — whether I agree with you or not. This subject is important to talk about — wherever one lands relative to the point posited. I am a Quaker and a secular Arminian: I believe in free will, but I think you and Sam Harris have presented a fair case that at the very least demands, “Walk a mile in my shoes.” If we could all do at least that, there would be less guilt and fewer pointless recriminations.


        • Thanks, my friend. 

          I’m not familiar with the term “secular Arminian.” But on the religious side of it I believe that any doctrinal system that has at its heart the idea that God selectively (I think that’s the only conclusion possible under the system) gives “grace” to folks in order for them to have the requisite “faith” for salvation is a hellish doctrine. I call it divinely selective because it appears that he gives enough to some and not enough to others. Seems to me, if his attributes were as advertised, that God would dispense grace in the proper dosages such that all would be saved in the end. But, perhaps, I misunderstand it all. It has been many, many years since I looked into that path.


          • In fairness, “secular Arminian” may not be a real term. I made it up to describe my own mavericky “theology”. There are lots of Quaker mavericks. In a nutshell, James Arminius was the contrarian thorn in the flesh to Calvinism’s superlapsarianiam. I believe in personal responsibility and the freedom to make choices — however difficult. Complicated, it is.
            To your suggestion — “Seems to me, if his attributes were as advertised, that God would dispense grace in the proper dosages such that all would be saved in the end” — an excellent read by another Quaker maverick (this one reasonably famous) is Phil Gulley’s “If Grace is True”. Exactly to your point, sir.
            We’re headed down a rabbit hole now, so I’ll leave to you to decide if Gulley is worthy of your effort.


  6. ansonburlingame

     /  October 8, 2017


    I read it twice, the blog, watched the final video, typed a reply, sat on it for 24 hours and now am poised to hit the send button. I wonder if what I send to you as a comment is my own choice, or simply a biological compulsion. Remember Descartes, “I think, therefore I am”.

    You asked a profound question of your father when you were young. I asked the same question of myself about 27 years ago. “Where do these thoughts come from and why do I do things that are wrong.” I am still seeking the answer, though having asked the question, repeatedly over 27 years, I feel that some progress has been made in finding some answers, and even partial solutions to prevent “doing wrong”.

    The research you have done and written eloquently about the conclusions you have reached so far is very similar to what I have been doing now though my conclusions are different from yours, to a degree at least. I seek to know and understand my compulsion to drink alcohol. I do not yet have all the answers, personally. I also know for sure such study, thinking, reflecting, seeking all the help I can get, etc. will remain a lifetime journey, for me. There is no “cure”, only finding a way to mitigate the effects of compulsion vs. making “good” choices, involuntarily or not.

    Think about the choices for Whitman. He could have somehow overcome the compulsion to go on a killing spree, suicide or given in to the compulsion (which he knew was wrong) and go kill people. He probably considered all of them and wound up making the worst possible choice of all available to him. Is that some fault of evolution (I call that view “biology”, not God’s Will), lack of knowledge of HIS brain by the medical profession, nature vs. nurture, or …………?

    In the early evening of Dec. 31, 2015, New Year’s Eve, I got drunk and made a fool of myself in front of friends and my wife. I had not done that since moving to Joplin 18 years ago. I knew it was wrong before taking that first drink, and each drink afterwards, yet I did it. I also know exactly why I did so. I made a clear and conscious CHOICE to violate every principle I have struggled to learn and practice over 27 years.

    Let me put it this way. If in fact free will is not reality then what? Every time I decide to get drunk it is not my fault. It is the fault of ……….., instead. If free will does not exist, why have any laws. After all, breaking a law is not the cause of an individual making a choice if there is no free will to make such a choice. If choice is not an option then anyone that wants to kill, take a drink, rape a woman, etc. can just say to themselves “Fuck it, it is not my fault” and go about doing great harm to themselves or others

    I greatly admire your thinking and hard work on this matter, doing the research and writing about it, for sure. Such discussions are desperately needed in America, today. Yes, the Las Vegas man killed 59 people in a 10 minute period. But I hasten to add that the opioid situation (and booze I would add) killed some 60,000, or more, Americans last year. The reasons that happens are fundamentally the same, in my view and you are writing about just such matters, though restricting it to the mass murder situation.

    I do believe this. There are absolutely no “pat” answers. Philosophy is a study of “how to live a good life” and has been around since humans gazed at stars and sought their gods. The Bible itself, and the Koran, are distillations of a vast array of human experience, trying to guide other humans how to live a good life. Medical science has indeed made great strides to mitigate the effects of poor mental health. And drunks have been trying to get sober since at least Alexander the Great but surely far earlier as well.

    In the meantime, absent a scientific answer, I must rely on making the right choices each day of my life. I can find it every time I look for it, the right choice. I call it my conscience, something deep inside that tells me do this or don’t do that. Neuroscience might suggest I have a strong frontal cortex, the area that tells the amygdala to “shut up”. But obviously not strong enough, in my case, on Dec 31, 2015.

    So, I suppose I must go back to doing more mental “pushups” the very hard work to make my frontal cortex demand the rest of my body to take the correct actions, which of course must be preceded by the right thinking. Frankly it is telling me right now to delete this whole reply. Well fuck you frontal cortex, I need to say what I believe is right in an honest hope the it lends more ideas (diversity??) to this important discussion between laymen.


    I pasted this comment before reading above replies by others. I of course could write more, but won’t. Genetics is one subject, for example, that I have dealt with in my own mind for a long time. But I leave what I posted at that and now await further, good discussion.


    • Anson,

      My apologies for my reply to your first comment. At the time I hadn’t seen this one. I will attempt to address some issues you raised, but first I want to thank you for your honesty about something so obviously personal to you, as your continuous battle with alcohol is. Those kinds of issues affect all of us and it helps that someone is willing to discuss them in a forum like this, where, I am confident, they will be treated with the seriousness and respect they deserve.

      Now, you related an incident that happened almost two years ago and about that incident you concluded:

      I made a clear and conscious CHOICE to violate every principle I have struggled to learn and practice over 27 years.

      What you did that night did appear as a choice, maybe as “a clear and conscious” one. There isn’t any doubt about that. The question is why did you make that particular “decision” at that particular time? I would submit that, given your brain state, which was influenced by your genes, your life history, and the environmental situation you were in at the time, that no other “choice” was possible. I know this feels uncomfortable, I know it appears absurd in a sense, but given the conditions at the time of that incident, there was no other outcome possible but the one that happened. There was no “Anson” in charge of the situation, an “I” who was faced with other possibilities of action, which is what a real choice entails. There was only your brain state, existing in the context of your genome, prior life experiences, and the situation at the time. It might be the case that, after that experience, if you found yourself in the exact same social setting, with the exact same genome, that you would make a different “choice” because that experience that particular night changed your brain. Every experience, every thought, does change the brain.

      All of this, of course, leads to what you write next:

      If in fact free will is not reality then what? Every time I decide to get drunk it is not my fault. It is the fault of ……….., instead. If free will does not exist, why have any laws. After all, breaking a law is not the cause of an individual making a choice if there is no free will to make such a choice. If choice is not an option then anyone that wants to kill, take a drink, rape a woman, etc. can just say to themselves “Fuck it, it is not my fault” and go about doing great harm to themselves or others

      This is how most people respond to the suggestion that free will is an illusion. At first look, your response seems reasonable. But let’s dig deeper.

      Let’s start with the concept of “fault” or responsibility. You say that if free will doesn’t exist, people can do whatever they want including doing “great harm to themselves or others.” What I am saying is that while people are not morally responsible for their actions, they have to be held accountable, for the good of all, for those actions. As I said, we must protect ourselves from violent psychopaths, whether they are afflicted by an amygdala-pinching tumor or bad genes or a bad upbringing or a combination of all those things. That’s the only rational, practical response, if we are to flourish as a society and as individuals within that society.

