Beliefs are Not Voluntary

Beliefs Are Not Voluntary

One of the ideas that Quassim Cassam examines in his book Vices of the Mind is the idea of responsibility. Cassam recognizes two forms of responsibility in his book and examines those forms of responsibility through the lens of epistemic vices. The first form of responsibility is acquisition responsibility, or our responsibility for acquiring beliefs or developing ways of thinking, and the second form of responsibility is revision responsibility, or our responsibility for changing beliefs and ways of thinking that are shown to be harmful.
 
 
Within this context Cassam provides interesting insight about our beliefs. He writes, “If I raise my arm voluntarily, without being forced to raise it, then I am in this sense responsible for raising it.
Notoriously, we lack voluntary control over our own beliefs. Belief is not voluntary.”
 
 
Cassam explains that if it is raining outside, we cannot help but believe that it is raining. We don’t have control over many of our beliefs, they are in some ways inescapable and determined by factors beyond our control. beliefs are almost forced on us by external factors. I think this is true for many of our beliefs, ranging from spiritual beliefs to objective beliefs about the world. As Cassam argues, we are not acquisition responsible for believing that we are individuals, that something is a certain color, or that our favorite sports team is going to have another dreadful season.
 
 
But we are revision responsible for our beliefs.
 
 
Cassam continues, “We do, however, have a different type of control over our own beliefs, namely, evaluative control, and this is sufficient for us to count as revision responsible for our beliefs.”
 
 
Cassam introduces ideas from Pamela Hieronymi to explain our evaluative control over our beliefs. Hieronymi argues that we can revise our beliefs when new information arises that challenges those beliefs. She uses the example of our beliefs for how long a commute will be and our shifting beliefs if we hear about heavy traffic. We might not be responsible for the initial beliefs that we develop, but we are responsible for changing those beliefs if they turn out to be incorrect. We can evaluate our beliefs, reflect on their accuracy, and make adjustments based on those evaluations.
 
 
It is important for us to make this distinction because it helps us to better think about how we assign blame for inaccurate beliefs. We cannot blame people for developing inaccurate beliefs, but we can blame them for failing to change those beliefs. We should not spend time criticizing people for developing racist beliefs, harmful spiritual beliefs, or wildly inaccurate beliefs about health, well-being, and social structures. What we should do is blame people for failing to recognize their beliefs are wrong, and we should help people build evaluative capacities to better reflect on their own beliefs. This changes our stance from labeling people as racists, bigots, or jerks and instead puts the responsibility on us to foster a society of accurate self-reflection that push back against inaccurate beliefs. Labeling people will blame them for acquiring vices, which is unreasonable, but fostering a culture that values accurate information will ease the transition to more accurate beliefs.

Acquisition Responsibility

We are not always responsible for the acquisition of our virtues and vices. For some of us, being good natured and virtuous toward other people comes naturally, and for others of us, being arrogant or closed-minded comes naturally or was pushed onto us from forces we could not control. I think it is reasonable to say that virtues likely require more training, habituation, imitation, and intentionality for acquisition than vices, so in that sense we are more responsible for virtue acquisition than vice acquisition. It is useful to think about becoming versus being when we think about virtues and vices because it helps us better consider individual responsibility. Making this distinction helps us think about blameworthiness and deservingness, and it can shape the narratives that influence how we behave toward others.
In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam writes, “a person who is not responsible for becoming dogmatic might still be responsible for being that way. Acquisition responsibility is backward-looking: it is concerned with the actual or imagined origin of one’s vices.”
In the book, in which Cassam focuses on epistemic vices, or vices that obstruct knowledge. Cassam uses an example from Heather Battaly of a young man who is unfortunate enough to grow up in a part of the world controlled by the Taliban. The young man will undoubtedly be closed-minded (at the very least) as a result of being indoctrinated by the Taliban. There is little the man could do to be more open minded, to avoid adopting a specific viewpoint informed by the biases, prejudices, and agendas of the Taliban. It is not reasonable to say that the man has acquisition responsibility for his closed-mindedness. Many of our epistemic vices are like this, they are the results of forces beyond our control or invisible to us, they are in some ways natural cognitive errors that come from misperceptions of the world.
When we think about vices in this way, I would argue that it should change how we think about people who hold such vices. It seems to me that it would be unreasonable to scorn everyone who holds a vice for which they have no control over the acquisition. Being backward-looking doesn’t help us think about how to move forward. It is important to recognize that people hate being held responsible for things they had no control over, even if that thing lead to serious harms for other people. An example might be people who have benefitted from structural racism, and might like to see systems and institutions change to be less structurally racist, but don’t want to be blamed for a system they didn’t recognize or know they contributed to. Being stuck with a backward-looking view frustrates people, makes them feel ashamed and powerless, and prevents progress. People would rather argue that it wasn’t their fault and that they don’t deserve blame than think about ways to move forward. Keeping this in mind when thinking about how we address and eliminate vices for which people are not acquisition responsible is important for us if we want to continue to grow as individuals and societies and if we want to successfully overcome epistemic vices.
A Useful Myth

