"Proximate Determinism"

Earlier this week, I discussed the implications of determinism on moral responsibility and my distinction between ultimate and proximate causes of our decisions. To recap a bit, ultimately (it seems likely) that all of our actions are the result of an infinite regress of prior causes, but proximately we make decisions based largely on reasons (even if that reason is ultimately rooted in that same deterministic chain). Free will may be an illusion but it is an illusion that we’re forced to live in. 


I concluded saying I was going to discuss a form of what I termed “proximate determinism.” Although I actually believe all actions are probably not generated by a free will, I want to distinguish between actions that are decided by our proximate will generator (i.e. our reason) and those actions which aren’t. To be less obtuse, I think this free will vs determinism discussion is as good a bridge as any to discuss subjects such as behavioral economics and cognitive psychology. Originally, I just wanted to just show you an excellent Dan Ariely video, but The New York Times and Jerry Coyne expanded on their original posts and it adds some more dimension to this topic.


Most interestingly, they point to some fascinating research that shows our brains’ (also primates’ brains) neurons  register our decisions before we’re conscious of it. Coyne writes, “that implies that the “decision” isn’t really a conscious one—that is, it doesn’t conform to our notion of free will.” He goes on to discuss that research further here.

[T]he brain activity that predicted which button would be pressed began a full seven seconds before the subject was conscious of his decision to press the left or right button. The authors note, too, that there is a delay of three seconds before the MRI records neural activity since the machine detects blood oxygenation.  Taking this into account, neuronal activity predicting which button would be pressed began about ten seconds before a conscious decision was made.

This seems to fit with some findings of researchers in other fields that argue our decisions are sometimes made “irrationally.” Here’s Dan Ariely’s TED talk fittingly titled, “Are we in control of our own decisions?” 

***Note to Andreas: you may enjoy the research that used The Economist’s subscription choices (which I actually recall seeing).***


As Ariely shows us, the default settings in our lives play an enormous role in our decision making. It’s obvious that our choices are shaped by various cognitive illusions, it’s becoming more clear that free will itself may be just another one.  


[update]: Jonah Lehrer shares his thoughts on free will.

The fact is, we are deeply wired to believe in our freedom. We feel like willful creatures, blessed with elbow room and endowed with the capacity to pick our own breakfast cereal.

In my last post I reached a similar conclusion: “We are hardwired by the universe to act as though we have free will.” 

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  1. July 28, 2010 at 4:46 pm | #1

    I watched it a while ago and remember smirking when he brought that up.

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