      Let’s say, merely for the sake of argument, that you discovered the reason you struggle with alcoholism is due to a brain tumor pressing against certain neurons located just under your cerebral cortex (see information on the “nucleus accumbens” here). And let’s say that a brain surgeon removed the tumor and you were suddenly free from addiction and also therefore free from its potential ravages (there have been documented cases of tumors being removed and subsequent behavior improvements). Now, I ask you this: if you did have this tumor and it was removed and it did solve your problem, would you consider your previous problems with alcohol a moral problem, one which you were directly responsible for? Of course you wouldn’t. You would clearly see that it wasn’t “you” who were making decisions about drinking, but your brain under the influence of a tumor.

      That is exactly how I believe we should look at all of our behavior. Something, whether it be genetics, life experiences, present conditions or a combination of one or more of those, controls the decisions we think we make. As Sam Harris points out, if he exchanged, atom for atom, his brain with the brain of a brutal killer at the time the killing was going on, he would be a psychopathic killer too. There simply is no way around that. Our brain states get to where they are either by prior causes or by random changes beyond our control. Either way, it makes no sense to hold people morally responsible for those states, even if we have to hold them responsible for the resulting acts.

      This is a good time to speak about how morality even comes into this discussion. As I said, because of the way the brain works, our decision-making ability is an illusion and we can’t be morally culpable for our acts. But as a society, we have to maintain a sense of morality and hold individuals accountable to it. We have to judge actions as right or wrong and incentivize right actions and disincentivize wrong ones. In fact, the implications of the no-free will conclusion is that it shows just how interconnected all of us really are. We are not just a group of individuals doing our own things. We are, in important ways, partially products of the collective “will,” of the customs and conventions of society, and we should take care to design those customs and conventions (and this is why politics is vital) so that they produce better people. We know it matters what kind of environment one is reared in, and we should do our best to make sure that environment is constructed so as to enhance the well-being of each and every person, which then makes for a better society that keeps the process improving.

      Finally, I want to say something about what you call mental “pushups,” or “the very hard work to make my frontal cortex demand the rest of my body to take the correct actions.” Yes! That is the point, don’t you see? Someone, something, influenced you to take those actions, which are meant to change your brain in ways that alter your future behavior. As I said, and I know you know this, our brains change constantly, with every thought. What you are doing is, in effect, trying to change your brain so that it responds to certain situations in positive ways. What you are doing is admitting that your brain is ultimately making all the “choices,” including the choice to alter itself by mental exercises!

      What a fascinating topic. Again, thanks for your honesty and thoughts.



    • Eloquent, sir. Courageous and moving. And, yes — “there are no ‘pat’ answers.”


  7. ansonburlingame

     /  October 9, 2017

    Duane, General and lurkers,

    Thanks to both of you for taking my comments seriously. I do not attempt in any way to turn this into an “AA meeting”. But of course I am “compelled” (by personal choice) to continue this discussion as it is so pertinent to many issues facing us today. As such I can only write based on my personal experiences in such a complex issue, but try my best to make my views understandable to folks without my “disease”.

    I just read about the recent Nobel Prize to an economist studying the psychology of economic decisions. Why do people incur debt that is not in anyone’s best interests (except the bank’s)? Same fundamental issues I submit, again. I also submit that the best explanations to be found about why people borrow too much money is from people that have done that. No better insights as to motivations to drink and actions taken to overcome that compulsion than from another alcoholic. That is the fundamental basis of AA, in my view the absolute best “treatment” to get and remain sober. But I hasten to add, again, no “pat” answers from AA as well, just the best “group therapy” (over a lifetime) possible that when combined with other, perhaps, professional assistance, particularly when an alcoholic battles depression (lots of “us” do) as well.

    First, genetics, as I have a ton of bad genes based on family history related to alcoholism. Obviously, such genes gave me a predisposition to drink too much. But those genes did not MAKE me drink too much. I LEARNED how to “fight” that predisposition primarily thru AA, ultimately. I went to my first AA meeting in 1990, thought it sounded like a religious cult (it is NOT, I add with some conviction now) and then proceeded to absolutely stop the use of all alcohol, for two years, no AA or anything else. I became what is called a “dry drunk”. Seven years later I went to my second AA meeting. 2 years sober but then an occasional “nip” until……. The progression of the disease, a medical fact, caused ………

    Early in my AA association, 104 days of no booze, I underwent a colonoscopy and was put under with a morphine based sedative. 2 days later I drank again. It is called cross addiction, something I had never heard of but learned the basis of same while in treatment, the first time. Lesson learned was NEVER use narcotics UNLESS you really have to use them. Forewarned is forearmed. Yes, i have used them very carefully (broken shoulder) but prevented a relapse when doing so with hard work on my part.

    I sat with my sponsor, another drunk, and my wife after that incident. My sponsor told me, “Don’t worry, Anson, you drank because it was God’s Will”!! My immediate and forceful reply was “HORSESHIT” and I still believe I was correct in 1999. I took moral responsibility for my own actions and as a result took additional steps to stop. That worked for a long time, until Dec 31, 2015. And you better believe I again felt entirely responsible for what happened. I went back to “treatment” which was different this time around.

    The first treatment was all AA based (but not AA run as that NEVER happens.), The second round introduced (same facility but had learned a different approach) far more “brain studies”, how the addicted brain works. So I can spell amygdala now and know what “it” is (along with other parts as well). After that round I continued AA but then included both psychiatric and therapy “help” as well.

    As I write this, today, Janet is out of town for a week visiting family. Being alone at home is a “trigger” for me, based on past experience, the “nobody will know” crap. However I am very secure right now because, primarily I have done a helluva lot of mental pushups over the last 2 years and thus……… I can assure you that without doing so, the hard work of recovery, I would be typing this while drunk, right now!! (PS: NEVER have I typed and sent anything “publicly” while drunk or even drinking, in 27 years).

    That ends my “drunkalog”, my “story”. But be assured that I am convinced that, yes, help, compassion, modern medicine, etc. assists me, a lot, in not drinking. BUT, without the “toughness” to work hard, very hard on a daily basis, I could easily be wandering the streets of Joplin with a bottle of Ripple in hand.

    So Duane and General, when we get into further arguments where I write about the need to “use one’s boot straps” to…… you can understand where it comes from. It is not lack of empathy, lack of compassion, being a “republican”, etc. It is all based on direct personal experience and seeing the same experience in now literally thousands of drunks trying to get and stay sober. If they ask others to grab their boot straps for them and pull them up with little or no effort on their part, they invariably get drunk, go into too much debt, overeat to the point of obesity, rape someone, etc., etc. again.

    I am also “compelled” to add this short point. I was not familiar with Whiteman’s “story” before he killed people. But I sure identified with him in terms of drinking. It is a myth, in my experience, that such things “just happen”, a bolt out of the blue so to speak. Every time I have relapsed it is the result of a slow accumulation of “resentments” that build up to, over time, relapse.

    This may sound ridiculous, but here goes. YOUR blog sometimes pisses me off, Duane, or the General, etc. can call me …….. IF I don’t resolve that “feeling” of resentment, it will “lurk” within and add to other resentments (my wife …., my dog……, etc) and will lead to Anger, then Fuck You, then Fuck IT and then ……… That is my “relapse pattern”. By knowing that pattern I can now intervene, within myself or with “another drunk to talk to” and prevent the escalation to the point of ……… Whiteman went down exactly that same path and had the chance at many points to …… BEFORE he pulled the trigger or used the knife.

    It would of course BE ridiculous to say Duane, or my wife, my dog, etc.. MADE me drink again. But I sure have heard hundreds of drunks saying such nonsense about someone else causing their failure to take the action needed to stay sober. My empathy goes to zero when I hear that and my advice to them is “drop down and give me more pushups”!!!!



    • So. I get you, AB. I think the Sam Harris argument borders on an apology for a free pass from personal responsibility. Wordy doesn’t make it right. Nor have Harris (and Duane) gone off the reservation. It’s complicated. “No pat answers.” Choices can be complicated. Foundations for those choices are probably complicated. I see some useful nuance in Harris’s argument in terms of not rushing to judgement, but mostly I see his point as deeply flawed as Calvinism’s Predestination. And history has shown that John Calvin (like Sam Harris) was an asshole.