A Useful Myth

Autonomy, free will, and self-control combine to create a useful myth. The myth is that we control our own destinies, that we are autonomous actors with rights, freedoms, and the opportunity to improve our lives through our own effort. The reality is that the world is incredibly complex, that we don’t get to chose our genes, our parents, or the situations in life that we are born and raised within. A huge number of factors based on random chance and luck contribute to whether we are successful or not, but nevertheless, the belief that we are autonomous actors with control over our own free will is still a useful myth.

 

In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer writes, “people who report more internal control tend to fare better in life than those who don’t. They play a more active role in their communities, take better care of their health, and get better jobs. We may have no control about whether people find our clothes or skills or appearance attractive. But we do have control over internal goals such as acquiring languages, mastering a musical instrument, or taking responsibility for small children or our grandparents.”

 

This quote shows why the idea of internal control and agency is such a useful myth. If we believe we have the power to shape our lives for the better, then we seem to be more likely to work hard, persevere, and stretch for challenging goals. A feeling of helplessness, as though we don’t have control, likely leads to cynicism and defeatism. Why bother trying if you and your actions won’t determine the success or failure you experience in life?

 

This myth is at the heart of American meritocracy, but it is important to note that it does appear to be just a myth. EKGs can detect electrical activity in the brain and predict an action before a person becomes aware of a conscious desire to perform an action. Split brain experiments and the research of Kahneman and Tversky show that our brains are composed of multiple competing systems that almost amount to separate people and personalities all within our singular consciousness. And as I wrote earlier, luck is a huge determining factor in whether we have the skills and competencies for success, and whether we have a supportive environment and sufficient opportunities to master those skills.

 

Recently, on an episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia Galef interviewed Michael Sandel about our meritocracy. One fear that Sandel has about our system of meritocracy is that people who succeed by luck and chance believe that they succeeded because of special qualities or traits that they possess. Meanwhile, those who fail are viewed as having some sort of defect, a mindset that people who fail or live in poverty may come to believe is true and embrace, thus creating another avenue for defeatism to thrive.

 

If internal control is a useful myth, it is because it encourages action and flourishing for individuals. My solution therefore is to blend the two views, the view of internal agency and the view of external forces shaping the future we have. These are contradictory views on the surface, but I believe they can be combined and live in harmony (especially given the human ability to peacefully and ignorantly live with contradictory beliefs). We need to believe we have agency, but also believe that success is essentially a matter of luck and that we are dependent on society and others to reach great heights. This should encourage us to apply ourselves fully, but to be humble, and take steps to help ensure others can also apply themselves fully to reach greater levels of success. When people fail, we shouldn’t look at them as morally inept, as lacking skills and abilities, but as people who happened to end up in a difficult place. We should then take steps to help improve their situations and to give them more opportunities to find the space that fits their skills and abilities for growth and success. Internal control can still be a useful myth if we tie it to the right structures and systems to ensure everyone can use their agency appropriately and avoid the overwhelming crush of defeatism when things don’t go well.
Autonomous Actors

Autonomous Actors

“We now know that the effects of priming can reach into every corner of our lives.” Daniel Kahneman writes this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow while demonstrating the power of priming factors. An example he uses in the book to demonstrate the power of priming has to do with voting and school support. A study from Arizona showed that people are more likely to support ballot propositions to increase school funding when their polling place is in a school. The difference between supporting the proposition or not was greater for people voting within a school building versus those who voted elsewhere than the difference was between parents of school aged children and non-parents. Simply where we happen to cast our ballot is not something most of us would consider to be a big influencing factor in our preference for school funding, but it is. We are not the autonomous actors that we like to believe we are.

 

Priming factors influence a lot of our behaviors, often without our awareness. In the past I wrote about priming and creativity and the power of our environment from research that Richard Wiseman presented in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. Small factors in our environment can change our emotional valance and can influence how creative we are, even if we don’t notice those factors directly. What our brains are doing is sometimes under our control, like when we focus on writing, doing math problems, or skiing downhill, but even then, our performance and ability can be influenced by things external to our brain that seemingly have no significance to our lives or the task at hand.

