Peter Smith

Publications, Lectures and Other Stuff

Psychology, Rationality and Free Will

I enjoyed this article by Paul Bloom in The Atlantic (‘The War on Reason’).  It is dated 19 February 2014.

Bloom argues against the view held by many scientists and philosophers that human beings are little more than puppets of their biochemistry.
Aristotle defined man as a rational animal but several branches of contemporary science throw doubt on that view.

1st, neuroscience: We can now see much of the activity of our neurons from fMRI maps. It is also clear now that ‘damage to the brain can impair the most-intimate aspects of ourselves, such as the capacity to make moral judgments or to inhibit bad actions’. Does that mean that rational deliberation and free choice are illusions? Are we ’biochemical puppets’: our thoughts and actions only the products of our brains? It is true that our experience of everyday life ‘feels’ like we make choices, and the view that our body and mind are distinct is very ancient (Indeed, most religious thought has been based on some kind of dualist worldview), but almost all scientists now reject such dualism and hold that our minds and our brains are one and the same.

2nd, social psychology: It is now well established that we are subtly influenced by many factors of which we are entirely unaware. If these unconscious associations and attitudes massively influence our behaviour, does the concept of conscious choice still have any meaning? Is the conscious self merely a mechanism to provide justifications for decisions that have already been made unconsciously?

Many people reject these views as reductionistic (‘neurobollocks!‘) and dangerous, but for Bloom, the basic findings are valid: computational cognitive science, behavioral genetics and social neuroscience have transformed the way that we understand human nature. The implications of these findings should not be overstated, however. The ‘genetic you’ and the ‘neural you’ are not alternatives to the conscious you, only its foundations. Yes, we are sometimes biochemical puppets, acting in irrational ways because of brain damage or psychoactive drugs, but much of our behaviour involves conscious choice — whether or not to read this article, for example. This is not a mystical process — the ‘deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought—with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions, including moral consequences’. Yes, we can be influenced by unconscious stimuli and judge people on the basis of stereotypes, but we can also still make rational judgments.

Note also that we often make successful and rational plans — whether to fetch a glass of water when we are thirsty or managing a career.

Again, consider the way we regard the intellectually disabled and brain-damaged, or others we think cannot take care of themselves: we don’t let toddlers cook hot meals, or allow drunk people to drive cars or pilot planes. We assume that ‘certain core capacities, like wisdom and self-control, take time to mature’.

Or again, take the concept of intelligence: critics are right to point to it limitations, but it is still true that intelligence, ‘as measured by an IQ test, is correlated with all sorts of good things, such as steady job performance, staying out of prison, and being in a stable and fulfilling relationship’. Social factors have an impact, but highly intelligent people still commit fewer violent crimes — perhaps because intelligence allows one to appreciate the benefits of long-term coordination and to consider the perspectives of others.

Again, there is the capacity for self-control that ‘restrains our impulsive, irrational, or emotive desires’, and which has been shown to benefit not just individuals but also society.

Similarly, moral judgment is often rational in nature. Yes, we may act on the basis of ‘gut feelings’, but we can also  debate the rights and wrongs of particular courses of action and build on notions of rightness to become more inclusive of those who are different from us, or learn to reject slavery and sexism. We can even surmount the prejudices of politics.

We can also use reason to reshape our environment so as to achieve higher goals — to ‘establish laws, create social institutions, write constitutions and evolve customs’.

‘Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, and the author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (2013)’.

The article is worth reading in full, and is found here:


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This entry was posted on February 22, 2014 by in Psychology and tagged .
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