      • The argument is not about free passes on personal responsibility. I have yet to see any arguments advanced that include such free passes. In fact, just the opposite. Until science has improved to the point where we can see better how genetics and environment and circumstances work together to present themselves as what we think of as “the will”—and, thus, enable us to develop effective treatments for personally and socially destructive behavior—we have to protect ourselves from damaged and deranged brains. As I wrote originally, there is no get-out-of-jail free cards associated with these claims.

        As far as I’ve thought about it (which isn’t very far at this point) there isn’t anything in the current free will debate that comes near the predestination doctrine in Calvinism, a loathsome doctrine that could have been born in, if there were such a thing, the pits of hell. Harris and others go out of their way to use the whole free-will-is-an-illusion claim as a way of asserting an interconnectedness among us that could lead to vast social and individual improvements, something that is foreign to the salvation doctrine associated with predestination. I thought about emphasizing this interconnectedness idea because I think it is one of the most important insights that comes from Harris’ and others’ claims. But I was afraid the whole thing would appear as a way of undermining religion and would devolve into a discussion about that, rather than the narrower topic of how our brains fool us into thinking there is an “I” in control. Your comment here makes me wish I had added the Part 3 that I had intended to add. In fact, the more I think about it, that was a huge mistake. I just thought it might be way too much to digest in one sitting and I could have better deveoped the idea separately. Should have just put it all together. My bad.

        Back to Calvinism, the bottom line is that for those adhering to its strict form, the one in which everything that happens is because of God willing it, there is no escape from hell for people God “chooses” not to save. I can’t think of a more damnable and dangerous doctrine than that one, which pales in comparison to anything negative that could be said about those who propose that free will is a brain-manufactured illusion.



        • As I said: I don’t think you and Harris have gone off the reservation. This is complicated — to your point — and you are infinitely better versed in its nuances than am I. I expect there is some sort of hybrid out there which will satisfy no one emotionally, but some — perhaps — intellectually.


    • Anson,

      Again, thanks for the incredible openness and, to some extent, thanks for allowing me to use your experiences to attempt to illustrate what I am asserting, in terms of how choices are, or seem to be, made.

      As I read your latest response, I read it as an affirmation of what I am trying to say, even as you apparently wrote it as an objection to what I am trying to say. I will skip down to this claim you made:

      …be assured that I am convinced that, yes, help, compassion, modern medicine, etc. assists me, a lot, in not drinking. BUT, without the “toughness” to work hard, very hard on a daily basis, I could easily be wandering the streets of Joplin with a bottle of Ripple in hand.

      I submit that your position here is the majority, even overwhelming majority, position among people who consider this topic. I also submit it sounds like your position is pregnant with common sense and matured wisdom. But it really doesn’t disprove the claim that free will is an illusion. In fact, it tends to provide evidence for that claim. Here’s how:

      1. You admit that outside influences “assist” you in your battle. Those influences are influences on your brain, as they modify the way you think and the approach you take in the fight. These modifications are actually physical modifications in the brain itself, in terms of its wiring.

      2. As you know better than anyone, alcohol itself affects brain chemistry (again, a physical change), which is why people like it, and then, under certain circumstances, end up hating it. In the cerebral cortex it slows down information processing and muddles thinking. It also has the effect of depressing inhibitions, which gets many of us who drink in trouble sometimes. It has all kinds of physical effects, too, of course, from diminished coordination to sleepiness and worse. Thus, people under the influence of alcohol say and do things they wouldn’t do while sober. That should be a hint that the “I” we think is in charge of our lives is not really in charge. In fact, this knowledge of how things like outside influences, including chemicals like alcohol, affect decision-making is evidence that the “I” itself is an illusion.

      3. Now, to the issue of “toughness,” which, you say, enables you to “work hard, very hard on a daily basis.” I would simply ask you this: where does that toughness come from? How did you get it? Why don’t others have it to the same degree? If you think about it, Anson, you (meaning “you” as something separate from your brain) can no more claim credit for this attribute, as positive as it is, than for, say, your height. You didn’t make yourself 6’4″ (or whatever your height is). You didn’t pick the color of your eyes. In my case, I didn’t wake up one day and decide I liked baldness. I got that unkind (for me, at least) physical trait from my father, who likely got it from his, and so on.

      4. What the claim I am making (really, the claim others with real expertise on the matter are making that has me convinced) is that things like “toughness” and tenacity and other positive attributes are not things you can take credit for, any more than you can take credit for the more obvious physical characteristics you inherited. The brain is obviously a physical organ. It is rather unique in that it has the quality of neuroplasticity, the ability to change its structure and reorganize itself via making new connections between neurons. These changes can be good changes or bad ones. And it is this fact about the brain that holds the secret to success or failure in battling things like, say, alcoholism. Each bit of help you get, each insight you gather, each positive experience, can be an ally in the reconstruction—rewiring—of neural connections that help your brain fight off the temptation to drink.

      5. And I want to make it clear, as I have tried to throughout our discussion, that the toughness you rightly champion is the result of either genetics or past experiences or current circumstances or a combination of any two or all of those things. There’s really nothing else that accounts for it, unless you want to posit a “soul” or something outside your physical existence. And even if you do that, the same argument holds: you can’t even take credit for the quality of the soul you have! To repeat (and you have not really addressed this claim), it really is this simple, even though all of the variables make it seem incomprehensibly complex: either our existing brain state (or “soul,” if you want to stray into metaphysics or religion) is the result of prior brain states or is the product of random changes over which we exert no control. Either way, there is no Captain “I” at the helm, that illusion that makes it seems like we are the controlling the ship. In fact, the truth seems to be that we are the ship.



  8. ansonburlingame

     /  October 9, 2017

    SPOT ON, General, sir!!

    I thought of using predestination as part of last comment but decided length and religion would cloud the issue. God does not make me do shit. I decide to do it for myself, outcome crazy or not and no excuses from me to blame others.

    You just came off my “ignore list” and ready to engage anytime, now.



    • Anonymous

       /  October 10, 2017


      What your counselor at AA should perhaps have said was that your human nature and not God made you drink again. A combination, if you will, of your genetic predispositions, and perhaps a social or psychological trigger that enabled you to avoid making the desired abstention. I would hope you didn’t consciously choose to get drunk solely because your support system was out of town. If so, the support system should be modified so that that factor can be avoided. Good luck!


  9. Progress — to be sustained — should be measured without arrogance. (I am smiling warmly as I type this). I am encouraged that we share some common space in this discussion, AB. However, you and I both know — in order to maintain any semblance of civility — when Maestro Graham ushers in the next topic we’re better off agreeing to jump back on the ignore-each-other wagon.


  10. ansonburlingame

     /  October 10, 2017


    There is a difference between mutual restraint and ignore. I will try to do the former.

    I already know (according to Duane) one coming, education, public, K12 education. Aside from recovery, it has been my topic with the most passion for coming up on 20 years. I will listen to all the “new” ideas, various schemes to raise more money for education and the list will go on forever. But until Duane, you, “professional” educators, etc. indicate acknowledgement that doing LOTs of “push ups” during the course of education is not a high priority, well mutual respect to the best of my ability, but strong responses as well.

    It all comes down to “reading, writing and arithmetic” and if anyone thinks it can just be “taught” to them with no or little effort to LEARN IT, well, there we will go again. And yep, I have more sea stories on that subject than about recovery.

    By the way, the difference between a sea story and a fairy tale is, a fairy tale begins with “Once upon a time” and a sea story “Now this is no shit!”



    • Anonymous

       /  October 10, 2017

      As long as the painfully obvious racial dogwhistles cited in “The Bell Curve” are not cited, it should be a lively debate. Such garbage quoted therein, is not fact, as evidenced by the credentials of the authors.


    • LOL. We might start our own discussion on public education right here. Also complicated — now more than ever with Charter “Schools” siphoning off dollars and students and failing miserably at a remarkable rate — with very little impunity. But — let’s wait for the boss to roll this out.


  11. ansonburlingame

     /  October 10, 2017

    First a couple of short responses, one being a flat out retort to “Anonymous” I did not write these comments to solicit help in my recovery but only to share such experiences that might lend to the discussion that followed. As well, I don’t sling around “racist dogwhisles”, four letter words of your choosing to add. Go to today’s Globe and check the cartoon Carol put beside my column. YOU are the guy on the left!!