 

This raises the question about how autonomous we are, how much self-control and self-determination can we exercise, and whether there any potential for free will. The debates around free will are complex, and most people who study consciousness seem to be telling us that free will, at least as popularly conceptualized, cannot exist. Brain scans and studies show that an action potential builds up in the brain before we make a conscious decision to do something. Add to that the fact that priming studies show that the decisions we make are often influenced by factors beyond our immediate discretion, and we have to conclude that we do not have the kind of will, control, and autonomy that we typically perceive ourselves as having.

 

Kahneman writes, “Studies of priming effects have yielded discoveries that threaten our self-image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and our choices.” Our environments and the priming factors around us shape who we are and how we behave. Social norms and cues dictate our responses to many events. We don’t behave rationally and autonomously, we respond to stimuli and the world, and don’t have the control that we associate with the autonomous actors we believe ourselves to be.
Conscious and Unconscious Priming Effects

Conscious and Unconscious Priming Effects

“Another major advance in our understanding of memory was the discovery that priming is not restricted to concepts and words,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware.”

 

Yesterday I wrote about linguistic priming. How words can trigger thoughts in our mind, and set us up to think certain thoughts. I wrote about how ideas spread, like in the movie Inception from one thought or idea to another based on similarities and categories of things. I wrote about how important implicit associations can be, and how we have used them to measure racial bias and the harm that these biases could have in society. Today’s post continues on that trend, exploring the areas in our lives where priming may be taking place without our knowledge.

 

In his book, before the quote I shared at the start of this post, Kahneman describes our thoughts as behaving like ripples on a pond. A train of thought can be primed in one direction, and ripples from that priming can spread out across our mind. So when I used Inception earlier, I may have primed our minds to think about trains, since they feature so prominently in the movie, and if that is the case, it is no surprise that I used train of thought just a few sentences later. From this point forward, there are likely other metaphors and examples that I might use that are potentially primed by the movie Inception or by associations with trains. It is clear that I’m following priming effects if I directly reference my thinking staying on track or going off the rails, but it might be less obvious and clear how my thinking might relate to trains in the sentences to come, but as Kahneman’s quote suggested, my mind might be unconsciously primed for certain directions all from the casual mention of Inception from earlier.

 

Across my writing I have always been fascinated by the idea that we are not in as much control over our minds as we believe. Thoughts think themselves, we don’t necessarily think our own thoughts. Our minds can be influenced by time, by caffeine levels, by whether someone smiled at us on our commute to work, or whether our sock is rubbing on our foot in a strange way. We don’t have to think of anything for it to directly register with our brain and influence where our mind goes. What thoughts pop into our head, and what ripples of ideas are primed across our mind are beyond our control and influenced by things we sometimes barely notice. Priming, according to Kahneman, can be direct, deliberate, and conscious, or it can be unconscious and oblique. The mind and how we think is more random and unpredictable than it feels, and sometimes more random than we would like to believe. This should change how we think of ourselves, how we think of others, and what information and knowledge we privilege and encourage. It should make us less certain that we are always behaving as we should, and less certain that we are as smart and savvy in all situations as we like to believe we are.
Luck & Stories of Success

Luck & Stories of Success

There are some factors within individual control that influence success. Hard work is clearly important, good decision-making is important, and an ability to cooperate and work well with others is also important for success. But none of these factors on their own are sufficient for success, at least many prominent thinkers and researchers seem to agree that they are not sufficient. One very successful researcher who would agree that these character, personality, or individual traits are not enough is Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning professor from Princeton.

 

Kahneman’s research, the portion which won him the Nobel Prize was conducted with Amos Tversky, was incredibly successful and influential within psychology and economics. But remembering the lessons he learned from his own research, Kahneman writes the following about his academic journey and the studies he shares in his book:

 

“A recurrent theme of this book is that luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome. Our story was no exception.”

 

In anything we do, a certain amount of luck is necessary for any level of success, and much of that luck is beyond our control. Some songs really take off and become major hits, even if the song is objectively not as catchy or as good as other songs (is there any other way to explain Gangnam Style?). Sometimes a mention by a celebrity or already famous author can ignite the popularity of another writer, and sometimes a good referral can help jump-start the popularity of a restaurant. We can work hard, put our best product forward, and make smart choices, but the level of success we achieve can sometimes be as random as the right person telling another right person about what we are doing.

