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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Are we in control of our own decisions?


Catarina said...

Hi Brit,
Thanks, this was great! Here is a very general question: how do all these findings from behavioral economics (on how we make choices and the systematic cognitive and perceptual 'mistakes' we seem to make) impact on traditional epistemology? We are not talking about far-fetched scenarios where we might make occasional mistakes, but rather about us systematically and consistently making such mistakes, which in all likelihood are an integral part of our cognitive mechanisms. Does this mean extra support for epistemic skepticism? Doesn't it look like we must revisit the whole enterprise of traditional epistemology?
(These questions are not specifically directed to you, just throwing them in the air a bit...)

Brit Brogaard said...

That's a very good point, Catarina!

I think traditional epistemology in many cases overlooks the differences between conscious and unconscious mental states.

Just to mention a couple of obvious examples: know-how and semantic knowledge states are bound to be unconscious, whereas my knowledge state with the content that I am sitting here at the computer typing right now is conscious.

There may well be enormous differences between these states, besides the fact that one is conscious and the other not.

For example, it's not clear that both kinds involve belief states (but also not clear that they do not, since beliefs can be implicit). More importantly, though, the justification component is bound to be different in the two cases.

We don't, and can't, require the same sort of justification for conscious and unconscious knowledge states.

What justifies my conscious knowledge state with the content that I am sitting here at the computer typing is in part the phenomenology of the state.

What justifies my know-how-to-type state is not phenomenology but something else altogether that involves, among other things, a bodily condition (an ability, perhaps). I say more about that in my knowledge-how paper (to appear in Bengson and Moffett).

I am not sure, though, that the fact that there are unconscious states should make us skeptics in the traditional sense.

But your question concerned not only unconscious states but also our tendency to make mistakes when we make decisions, figure out probabilities, etc.

Well, what this shows is that there are certain types of knowledge that are hard to come by, because we reliably make these mistakes.

But we should not conclude from this that skepticism is true.

For example, we can to a large extent trust our vision. The fact that we make mistakes about illusions does not undermine our ability to have knowledge grounded in vision. Illusions are relatively rare.

However, detailed knowledge grounded in memory is probably going to be relatively rare (witness the unreliability of eye-witness testimony).

Catarina said...

Thanks for the comments. I think you are absolutely right in saying that traditional epistemology ignores the crucial distinction between conscious and unconscious states (just as it tends to ignore the distinction between reflexive and irreflexive states and acts, which is not the same distinction but it is similar). Indeed, it tends to ignore findings from psychology generally speaking, with a few notable exceptions.

I'm not an epistemologist, but if I were one, I would launch a whole research program on re-evaluating traditional epistemology in light of recent results from psychology (that's btw what I'm trying to do in my own field, philosophy of logic).

Anyway, I think I lean more towards a skeptical view of knowledge than you given the results of e.g. behavioral economics. The example of vision you give: the traditional skeptical argument has it that, since vision fools us on occasion, we can never trust it. The natural reply is the one you refer to, that vision is by and large reliable, and the few cases where it goes wrong should not force us into skepticism. But I think the situation with human cognition and decision-making is different: we systematically make 'weird' choices, in this domain 'illusions' are everything but rare. There is some sort of reliability that emerges from it, after all we are a fairly successful species and most of us survive quite alright. But that doesn't mean we possess accurate knowledge of the world around us; we have just adapted more or less successfully (including cultural adaptation, I don't mean only biologically). It depends of course on what you want to call 'knowledge', but generally speaking there is no obvious reason why truth and success in survival should coincide systematically. (Like, nature made it such that we always think our own children are the most beautiful ones in the whole world: a pretty good systematic mechanism of deceit to keep the species running!)

Anonymous said...

Really interesting post. On a tangential note: Can persons who are drug addicted (and currently using) make life changing decisions?

Brit Brogaard said...

Anon: That program seems somewhat similar to the older programs that aimed at preventing "feeble minded" people from having kids. I am against that idea. Of course, one difference is that drug addicts potentially can harm their babies. But it still seems to me to be an unethical kind of population control. Wouldn't it be better to work towards getting them in a rehab?

Brit Brogaard said...

Catarina: I agree that we should be more skeptical in the domain of decision making and reasoning. However, this still does not give us reason to be full-blown skeptics. But yeah, a limited form of skepticism seems warranted.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jonathan Speke Laudly here,
How do you know there is such a thing as an unconscious? If it's unconscious you have no access to it to prove its existence---to conclude that something is there.
In principle it cannot be shown--for then it would not be unconscious.
If you can form a concept of it
---does it necessarily exist?
I invoke Ockham about the unconscious---seems to me to add nothing. Why not just say some thought showed up?
My intuition says there is no such thing. You say, perhaps, that you infer such an entity as the unconscious--based on the assumption that something must
be there in mind but we can't see it. I don't subscribe to the
Instead of saying, "I must unconsciously hate you, for I keep spilling my drinks on you" ==why not just say, "I keep spilling my drinks on you and maybe it's because I have some hatred for you"
If you are going to posit hatred
posit hatred. I think nothing is gained by making it somehow unknown to us and unprovable in principle. Make it at least observable internally. If it is not so--then what purpose does it serve?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Jonathan Speke Laudly here,

If you posit an agent which makes a decision, which says yes to x and no to y, or simply does x and not y or some such,
then, from my view you are entangled in regression.
If the agent or self or whatever makes a decision, then did this entity also decide to decide? and if it did, did it decide to decide to decide? and if it did---and so on ad infinitum.
I am not a realist about such an entity making such a thing as a decision.
I take the common expression as just that some preference emerged.
Can just say-" it came to her (or me) to do x rather than y" Works perfectly well without the regression.
And more accurate too, from my view, since really, it seems to me that a decision is, at most a waiting for a preference to arise------often after alternatives arise.
The only reason to preserve the entity/agent is to preserve the human ego and the ego's claim to originate such a preference which arises.
Does the self decide to dissappear in deep sleep? and then appear in the morning again?
If so, why is it that we have no recollection of such a thing?
If we are our selves then what recollects if not the self? Could it be that recollection and other aspects of mind simply arise sans an agent self?
Could it be that the self, this notion or sense or whatever you want to call it, which comes and goes, does not control itself?

I am not saying the notion of self is not useful---just that there is no necessity to make it some kind of autonomous agent.
Given science, it only makes sense that, as with the rest of things, the self and its coming and going is the result of the ongoing operations of the wider universe.
Maybe it would be better to say that the universe acts, rather than the self acts--but maybe not. It seem just a larger self.
And no, I don't subscribe to an unconscious self.

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi there, we know that there is such a thing as the unconscious because it has been empirically tested. For example, people can identify things they cannot consciously see, and facial expressions can affect their decisions even when they cannot consciously see the facial expressions. This strongly indicates that there is such a thing as the unconscious.