    General, I too had no idea what a secular …… was. I thought perhaps you spoke the words of Christ, the language, without preaching the Sermon on the Mount to set me straight. Thanks for clarification.

    NOW FAR MORE TO THE MANY POINTS HEREIN. good points all around, except……


    I don’t have a sense of real disagreement with you or General in any of this. Rather it is a continuing and great “discussion”. Let me explain, as briefly as possible.

    I have learned and firmly believe that the mind of any human has four “dimensions”. They are physical, we all hurt, mental, we all think, emotional, we all get mad, and SPIRITUAL, Of course that is not a theological statement so no Bible verses or atheist views needed in return, please, Anonymous!!

    WHAT, you may rightly ask, is this spiritual thing? The best example I can offer is love, something most of us have experienced at some time in our lives but take getting married as a common example.

    Sure love can be a real blinding light, but it never stays that way. Rather real love in a marriage is more like a continuing soft glow that permeates ones mind and body for a very long time, maybe. BUT even that soft glow can be dimmed and go out UNLESS each of us, husband and wife, are “tough enough” to do the hard work (patience, tolerance, love, etc.) to keep that love sustained over a lifetime.

    Love is not “magic” a flash in the pan, a sudden thrill or experience. Yes it can be that in PART, but not the kind of love I hope all of you have known and still have, in you “heart, soul, or conscience”, or any other place you might think it resides. I’ll stick with “brain” for lack of a better place for my own “spirit” to reside.

    GETTING INTO and LISTENING to the whispers of a spiritual experience, to me, is hard, hard work and as far as recovery is concerned I MUST do that hard work, both to become “spiritual” and be able to listen to whispers coming from, well only gods know where.

    I don’t think anyone is borne with too little or too much “toughness” the ability to become “spiritual” Rather I believe it is developed, to one degree or another. We learn to force ourselves, but are never simply compelled, to be “tough”, spiritually. As well, if we can achieve a degree of spiritual “toughness”, willing to listen to the whispers, therein, well great thing MIGHT follow, like staying sober, for me. I was not “tough” however on Dec 31. 2015.

    BUT, and as well, I fully agree with “bolts out of the blue” that can be overwhelming, a sudden and uncontrollable impulse, usually anger or hate. But there are things that can be done before getting to that point. If one is really attuned to mind and body they can sense it. Others can see smaller signs and offer “help” which can of course be turned down as a matter of choice. But I get and agree with that point you make.

    One step farther and perhaps a real stretch for you in terms of “toughness”. SEALS no doubt are tough as nails, both physically and mentally, even emotionally perhaps. But to endure that which they MUST endure in those three “normal dimensions”, I believe it takes some kind of spiritual toughness that causes their spirit to go beyond what normal men cannot. WHEN that spiritual toughness takes over, well the heart, mind, soul and body might well follow, if you get my point.

    ALL of us can get “tougher” in the sense of that which I write and in my case I MUST do so, or else. I cannot “ring a bell” like a SEAL trainee that gives in. Well actually I can and have done so but ultimately I won’t be reassigned to another job. I wind up in jail, an institution or I die. But ALL of those consequences remain an option and I must “choose” which one to follow, but using my “spirit” as my guide, when possible.

    Finally, consider this as you ponder education. I was in fact a “tough” teacher in that I really did control (almost) every class. But what I tried to teach kids was more along what I write above, how to become tough enough to do the work we all must do to learn and “live a good life”. It ain’t magic in any way.



  12. ansonburlingame

     /  October 12, 2017

    This thread has now gone off the rails in terms of dealing with “Nature’s Monsters”, Charles Murray now being such perhaps or at least alleged!! Again, go check out the cartoon, and see the guy on the left.

    I never check links to the Southern Center for treating everyone nice expect rich white men and never holding anyone except rich white men accountable for their own mistakes.
    But I did read the Scientific American link, above.

    That article leads with the statement that for two decades many have tried, but failed to refute Murray’s analysis. The article makes a different attempt to do so, the old tried and true, he is a racist because………… The reason offered was NOT for Murray’s analysis, per se, seen in the book but because of his FAILURE to analyze MORE things, like impact of race on IQ, etc.

    Note the article does not try to denigrate the analysis offered but suggests that Murray failed to analyze MORE simply because Murray is a racist.

    I am not sure who this “Anonymous” might be but have my suspicions. If my suspicions are true then this exchange is just another tired old exchange between me and what I called in the past an “underbelly” in different blogs and on different web sites. No more please. Duane, the general and I will I am sure go tooth and nail over education at some point and my rebuttals will be with them, not some unknown, maybe Anonymous person!



    • I love the Southern Poverty Law Center. They do important work under constant threat of violence. They do good research and courageously defend the persecuted. How can a sane person dismiss them? See — here we go…………..


    • I never check links to the Southern Center for treating everyone nice expect rich white men and never holding anyone except rich white men accountable for their own mistakes.

      The Nation of Islam will be very surprised to learn that they are rich white men, as will the SPLC, who consider the Nation of Islam a hate group. I, on the other hand, already knew that you have the dense wood-like substance you like to pretend is your head shoved so far up your own ass you can see your own tonsils from behind, so I’m not learning it, nor am I surprised at yet another reminder of it. I am, however, capable of learning things, unlike you.

      I suggest you change your username to Oliver St John Mollusc. “He doesn’t know when he’s beat, this boy; he doesn’t know when he’s winning either. He doesn’t have any sort of sensory apparatus.” Either that or get a Tesla coil looped around the actual Anson Burlingame’s coffin so that his continual spinning at your crypto-Confederate blather profaning his name can solve the energy crisis.


  13. ansonburlingame

     /  October 12, 2017

    Yep and as expected, General. We just have to agree on who, exactly, is being persecuted these days. Trump WON because some 60 plus million felt that way and thought he could fix it. Ha! I long for the day when we can all stop complaining about persecution, unify and fix “something”.

    I add that you and I strongly agree, and probably Duane does as well, that there are no “pat” answers in any of this debate.



    • Anonymous

       /  October 12, 2017


      The name is Ben Field, which you seem unable to grasp after years of debate. You seem to think it is Fields, and unable to comprehend the difference after numerous corrections. The name doesn’t change the facts in the comment. The name doesn’t enhance the comment, even if you think signing off as Anson Burlingame, in some way leads to increased credibilty. Quite the opposite actually.

      Trump has no mandate, he didn’t win because of his sterling vision for the United States, he won because of the limited intellectual facilities of an electorate that was conned by fake promises. You do realize Clinton received the majority of the vote, I would hope. Your party elected a madman, even though you claim not to have voted for him, your party sold out their beliefs to a pyschopath.

      Scientific American, the respected scientific authority is not alleging anything, they are “flat out” saying Murray has racist beliefs, his data was flawed by racism, he belongs to racist organizations. He IS a racist, therefore his work is propagandist garbage. Period. Your support of such a man, has been immortalized by your signature endorsement of his tripe.

      I don’t read the rag you call the Globe, because of Beatty & Stark’s failure to tell the truth on MSSU, Wallace-Bajjali, Rogen, Woolston, Huff, Dr. Benjamin Rosenberg and countless other examples. You picture is in a rag, BFD, mine isn’t. I really don’t think you should further ridicule yourself by citing a known racist, but hey, you think Geoff Caldwell is credible, so do as you wish. Just know, that I will not be silent to hate and ignorance.

      Ben Field


    • Anonymous

       /  October 12, 2017


      The name is Ben Field, which you seem unable to grasp after years of debate. You seem to think it is Fields, and unable to comprehend the difference after numerous corrections. The name doesn’t change the facts in the comment. The name doesn’t enhance the comment, even if you think signing off as Anson Burlingame, in some way leads to increased credibilty. Quite the opposite actually.

      Trump has no mandate, he didn’t win because of his sterling vision for the United States, he won because of the limited intellectual facilities of an electorate that was conned by fake promises. You do realize Clinton received the majority of the vote, I would hope. Your party elected a madman, even though you claim not to have voted for him, your party sold out their beliefs to a pyschopath.

