Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Free Will

Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum -- "I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;" as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made.”

There is a controversy in my field, social psychology, that has implications far beyond the rarefied atmospheres of the classroom, laboratory, and editorial office. It's about a fundamental assumption of our society---the idea that people can freely choose their actions, that they have meaningful preferences that guide their lives, and that they are capable, at least under some circumstances, of rational thinking or a close approximation.
On one side of the controversy is John Bargh of Yale University, quite rightly respected as a preeminent scholar in psychology. His work has strongly influenced my own and has been required reading in my graduate classes for many years. He studies automatic, nonconscious influences on feelings, thoughts, and behavior, an example of which you can see here. One of his primary contributions has been to document how nonconscious processes influence conscious thought, so that even when we think we're deciding autonomously, we're influenced by whatever happens to come most easily to mind, as caused by (for instance) recent experience, cultural learning, emotional state and the like.
So far, no argument. But Bargh and his coauthors extend these results to an extreme and to me unjustifiable conclusion: that there is no such thing as free will. Our experience of it, they say, is an illusion maintained because it makes us feel better. There is another side to the debate, represented here by Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, equally prominent and well-respected (despite not having an Ivy League address.) He points to the essential indeterminacy of modern physical theory, finding the idea of quantum-like, probabilistic rather than mechanistic, Newtonian causality to be a better model for behavior. That's where "free will" lives, in the irreducible variation that defines small-scale physical events.  He doesn't doubt the validity of the processes Bargh and others describe; rather, he looks at the (substantial) variation they can't explain.
So why should you care? Even if we make the (possibly generous) assumption that neither camp's research is contaminated by the practices I discussed with disgust in "Liars Figure," what difference does it make in anyone's life? Consider this: If there is no such thing as free will there is no reason to allow its exercise. People may be manipulated by any agency with sufficient power, corporate or governmental, to any ends they desire. Teaching critical thinking is useless because whatever we might think has already been determined. (That the agents of control themselves have no more free will than anyone else is beside the point.) Whether done with naked force (consider China, Russia, North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma...) or via more benign-seeming manipulations, the end result is the same, an Obamanista's wet dream.
Consider instead cultivating free will, teaching (and motivating) critical thinking. We know that, with effort, automatic inputs to behavior and judgment can be overcome. There's a lot of research on that. We know that knowledge helps the process. You can read about some of that here if you like. What's the social outcome? That's what Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Adams, Madison and a whole bunch of other old dead white guys tried to give us (in contrast to Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and other not quite so old, just as dead, mostly white guys.)
Political philosophy aside, who's right? That's an interesting question but one I can't answer. Nobody can. It's not answerable. The problem with Bargh's position (as Baumeister notes but fails to make central to his argument) is that the central conclusion is unfalsifiable and therefore as far outside the bounds of scientific inquiry as, say, deciding between the Old Testament, Mayan, and Tibetan Buddhist creation stories. Neither Bargh nor anyone else can specify a set of events which, if they occurred as predicted, would mean that his ideas were wrong. 
Of course, Bargh doesn't try. No social psychologists do. The studies he cites as "support" are merely consistent with his ideas, as they are with many others'. This is common in social psychology, in part because our theories are so crudely stated and there's no incentive to make them better. In 1974 Richard Harris published an article entitled "This is a Science? Social Psychologist's Aversion to Knowing What Their Theories Say". It's a wonderful paper that nobody reads. Here's a version. If Harris is still around he could write a followup, but I doubt he could get it published today. In his spirit I offer the following comments on the implications of Bargh's denial of free will:
Consider that our system of criminal justice is based on the idea that actions are freely chosen. If one chooses to act in an antisocial manner, one is punished in proportion to the reprehensibility of the act. Rehabilitation may be offered in addition to punishment, in order to give miscreants the ability and/or motivation to make socially acceptable choices in the future. People judged incapable of making choices (e.g. the "legally insane") are excused from punishment although they may be isolated for the welfare of society. At least, that's the ideal.
If free will is an illusion then "choice" does not exist. The concept is meaningless and so is the idea of individual responsibility for one's actions. Our concepts of punishment and rehabilitation are likewise meaningless since both are intended to influence choice. Therefore, antisocial individuals should either be executed or permanently isolated, since there is literally no chance that they will ever make a positive (or even neutral) impact on society. The alternative is to turn our society into a vast prison (or Skinner box, which might be worse) in which no one is ever exposed to a stimulus triggering unwanted behavior. If that reminds you of some current political initiatives, it's not accidental.
Here's another implication of Bargh's position that might strike closer to home:
If choice and individual responsibility are illusions, and blame for antisocial behavior is meaningless, then so is credit for one's achievements. The most accomplished people in our society---the artist, the engineer, the scientist, the athlete, the entrepreneur or whoever---had no more choice in their "success" than the drunken ragged bum panhandling on the corner did in his "failure." In other words, they didn't build that.  Why, then, are they treated differently? Bargh's success is not due to his free choice to study rather than party in college, nor to his later dedication to research rather than, say, cocaine. There was no choice. 
I'm sure Yale pays Bargh a "one percenter's" salary. If he's right about free will, why should he get more money than whoever cleans the floor in his office? Neither deserves more "credit" than the other for what they could not help doing. Why should Yale not pay each employee exactly the same? If this sounds a lot like "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," that's not accidental either.
Theories, like elections, have consequences. I wonder if Professor Bargh and his cohorts will step up to take the consequences of theirs? 
Oh. Wait. That would be a choice, wouldn't it? 
Never mind.

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