 

Timing, connections, and fortunate births are all luck factors that we don’t control, but that can hugely influence our stories. Being born without a disability or costly medical condition can allow you to save for a rainy day. Being born in a country with functioning roads and postal services can allow you to embark on a new business venture. And happening to have a neighbor who knows some body who can help your kid get into a good college can allow your child and family to move up in ways that might have otherwise been impossible.

 

There are certain things we can do to prepare ourselves to take advantage of good luck, but we need to recognize how important luck is. We have to acknowledge it and remember that our stories are full of luck, and that not everyone has a story with as equally good luck as we do. We can’t assume that our success was all due to factors relating to our good personal traits and habits (a cognitive error that Kahneman discusses in his book). To fully understand the world, we have to look at it objectively, and that requires that we think critically and honestly about the good luck we have had.
Rivalry Results in Strife

Rivalry Results in Strife

“Rivalry results in strife,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic. A quick Google search of strife gives us the definition:
angry or bitter disagreement over fundamental issues; conflict. Rivalry heightens our disagreements, it clouds our judgments, and creates enemies who will oppose us. When we give in to rivalrous forms of thinking, we compare ourselves, our power, our social status, and our possessions to others, and we also make ourselves vulnerable to others.

 

Seneca explains that life is better when we live without too great a concern over our things, our influence, and our power. If we focus on being the best person we can be, on being actively engaged in a meaningful way in the world, and on how we can be there for other people, we will live well and cultivate relationships instead of rivalries. Focusing instead on what we own and how many people know our names puts us in competition with others. It creates mini rivalries between us and other people who could instead be friends and allies. It creates the conditions for disagreements and struggles for dominance and assertion. Struggles that are often meaningless and harmful to all those involved.

 

Instead of actively castigating others and pushing against anyone we disagree with, Seneca would encourage us to live on our own path. He would encourage us to define ourselves without material possessions, without important titles, and without power. All of those can be taken from us, especially in the face of a bitter adversary. Creating a life that is dependent on the few things we realistically can control (like the faculties of our mind and our kindness toward others) gives us a foundation that can’t be taken away by enemies or rivals.

 

This is not to say that we should treat those who would otherwise be our rivals with undue respect. We should acknowledge them, interact with them, and respectfully disagree with them when necessary. We should not actively avoid them in all respects, or we will inadvertently create the rivalries that we are hoping to avoid. We should work with such people when necessary, and strive for ways to have healthy conversations and compromises where necessary. We must build relationships even with those we dislike, otherwise we risk creating polarized camps which devolve to strife, where everyone loses through rivalry, competition, and argument.
A Different Take on Chronic Pain

A Different Take on Chronic Pain

In his book Dreamland Sam Quinones includes a quote by Dr. John Loeser, Professor Emeritus of Neurological Surgery at the University of Washington in Seattle. Quinones spoke with him to better understand chronic pain and how chronic pain can be approached without the use of opioids. Loeser has an approach to treating chronic pain that doesn’t rely purely on drugs and is more centered around the patient, their environment, and their social supports. Loeser describes his approach as a bio-psycho-social approach and Quinones provides the following quote:

 

“Chronic pain is more than something going wrong inside the person’s body. It always has social and psychological factors playing a role.”

 

What I think is interesting with this quote is how far it is from the experience that many of us have with doctors and medicine today. Much of our medical care comes in tiny ten minute packets, where we go back and forth with a doctor for a few minutes before they write us a prescription for something and send us on our way. The providers often don’t end up doing much to help us through our current issue, and we rely on a pill to suddenly make our lives better. The approach completely misses many other factors of health.

 

Where we live matters. Who we have in our lives matters. What our diet is like, what stress factors exist around us, how easily we can get outside or to a gym for physical activity matters. A ten minute conversation and a pill cannot address these issues and certainly cannot change them.

 

I’m not introducing this all to suggest that chronic pain isn’t real, or that it is all in a person’s head. I’m also not introducing it to suggest that people suffering from chronic pain simply are not trying hard enough, need to take more personal responsibility, or just need to move to fix their pain. Often these social determinants of health are beyond the control of any one person. Before criticizing another person, and if we want to help them, we must also consider their environment, and whether we ourselves are a factor that helps or hinders the health of another.  Our world is too connected to say that someone’s health is purely a matter of their own choices and behaviors, even if personal responsibility does have a role to play in managing health. Approaching health from this angle helps us understand that an opioid is never going to be sufficient in truly alleviating chronic pain. There have to be more efforts to understand the bio-psycho-social realities of the person’s life and the chronic pain they experience.