      Scientific American, the respected scientific authority is not alleging anything, they are “flat out” saying Murray has racist beliefs, his data was flawed by racism, he belongs to racist organizations. He IS a racist, therefore his work is propagandist garbage. Period. Your support of such a man, has been immortalized by your signature endorsement of his tripe.

      I don’t read the rag you call the Globe, because of Beatty & Stark’s failure to tell the truth on MSSU, Wallace-Bajjali, Rogen, Woolston, Huff, Dr. Benjamin Rosenberg and countless other examples. You picture is in a rag, BFD, mine isn’t. I really don’t think you should further ridicule yourself by citing a known racist, but hey, you think Geoff Caldwell is credible, so do as you wish. Just know, that I will not be silent to hate and ignorance.

      Ben Field


    • Anonymous

       /  October 12, 2017

      Let’s examine the facts, Scientific American has refuted Charles Murray’s work because, “The 1994 book, now seeing an UNFORTUNATE resurgence, investigates racial differences in I.Q.-without being honest about the author’s motives.” Then Scientific American notes that it is indisputable (by Trump or A. Burlingame) that the book is an endorsement of prejudice.
      Are there 60 million Americans with prejudice? The last election proved such, although a greater number voted against such.

      Anson, despite repeated corrective attempts still is unable to spell my name correctly. It is not even hard, Field, those five letters befuddle him. Even if he was able to grasp that, what possible difference does the name make? The comment stands alone, however, when you publicly endorse people as heroes and then find those heroes terminated for domestic assault, bankrupt, unemployed for cause, or fleeing ethics hearings, then your name is now associated with ignorance.

      I would cut my losses before endorsing a known racist, so my name is not eternally and publicly known to support such ignorance. I endorse this blog and what it strives for in educating others, my name is Ben Field. I do not endorse racists and con men, nor will I remain silent to offensive ignorance. Fire away Anson, but be prepared for harsh condemnation.


  14. Anonymous

     /  October 12, 2017

    BTW, Anson, did you notice in the news where $170k is missing from the Hope Valley C.I.D.? I don’t know if it is in the Globe, I don’t read that rag the Globe due to Beatty & Stark’s incompetence, but it has made news in more reliable outlets. What did you call the City Finance director? Competent? Lol.


  15. Wow. Wonderful post by Duane, and great discussion by all. I’ve been thinking about this all week and have read the post twice. The Harris video was fascinating. I was a little surprised that there were some among the intellectuals in his audience who wanted to talk about science vs. religion. Religion is ideology, science is methodology.

    The randomness choice that Harris presented is convincing. Consider Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Ultimately, I submit, what we perceive of as free will is the result of randomness and effectively-infinite complexity (the butterfly effect). Thus, I agree with Harris, but am not fatalistic about it, nor does it make me concerned about predestination. The illusion of free will is based on so many variables, (genetics, heredity, nutrition, government, culture, superstitions, etc) that it is indistinguishable from the real thing.

    This, for me, does not diminish Harris’s conclusions such as the excellent example of the bear and the axe-man. Like Harris, I am able, I think, to rationalize the falsity of revenge. Unless, of course, it affects me personally, in which case, I can’t help it, I am a creature more of hormones than rationality. In fact, that supports Harris’s view, does it not? Instinct is a thing, and is, doubtless, present in humans as much as in animals. Our little dog has behaviors that nobody taught him, such as turning in a circle, as though making a nest, before lying down. We supposedly rational creatures are also influenced by subtle and not-so-subtle instincts, like flight or fight. But, we have the additional ability to think abstract thoughts. Isn’t that wondrous?

    Science has come further than one might expect in elucidating the subject of free will than one might expect, I think. It makes sense to me, and yet, I do not feel fatalistic about it. I still feel in charge of myself and if that’s an illusion, it’s one I can live with. It not only dosen’t diminish my pleasure in the experiences of life, it makes me feel better about my mistakes.

    Now, if we only knew why anything exists?

    Thanks to all.


    • Anonymous

       /  October 15, 2017


      I don’t think you’re alone on the revenge issue, especially in the passion of the moment. The monsters discussed, Whitman, Dr. Fallon’s ancestors, Stephen Paddock, and the racist Charles Murray would demand revenge from an avowed pacifist if a loved one was their victim. If Trump were to grab your wife, daughter, or grandkid by the p____, I think mosts’ instincts would be “Billy Jack” as opposed to pacifism.

      Now there would be a case study for Dr. Buckholtz, to analyze Trump’s genetic coding. The racism is obvious to a laymen, telling police not to worry about harming suspects,

      the propensity to lie without cause, the list of defects ad nauseum would keep the good doctor going for years. There is no inner struggle within Trump, he withholds nothing, and we have been warned by dozens of mental health professionals of his mental defects.

      It’s one thing when in society at large that these monsters are undetected, but it seems one is now leading the United States for all to see. BTW, your dog turning in circles before lying down, is easily explained, one good turn deserves another.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ben,

        Yes, Tr;mp fits the psychopath description perfectly. I used to think stuff like Dr. Strangelove was wild fantasy, but now we are living it! I’m glad Duane included the case of Dr. Fallon in his post – it seems to allow at least a glimmer of hope that psychopathic impulses can be leavened by nurture. (White House adult day-care center.)


    • Jim,

      First, thanks for joining the discussion. I was hoping you would.

      Second, I want to thank you for pointing out something absolutely vital to understanding how progress, real progress, is made. You wrote:

      Religion is ideology, science is methodology.

      It matters how one critically evaluates the facts of experience, my running definition of philosophy. And modern science, the child of natural philosophy, is much misunderstood by a lot of conservative-minded, religious folks, as well as others who seek a stable view of themselves and their world. Science is not a purveyor of truth, as most religions purport to be. It is a pursuit of rationally defensible explanations for what we observe. Those explanations, no matter how many times they are confirmed, never rise to the level of “truth,” only inductive probability. Thus, the methodology of science is unsatisfying to some people because probabilities aren’t what most of us, those of us who were influenced by some variety of religious indoctrination, are used to. We don’t merely want to know things, we want to know that we know that we know them. That’s why I think the claim (a philosophical claim based on the insights of neuroscience) that free will is an illusion bothers so many people. It appears that something we “know” in our bones, that we are free moral agents, may just be an illusion that emerges from electrochemical processes in our brains, which seems so impersonal. And if we can’t even count on the existence of an “I” at the center of our experience, then what the hell is going on?

      Now, you make an interesting point. The illusion of free will “is indistinguishable from the real thing.” I agree with that, so long as what we mean is that the illusion is subjectively indistinguishable from the real thing. Objectively, I too think the case for its differentiation is quite convincing, which is why as an interconnected society, we have to look at the kind of cases like Las Vegas as objectively-collectively as possible, and divorce our collective selves from subjective notions of revenge and retribution. Those personal passions, clearly, are not reactions most of us can control (ah-ha!) and perhaps not reactions we should want to eliminate in every situation, as they may have social usefulness (I’d have to think this through).

      But I think the insights from Harris and others, informed by a growing base of knowledge in neuroscience, should be incorporated into more humane treatment of violent psychopaths (but not including their release into society, unless there is certainty of their cure, as in the case of removing offending brain tumors, etc), even as we figure out how to better treat the disease of psychopathy itself. And this is the most important implication of all these admittedly tentative findings: we are interconnected as people.

      It matters what kinds of institutions we create. It matters what kinds of policies we adopt. It matters what kind of politics we practice. All of these things, as many have observed for some time, define us as a people. But that is much too general a statement. All of those things have the effects on individual brains, which control the behavior and thus contribute to the happiness and well-being, of those people. We know this now. We know that genes aren’t necessarily destiny. The environment in which brains develop and mature matters a lot.

