Archive for January, 2007

A mind of its own

January 30, 2007

Hi, I’m back. About time, too–the holidays took me out of the habit of writing here.

The holidays. My family met with the other members of my extended family for a week at Christmas. For some of you, this is a normal occurance; for others of you, this brings nightmare scenarios. For us, it was somewhere in between. It had been perhaps a decade since we had all been together, but the worst thing that happened was the flu. Seven of us (none from my immediate family, yay!) succumbed; the rest of us did our best to clean up without catching it ourselves.

But that is not what I wanted to write about. What prompts today’s title, “a mind of its own”, was something my dad did during the reunion. He was playing with one of the younger cousins, and toying around with a little spinning top. Sometimes it spun perfectly, but at other times he could not manage to get it to spin at all; instead, it would careen off the table-top, and the little girl would have to search for it. On one of these occasions, my dad exclaimed “it has a mind of its own!”; it certainly seemed to. Its actions were unpredictable, dependent on the slightest variation in how he tried to spin it. We never knew what it might do next.

Of course, that is pretty much the way we speak of “mind”, even in people. We are not able to predict their actions perfectly, so we infer that they are acting in accordance with their own free choices. They do things because they have minds of their own. (And of course, most people reading this–yes, I delude myself that people read this–are rolling their eyes and thinking well of course we have minds of our own; we are human, after all!) But it seems reasonable to me to examine this. Does our inability to predict necessarily mean that a mind is responsible?

Let us begin by looking at some of the uses of “mind” in things other than human. We can also look at other words that typically are seen as “mental” actions–deciding, wanting, hating or loving. The top, of course, “had a mind of its own”. It was teasing my dad and my niece. At the reunion, there was a wood stove, with a fire that we had to keep stoking because it kept wanting to go out. And, with little kids around, we had to keep a close eye on the fire in case one of the logs decided to fall out. (In truth, we do also–and more accurately–say that the fire kept almost going out, or that the logs occasionally would simply fall out. We do not always use mentalistic terms with inanimate objects. But it is the times that we do that are most informative.) If we could predict when the logs would fall, we would not call it “deciding”; if there was an observable cause, then the falling is a simple effect.

Last week, we had a cold snap here, with the morning temperatures below zero (F); my car did not want to start. (I have had friends whose cars often chose not to start even on warm days; my friends would often beg, plead, or yell at their cars while cranking the starter.) There are times when my browser chooses not to open particular websites. Indeed, I could be excused for inferring, based on which websites and the observation that the more I want to see them, the less likely they are to be available, that my computer hates me. I know that I have had many, many students whose excuse for a late assignment is “my computer hates me; it’s evil; it wants me to fail…”

In each of these cases, the active agency on the part of the inanimate object is inferred from unpredictable actions. If the car never starts, it is broken. If it always starts, it is in good shape. If it unpredictably starts or does not… it has a mind of its own. If the browser never opens a particular website, it is incompatible (or one or the other is broken); if it always does, all is well. If it unpredictably does or does not… yup, a mind of its own.

Do tornadoes actively choose to hit trailer parks? It certainly seems that way. So we personify the North Wind (why is it always a fierce-looking bearded guy?), or say that it was Poseidon (the wind is not the chooser, but there is still a choice being made) who sent the wind. Today, of course, we know that the weather is a chaotic system, partly unpredictable but always determined by physical inputs. Of course, this does not stop us from using mentalistic terms when there is uncertainty: “of course, whether that storm hits New England will depend on what the jet stream decides to do; it looks like we might get a foot of snow, but I’m only about 70% certain of it at this point. We’ll know more by this time tomorrow.”

If human behavior is also a chaotic system, it will be partially unpredictable but still completely determined by environmental factors. It is, of course, impossible to prove this absolutely, but I am convinced by what evidence we have that this is the case. When a person acts with “a mind of her own”, what is happening is that her behavior is the result of environmental factors, but factors that we are not aware of. If we had more information, her choice might be much less surprising.

Even the reasons for our own behavior are often not available to us. We know that classical and operant conditioning do not depend on awareness. We can shape a person’s behavior without his knowing what the contingencies of reinforcement were (indeed, sometimes it is more efficient that way!). Social psychologists can easily demonstrate variables that change behavior, even when their experimental subjects deny they were influenced at all!

When we are unaware of the very real influences that our environment has on our behavior, our behavior can only seem unpredictable. And, from a young age, we are taught that this unpredictability is evidence of “a mind of our own”. Well…if we want to use “mind” as a synonym for unpredictable behavior, fine. But most don’t stop there. Most, in our culture, see the mind as causal–as the reason for our unpredictable actions. We infer a mind from our behavior, but then claim that mind as the cause of the behavior, with no more evidence at all. That is circular reasoning, and it is a logical fallacy.

I will close with a definition–from Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary”:

DECIDE, v.i.
To succumb to the preponderance of one set of influences over another set.

A leaf was riven from a tree,
“I mean to fall to earth,” said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
“Eastward,” said he, “I now shall steer.”

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: “‘Twere wise to change my course.”

With equal power they contend.
He said: “My judgment I suspend.”

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: “I’ve decided to fall straight.”

“First thoughts are best?” That’s not the moral;
Just choose your own and we’ll not quarrel.

Howe’er your choice may chance to fall,
You’ll have no hand in it at all.