Credit for Being Who You Are

It is easy to look at other people and compare ourselves to them and feel either vastly superior or completely inadequate. But whether we feel better than someone else or worse than another person, we should recognize that these comparisons are generally meaningless. There are some people who do incredible things in the world, and others who we think could do more, but it is often the case that the individuals themselves have less control over how amazing and impressive they are than we (and they) believe.

 

For someone who is successful, it is easy and tempting for them to take all the credit. Surely they had to make smart choices and work hard to get to the place they are, and surely their success feels as if it has been earned. Simultaneously, we can apply this filter to someone who has not become our picture of success. They were lazy and didn’t make smart choices, and also deserve the place where they have landed.

 

For both successful and unsuccessful people, this perspective can be turned around. The successful person was the beneficiary of good luck, of a supportive and loving family, and maybe even inherited some wealth to help them along the way. The person who didn’t succeed maybe just didn’t get the lucky break, didn’t have someone in their life to help encourage and inspire them, and maybe had other challenges we don’t know about. For the successful person, maybe they would still be successful even if they were lazy and made poor choices. Perhaps the person we think of as a failure would have still failed even if they had worked hard and made smart choices.

 

I like to think through these exercises to remind myself that what I think of as success and failure, and what I see in my own life outcomes and the outcomes of other people are not always the results of individual actions, choices, and will power. Comparing ourselves to those who are successful and those who have failed doesn’t really give us a good picture of who is a valuable person. We all have different advantages and all face different forms of adversity. There are a lot of factors we can’t control, and we can’t take full credit for being either successful or for failing to reach the highest rung on the ladder.

 

Dale Carnegie writes about this in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, bringing a bit of a Stoic perspective to his readers:

 

“The only reason, for example, that you are not a rattlesnake is that your mother and father weren’t rattlesnakes. You deserve very little credit for being what you are—and remember, the people who come to you irritated, bigoted, unreasoning, deserve very little discredit for being what they are.”

 

We didn’t pick our genes, we didn’t pick our families, and we can’t always control our thoughts and personalities. We can certainly do the best we can with what we have, but we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly (or praise ourselves unduly) because we are not like someone else. To be where we are today was in many ways a lucky result, and we will never know exactly what extra pushes we received that others did not, or what extra advantages others had that we missed out on. All we can do is try to engage with the world in a meaningful way, and try to help those who didn’t get the advantages that we had.

The Time for Being Moral

Morality and our behavior is one of the spaces that I think demonstrates how little our actions and behaviors seem to actually align with the way we think about ourselves and the level of control we have in our lives. We believe that we are the masters of our own sails and that we are in control of what we do in the way that a CEO is in control of a company. We blame people when they make mistakes, hide our own shortcomings, and are pretty tough on ourselves when we don’t do the things we said we would do.

 

We hold ourselves and others to high moral standards and approach morality as if there is one fixed standard that is set in stone, but in our lives we don’t actually live that out. However, small factors that we likely ignore or completely fail to recognize play a huge role in our actual behaviors, and shape how we think about morality and whether we behave in a way that is consistent with the moral values we claim to have. One example is time.

 

In his book When, author Dan Pink looks at the ways that humans behave and interact with the world at different times of the day. Most people start their day out with a generally positive affect that peaks somewhere around 4 to 6 hours after waking up. Their mood then plummets and they experience a trough in the middle of the day and afternoon where their affect is more negative, their patience is shorter, and their attention is dulled. But, luckily for us all, people generally show a tendency to rebound in the late afternoon and early evening and their mood and affect improve. Night owls show the same pattern, but generally reversed starting out in more of a rebound phase, running through a trough in the middle of the day, and peaking in the evening.

 

Studies seem to show that this cycle holds for our attentiveness, our mood, and also our morality. Pink writes, “synchrony even affects our ethical behavior. In 2014 two scholars identified what they dubbed the morning morality effect, which showed that people are less likely to lie and cheat on tasks in the morning than they are later in the day.” Pink continues to explain that subsequent research seems to indicate that we are more moral during our peak. Most people are morning people and are most moral in the mornings. Night owls seem to be more moral in the evening when they hit their peak.

 

It seems strange that we would have certain times when we behave more moral. For the standard story we tell ourselves, we are rational agents who are not influenced by cheesy commercials, by insignificant details, or by the random time at which something takes place. We are the masters of our own destiny and we are in control of our own behavior and thoughts. This story, however, doesn’t seem to be an accurate reflection of our lives. If simply changing the time of day during which we have to make a morality decision changes the outcome of our decision, then we should ask if we really are in control of our thoughts and actions. It seems that we are greatly influenced by things that really shouldn’t matter when it comes to crucial decisions about morality and our behavior.