Saturday, July 2, 2011

Did You Decide To Read This?

Am I responsible for writing this? Surely, you think the answer to both questions is “yes.” But don’t be hasty in your, um, decision about it. There is a strong movement in our country that challenges the general viewpoint that people choose what they do and are therefore responsible for what they do. The movement is led by a community that you may not guess to be at the heart of these ideas. It’s a non-secret society. (There is no secret handshake or hidden meetings. Actually, there ARE some hidden meetings, but there are lots of public ones, too, and their sacred texts, called journal articles, are public for all to read.) They call themselves Scientists. I am one of them.

Let me give you an example in this post and then more in future ones. Then we’ll see where that takes us over the course of some thoughts on the nature of us. (I say we’ll see where that takes us, which sounds rather passive than active, because, remember, you are not really choosing to read this and I did not really choose to write this, either.) Are you confused yet? That’s okay, it’s nothing you did. At least not consciously.

This example I’ll share in this post just happens to come from a field close to my field of psychology, and it’s recent, so it serves my purpose well. (There I go again, talking like I have a choice in what I’m writing. Dang, it’s going to be hard to adjust to the notion that I’m not a decider. And, if I’m not a decider, does that mean I’m always a slider?)

A recent column in the Wall Street Journal reviewed the core thesis of a book called “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Unconscious Brain.” Incognito was written by a cognitive neuroscientist named David Eagleman, and the column I wrote was written by Christopher Chabris. You can read the column here, if you like (well, I mean HERE). I’ve not read the book, only the column, so I cannot vouch for the book and am trusting Chabris for getting the basic points right. That’s not too hard to do since I know the main idea quite well from various things I’ve read over the years in my field of psychology. I’ll quote Chabris. He writes:

“In "Incognito," the neuroscientist and polymath David Eagleman argues that the actions of the unconscious are so powerful and pervasive that they "dethrone" the conscious mind and, when combined with the inescapable influences of genes, undermine our traditional ideas of self-control and free will. Most of "Incognito" is an attempt to replace the intuitive notion of the mind as a unitary, conscious actor with a description of how the brain really works, drawing on recent research.”

By the way, I want to be a polymath, too. That sounds so cool. I’m pretty sure I’d like this book Incognito, a lot. However, my current reading backlog is pretty huge, and my writing backlog, huger, so it may be awhile before I get to it. I’m going to cut to the chase now (I write with irony in this 6th paragraph). What Eagleman and many other researchers have concluded is that there is a vast amount of processing and, yes, decision making that happens outside of our conscious awareness I’ll go out on a steady, short limb here: Most of us think it’s our conscious mind that decides what we do. However, I can vouch for the fact that there is a lot of compelling evidence for the idea that quite a lot of processing does seem to happen in our minds outside the realm of our deciders. If that’s true, it raises interesting and thorny questions about what we’re really in control of or choose.

Eagleman gets the implication of this. Totally.  I’ll quote Chabris because his column is so readily available.

“Mr. Eagleman wants us to revamp our criminal-justice system in light of neuroscience. He begins with a good point: We tend to excuse behavior when we can identify an "organic" cause for it, such as a brain tumor, and we tend to blame perpetrators when no such excuse can be found. But, he observes, this is just an artifact of our current state of knowledge. As we become able to measure more and more abnormalities, the scope of blameworthy actions will shrink and shrink.”

Chablis writes a nifty ending to his column after those words, but you’ll have to go to his column to read it.

That last comment in the quote above about the scope of blameworthy actions shrinking ever more is an important point--one that most scientists will readily recognize as having an analogue in their own field. The common theme is this: as we are able to measure more and more—provided this measurement coincides with substantial growth in the capability of organizing and analyzing the mass of what is measured—the realm of mystery, serendipity, and free will shrinks. As more is explained, the part we now attribute to chance and/or choice will evaporate into explanation. What that means to me is an increasing sense of determinism in the minds of scientists and other scholars. There are many implications of this, but the most profound ones are related to our notions of decisions, accountability, and responsibility.

I’m going to choose to return to these themes in my next blog posting or two. I want to discuss this philosophically, but then focus on how this issue shows up in the notion of selection effects in my field of social science.

[Light edits on 7-24-2017]