July 29, 2005

Psychological Determinism

There are two forms of psychological determinism. The first is orectic psychological determinism. According to this theory, we must always act according to our strongest desire. The second is rational psychological determinism. According to this theory, we must always act according to our best reason. In either case, this means that our actions are determined. Both of these theories are flawed. They do not stand up to introspective analysis, and they end up begging the question when they need to fix the holes in introspective analysis.

Psychological determinism usually proceeds by making the claim that one can introspectively discover that he or she always acts according to his or her strongest desire/reason. For instance, whenever I act, I have a series of desires/reasons and whichever is strongest is the one I follow. This process of examining my desires/reasons is the process of decision-making. If I did not act on the basis of my strongest desire/reason, then surely I must be acting according to some other desire/reason that is stronger, no? Therefore, it is unthinkable that I would act for some desire/reason that is not my strongest. Therefore, my actions are determined.

Let us begin with orectic psychological determinism. In introspective analysis, it is not clear that I always act according to my strongest desire. I can't think of any meaningful definition of "strong" for a desire other than "intense". However, I often have quite intense desires that I do not follow in place of less intense, more rational desires. For example, I might forgo a quite intense desire for a cigarette to satisfy a more complex, less intense desire like being healthy. Also, desires tend to be more intense depending on the proximity of the object. For instance, I might forgo a drink for which I have a very strong desire, to avoid a hangover tomorrow that is not vivid in my mind. It is at this point that orectic psychological determinists usually beg the question. Well, then, you must really desire to avoid the hangover more, and that must be your strongest desire. This, however, is only true if one has already accepted orectic psychological determinism. In other words, psychological determinism is being used to prove psychological determinism. It does not follow from introspective analysis.

Rational psychological determinism suffers from the same problem as orectic psychological determinism. As a matter of introspective analysis, I don't always act according to what my reason has determined to be the best reason. For instance, sometimes I will have those extra drinks and take the hangover tomorrow. This is in spite of knowing that the hangover will give me more pain than the drinks will give me pleasure, and knowing that the apparent desirability of the drinks is an illusion brought on by proximity. Nonetheless, I will do what I know full well is the worse action, both pragmatically and morally. Here, like the orectic psychological determinist, the rational psychological determinist usually begs the question. Then you must not really believe your own reasons; you must secretly believe that the hangover isn't really harmful. This, again, is begging the question. The rational psychological determinist is assuming rational psychological determinism in order to prove rational psychological determinism. It does not follow from introspective analysis.

As such, both forms of psychological determinism suffer from the same flaw: they do not follow from introspective analysis. When this is pointed out, psychological determinists will resort to begging the question, assuming their theory in order to prove it.


Anonymous said...

Some thinking points:

1- My understanding of psychological determinism is that it is the assertion that a person's experiences control their behaviors. The extreme form of this is that a person's experience completely control their behaviors. The corollary to this is that if one knows enough about another person's experiences, one can predict their behavior. If one knows everything about a person's behaviors, according to psychological determinism, one can completely predict a person's behaviors. Mind reading not necessary.

Given that there are a large number of experiences that many people have in common, some of which almost everyone has in common with everyone else, if one has knowledge of these experiences one can make some pretty accurate predictions about people. Not only about their overt behaviors, but also even sometimes about inner physiological behaviors within their body and also their thoughts. For example, one does not need to see a person smoking a cigarette to know certain very predictable things about them. Including their thoughts. One just has to notice the smell, or notice the stained teeth (these are all things that cigarette smokers are poorly aware of about themselves and prefer NOT to think about). After about an hour or more without a cigarette, you know with a very high degree of certainty that they are thinking about smoking a cigarette, wondering how they can accomplish smoking a cigarette and/or when they will be able to smoke a cigarette -- all without mind reading. You also know that their pulse rate will start to increase, respiration will start changing, they will develop an inability to focus on the task at hand, and so forth. No psychic ability required to predict these future events, just observation and experience. You also know with a high degree of certainty that the first chance this person gets when they leave they will light up a cigarette. You do not need to be able to predict the future to know this about that person.

Many of us are just as trapped in mental AND emotional behaviors just like a cigarette smoker is trapped in his/her behavior. One does not need to be a mind reader or believer of determinism. Just very observant of oneself and others with no preconceptions.

2- Re: Circular reasoning here

All the physical sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.)are based on three undefinables -- space, time, and force (or mass, as mass and force are defined in terms of each other). They cannot be defined except in terms of each other, which makes them circular definitions. They cannot be proven to exist by means of logic, because they are undefined, and logic can only work with what has been defined.

Take, for example, space -- it is not solid, liquid, gas, or plasma, nor is it a force. What is it?

If you take a ruler and measure it, in an attempt to prove to me its existence, or to define it, you are merely using space to prove the existence of space, which results in a tautology, or in a circular definition, using space to define space.

Anonymous said...

I understand psychological determinism as the correlate of physical determinism in the study of the mind. If there are any laws governing the flow of thoughts then psychological determinism must be true. If a person draws his hand out of fire every time it's put into it, we have something like the beginnings of a determinism there. The point is that the brain is just so much more massively complex than the peripheral neural system and and understood so little in terms of precise laws as compared with the rest of the body that it's easy to get fooled into believing that it is a source of magic and exempt from laws governing the rest of the universe.

Anonymous said...

As said above, it's easy to fall for the illusion of free will because the brain is so complex a mechanism to predict. Long ago people thought the weather was controlled by the will of the gods for the same reason.. but now that we are able to measure the environment somewhat accurately, we are able to consistently predict the weather across the globe. If there ever came a time when we could measure the brain in such a way, we would have the same capability with behavior.. look up LaPlace's Demon..