A little distance buys everyone time

This is not a world where you can simply express love for other people, where you can praise them. Perhaps it should be. But it’s not. I’ve found that people will fear your enthusiasm and warmth, and wait to hear the price. Which is fair. We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out that we couldn’t afford it. A little distance buys everyone time.

Micaela McGlone, How to Be Polite


Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not.

Facts are things that are true. Opinions are things we believe. Some of our beliefs are true. Others are not. Some of our beliefs are backed by evidence. Others are not. Value claims are like any other claims: either true or false, evidenced or not. The hard work lies not in recognizing that at least some moral claims are true but in carefully thinking through our evidence for which of the many competing moral claims is correct.

Justin P. McBrayer, Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts

Making the natural seem strange

It takes … a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange, so far as to ask for the why of any instinctive human act. To the metaphysician alone can such questions occur as: Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? The common man can only say, ‘Of course we smile, of course our heart palpitates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made for all eternity to be loved!’

William James, The Principles of Psychology

Responsibility Doesn’t Need Free Will

We’re not free from cause and effect, but we live in a world where beliefs and actions have important consequences.

Many will have you believe that if determinism is false, then free will could be true. It seems that, spanning all scientific fields from physics to psychology to economics, proposed causes have only probabilistic effects. Since determinism hasn’t and, ultimately, can’t be proven, then all imperfectly explained outcomes—from the positions of atoms to the consumption habits of whole countries—are possibly the result of ‘free’ wills. Free will ostensibly fills the gaps in our certainty.

But uncertainty in outcomes shouldn’t be construed as the ‘free’ in free will. True free will (not contrived as the ability to choose or to imagine possible futures) has, instead, a simple definition: will without cause. How could anything possibly be uncaused? You might think that the indeterminacy in, say, quantum physics is an example of causeless outcomes, but you’d be wrong. Undetermined, probabilistic causes are still causes. Whether our wills are the result of a long march of one causal event after another, or tumbling dice, or both, they aren’t free of causes. Our wills are, however, causes themselves.

We’re responsible for anything we do in the world. That’s so easy to swallow until we remember we can’t ultimately be free from causes. How can we be responsble if not free? Imagine the responsibility of a hurricane. No one would claim that a hurricane has free will, but then no one would deny that hurricanes are responsible for the deaths of billions of people throughout history. If we could prevent hurricanes from killing the innocent, we would. People are responsible for their actions in the same sense. Bill Gates is responsible for his foundation’s impact on global health. Ted Bundy is responsible for rape and murder. I’m responsible for what I blog here. From philanthropists to psychopaths to bloggers, people are responsible for their actions even though their wills are the result of prior causes that are either determined, undetermined, or some mixture of the two.

Discussions about the causes and consequences of what we care about in the world shouldn’t require speculation about freedom of wills. Instead, we should largely sideline the concept in favor of deeper conversations about human behavior. We could then talk honestly and clearly (in the sense of non-magically) about responsibility and the human experience. Importantly, we’d have to give weight to the fact that many people believe in free will because these beliefs (or the lack of them) certainly aren’t without their consequences. All potential causes are fair game. But free will, un-caused by definition, is not.

This post was inspired by Slate’s blog-like discussion Are We Free? My ideas here are heavily influenced by social psychology research (see Clark et al., 2014 and Shariff et al., 2014) and the arguments of Sam Harris (as in his short book Free Will).

Cartesian Hydrolicism

What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?

Cartesian Hydrolicism

by Robert Kurzban

In the 17th century, René Descartes proposed that the nervous system worked a bit like the nifty statues in the royal gardens of Saint-Germain, whose moving parts were animated by water that ran through pipes inside of them. Descartes’ idea is illustrated in the well-known line drawing that appears in many introductory psychology textbooks that shows a person puzzlingly sticking his foot in a fire, presumably to illustrate Descartes’ idea about hydraulic reflexes.

