“I’m responsible for my actions. I don’t need to hide behind nothing.” – Lemmy Kilmister

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I’m a non-believer, but I think this view is quite mistaken. In 1966, a man named Charles Whitman wrote this:

“I do not 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 do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”

He then asked that his body be given an autopsy so that they might understand what has been causing his severe headaches and the unwanted thoughts. After executing his beloved wife and mother, he added:

“I never could quite make it. These thoughts are too much for me.”

He then went on to climb a clock tower and kill a number of students with a sniper rifle. This is an extreme example, but it gives us a baseline for rejecting Lemmy’s statement. At the very least, there are a signfiicant number of people who were powerfully affected by their upbringing, their genetics, or physical damage that was done to part of their brain. Whitman did have a pecan-sized tumor in his brain which was later determined to likely have had some affect on his behavior. He was also severely emotionally and physically abused as a child. There is only so much that individual willpower can overcome.

Today, we are discovering that many people have small lesions in their brains, while we are also discovering how this damage can significantly affect our behavior. Just recently, my own mother hit her head and slowly developed bleeding in her skull that put pressure on her brain. She had a bad headache that slowly turned into a total dissolution of her personality. She became child-like and unable to care for herself. Thanks to modern medicine, they were able to drill small holes in her head and release the pressure. Within hours, she was back to her original self. During the time of her affliction, it seems ludicrous to demand that she was ultimately responsible for her actions. She was smearing toothpaste all over her lips, because it looked like a tube of lip gloss, and pissing herself, because she didn’t really understand what it meant to go to the bathroom anymore – all because of a slight pressure on her brain. Normally, she’s quite an intelligent woman.

You might claim this only covers a percentage of the population, but I think Sam Harris does a great job of connecting this problem to the much broader human condition. A tumor or pressure on the brain is a particular state of the human mind that leads to behavior. The claim is that, if we had a full scientific understanding of the human mind, then a tumor would just be a special instance of a state that drives our behavior. We are also driven by much more subtle things like the pheromones in a potential mate’s sweat, or small genetic variations. We’ve shown with psychological studies that something as simple as the temperature of a drink in your hand can dramatically affect how you feel about hiring a potential candidate. If you were given a very cold drink to hold for a few minutes before the interview, you will be less likely to warm up to the person and their qualifications.

There might be some mysterious free will underneath all of these complications, but, at the very least, I think Lemmy’s statement is highly misleading. I think most people need to find something to believe in. Lemmy cleary didn’t believe in the supernatural, so he settled for this kind of rugged, individualist view of responsibility and facing the harsh world directly. In the end, I think Lemmy’s position is more admirable than that of many religious believers who do hide behind eternity, just as he suggests, but it can still be ultimately wrong. Carl Sagan used to say we have to sympathize with anyone who needs a little myth to make it through a long, dark night, but that doesn’t lend any particular confidence to the myth as a picture of reality.

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