Mind Shadows

6/29/04

Steven Pinker & The Fear of Determinism

There was a young man who said "Damn!"
It grieves me to think that I am
Predestined to move
In a circumscribed groove:
In fact, not a bus, but a tram.

"One fear of determinism is a gaping existential anxiety: that deep down we are not in control of our own choices. All our brooding and agonizing over the right thing to do is pointless, it would seem, because everything has already been preordained by the state of our brains. If you suffer from this anxiety, I suggest the following experiment. For the next few days, don't bother deliberating over your actions. It's a waste of time, after all; they have already been determined. Shoot from the hip, live for the moment, and if it feels good, do it. No, I am not seriously suggesting that you try this! But a moment's reflection on what would happen if you did try to give up making decisions should serve as a Valium for the existential anxiety. The experience of choosing is not a fiction, regardless of how the brain works. It is a real neural process, with the obvious function of selecting behavior according to its foreseeable consequences. It responds to information from the senses, including the exhortations of other people. You cannot step outside it or let it go on without you because it is you. If the most ironclad form of determinism is real, you could not do anything about it anyway, because your anxiety about determinism, and how you would deal with it, would also be determined. It is the existential fear of determinism that is the real waste of time.

A more practical fear of determinism is captured in a saying by A.A. Milne: "No doubt Jack the Ripper excused himself on the grounds that it was human nature." The fear is that an understanding of human nature seems to eat away at the notion of personal responsibility. In the traditional view, the self or soul, having chosen what to do, takes responsibility when things turn out badly. As with the desk of Harry S. Truman, the buck stops here. But when we attribute an action to a person's brain, genes, or evolutionary history, it seems that we no longer hold the individual accountable. Biology becomes the perfect alibi, the get-out-of-jail-free card, the doctor's excuse note. As we have seen, this accusation has been made by the religious and cultural right, who want to preserve the soul, and the academic left, who want to preserve a "we" who can construct our futures though in circumstances of our own choosing.

"Why is the notion of free will so closely tied to the notion of responsibility, and why is biology thought to threaten both? Here is the logic. We blame people for an evil act or bad decision only when they intended the consequences and could have chosen otherwise. We don't convict a hunter who shoots a friend he has mistaken for a deer, or the chauffeur who drove John F. Kennedy into the line of fire, because they could not foresee and did not intend the outcome of their actions. We show mercy to the victim of torture who betrays a comrade, to a delirious patient who lashes out at a nurse, or to a madman who strikes someone he believes to be a ferocious animal. We don't put a small child on trial if he causes a death, nor do we try an animal or an inanimate object, because we believe them to be constitutionally incapable of making an informed choice.

"A biology of human nature would seem to admit more and more people into the ranks of the blameless. A murderer [might have] a shrunken amygdala or a hypo-metabolism in his frontal lobes. . . . Even worse, biology may show that we are all blameless. Evolutionary theory says that the ultimate rationale for our motives is that they perpetuated our ancestors' genes in the environment in which they evolved. Since none of us are aware of that rationale, none of us can be blamed for pursuing it, any more than we blame the mental patient who thinks he is subduing a mad dog but really is attacking a nurse. . . . Should we go even farther than the National Rifle Association bumper sticker--GUNS DON'T KILL; PEOPLE KILL--and say that not even people kill, because people are just as mechanical as guns? . . . .

"People who hope that a ban on biological explanations might restore personal responsibility are in for the biggest disappointment of all. The most risible pretexts for bad behavior in recent decades have come not from biological determinism, but from environmental determinism: the abuse excuse, the Twinkie defense, black rage, pornography poisoning, societal sickness, media violence, rock lyrics. . . .

"Something has gone terribly wrong. It is a confusion of explanation with exculpation. Contrary to what is implied by critics of biological and environmental theories of the causes of behavior, to explain behavior is not to exonerate the behaver. . . . The difference between explaining behavior and excusing it is captured in the saying "To understand is not to forgive," and has been stressed in different ways by many philosophers, including Hume, Kant, and Sartre. Most philosophers believe that unless a person was literally coerced (that is, someone held a gun to his head), we should consider his actions to have been freely chosen, even if they were caused by events inside his skull. . . . As Oliver Wendell Holmes explained, "If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, ' I don't doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. . . . the law must keep its promises'. " (Steven Pinker,"The Fear of Determinism," in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Nature. NY: Vintage, 2002.)

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