Magical Thinking

Belief in free will is not merely an abstract idiocy. It has concrete and idiotic practical applications. For example, last night I was talking to someone who likes John Key and National’s emphasis on “personal responsibility”. It was implied (or explicitly stated – one of the two) that people can “freely choose” whether or not to go to university, whether or not to commit a crime. When I pointed out the overwhelming tendencies of violent criminals coming from lower socio-economic areas and tertiary-educated people coming from wealthier areas, I was met with a kind of blank stare and a repetition of the assertion: people choose whether or not to do these things.

Otherwise rational people adopt this insane stance. It’s like some kind of bizarre brainwashing. Their reasoning is something like this. I say, “Decisions are entirely determined by factors outside of a person’s control.”

They respond: “You’re saying that external factors account for 100% of the determinants of decision-making. This is wrong. External factors influence decisions, but not 100%. Something like 70% or something. And the other 30% is made up of KRSHHRSHSTATICSHHSRRHSRH. Therefore, people are to blame for their own actions. They could have acted differently, but they didn’t.”

Fuck knows what’s going on in that part where their reasoning becomes static. If you try to get them to think about that part of their reasoning, their eyes glaze over for a moment, then they fast-forward to their conclusion and start repeating it over and over.

Alan Watts coined a word – “goeswith”/”gowith” – to refer to those things that are flip sides of the same coin. For example, cause and effect. Cause goeswith effect, and it’s both confused and confusing to speak of them as separate. One might ask, “How on earth does the cause leap forward in time to interact with the effect?” But it’s all one thing, a cause-effect.

That’s what we’ve got here with this free will nonsense. Choices gowith reasons. The 30% of static in the reasoning of the person who believes in free will provides a kind of imaginary space in which the decision is made separate from the reasons. Within this imaginary space, the imaginary agent gazes dispassionately at the surrounding 70% – the fears, hopes, desires that make it possible to evaluate the preferability of the options – and then chooses which ones to give weight to.

And that feels to them like it makes sense, because they’re forgetting that choices gowith reasons, and if they’re going to choose which reasons to act on, they’re going to need reasons for that decision too.

What’s another way to put it? The 30% of static is, to them, like a swing vote. It’s those voters who are undecided. 35% want to get up and go to work. 35% want to stay in bed and call in sick. 30% are undecided, and it could go either way! That’s what the static is. But, in keeping with the analogy, the 35% were compelled by reasons for voting for, and the other 35% were compelled by reasons for voting against, and the 30% swing voters will also be compelled by reasons for or against. But the static obscures the fact that until they decide, undecided voters are no voters at all. To the reasoning of the free-willer, that 30% is a different kind of thing from the decided voters.

And finally, it’s the unpredictability of decisions that provides cover for the 30% of static in the reasoning. It’s the fact that, unlike obviously determined things like the striking of the match, we don’t have the ability to perfectly predict how someone will act. You can tell me everything you know about someone, but I will only ever be able to tell you how they’re likely to act. Jenny’s fairly mature, she’s never given indications of being depressed, she is expecting good things in the future, so it’s really unlikely that she’ll jump off the bridge as she walks over it. But she might! But she probably won’t. But she might! And I can’t say for sure.

The unpredictability is not due to some lack of determinism in decision-making, but simply the complexity of the process and the number of factors influencing it. It’s analogous to the weather. We can’t predict with 100% accuracy whether or not it will rain tomorrow, but that shouldn’t stop us from thinking that it’s determined – which is to say, if we did know everything about the factors involved in weather, we would be able to predict it with 100% accuracy.

I am increasingly convinced that a LOT of the foolishness in human society is based on the magical thinking at the base of a belief in free will. It affects every aspect of human organisation – economics, government, religion, war, crime and punishment. Sanity needs to spread if things are to get better.

16 Comments Magical Thinking

  1. Paul

    I was sort of, kind of with you until you introduced this 'goeswith' nonsense. Mashing up words to obfuscate issues does not help. A cause and its effect are different because the one can lead to the other but not vice versa.

    Reply
  2. Ryan Sproull

    They are conceptually inseperable, however. Of course they are different, but the fact that they are different and we have different words with which to refer to them may give the illusion of being able to think and speak intelligibly about them in isolation from the other.

    Reply
  3. Ryan Sproull

    Which is to say, being able to think things like, “Imagine if there was a cause without any effect! What would it look like, I wonder?” etc. Like trying to imagine up without down. Sure, they’re different things, but they’re conceptually inseparable.

    Reply
  4. Ryan Sproull

    And the mashing up of “goes” and “with” is not intended to obfuscate, but to fill a gap in the English language.