Three centuries on, in the mid-1900’s, the detritus of the hydraulic conception of behavior, now known to be luminously wrong, was strewn about here and there. In the scholarly literature, for instance, there were traces in Freud’s corpus—catharsis will relieve all that pressure. Among the Folk, hydraulic metaphors were—and still are—used to express mental states. I’m going to blow my top. Having written an essay for Edge today, I feel drained.

There is, to be sure, still plenty of debate about how the mind works. No doubt even on the pages of this year’s Question there will be spirited discussion about how well the brain-as-device-that-computes notion is doing to advance psychology. Still, while the computational theory of mind might not have won over everyone, the hydraulic model Descartes proposed is dead and buried.

Well, dead anyway. Buried… maybe not. (And, to be sure, hydraulics is, as it turned out, the right explanation for a pretty important (male) biological function; just not the one Descartes had in mind.) The metaphors that recruit the intuition that the mind is built of fluid-filled pipes, along with junctions, valves, and reservoirs, point to the possibility that Descartes was drawn to the notion of a hydraulic mind not only because of the technology of the day, but also because there is something intuitively compelling about the idea.

And, indeed, Cartesian hydraulics has been revived in at least one incarnation in the scholarly literature, though I doubt it’s the only one. For the last decade or so, some researchers have been advancing the notion that there is a “reservoir” of willpower. You can’t have an empty reservoir, the theory goes, in order to exert self-control—resisting eating marshmallows, avoiding distractions, etc.—and as the reservoir gets drained, it become harder and harder to exert self-control.

Given how wrong Descartes was about how the mind works, it’s pretty clear that this sort of idea just can’t be right. There have recently been a number of experimental results that disconfirm predictions made by the model, but that’s not why the idea should be abandoned. Or, at least, the data aren’t the best reason the idea should be abandoned. The reason the idea should be left to die is the same reason that Descartes’ idea should be: Although the mind might not work just like a digital computer—no doubt the mind is different from your basic PC in any number of important ways –we do know that computation of some sort is much, much more likely to be a good explanation for human behavior than hydraulics.

People will disagree about whether Planck was right about the speed of scientific change. Psychology, I would argue, has a couple of handicaps that might make the discipline more susceptible to Planck’s worries than some other disciplines.

First, theories in psychology are often driven by—indeed, held captive by—our intuitions. I’m fond of the way that Dan Dennett put it in 1991 when he was talking about the (also luminously wrong) idea of the Cartesian Theater, the dualist idea that there is a “special center in the brain,” the epicenter of identity, the One and True Me, the wizard behind the curtain. He thought this notion was “the most tenacious bad idea bedeviling our attempts to think about consciousness.” Human intuitions tell us that there’s a special “me” in there somewhere, an intuition that serves to resurrect the idea of a special center over and over again.

Second, psychologists are too polite with each other’s ideas. (Economists, for example, in my experience, don’t frequently commit this particular sin.) In 2013, a prominent journal in psychology published a paper that reported the results of attempts to replicate a previously published finding. The title of the article was, before the colon, the phenomenon in question and then, after the colon: “Real or Elusive Phenomenon?” The pairing of real versus elusive as opposed to nonexistent highlights that it’s considered so rude to suggest that a result was a false positive—as opposed to something that’s simply hard to replicate—that people in the field won’t even say out loud that prior work might have been pointing to something that isn’t, really, there.

Of course intuitions interfere with theoretical innovation in other disciplines. No doubt the obviousness of the sun going around the Earth, bending across the sky each day, delayed acceptance of the heliocentric model. Everyone knows the mind isn’t a hydraulic shovel, but it does feel like some sort of reservoir of stuff gets used up just as it does feel like the sun is moving while we stay put.

Still, it’s time that Cartesian hydrolicism be put to rest in the same way that Cartesian dualism was.

About Robert Kurzban

Psychologist, UPenn; Director, Penn Laboratory for Experimental Evolutionary Psychology (PLEEP); Author, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite