Saturday, January 24, 2009

Consequences of Determinism

Jeremy Dean at PsyBlog covers a study on determinism:

In new research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Baumeister, Masicampo and DeWall (2009) theorise that a belief in free will may be partly what oils the wheels of society, what encourages us to treat each other respectfully. They explore this theory with three studies, two on helping behaviours and one on aggression.


These experiments aren't the first to examine how a belief in free will (or otherwise) affects our behaviour. In a recent study Vohs and Schooler (2008) also found that a belief in free will seems to have a positive effect on people's behaviour. In that experiment (covered by Cognitive Daily) participants whose disbelief in free will was encouraged were more likely to cheat on a test.
This reminds me of a study that found economists are more likely to defect in prisoners dilemmas.

What's going on here?

My instinctual response is that people are responding to cognitive dissonance-- as determinists/economists, it's more difficult to rationalize altruism. (Selection bias is another possibility, though the determinist study appears to have ruled that out, so it could only apply to economists.)

If you were curious, I'm a compatibilist.


Kaye Noir said...

What's a compatibilist?

So is the suggestion that determinism would increase crime rates or what, I don't get it...

Skeptikos said...

I wasn't really trying to suggest anything.

A compatibilist believes that, although our decisions may be results of chemistry, physics, etc., that doesn't mean we don't have free will.

My self (my brain) is totally physical, but it's still my brain, and my brain, physical though it may be, is still making decisions. So I am in fact exercising my will.

The trick is to redefine free will. The determinist definition of free will is nonsensical (nothing determines decisions-- which is literally impossible). If you instead define free will as the ability to make decisions, then people have free will even though their choices are predetermined. Brains follow all the physical laws, and they also make decisions. The two views are compatible.

Kaye Noir said...

Ah, but is it really yours?
What do you think of private property? If anything, you have to be able to defend something for it to be yours, correct?
How can you defend your own mind? (since, I dunno, how can we call what we have a brain. you seem to think that we're more than just brain-creatures.)

With that definition of free will, free will is meaningless. Which perpetuates the causal/determinist approach.

Anyway, with "free will", there must be another kind of will that is bound. How can you know yours isn't? (well, it is.) (which you've said.)

It comes down to perception. :/
it gets kinda boring to talk about with people who understand that, haha.

Skeptikos said...

Is my brain really mine? In the sense that it's a part of me, yes. I'm not sure the concept of property really applies to this.

My will would be unfree when I'm not in a position to make decisions. (I think that's what you were asking.) So if I was, say, locked up in a jail cell, I would no longer have free will with respect to most things.

I think this definition of free will is more appropriate, especially because people like to relate the discussion back to moral responsibility. It doesn't really matter whether our decisions are determined or not as far as that goes, but it does matter whether or not we're free to exercise our will.

People get really confused by arguing that 1) people's wills are determined (the definition you're using), and then they switch definitions and try to say that, 2) because people aren't free to exercise their will (my definition), they can't be held responsible for their actions.

I guess whether you call yourself a determinist or a compatibilist depends on which definition you prefer.

Kaye Noir said...

What does moral responsibility matter if everything is predetermined? Morals would be a human concept, determining how someone would act in accordance with or in opposition to these constructs.
Moral responsibility, as in a trial, seems to be quite pointless (necessary, indeed, because there will be conflict) but ultimately meaningless.

When you're talking about determinism, you've got to realize the extreme that nothing in it really matters. Free will matters only subjectively, and from the perspective that one perceives making a decision, even though they really aren't "free" to do so, because their actions were already determined in time and biologically.

I guess what I'm saying is, there's no point writing or talking about determinism, unless you want to indulge in the animal-human's experience.
Meanwhile, I'll try to find a way out.
I'm trying to read The Phenomenon of Man; dunno if you know about it.

Skeptikos said...

Your choice may have been predetermined, but what matters is that you still made a choice, so you should still be held responsible.

No, I haven't heard of The Phenomenon of Man. Let me know if it's any good.