Write-In: Can we have goals independent of our environment?

Hello Dr. Davies,

   I am currently working on my bachelor degree in psychology, and I am in
learning and cognition.  I found my way to your articles, due to my needing
to find an answer to choice and mental processes.  I tend to side with the
behaviorist view that experience and memory play a huge role in our power of
choice, but I am looking for an answer to the thinking about thinking
dilemma.  Thorndike seems to have had a huge influence on my concept of
mental processes, as well as Hebb, Skinner, and Alder.  I guess I am looking
for someone, who can tell me that we have higher mental processes that are
free of environmental stimuli and memory, which we can form our choices
randomly.  Am I looking for some pie in the sky?  Can you offer me some
direction, because I ultimately want to believe that we can master our
Universe through the power of our mind.  In other words, we can direct our
lives in accordance with our dreams and our goals, instead of being subject
to environmental stimuli.

My response: 

For the most part psychologists don't think that we have any goals that are not products of either our environment, our genes, or some combination. However, there are goals we didn't learn, such as the goal to eat, sleep, etc. But from your letter it sounds like what you're interested in aren't evolved goals, but goals that are chosen deliberately. In those cases I think all goals are still a product of evolution and environment, but they interact in such complex ways that individuals can have very interesting, even strange goals that appear to be, and feel, very idiosyncratic. 

So, for example, someone might have a dream to create a play that captures the feeling of social ostracism in a foreign country. This is individual and interesting, but there's no way a desire to make a play is free from the environment--she had to have heard of a play in the first place. And so on.

So to answer your specific questions, we can form choices randomly--we could use coin flips. We can direct our lives in accordance with our dreams and goals, and I think that's great, but to ask that they be independent of our environment is impossible--and not even preferable. In fact, you probably realize that your desire to be able to master your own world is a product, in part, of the education and experience you've had talking to people and reading.

Pictured: Fishermen in Mexico. From Wikimedia Commons.

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