Peer pressure and a steady mind

Sociologist Dr Nicholas Christakis has a new book in which he argues that we are subject to a process of ‘social contagion.’ What we do is to a great extent determined by the company we keep. In some cases this is obvious: the clothes they wear, the music they like, and so on. But not just that. Christakis claims that things such as whether you know someone (who knows someone who knows someone) who is obese, influences whether you are likely to become obese. Ditto kinds of sexual activity, smoking, whether or not you vote, happiness, and other things.

The study that is supposed to support this claim is Continue reading “Peer pressure and a steady mind”


Gettier cases, murder, and automatism

In July, Brian Thomas strangled his wife Christine to death. He was acquitted because he suffers from a sleep disorder. This is far from unprecedented. The first defence of this kind in court occurred back in 1846 by Albert Tirrell for the murder of Maria Ann Bickford. The prosecution in Mr Thomas’ case summarised the situation like so.

“In other words, at the time of the killing the defendant was asleep and his mind had no control over what his body was doing.”

What does this mean? We cannot say that he was entirely unaware of his surroundings or his own limb movements (and so perhaps actions) during the episode. For he reports believing, at the time, that someone had broken into their room and was on top of Christine. This motivated him to strangle someone, but a person other than he thought it was. Presumably this action would have involved some kind of control over his limbs in the sense that he could guide his hands toward someone’s neck, despite the neck moving around, move his body over to a given location, and so on. So then is it not false that ‘his mind’ had no control over ‘what his body was doing’?

Another explanation of what the prosecutor has in mind can be got from papers by Jennifer Hornsby (Knowledge, Belief, and Reasons for Acting) and John Gibbons (Knowledge in Action). They present Gettier cases of beliefs that play a part in the explanation of an intentional action. What they find is that if the beliefs are only luckily true, then the intuition is that the action is not intentional. So then, applied to this case, Mr Thomas had a belief that there was someone there, that he was strangling, but because of the state he was in, he mistook his wife to be someone else, an intruder. So the action was not intentional. This was not because his mind had no control over his body. But because he did not have the right kind of awareness of how things are for his action to be intentional.

For a summary of the case go here or here.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small Recent work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility
By Neil Levy and Michael McKenna, University of Melbourne Florida State University
(Vol. 3, December 2008)
Philosophy Compass

Related articles:
£1.99 - small Recent work on Free Will and Moral Responsibility
By Shaun Gallagher , University of Central Florida
(Vol. 2, February 2007)
Philosophy Compass

I didn’t do it, my brain did.

Bereitschaftspotenzial_fig1A recent article in Consciousness and Cognition continues the debate over Benjamin Libet’s famous free will experiment.

In 1983 Libet showed that before subjects announced their decision to perform an action (and hence, or so Libet assumed, before deciding to perform an action) their motor cortex was already preparing the way for the act in question. Libet concluded:

“These considerations would appear to introduce certain constraints on the potential of the individual for exerting conscious initiation and control over his voluntary acts.” (Libet et al. 1983) Continue reading “I didn’t do it, my brain did.”

How do we know when to stop brushing our teeth?

800px-Border_Station_Torkhemn_by_James_G_Pinsky_2006In the course of any given day, the number of snap decisions we are called upon to make is staggering. Simply getting to the office in the morning demands decisions about what to wear, when to leave the house, what route to take, where to park the car, and so on. Many of these involve considerable deliberation, especially when something sudden and unexpected happens that interferes with the decisions we would normally have made – the car not starting, high density traffic on our regular route, a meteor striking our office building, etc.

However, the vast majority of our decisions are made on the fly – they seemingly involve no deliberation at all. Should I use the big black coffee mug, or the smaller blue one? Having left the house, do I then go on the paved path, or simply cut through the lawn towards my car? Fiddle with the radio and only then drive, or the other way around? Even more subtle examples are ubiquitous. How should I pick up the coffee mug, left hand, right hand, by the handle, from above? How firmly should I press the toothbrush to my teeth, and when have I brushed sufficiently? How much pressure on the gas pedal would allow me to bypass that geriatric SUV safely? The list is endless.

Most of these decisions seem to involve no deliberation that we are aware of at all, and yet, it seems obvious that we are there, making them. In a sense, they are automatic, and yet, we’re the ones making them. At the very least, it seems to us that we could have done otherwise.

Continue reading “How do we know when to stop brushing our teeth?”