Touring the Veritable Museum of Mistakes: Thoughts on Dennett on Harris on Free Will

Philosopher Dan Dennett has recently taken Sam Harris to task over his arguments for rejecting the concept of free will. Here are my thoughts on this intellectual fallout.

Sam Harris is perhaps the most prominent defender of the claim that we lack free will, a conclusion that he thinks is inescapable if we’re intellectually honest with ourselves and accept the best scientific picture of the world we have.

It’s not a new claim, and Harris doesn’t advocate any new arguments for his position on free will, usually known as hard determinism. (It’s called hard determinism because it’s based on the acceptance of determinism — the thesis that every event that happens has a preceding cause — combined with a denial of free will, which is seen to be incompatible with determinism.)

Harris’s hard determinism is a minority position within contemporary philosophy. Continue reading

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This Is How We Do It: Exploring the Psychology of Culture

Social life is powerfully shaped by rules of culture. But how do we acquire these rules, and why are we so prone to do so? Recent research is shedding light on these questions, and showing how we use culture to create our social identity.

Credit: David Cooper [http://www.headlinestheatre.com/past_work/us_and_them_play/media_us_and_them.htm]

Gangs do it; high-school cliques do it; even educated professionals do it: in all walks of life, groups of people — whether defined by shared interests, belonging to the same profession or competition with other collectives — invariably invent ways of demarcating themselves from everyone else. Street gangs like the notorious Crips and Bloods, who brought mayhem to South Central Los Angeles during the crack years of the 1990s, differentiate themselves by blue and red clothing, along with unique gang signs, tattoos, tags, and even dances. Teenagers and young adults — emo kids, skaters, goths, hipsters — broadcast membership in their chosen subculture by walking, talking and dressing the same.

This tendency to define and mark off our ingroup boundaries in terms of largely arbitrary and symbolic markers goes much wider than the clothes we wear, the hairstyles we sport, and the make-up and tattoos we adorn ourselves with. We have an almost inexhaustible range of social traits that can be used to define who is in or out of our groups — and we take full advantage of these opportunities.

For example, the language we speak is an especially salient way of carving out large-scale group boundaries. Between countries that share a common language, accent (British or American) serves as a more fine-grained way to divide up peoples, and within countries our accent, and the idiom we speak, provide a similarly easy way to divide up the social world (northern or Cockney, posh or working class).

Languages and dialects, however, are just the tip of the identity iceberg. Social, ethnic and religious groups have developed their own rules governing everything from what foods are deemed acceptable to eat, and the ways it should be prepared and consumed, to sexual mores, ways of greeting each other, the appropriate means by which the dead should be handled and disposed of, and so on indefinitely.

Practically every area of life is governed to a greater or lesser extent by a complex and sometimes opaque web of interweaved codes of conduct, rules of etiquette, social conventions, and moral prohibitions that constitute what behavioural scientists call social norms. So extensive are the social norms governing the way “our people” do things that they constitute a good part of the culture we imbibe during childhood and beyond. Understanding how we pick up these social norms, what motivates us to follow them, and how we treat people who fail to obey them is a first step towards explaining how and why we’re such deeply cultural creatures. Continue reading

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Why Sam Harris is confused about free will

One thing leads to another…

Sam Harris has been lured into talking about free will again. He says he has resisted writing about this topic since publishing The Moral Landscape and the short book Free Will because he felt he had said all there was to say about the matter. But emails from his readers flagged up what Harris sees as a continuing confusion about what his view of free will means for the possibility of loving people. We’ll get to this new post later, but first I want to spell out Harris’s views on free will, and the problems that attend to them. Continue reading

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I like you ’cos you’re like me – or why my enemy’s enemy is my friend

Poor hipsters and their problems – life’s much simpler for kids

Kids’ social instincts emerge early [1,2]. Newborns prefer to look at human faces over other inanimate objects, especially attractive faces. Soon after, babies begin to evaluate the social actions of others: at three months they prefer to play with toy characters that they’ve seen be kind or helpful to another toy, and avoid mean, antisocial individuals [3].

By 9–12 months of age, toddlers understand that other people also share this preference: that is, they appreciate that someone else who has been helped or hindered in trying to achieve a goal will prefer the helper over the hinderer [4]. Three-year olds will also chastise and punish ‘naughty’ puppets, including those that harm other puppets (if only mildly) [5]. Together, these findings suggest that the basic psychological ingredients of full-blown morality are well established by the fourth year of life.

Some of the other social preferences that infants during this period are a little less morally positive, some even xenophobic. Six-month olds prefer to look at photos of people that speak their native language, and 10-month olds are more likely to accept gifts, such as a toy, from someone  speaking their own language [6]. Infants’ social preferences also develop an egocentric streak: by their first birthday, they show a preference for people who are similar to them, even if that only means liking the same kinds of food [7].

A new paper in Psychological Science from the lab of Yale University’s Karen Wynn — a leader in studies of moral development who has been  involved in many of the studies alluded to above — shows how these moralistic and self-referential aspects of social thought are intertwined as infants enter their second year [8]. Continue reading

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Moral mindsets: how remembering our past actions drives our future behaviour

ConsequencesWe all know we should eat better, but it’s hard work to cut out saturated fats and processed sugars completely. Most of us try to achieve some kind of balance: if we’ve been eating fruit, veg, and bean salads all day, we may allow ourselves the luxury of a doughnut or ice-cream sundae in the evening. Conversely, if we know that we’ve been hitting the cakes heavily in recent days, we may try to restore our dietary balance with some simple soups and maybe even a trip to the gym.

This kind of accounting, of balancing the books, also seems to operate in the moral domain. Continue reading

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The selfish, cheating upper classes

When cycling around town, I’m often cut off by drivers who fail to indicate where they’re going. I’ve frequently noted to myself that these drivers are sat behind the wheel of flashy cars, which elicits thoughts along the lines of, “Look at you, with your expensive car and your money – I bet you think the world is some sort of personal playground in which you don’t have to give a second thought to anyone else!”.

Yes, I know it’s a bit of an over-reaction (it’s my version of road rage). And I’ve also wondered how much I’m simply succumbing to the famous confirmation bias: the tendency to pay attention to evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and prejudices, while ignoring instances that do not.

Now, however, it seems that this pattern of behaviour among the better off may not just be a figment of my imagination. A paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that people driving more expensive cars really do pay less regard to other drivers and pedestrians — and, more generally, that those of higher social rank are more likely to engage in a range of unethical behaviours. Continue reading

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When psychologists simulate murder – and what it tells us

“Here is something you can’t understand,
…How I could just kill a man”
‘How I Could Just Kill A Man’, by Cypress Hill

Could you put a weighty, replica gun to someone’s head and pull the trigger? This is just what Fiery Cushman and colleagues asked of people in order to explore the psychological basis of our aversion to inflicting harm on other people. Continue reading

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