Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Another Post on Determinism and Political Science

Van Gogh's Deathbed View
In my opinion the free will vs. determinist view of consciousness is the sharpest dividing line between liberals and conservatives.

Now, I have yet to see any evidence of how such a thing as free will might look. In our scientific understanding of the world, there are fundamental forces and laws under which everything must abide. We see time as essentially a process of cause and effect. So why would the human mind be any different?

Thus, you have a theory that says every human action must have an antecedent; there must have been some impulse behind every new thought and action. So while one may choose from available choices, there are factors that act upon one's ability to know and choose from those options. So yes, a guy knows full well that stealing is wrong, and in theory could have chosen otherwise. But could he? What were his motivations? The area of his brain that was conscious of what he was doing somehow made - as brains always do - a rational choice, in the sense that it analyzed the set of options and took the one that made the most sense.

We all do this daily, right? Aside from those of us who are perfect, we are always fighting with our better angels to do the "right" thing. But our brain is operating on a pretty simple algorithm: make the choice that we want the most. So most of the time, to the degree that we have been acculturated properly to the social norms & common good, that desire for integrity will win over any selfish feelings, and what we "want" most of all will be what is "right". Most major social institutions have this inculcation of integrity as one of the top 2 reasons to exist. The family, the school, religion, government, etc. all are heavily oriented toward the maintenance of agreed upon values of human behavior.

But we often falter. When we do so, it is because our brain has made the selfish choice to not put the health of ourselves or society before some immediate personal gain. But this is entirely rational in the sense that the basic algorithm still holds: one will do what one wants the most. Unfortunately what one wants is not always what one ought to do. We are unknowingly being pulled toward one or another action either subconsciously, or simply through ignorance.

John Dewey talked about this a century ago in Democracy and Education:
"We rarely recognize the extent in which our conscious estimates of what is worth while and what is not, are due to standards of which we are not conscious at all. But in general it may be said that the things which we take for granted without inquiry or reflection are just the things which determine our conscious thinking and decide our conclusions. And these habitudes which he below the level of reflection are just those which have been formed in the constant give and take of relationship with others."

In this sense, the behavior is certainly a character flaw. But it is one that can be understood in a deterministic way. It doesn't make it right, or acceptable. It just is. We will likely never be able to entirely map the human mind, and likely never be able to cite the specific cause of complex human behaviors that involve inordinate amounts of biological processing. But every new step we take in neuroscience is validating the basic theory of mind that we do have: that our thoughts originate from brain tissue and are essentially the process of taking input, running it through an existing biological mechanism, calculating something we call "thought", and then acting on it.

If all of this is true, then we have two options in response to negative behavior: ignore it and hope it resolves itself on its own, or respond in such as way as to influence the individual and produce the best outcome we can.

Now, regarding social policy, as far as I know the conservative option is kind of both: ignore the behavior (unless it requires policing/locking people up), and hope that either people figure things out on their own or are somehow shamed into changing their behavior.

This seems to have been a complete failure on both counts. The behavior isn't changing. Some conservatives claim that this is only because of liberal welfare spending. But that's hard to buy. Very little "welfare" actually exists any more, and what there is is hardly dependence-inducing. Or, at least to the extent that it is, it in no way compares with the general deprivations of being so poor in the first place. No, the reasons for continued poverty are well known - family breakdown, institutional rebellion, violence, drugs, lack of human and social capital, generational neglect, etc. Compared to this, government dependence is hardly an issue.

Shaming doesn't seem to be helping either. Ask anyone who is poor and they'll tell you that it isn't fun. A good argument could actually be made that public shame is actually a contributor to many negative behaviors, in the sense that certain rebellious, spiteful attitudes toward traditional social norms often develop no matter how self-destructive they may be. A good example of this would be street gangs, and general hooliganism.(God, I feel really old saying that!). Remember, as a community, these are often people who spent the formative years of their live being told again and again that they were failures. They came to self-identify as such. And once one has lost all sense of dignity, why would public shame be a useful behavioral modification technique?

So, instead we've got devastating social and economic costs. Simply locking more and more people is obviously not a serious solution. Sitting around waiting for people to start acting better isn't working. Shaming certainly isn't working. That about exhausts the conservative repertoire.

Over on the left, we have a ton of ideas. Sure, they cost money. Why wouldn't they? But if they are effective, then the only question seems to be one of personal sacrifice. Actually, there is plenty of evidence for many targeted programs that end up saving a lot of tax dollars in the long run by increased productivity and reduced crime, etc. But regardless, if the issue is how best to get people to change, then you're either on board or you're not. And waiting around isn't working.

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