      One quick example: I think it is safe to say that there isn’t a genetic basis for racism. In fact, there is considerable debate as to whether “race” has any utility at all, in terms of describing biological variations. That means, of course, that environmental variations are responsible for racism or its absence. Racists are made, as they say, not born. And we can change the conditions under which they are made and, in fact, have gone some distance in achieving a fairer, less prejudiced society (even the reaction to Tr-mpism has many hopeful characteristics, as the resistance is fairly strong). My point is that racists are no more making free-will decisions about race and the attitudes toward it than those who aren’t disposed to racism. And because we know that, we can change conditions so that we can at least make some progress in reducing the number of new racists that are created by their environments.

      In any case, I didn’t mean to go on this long, but I just believe the principal insight of this whole discussion is our interconnectedness and how the social environment we manage is crucial to fixing vexing problems like racism and bigotry and, yes, even mitigating the problems associated with maladies like psychopathy. Sadly, though, we have a long way to go, especially given the present conditions.


      Liked by 1 person

      • ansonburlingame

         /  October 16, 2017

        Duane and Jim,

        We are all human. But humans are widely different, each one arguably unique, like snowflakes. I have no idea when humans first started differentiating various groups into “races” but am sure it probably began, first, with tribal variations, cultures if you like and then …….

        The only observable, scientifically, distinction between races is melanin content, skin color, it seems to me. All the rest, the other differences are genetic, nature vs nurture differences, etc. But “biological variability”, are there ANY such things between races other than the above?

        When you write on education, Duane, I hope you address the issue of the “cognitive elite”. That is not a racial issue but rather and first a genetic issue and then very much a part of “nurture” as well. Actually to join such “ranks” become a member of the “cognitive elite club” the most important factor is doing the best you can with what you have, learning over a lifetime if you like and NEVER stop trying to learn, more. That characteristic is not racial but it is “character” for lack of a better word.

        Which then leads to the question of “character development”? Can such be achieved, develop and improve one’s character. I say a loud yes, but it is not in any way easy and none achieve perfection by any stretch. Another one of those “progress but not perfection” kind of things.

        If the human race survives, I suppose in the “future” we will all become “Hawaiians”, everyone with same melanin content, exactly, maybe. But my guess is humans might well remain “tribal”, variations of culture, in that “future”. I just wonder if we will still argue and fight over or for “diversity” at that point as well?



        • Anson,

          Some day maybe we’ll get into the whole race question again, especially as it relates to some measures of “intelligence.” But that’s a complicated, not to mention, thorny, issue. Suffice it to say here that I don’t believe cognitive ability is the only component of intelligence.

          As for my efforts to write an essay on education, I am running into several problems. One of them is the time it is taking to read and study the available information. Another is sorting out exactly what I think about what I am reading, especially in light of my own experiences as a student and my family members’ experiences as teachers. It’s fairly complicated. The biggest problem I am having, I suppose, is that our cultural environment is in a transition. Technology has changed everything, and education is not immune. This may be a time for experimentation to figure out how to adapt to intrusive technologies, especially cellphones (which evidence is beginning to show unconsciously influence how students function in class, even if the phones are turned off). Or this may be a time to stick to the tried-and-true that has, for the most part, served us well over the years (despite some feelings to the contrary). 

          The short of it is that during this transitive period, education is struggling to figure out what works and what doesn’t and what should be done as we move on into a future where practically every fact you need to know is at your fingertips. Just to give you a hint as to where I predictably will go, if I can put anything at all together, is this: kids need, more than anything, to learn how to discriminate between good information and bad. We used to call that critical thinking. I think we need that now more than ever because so much nonsense is readily available. There are other things I am thinking about that you will find objectionable, but that is for later, if later ever comes.



  16. ansonburlingame

     /  October 15, 2017


    You asked, “Now, if we only knew why anything exists?”

    I was about 16 years old, a counselor at a YMCA camp and associated with several college men doing the same job. That summer I was introduced to “philosophy” by one of those older counselors. “How do we know if what we sense is real” was a discussion around campfires when all the campers were asleep. Bottom line I was then introduced to Descartes and his famous conclusions “I think, therefore I am”.

    I would add to that view that as I “think” (and thus act) I create my own heaven or hell and an infinite number of points between those two extremes during my lifetime. One might say as well that by thinking and acting I control my own destiny and ultimately have some control over my own death.

    Be interesting to return to those old campfires and thrash out, again, such complexity of the human mind and, I must add, spirit.



    • Anson,
      Agreed. As I said before, even though free will may be an illusion, it is indistinguishable from the real thing.

      I too recall youthful discussions such as the ones you mention. I remember one in which we decided that harnessing the force of ocean tides would be a good route to energy independence. Not philosophy, of course, but still flights of speculation on life’s complexities.

      You said,

      Be interesting to return to those old campfires and thrash out, again, such complexity of the human mind and, I must add, spirit.

      Uh, I think that’s just what we’re doing here. Sans campfire, of course. A warm computer will do, eh? I’m grateful for this connection to thoughtful people.


    • Anson,

      I realized that I didn’t address your initial point, i.e., why does anything exist. This is the central mystery of philosophy to me. The evidence so far seems to be that everything we know and see started with an unexplained burst of energy 13 billion years ago. That energy condensed into matter which coalesced into masses which subsequently exploded and created heavy elements which, in turn, became suns and planets. We happen to be on the third rock from one of those suns, one which just happens to be situated at the right distance from our star and have just the right tilt and the right mixture of elements for the evolution of life. Not only that, but the path of evolution just happened to take an unexpected turn about 60 million years ago that ended the age of dinosaurs and started the rise of mammals. I really believe that Earth may be the only instance of sentient life in the universe. (I was going to say, “intelligent”, but since November 2016, I can’t.)


      • Jim,

        For long as I can remember, I have run into the why-is-their-something-rather-than-nothing dilemma. I simply can’t shake it. It is literally the bedrock of thinking about our existence. I have sort of made a temporary and shaky peace with the idea that there are things, maybe just this one thing, that we have to accept as a brute fact that allows no examination. The “something” of existence may be it.

        That being said, what does that mean? Is God’s existence a brute fact about the universe that compels us to assent to it? Some people defend God this way. I happen to think that defense merely adds an extra layer to the problem, but I’m not prepared to dismiss it as impossible. Or is it that the universe we happen to inhabit, perhaps in a larger domain of multiverses, negates positing God at all? On the principle of parsimony, this seems the more reasonable view. But is the principle of parsimony itself, the preference in science for explanatory simplicity, a flawed guide?

        Finally, you wrote “I really believe that Earth may be the only instance of sentient life in the universe.” Funny thing, but I tend to see it that way, too. But why? Logic would almost demand that given what was recently suggested about the number of galaxies and stars in the universe, and thus the unimaginably large number of planets orbiting them, that similar conditions and chemistry would lead to some kind of sentient life, no matter what it looked like. Obviously, the body plans we developed would be a wild coincidence, if we were to find, like on Star Trek, creatures that almost always resembled us. But beings that passed the “What is it like to be a Bat” test seem to be almost inevitable, even though, for me, it just appears quite unlikely. Wish I knew why I felt that way.

        In any case, all of these things are fascinating to think about and, like you, I am glad there are thoughtful people we can interact and connect with to bounce around such ideas.


        Liked by 1 person

  17. Anonymous

     /  October 16, 2017


    Perhaps I should not have included Charles Murray as a “nature’s monster” but a “nuture’s monster”.
    It is agreed that racism is not genetic, but you can also argue that the practice can result in effects just as monsterous as the serial killers described herein, that killed because of genetic predisposition and environmental variations.

    Ghandi said “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and the whole world would soon be blind and toothless”, but revenge comes from the primal need for self defense. The sociological value is in the deterrence factor to prevent future attacks after the first one. It is not necessary to pursue it as Ahab and kill your entire crew, save Ishmael, if utilized for the greater good.

    We all received some pleasure I, think, knowing Osama was taken out by the seal team. If this reduces the violence on a large enough scale, it is merited. Some might argue that revenge would at least stop the perp from harming others. As I said before, I think a month without utilities or supplies, and our society would revert to primal instincts.

    Scientific American has an article on it:


    • Yes, learned racism can change brains and cause future bad behavior, just as teaching inclusion can change brains and lead to better behavior. That’s what we are learning.

