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.