You Have My Divided Attention

image from piqsels, CC0

Since I first wrote about Paying Attention to What We Pay Attention To, eighteen months ago, there has been a lot of, well, attention in the media about the business and importance of paying attention.

As I’m not a believer in free will — I believe that everything we think and do is a biologically or culturally-conditioned response, over which we have no choice — it seems a bit paradoxical to wonder whether we can actually, ‘wilfully’ become more aware of what we pay attention to. Unless of course, it is in our conditioning to do so.

There have been enough incidents in my life when my lack of, or misdirection of, attentiveness has caused distress to me or to those I care about, that I would guess my recent preoccupation with self-awareness about where I am putting my attention is probably conditioned. Kind of like my predilection to write absurdly long and convoluted sentences like the previous one. But at least I’m a little more aware of it! “Defining and appreciating the problem is half way to solving it”, and all that.

Our attention — what advertising, PR, propaganda and the media all trade in — is just one of the things we parse and parcel out in accordance with our (conditioned) beliefs and preferences. We also allot our time (not the same as our attention), our energy, our appreciation, and, of course, our money.

There are constraints on all of these allotments, and never enough of any of them to quite go around and keep us entirely happy, no matter how much of any of them we receive, have, or give.

So we are left with the difficult business, not of choosing how to allot our constrained amounts of these things (since I believe we have no choice in the matter), but rather of how to rationalize how our conditioning has led to the allotments that we’ve made. How to explain the phone call not made, that someone was desperately awaiting. How to explain that thing we did when surely it would have made more sense to do this other thing instead.

When no persuasive rationalization is forthcoming, shame and guilt and grief and other self-recriminations come rushing in, dragging along with them anger (at oneself and perhaps the other whose action or expectation prompted this ghastly realization) and fear (of one’s own poor judgement, incompetence, and the consequences of what now seems assuredly our grievous wrongdoing).

These can quickly spiral into further critical rationalizations and their concomitant negative emotions.

And that’s true even if you believe, if you somehow ‘know’, that no other outcome was ever possible, that there was no choice, no free will in what was done, or not done, thought, or not thought. Or in what was paid attention to, or not, or appreciated, or not, or what we invested time or energy or money in, or not.

We are all just delivering the lines in the play that were assigned to us, acting out the movements in the script.

Can we be conditioned to become more self-aware of those words and actions, and the impact they might have on ourselves and others, afflicted as we all are with the unshakeable but illusory sense that we have self-control and free will over our beliefs and behaviours?

My sense is that we can be (and are) so conditioned, by others’ words and actions, by what we read and watch and, by, uh, what we pay attention to. But that we cannot condition ourselves. And, perhaps worse, such self-awareness will only ever be in retrospect, a part of that rationalization of what has already happened, for better or worse.

So if our rationalization includes the insight that we have ‘inadvertently’ hurt or harmed ourselves (eg because of something unhealthy we couldn’t resist consuming) or others (eg because of something we couldn’t help saying or doing), we can say we’re sorry, but we cannot promise the action or behaviour will not occur again. This might sound weasel-y, like the acts and statements of contrition of a serial abuser. But I think it’s honest, the most honest we can be. I think the victims of abusers would mostly agree that promises of non-recurrence of destructive behaviours are largely worthless.

I am more and more convinced that we are going to invest our time, our energy, and our money, and mete out our attention and appreciation, precisely as our biological and cultural conditioning dictates, given the ever-changing circumstances of the moment. Our shame, guilt, grief, anger, fear and the host of other rationalizing self-recriminating emotions after the fact may be heartfelt, and may provide solace to others who believe those negative feelings are well-founded and reassuring. But beyond perhaps making us a bit more neurotic and self-loathing, they will, I believe, change nothing.

Still, that will not change my conditioned behaviour. I will go on trying, for example, through various exercises, practices and thought experiments, to see if I can shift my attention from the mess of endless, mostly useless thoughts inside my head to the more ‘real’, physical world outside it. When I watch the crows, I will try to focus on their movement, their voices, their interactions, and not on my judgement, my ‘making sense’ of what all that ‘means’. That’s what my current conditioning has led me to try to do. And the degree to which I ‘succeed’ will, equally, depend entirely on my biological and cultural conditioning, and on the circumstances of the moment.

Likewise, when it comes to how I spend my time, my energy, and my money, and what I appreciate, I will have all sorts of (conditioned) opinions about how to mete out each, how to spend more on x and less on y, and on what I ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do, both before and after the fact.

But ‘I’ and my ‘free will’ will have no say in what I actually do — my conditioned best, the only thing that I could possibly have done in the circumstances.

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3 Responses to You Have My Divided Attention

  1. Laura Parker says:

    Rationalization, or explanation of what has already happened, after the fact, is also “conditioned.” It’s fun to consider such explanation as not so much an attempt to claim agency as a way to discern the various unfolding threads that are converging and conspiring at any location or moment in time to give rise to “what happens”, and, if indeed some kind of intelligence is operating through “what happens,” what guiding principle is being served? For example, my sister is dying of brain cancer. How is this an example of “it couldn’t have happened any other way?” How is this a necessary and logical outcome of everything else that has ever happened?

  2. willem says:

    “But ‘I’ and my ‘free will’ will have no say in what I actually do — my conditioned best, the only thing that I could possibly have done in the circumstances.”

    To the extent that it contributes to a healthy mindset that can avoid consciously dwelling incessantly on past “mistakes”, I have come to largely embrace this idea, with respect not only my own actions, but to the actions of others.

    However, I have also considered (to borrow an expression) that if free will did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent it. At some point in humankind’s past, it may have been culturally constructive to condition people into feeling certain ways after a socially significant action, to “motivate” self-conditioning in a way that reinforces desirable behavior and discourages anti-social behavior. After all, outside errors that result in the injury or death of someone, these emotions may form our most powerful behavior motivators.

    Although still not what I would label a mainstream belief, it seems to have become more frequent in recent years to hear professions of non-belief in the concept of free will. But I don’t see most such people acting as though they really believe it–it is kind of like the oligarchs who flog the idea of AGW while flying all over the globe in their private jets between their ocean-front homes and various billionaire conclaves.

    The human brain has the characteristics of what is described by Ugo Bardi as a “complex system,” influenced by feedbacks. I believe that every experience we have, at least those that post-date our arrival at the threshold age of rationality, provides a potential point of feedback for influencing our future behavior (or “conditioning” if you will).

    I have read of the experiments purporting to demonstrate that the intention to act evidences itself in the brain can be detected some number of milliseconds before we become aware of having made a decision, but I don’t think this disproves the existence of free will. I think it is possible to come up with alternate explanations accommodating this observation that still leave room for the existence of free will.

    But you have written on this at length already, and it certainly isn’t a discussion I could capably address myself, especially in the Comments section of someone else’s blog.

    Please don’t take any of this badly. I enjoy and expect to continue reading your thoughts on this and similar subjects.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Willem. I would agree that we ‘had to’ invent the concept of free will, and have of necessity conditioned each other to believe in it. Such a shared common set of beliefs and behaviours is a precondition to an effective society, so the alternative would have been for our species to perish due to its inherent inadaptability to environments outside the trees of the tropical forest. When we evolved tools, and then language to convey how to build and use those tools, we quickly locked ourselves into a belief set, one that included belief in free will and the vast and complicated morality that such a belief entails. That belief will not die easily.

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