      Thanks for that article. My thoughts on the distinction between “a sense of justice” and “revenge” is that a sense of justice is a refined, more sophisticated and superior, form of revenge, or the revenge instinct, if you will. Revenge is essentially imposing a cost on someone’s wrong behavior, especially if it is directed in some way toward you. It seems it has some social utility as a deterrent, and perhaps the pleasure we derive from it is necessary, in evolutionary terms, of making sure it happens. Too many turn-the-cheek pacifists would spoil the social soup. The self-serving violent would rule, wouldn’t they?

      Osama bin Laden is an interesting case. Besides the people he killed and their families and friends, he offended nearly all Americans and all of us should have been expected to react in much the same way. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I was damned glad he was dead and on his way to the guppy farm. I would guess that most people who admired President Obama felt the same way, and many of those who didn’t admire him reacted less emotionally because bin Laden died under Obama. So, our political tribalism may have enhanced or muted the response, it seems (which speaks to another way in which outside power can change brains!). In any case, if that bit of pleasure, which I admit still comes with thinking about bin Laden’s demise, is necessary for carrying out the task of enforcing social norms of cooperation, then so be it. But at least we understand, and hopefully, can control such reactions and leave it up to the proper authorities to serve revenge “cold,” even if we call it “justice.”

      I like the whole idea of our ability, through collective activity, to change the behavior of misbehaving people (or, more important, people who might misbehave in the future). I like the way the psychologist in the article talked about reaching “into their heads,” which is exactly what we’ve been discussing here. As I have said, that is part of the interconnectedness involved with the insight that free will is an illusion. We are our brother’s keeper in that sense. It really does take a village to raise a child, if we want healthy children and healthy societies. What’s in our heads is partly what’s been put there, not just by our parents, but by the culture.

      Finally, the idea of forgiveness. The doctor notes that it can be mistaken for weakness. Often it is exactly that: weakness. But there is room, in a social context, for forgiveness. If we know an individual who wronged us (I’m talking about outside our immediate family, which is a different dynamic) is being punished by society, we have room to forgive, which perhaps is healthier in some ways than the sweetness of revenge. But absent that social setting, forgiveness would certainly be problematic. You can count on some people wronging you again and again if you will allow them to do so, which may make for good ideals in Sunday School, but not such good practice in real life. 

      Again, thanks for that interesting article.



  18. ansonburlingame

     /  October 17, 2017


    This will probably wrap up my comments to this excellent blog. I attended the “Opioid Summit” held in Joplin today and provide some comments related to it and of course to this blog topic which I considered to be about “compulsion”, how to prevent it, and what to do when it “hits” (you right in the face).

    The summit, attended by maybe 250-300 people in Joplin, was “good” in terms of enhancing public awareness of the issue but lacked much if any specificity in what to “really” do about it. If you attended and listened, carefully, it shows that while many are deeply concerned (as they should be) there are little “policy initiatives” (things government can, should or must do) offered or recommended. Sure, advocates for a much better Prescription Drug Monitoring Law were present and vocal and most agreed that such a law is needed. But that is about as far as it went. The simply fact, so far, is no one knows what to do about the Opioid situation or, more broadly, about Addiction and Recovery.

    One short presentation by someone running a small organization that goes into schools and other places to talk about prevention hit a key note, to me, but it did not resound throughout the summit, for sure. She said “people must learn to cope, better, with pain”. Life is tough and people need to learn how to “cope” much better with that reality, or words to that effect. Obviously I agree with that view but no one tried to expand on that kind of thinking.

    One panel of “experts” from community organizations (including one Asst. Superintendent from R-8) participated but nothing new there, either. I was surprised when the R-8 rep was asked if opioids was a problem in our schools his reply was very vague. Essentially he said that he had no data on that subject and thus basically gave the question a pass.

    If anyone agrees that addiction begins when people start using chemicals to alter the reality in life, the pain (physical or psychological) of living, then schools should be on the front lines of teaching kids to “cope” with difficulties. But that is a book to write, along with many, many columns, blog comments, etc on just that point.

    If/when people learn to “cope” with things they don’t like then no reason to go to chemicals to alter perceptions of reality to make things “better”. And once so addicted, well face that reality of being “hooked” and do the hard work needed to fix it, the addiction.

    I have learned, a lot, in this blog. But I remain convinced that for me at least, a man with a disease, I must find the “free will” to make better choices for myself. I can today take a pill to make pain go away, for a while, but yet no “pill” to make the compulsion to take ever more pills go away.



    • Anson,

      My first response is that an R-8 representative sent to such a summit on opioid addiction, or any kind of addiction, should have some idea of how prevalent the problem is in the school system and be willing to talk about it. That is simply unacceptable. If they don’t have “data on that subject,” by God, they should have. And if they do have it and don’t want to share it, then why go to such a meeting at all? As for schools teaching kids how to “cope” with difficulties, both physical and psychological, we sure are putting a lot on our schools, no? Our schools are already blamed for nearly every ill in society. Sure, I can see some value in the schools addressing the larger social problem of addiction, but since few people want to pay taxes now (let alone raise taxes) to fund the schools, I see little hope in getting any kind of effective program going in the schools. I wish that weren’t so, but it is reality. Look at Kansas. Look at our state. And on and on.

      In any case, as far as the addiction problem itself, I can relate a story to you that I am involved in a tiny bit. I recently brought someone without a home (he lived mostly on the streets near downtown Joplin) to a local hospital for detox. This man was a friend of a friend who lives out of town. The detox process was mainly just isolation from the outside for about five days. I then brought him to a sort of half-way house (Christian based) that attempts to help addicts (this man’s problem was primarily meth) and gives them a place to stay while trying to stay clean, eventually trying to find work. The fee for getting in the “program” was $300, which my out-of-town friend paid. The man is there as I write, as far as I know.

      Now, I want to explain a few things about this man. He once owned his own business. His brother is a government lawyer working in D.C. for an agency we all know well. This addict once had a football scholarship to a major college, which is how he began his journey into drugs. He hurt is back during a college prank and required opioids for the considerable pain, from which he still suffers. He told me over lunch last week that it was his introduction to opioids (I can’t remember the couple of drugs he named) that messed him up, that led him eventually into the world of meth addiction. He is in his fifties, so back when he was in college and got hurt, naturally doctors prescribed pain medication pretty much without limitations. He said he could get the drugs anytime he needed them. He no longer could play football, obviously, and eventually left college. Since then, as I said he started his own business and has many ups and downs since then. He’s in a down phase right now and who knows how this will come out.

      What I know is this: this man is very intelligent, highly articulate, and absolutely frustrated with himself for not being able, so far, to overcome this problem. He has had help in the past and has stayed clean for a while, then, as you know, one wrong thought leads to another that leads to an action (this is almost literally how he described it to me) that leads to the downward spiral. 

      What I don’t know is this: what can be done to help this man that will be effective? You know I believe in science and I believe someday science will figure out how to treat such people much more effectively. In the mean time, I don’t believe it is as simple as people just bucking up and coping with pain better. I can only tell you from experience that most people I know don’t want to take drugs for physical pain, except in extreme cases. Most people I know who do drugs, including alcohol, do so because, as you suggest, they like the way it alters their reality. Let’s face it, people turn to chemicals because they initially make us feel good. And who doesn’t want to feel good? I know I do.  

      Which leads me to the following: it is a fact that a certain percentage of the population who use chemicals to alter their reality will face real problems with addiction, some of it rendering them dysfunctional (the unlucky ones). And others can use the same or other chemicals and function relatively well (the lucky ones). And still others barely touch the stuff, if at all (more luck). All I am saying is that the reason for all of those different courses is not because of any self-willed decisions originating in some kind of autonomous “me” lurking inside the heads of people. The brain is a chemical factory. Its electrical signals are sent via chemical processes. Much of the way it works is still mysterious, but it should be no mystery that chemicals we put in our bloodstream alter the way our brain works and, thus, alter the “decisions” we think we are making. I just want people to quit morally blaming addicts for things beyond their direct control, and support the science that is trying to unravel the mysteries of the brain.