    Reply
  5. Dominic

    To satisfy Paul’s objection you might just say that ’cause’ and ‘effect’ as concepts are only meaningfully defined in terms of the other: A cause is defined as that which produces an effect. An effect is defined as that which is produced by a cause.

    The same goes for the other examples you give (up/down, etc.).

    Reply
  6. Paul

    Yes, so there is no need to make a composite word. One of the ways we understand language is in these pairs.

    I think your argument, Ryan, does not need “goeswith.” It needs Galen Strawson, who says that our choices come from ourselves but we cannot remake ourselves so our choices are already determined.

    Strawson says that free will is so indefensible that we are left only with psychological questions about why we believe it.

    Perhaps the question is not whether or not free will exists but whether a society could exist without the illusion of free will.

    Reply
  7. Ryan Sproull

    I think your argument, Ryan, does not need “goeswith.” It needs Galen Strawson, who says that our choices come from ourselves but we cannot remake ourselves so our choices are already determined.

    Strawson says that free will is so indefensible that we are left only with psychological questions about why we believe it.

    My argument was addressing the psychological questions about why people believe it. That “our choices come from ourselves, but we cannot remake ourselves, so our choices are already determined” was taken for granted in doing so. This wasn’t a post against free will, it was a post about what goes on in the mind of a person who thinks they believe in it.

    Perhaps the question is not whether or not free will exists but whether a society could exist without the illusion of free will.

    I don’t see why it couldn’t. In practical terms, no one believes in “free will” any more than they believe in “square circles”. I’m inclined to say that rather than believing in “free will”, people “believe in free will”, if you can excuse me playing with language again to make a point. It’s almost nothing more than a behaviour – saying yes to the question, “Do you believe in free will?” People can say they believe in square circles as many times as they like, but they aren’t actually thinking of square circles and believing they exist.

    So the question is, what intelligible propositions do they believe as a result of this conceptual gap? Mostly moral ones, like, “It’s good to make someone suffer if they chose to commit a crime,” and, “It’s bad to take money from people who chose to become rich and give to people who chose to become poor.”

    Reply
  8. Paul

    I think you will find that most people believe in free will very strongly. It is the basis of most commonly-held views about moral responsibility.

    Reply
  9. Ryan Sproull

    I think you will find that most people believe in free will very strongly. It is the basis of most commonly-held views about moral responsibility.

    Is it possible for people to believe in square circles very strongly?

    Reply
  10. Paul

    I didn’t say that most people are right, although, I think you are being harsh: everything in people’s ordinary experience of others suggests that people are responsible for their decisions. Whether that is really the case is another matter, but common sense suggests autonomy and responsibility.

    Reply
  11. Ryan Sproull

    I didn’t say that most people are right, although, I think you are being harsh: everything in people’s ordinary experience of others suggests that people are responsible for their decisions. Whether that is really the case is another matter, but common sense suggests autonomy and responsibility.

    I agree. What I am suggesting is that if free will is a logically contradictory non-concept like “square circle” and no one actually conceives of it, and if “responsibility” and “autonomy” mean anything at all, then what do they mean, given this clearer understanding of the situation? And how can we bring other attitudes more into line with logical consistency?

    These notions fascinate me. I talk about responsibility myself. What do I mean?

    I suggest we only ever condemn motives, not the actions they cause.

    Reply
  12. Morgan

    Free will doesn’t mean all choices are equally easy. That most people don’t take the difficult path doesn’t change the fact that they could have.

    I suggest we only ever condemn motives, not the actions they cause.

    Remember that next time someone stabs you to death so he can steal your wallet and feed his children. Feeding the children is a great motive, just ask Judy Bailey.

    Reply
  13. Ryan Sproull

    Remember that next time someone stabs you to death so he can steal your wallet and feed his children. Feeding the children is a great motive, just ask Judy Bailey.

    We’d certainly be less condemning of that murder than one wanting to steal my wallet to buy some luxury goods.

    Reply
  14. Paul

    We would still condemn the murder. How could we do otherwise? Who deserves to be killed because of someone else’s needs?

    Reply
  15. Dougal

    "which is to say, if we did know everything about the factors involved in weather, we would be able to predict it with 100% accuracy"Ryan, interesting conflation of free will and weather prediction. What's interesting about the weather, and in fact any system of even low levels of complexity, is that according to Chaos theory and quantum mechanics, they are fundamentally not predictable. Sure you can get a degree of prediction, but complete accuracy is impossible. Interestingly the brain functions in a similar manner to other chaotic/non-linear systems so again, complete abnegation of free will is not valid – uncertainty and unpredictability arise from the nature of the system, be it the weather or the human brain.

    Reply

Leave a Reply