Saturday, March 10, 2007

Are We Rich Yet?

Everybody wants to get ahead, have things work out, find security, and live happily ever after. Anyone who can convince others to pay good money for the supposed key to all this will get ahead, find security, and live happily ever after. One secret of success is to sell a purported secret for success.

As you may know, Oprah has been promoting a group of authors and speakers selling The Secret, a not exactly new New Age formula for achieving success by visualizing it. According to the “Law of Attraction,” if you think the right thoughts, about prosperity for instance, prosperity will be yours. The universe obeys your every wish, if your wish is sufficiently strong and single-minded. And of course, you’re in charge of your wishing, so it all comes down to you. Not rich yet? You’re the problem, buddy. For a thorough debunking of The Secret, see Ingrid Hansen Smythe’s report for the Skeptic Society. The New York Times style section covered the creation of The Secret in Shaking Riches Out of the Cosmos, also reprinted here - most entertaining.

To naturalists, this sort of magical thinking about thinking is a sad example of supposing the self is causally privileged over the world, of attributing to ourselves a supernatural ability. Playing to the universal desire for control and power, sellers of The Secret purvey the manifest falsehood that one’s thoughts somehow directly influence things outside the head. To state the obvious (from a naturalist perspective): thoughts, physically instantiated in the brain, are part of a causal chain that sometimes has effects on behavior, that then has effects on the world. Thoughts themselves have their own causal antecedents as well, of course. Oprah is doing her audience a vast disservice in promulgating the idea - that is, causing her audience to think - that they can merely think and grow rich, that behavior isn’t necessary to get the universe to give them what they need. It’s sad because it gives people false hopes, sets them up for self-blame, and blocks exploration of realistic means for achieving success.

But how could anyone believe such nonsense? Part of the answer is that Western society routinely sets up the self as a first cause, a mental controller that can bootstrap itself into anything it wants to be. We’re taught from day one that it’s all up to us, that we can rise above our circumstances, that if we want something badly enough, it can be ours. So, let’s all work on wanting things, really badly, and the culture is happy to help with that. In short, we’re predisposed by the mythology of the American dream to accept the premise of The Secret, that success is mostly a matter of your attitude, the force of your will and desire, which you can manifest if you just choose to. Work on your mind, the rest will follow.

Another part of the answer is our long love affair with mentalistic paranormal powers that transcend what the mere body can accomplish. The Secret plays this to the hilt, suggesting that the self-motivated mind or spirit somehow controls reality directly, without needing a bodily interface. Exactly how this works is necessarily left obscure, but the promise of such power is pretty seductive. We become like gods, self-created and practically omnipotent.

To suggest instead that our powers are merely material, and that the self and its will are a function of physical circumstances, might not fly as the core concept of a best-selling self-help program. It doesn’t have quite the all-American, individualist ring to it. Still, it’s arguably a better bet than magical thinking about the power of thoughts, since we can learn about how our circumstances affect us, our motivations, and opportunities for action, then change the circumstances in ways that generate effective behavior. It might be replied that the myth of thought-power is empowering since it gives hope, spurring motivation. Perhaps in the short run for some people it is. But the smart money is on staying in touch with reality, in which it’s always necessary to act to make things happen. The sellers of The Secret act effectively on their own behalf by promoting the myth that we need not act, merely think. Nice work if you can get it.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Intuitions, Please

Naturalism, some have argued, should be suppressed since it calls into question some indispensable, although false, notions of human agency. Perhaps we can’t live with the truth about ourselves and so must buffer reality with some functionally necessary fictions. As blues singer Mose Allison once asked, “How much truth can a man stand?” Not all that much, maybe.

So here’s the question: Is there something most people believe about freedom and responsibility that’s false? And here’s another: If they do, is that belief necessary for us to get along in life, and with each other?

Regarding the first question, a new discipline called experimental philosophy (“x-phi”) is engaged in actually finding out what the “folk” believe about such things as free will and moral responsibility, using interviews and surveys. I’ll discuss a few findings below, but before continuing, take a minute to check out your own intuitions. In a sentence, how would you define free will? And what do you think most other people mean by free will?

Ok, now let’s look at some data. In a paper, Is Incompatibilism Intuitive?, a group of experimental philosophers describe research on beliefs about free will, moral responsibility and determinism in which they posed questions about hypothetical scenarios, what philosophers call thought experiments. In one study, participants were asked to imagine a universe in which the laws of nature always guarantee that, given an initial set of conditions, the same outcomes always occur. If conditions at time T are such that Z steals a necklace later on, then if the same conditions are recreated, Z again steals the necklace. Participants were asked: does Z act of her own free will and is it fair to hold her morally responsible and blame her? Before reading on, what do you think? And what do you think the results were? Well, 66% said Z acted of her own free will and 77% said she was morally responsible and blameworthy.

These findings suggest that a majority of these respondents, when prompted by this scenario, seem to think that free will and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism. Whether these results get replicated and validated by more research is of course an open question, but let’s take them as a preliminary indication that many people are what philosophers call compatibilists. Are you a compatibilist in this sense, in that you think we’d have free will and moral responsibility in a fully deterministic universe? Did you suspect that perhaps a majority of people are compatibilists?

In another study conducted by different philosophers, respondents were asked to say which universe, A or B, is most like our universe. In universe A, everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it. In universe B, almost everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it, the one exception being human decision making. What’s your intuition about which universe is most like the one we actually live in? And what’s your guess about the results? Well, in this study an overwhelming 95% thought that universe B was most like our universe. In other words, they thought human decision making is likely not fully caused by preceding events; it’s an exception to determinism such that we could have chosen otherwise in the exact same situation in which we made our choice.

If we take these very preliminary findings as an indication of what people (of a certain socio-economic status in the US) might believe about free will, moral responsibility and determinism, what’s it all mean? Well, even though a vast majority of people believe human choices are not fully determined, a substantial majority believe that even if our choices were fully determined, we’d still have free will and moral responsibility.

Now, the supposed threat of a hard-boiled naturalism is the claim, increasingly supported by science, that human choices aren't exceptions to (macro-level) determinism – we likely live in universe A, not B. Some think that to make this known would substantially undermine people’s beliefs that we are moral agents who can be held responsible. But this research suggests that even if people started believing their choices are fully determined, a majority wouldn’t stop believing in moral agency. Thus the advent of a deterministic naturalism in public consciousness may not pose a fatal threat to moral intuitions. Maybe we can stand the truth about ourselves.

But there’s a substantial minority, perhaps, who’d find the news that we live in universe A literally demoralizing, since they tie the idea of moral responsibility to our being exceptions to causation. These folks can perhaps be reassured that since we’re fully caused creatures, we have to be held responsible so that we’re caused to become morally competent, ethical individuals. Our moral standards don’t disappear or become ineffective if determinism is true.

A further question, though, is about what people believe is actually involved in holding people responsible. Once we accept our place in nature as fully caused outcomes of circumstances that we didn’t choose, what happens to our intuitions about credit, blame, reward and punishment? Does retribution – the idea that we deserve to suffer for our crimes, whether or not it produces any good consequences – still make sense once we see that we were fully determined to commit them? Do the super-rich deserve all their astronomical wealth, once we see that they’ve simply been lucky in their talents, upbringing, and opportunities? Naturalism leaves moral agency intact, but will it leave our intuitions about what people deserve, and therefore how we should treat them, unchanged? Stay tuned.