      It is the science (physical and psychological and social sciences) that provides our best hope of not just beating this present wave of addiction, but all future problems with it.

      Again, thanks for adding to the discussion.


      Liked by 1 person

  19. ansonburlingame

     /  October 18, 2017


    Well I thought I would leave this thread, but now you raise issues that “compel” me to respond, but do so “consciously” and by making a choice to do so.

    First on schools. No way do I call on schools to “solve” the crisis before us. But LEARNING to “cope” with adversity should be very much a part of education, crisis or no crisis. I don’t believe people are simply born with “big copers”. It is learned, how to cope with things you don’t like. I only call on schools to acknowledge their fundamental responsibility to TEACH kids how to “cope, better” with things they don’t like to do. Unfortunately many in schools will loudly claim, “not my job”.

    Then you conclude, above, with “It is the science (physical and psychological and social sciences) that provides our best hope of not just beating this present wave of addiction, but all future problems with it.”

    I only offer a word of caution to such a statement. We cannot expect “technology” to solve (but it can mitigate) the problems addressed herein, human frailty if you like.

    Humans were just another “animal”, a specie if you will, originally. Like animals we had instincts to satisfy basic needs, the things at the bottom of Mazlov’s hierarchy of needs. Food and water were always there as instincts to preserve life, and sex to continue the chain of life. Shelter, not so much originally and no one wore clothing, yet. Those needs developed, in humans, over eons because humans could think differently than other species and still do so today.

    Because humans were thinking beings and thus could be “cunning, baffling and powerful” as a result of such thinking, well our needs expanded all the way to the top of Maslov’s pyramid, it seems to me and we have yet to deal with the destructive part of “cunning, baffling and powerful”, yet. Overcoming compulsions that when acted upon result in doing harm to ourselves or others is my case in point.

    Is science going to ultimately overcome such compulsions, take a “pill” to make them “go away”? Maybe, but we will first have to all become “Hawaiians” before we ever rid ourselves of racial prejudices, Instead of a “pill” can government solve such problems or “politics”, arguments over how to govern better?

    Global warming will be resolved when we begin having “a cold day in Hell” I suppose. But until that time, that utopia, I believe we all need to work hard to better understand our own, individual, human spirit, something that science has yet even begun to understand, what is it, where does it come from, how do we use it to IMPROVE the human condition, one person at a time until “hell freezes over” so to speak.

    One last point, coming out of the summit yesterday. It was clearly said that 9 out of 10 addicts cannot avail themselves of any “treatment programs”. I wanted to stand and yell, loudly, against that statement but did not do so of course. The absolute “best” program to “treat” the human spirit to mitigate addiction, even control it for some for a lifetime, is free, open to anyone and happens every day in Joplin and around the country.

    But not a word was spoken in the summit to make that simple point, not a word. Why? Too religious, not enough statistics to show……,, it would be an invasion of privacy to discuss the need for such “treatment” and that list goes on and on, just like how to resolve
    Global Warming!!

    This one blog has done more to advance the understanding of such matters than all the summits, possible, in my view. THAT is a huge contribution to society, but will never be acknowledged as such, for sure.



    • Anson,

      I don’t suppose I have a problem, in theory, with a “coping” course. But where would you squeeze it in the curriculum? (There are, I believe, some such courses later in school.) I think that the kind of coping you mentioned is inherent in the education process itself. Kids often don’t want to do this or that task in school and rewards (good grades; passing) and punishment (bad ones;failing) have traditionally been the way we teach kids to get the job, whatever it is, done. Any better ideas?

      For the record, science and technology are not the same thing. I am not just talking about this or that gadget or pill that can help with addiction. I’m talking about, first, understanding why some get addicted to certain things and some don’t (or don’t get as addicted). If we can understand what is going on in the brain with specificity, it becomes more likely we can figure out how to effectively treat it—and not treat it with things like guilt, etc.

      Also, I think it is sad that for you, it seems, we all have to become what you call “Hawaiians” to ever figure out how to live with each other. I think that’s wrong. Many white folks and people of color live among each other very well, as do many ethnic groups of all kinds, in big cities and elsewhere. It’s possible if the cultural conditioning is right. That’s where education comes in again. Education can, and should, take some of the mystery out of “the other.”

      Finally, perhaps there is a way you could innovate, using the AA base program. Maybe you could adapt it and make a non-religious form of its principles, if that is even possible (I’m just not that familiar with it). I would bet it is, if one were to apply some creative thought to it, especially someone who has been through it and had success with it and is not necessarily tied to its “religion.”



  20. ansonburlingame

     /  October 24, 2017


    I will try to be brief, but ………..

    K12 education in its entirety should be a “coping course”. As well continuing education throughout a life time should be so as well. Take any issue, any problem, any challenge one faces, think about it, read about it, talk to others about it then do something about it, hopefully something that is “right”. The skills learned in K12 and at home provide a foundation for how one deals with adversity in their lives after formal education ends at a relatively young age.

    In 1935 one man was inspired to, finally, stop drinking alcohol. Prior to that singular experience he had been introduced to a religious organization called the Oxford Group. It was “fundamental” in nature and carried a message that God could and would do all things right. He never drank again after a “religious experience” in a hospital room.

    By 1939 his approach to sobriety demonstrated some success as he and one other man began carrying that message and approach to others. Bill Wilson then wrote a book, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the 12 Steps were created in that book and have remained unchanged, both “the steps” and the first 164 pages of the book since 1939.

    The physician that had treated Wilson several times endorsed the book and referred to Wilson’s approach as a new form of “moral psychology”. Today that debate continues. Is AA just another form of religion or instead is it a “new way of thinking” that has helped now millions of alcoholics to remain sober? However one might answer that question, the fact remains (as written in “the book”) that long-term (lifetime) sobriety requires a “psychic change”.

    That is really what you initially wrote about in this blog topic; how can science find a way to change the “psychic” of “Nature’s Monsters”. You focused on psychopaths and I pointed out that changing behavior in alcoholics had been achieved, only to a degree however, using the approach embodied in the 12 Steps. Yet in a very public forum addressing the “crisis” of addiction seen in opioid use today, that approach was not even mentioned by “experts” from a broad field of science (health care), law enforcement, education, you name it? Why?

    You challenged me to find some way to “adapt” AA to create a non-religious form of its principles. Actually, I have done just that, Duane, for myself. I have zero faith that gods create miracles, whatever motivations such gods might have. But I do believe that I had to change my way of thinking. 27 years later, probably about 8,000 different meetings, listening to, talking with several thousand different people, availing myself of just about every medical treatment approach possible and reading enough books to fill a library, I am still working on that “psychic change” thing, just in my own mind.

    No one that is facing a life threatening dilemma wants to hear that the only way “out” is unbelievably hard work. Everyone wants an “easier” path to follow to change the situations in their lives. Believe you me, if I had found an “easier path to follow” I would have done so.

    One last point, Duane. Science is the quest to explain how physical and mental things happen. What used to be miracles are now self evident, logical explanations of such things. Technology as I use the term is applied science, almost like engineering if you will. Quantum physics is science. Someday a “quantum computer” will be created, technology, based on that science. A “pill” to cure addiction will be technology based on the science of the human brain.

    Look how far humans have come to understand our physical bodies. Look how much farther humans must go to understand just the brain. I can’t wait for science and mental health technology to find that “pill” for me. My only alternative is the hard work that I must do, alone, (but with the encouragement of others) to mitigate the effects of the same sort of compulsions that a psychopath experiences. No government, no amount of money, no religion, no family, no anything else can save my life today unless I decide to keep my nose to the grindstone of recovery, every day, for the rest of my life.



    • Anson,

      I will accept this personal, heartfelt statement as the final word between us on this topic and offer you an equally heartfelt thanks for your contributions to this post. I learned much, which is why I am here.

      Be well,



  21. ansonburlingame

     /  October 25, 2017


    I too now end this thread of comments. The key to success of AA has always been finding a better path in life (sobriety) from “one drunk talking to another drunk”. I have shared part of such conversations that I have been holding now for a few decades. If it helps others to understand, well mission not accomplished. but may some progress.



%d bloggers like this: