Archive for the ‘News’ Category

We began with a quick review of the history of the concepts of altruism and group selection. We first see these concepts pop up in Charles Darwin’s early works, but Darwin did not formalize these concepts in terms of the mechanisms or mathematics reinforcing them. Wynne-Edwards (1962) introduced the idea of inter-deme selection and the notion of “social conventions” of self-restriction, which act to restrain actions/behaviors at the individual level for the benefit of the group (e.g., Individual A forgoes reproducing so that the group size is restricted, so that the available food resources are not overexploited). It was later shown that Wynne-Edwards strongly overestimated the strength of group selection. Hamilton (1963) first formalized the idea of kin selection, suggesting that genetic reproduction matters, and the level of relatedness (or genetic similarity) impacts the indirect benefits of altruistic acts. In short, the more related individuals are, the more likely they are to be altruistic towards one another. Trivers (1971) was the first big proponent of reciprocal altruism, which involves a pairwise interaction with future benefits in mind. In reciprocal altruism, individuals actually benefit (individual selection) through future pay-back that ultimately benefits the altruistic individual. Wynne-Edwards and Hamilton both came at the idea of altruism from an indirect benefits (group/kin selection) point of view (i.e., altruistic acts lead to increases in the frequency of altruistic genes in the population), whereas Trivers’ reciprocal altruism implies that altruism results from individual selection because of individual pay-offs for the giver of altruistic acts.

This discussion of the history of these concepts led to an offshoot conversation on the differences between group- and individual-level selective pressures. This could be an issue of perspective—the larger your viewpoint (i.e., looking from meta-population level versus sub-population level), the lower the extinction rates and reproductive rates of systems in question. Because of this, lower levels of selection (i.e., at the individual) usually override selection at higher levels (i.e., at the group), when we consider multi-level selection. The group felt comfortable with multi-level selection, but note that some biologists do not believe that group selection is ever relevant in real-world cases. Here we brought up the example of virus evolution, wherein viruses evolve to reduce virulence as a consequence of inter-deme (or group) selection. Why is this a good example of group selection? Viruses must keep their hosts alive long enough to be transmitted into new hosts, otherwise the entire virus population kills itself out (i.e., extinction) by killing off hosts too quickly and therefore cutting off the possibility of transmission of virus particles to new hosts. Therefore, decreasing individual virulence increases the survival of the group of viruses as a whole.

Ok, so if biologists are so unsure about group selection, then why is altruism/group selection such a popular topic? Popular opinion is that group selection is inherent to natural systems. There is a “perfect storm” of public support and common sense knowledge that keeps the idea of group selection rooted in the literature, even though there is a “pro-math anti common-sense” backlash against group selection in the scientific community. So, biologists are concerned about the proliferation of pseudoscientific claims on group selection. Wynne-Edwards made this debate (between public opinion and scientists) worse because his models and ideas were so incredibly intractable and overstretched that they added to the idea that group selection theories belong in the realm of pseudoscience.

From this point, we revisited the concept of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, represented by the payoff matrix below:

       Individual B        Cooperate                            Defect

Individual A

Cooperate                    A = -1, B = -1                     A = -20, B = 0

Defect                         A = 0, B = -20                     A = -10, B = -10

As shown in the payoff matrix, cooperation can benefit everyone in the long run, but in the short run, individuals gain by defecting (or ‘cheating’). No matter what the other individual decides, it’s always best for the individual to defect in the short run, but if EVERYONE always defects then in the long run, average payoff is less than if everyone cooperates. Importantly, single-shot events versus repeated games lead to differences in optimal strategy. Subtleties in strategy changes are linked to differences in the rules of the game (e.g., repeat partners, repeat games, and the idea of tit-for-tat strategies). In fact, despite the presence of tit-for-tat strategists, cooperators may be maintained in a population because reciprocal altruism reduces costs of cooperating over time when cheating is avoided. Reliability of getting a repeat game or interacting with repeat partners also increases the likelihood of cooperation because of pay-off discrepancies. This process may interact with kin selection. If we think of the players as spatially static within a grid, repeat interactions occur between neighboring dots; in nature, kin remain spatially close, and those are at an increased probability of encountering repeat interactions.

At this point, we entered into an aside discussion of the “Tragedy of the Commons.” The phrase refers to the commonly shared resource of grazing fields (e.g., the Boston Commons), that are at risk of overexploitation by individual shepherds if any one individual allows their personal interest to outweigh the interest of the group (i.e., maintaining the resource by restricting herd size per individual).

The rest of the class was spent discussing six different definitions (“cases”) of altruism, summarized in the chart below (with special regard to differences in payoff (P) and cost (C) to the actor). Note that in all cases, the recipient gains a benefit greater than 0.


Defining by Payoff vs. Cost



Case 1 Operational Altruism P < C An observer sees the short-term cost to the altruist exceeding the short-term payoff to the altruist.
Case 2 True Altruism Pi < Ci[The subscript i indicates long-term inclusive fitness.] This may occur, but must be selected against through natural selection; the big question here is, DID you actually get a payoff for altruism or not, even if the payoff was unintentional. Note that in kin selection Case 1 is true but Case 2 is not. [P < C AND  Pi>Ci].
Case 3 Ethical Altruism Actor intends Pi < Ci In evolutionarily adaptive explanations of human altruism, Case 3 is often true, Case 1 is always true, and Case 2 is never true.
Case 4 Theological Altruism Combination of Case 2 and 3 Personal sacrifice for the sake of another is both intended and achieved.
Case 5 Signaled Altruism Giving signal of P < C, whether or not Pi < Ci is true or even P < C “Altruism” has been invoked in sexual selection and social selection as a costly signal.  That signal may be faked.
Case 6 Adapted Altruism P < C but, on average, for past interactions P> Ci[For any particular instance, past or present P> Cimay not be true.] Group, inter-deme, and kin selection as well as reciprocal altruism explain the rise of operational altruism in this way.  Other fully biological explanations of altruism exist, notably where it arises as a side-effect of an adaptation, or where signaling has failed (or been co-opted).

“Biological Altruism” can refer to any biological explanation of altruism.

Britt Singletary, Anna Dornhaus, Lucas Mix


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This week involved many introductions- after introducing ourselves and our backgrounds, we jumped into basic evolutionary theory. We discussed how replicating populations evolve and the criteria for biological evolution. There are three main criteria: some trait is variable in a population, this trait value affects an individual’s reproduction, and this trait is heritable to a parent’s offspring. From a classical perspective of evolution we need only track organisms. We can also look at evolution from a Hamiltonian perspective, which focuses more on selection for genes than selection for organisms. It’s important to remember that these are alternative, non-conflicting, frameworks for viewing biological evolution.

As well, we introduced the concept of relatedness between individuals as the probability of two individuals sharing the same genes. Thus your relatedness to your mother is r=0.5, your relatedness to your sibling is r=0.5, and your relatedness to your cousin is r=0.125. This is the source of JBS Haldane’s quip “I would [give my life] to save two brothers or eight cousins.”

We introduced several terms:

Kin selection: when an organism acts with personal cost to the evolutionary benefit of closely related members. Example: JBS Haldane jumping into a river to save two of his brothers.

Group selection: when individuals form groups and selection is operating on the group. This occurs in special cases where some groups may reproduce. Example: loss of virulence in Myxoma virus infecting Australian rabbits.

Multi-Level Selection: the idea that genes, organisms, and groups may all be the locus of selection.

Reciprocal altruism: when an individual acts with immediate personal cost with expectation (implicitly or explicitly) of returned benefit later. In the long run, individuals thus exchange benefits  Example: blood feeding among vampire bats.

Prisoner’s Dilemma: game theory problem where two individuals compete. Due to the specific pay-offs of cooperating and cheating, the rational choice of each player is to cheat, regardless of whether the other person cooperates or cheats. However, mutual cheating is a worse outcome for each player than mutual cooperation.

Tragedy of the Commons: the multiplayer version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma where each player is tempted to overuse a common good; however, this may lead to exploitation of the common good. Example: fisheries population.

Operational altruism: behavior that appears to include immediate costs to the actor and benefits to a recipient, setting aside questions of whether it was intentional or has long term benefits.


Lastly, we discussed the difference between biological altruism and ethical altruism. If we define ethical altruism as “intending to act without benefit to self”, then altruism seen in biological circumstances may or may not fulfill this definition. Evolutionary explanations always refer to what we’ve termed ‘operational altruism’. So organisms sometimes display behaviors that appear ‘altruistic’ in the ethical sense but actually aren’t. Thus operational altruism may be explained as ethical altruism AND/OR explained by evolutionary processes such as the ones above. Interesting areas we will explore in ethical altruism include self-sacrificial will and the ability to promote normative ethical principles.

As we wrapped up our class, we mentioned several questions that will come into play in the future.


  1. How do genes produce (or influence) behavior?
  2. How can we identify which model of altruism fits an observed phenomenon (particularly interesting in group selection versus kin selection discussions)?
  3. What human behaviors can we explain using a discussion of altruism?


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Semester 6 Summary: Will or No

Sarah Williams provided this great perspective on the scope of semester 6, in which we discussed Cognitive Neuroscience and Free Will.  She highlights elements of each discussion.

6.1: Sam Harris’ view: There is no agency. This is the case for two reasons:

1)    Agency can only be conscious and never unconscious. There is no conscious agency because all conscious choice is determined completely by unconscious causes. Some empirical support of this claim is found in the Libet (1983), Wegner (2002) and Ebert & Wegner (2010) experiments.

2)    Contemporary physical theory does not support the existence of agents.

Some problems with Harris’ view could include the fact that we seem to have conscious control over conditioning our impulse control and over how our brains respond to stimuli. If there was support for unconscious agency it would also be problematic for the argument. The causal chain of our behavior consists of several stages. Harris’ claim requires that the first cause be at the level of our neurobiology. This seems arbitrary, and Harris does not offer support for why this must be the case.

6.2 Daniel Kahneman’s view:

Human cognition operates using two systems, System 1 (for immediate, automatic responses) and System 2 (for less immediate, more complex calculations). Both systems use heuristics, but they are automatic for System 1 and conscious for System 2. A brief summary of the two systems:

System 1: automatic, short time scale, no voluntary control or conscious effort needed, metabolically less costly, trainable by conditioning, handles familiar tasks.

System 2: conscious, deliberate and requiring mental effort, metabolically more costly, handles complex and novel tasks, can take over some system 1 tasks.

From an evolutionary standpoint, having a fast, metabolically cheap system that can be trained to handle repetitive tasks and situations, and a slower, more deliberative system that can train the fast system seems like a useful adaptation given our limited ability to process stimuli (invisible gorilla experiment) and our limited metabolic resources (ego depletion).

Kahneman’s paper added a new dimension to the discussion on free will. System 1 handles seemingly unconscious activities and System 1 can be trained by our conscious System 2, does this mean that there ultimately is a form of unconscious agency?

6.3 Shaun Nichols’ view:

Most people think that they have agency, but seem to mistake a difference in the antecedent conditions with actual agency. These intuitions track indeterminist agency/free will. We probably have these intuitions because they most closely describe the way we experience our actions. When we are at a decision point, we experience that all of the antecedent conditions are fixed and yet we still believe that we have the option to choose differently.

However, these intuitions do not adequately justify indeterminism for a number of reasons:

  • Our experiences could be informed by determined causes
  • The indeterministic perspective could be learned/conditioned
  • Raw experience as a counterfactual doesn’t really make sense. Something like a toothache is primary, whereas counterfactuals are a second order analysis of primary experiences.
  • Spinoza: We believe in indeterminist free will because we are ignorant of the actual causes of our actions
  • We don’t have introspective access to all the factors that influence our choices (in response to Glimcher’s argument)

6.4 Roy Baumeister’s view:

Choice is not an epiphenomenon, lacking causal power over our actions. Conscious thought does influence actions (although, so does unconscious thought). Some examples: mental rehearsing and simulation of actions, planning, reflection, counterfactual reasoning, and overriding automatic behaviors. Conscious thought and unconscious thought have a two-way influence over each other via priming (unconscious influences conscious) and conditioning/learning/synaptic plasticity (conscious influences unconscious).

For dualists, this influence could also be non-physical.

Baumeister is attempting to counter the view that conscious thought is a “steam whistle,” having no influence on our behavior and existing as an epiphenomenon of our unconscious processes.

6.5 History of Will:

The views of the Greeks:

There were two major camps that divided over whether choice was found in the head/brain area/organ of our bodies or the heart area/organ. Plato was in the “head” camp. He located virtue/masculinity/energy in the chest. This contrasts with Aristotle, who located all three aspects (Rational/Motive/Nutritive) in the heart. For Aristotle, the brain was merely a cooling device for the blood.

Some historical views:

Thomas Aquinas separated the processes into worldly/imperfect and extra-wordly/perfect. Our senses perceived the data from the world and we processed this information with our common sense (physical), while our intellect perceived the perfect realm of ideas (spiritual – akin to Plato’s Forms). Only humans have intellect, while animals and humans have common sense. Descartes combined common sense, intellect and will into the concept of the mind and located it outside the physical realm. Contemporary neuroscientists suggest that there is no one seat of consciousness, will or identity.

6.6 How to define agency:

  • If agency is defined as intent, this implies a relationship with another entity, living or otherwise. Atoms could not have agency, however, because they must follow a set of rules.
  • If agency is the ability to make rules, then it can be easily related to morality.
  • If we have an attitude of approval toward some options or the consequences of those options more than others, morality could be a way to express those attitudes. (I phrased this differently than the summary on the blog because I thought it was heavily biased toward a consequentialist interpretation of morality. I use the word attitude technically here.)
  • Whatever the choice available, value and reason ought to be used to evaluate which choice should be picked. If we lose the concept of agency, we seem to lose the concept of rationality. The sense of accountability and responsibility are both grounded in our sense of agency.

What if there is no such thing as agency?

Perhaps Spinoza is right: we invented agency as a way to make sense of cognitive dissonance or to explain our experience of the world. To relieve ourselves of this misconception would not necessarily have any impact on the institutions of punishment or morality.

Perhaps the question of agency and free will hinges on whether it is possible to have a bifurcating universe, as agency requires this. Sub-atomic physical stochasticity complicates the question of a bifurcating universe, as ultimate causes are obscured and the limits of observation may cover true determinism, contingency, or will.

With the advances in neuroscience, social behavior theory and complex dynamical systems theory, how can moral agency, one of the classic examples of human “uniqueness”, be reconstructed?

6.7 Emergence:

Moral agency may be an emergent property of consciousness.

Weak emergence: Complex systems produce patterns that, by convention, are modeled or described in terms of higher-order properties: i.e. human thought emerges from interactions between large numbers of neurons, social insect colonies emerge from the interactions of many individual insects (I think this is an entailment relation from the lower to the higher processes). Weak emergence is widely accepted and uncontroversial.

Strong emergence: the higher-order phenomena that emerge from lower level processes are not causally determined by them (this is a supervenient relation, see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/supervenience/ – 3.2). This has the characteristics of dualism. This is the more controversial of the two views.

Consensus on the topic of agency was not an emergent property of this forum!

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Meeting 6.6: Ethics and Choice

The assigned reading for this session was a chapter from Dignity: Its history and meaning by Michael Rosen (2012, p. 19-31).  The reading discussed Kant’s connection between agency and dignity. However, we did not rely heavily on the reading and instead our discussion focused on agency and where, if anywhere, it exists.
We began with a broad, roundtable discussion about agency. We questioned why agency is important and what implications the idea of agency has. What is at stake when thinking about agency?
It became apparent that there was variation in how agency was being defined. If agency is defined as intent, then agency has to be related to relationships. This is because intention implies a relationship with another entity, though not necessarily a living one. These relationships can go down to the atomic level, however, we discussed that atoms may not have agency because they are following a set of rules. This led, briefly, to the idea that our ability to make rules defines our own agency.
The self-defining of rules also allows agency to be tied to morality.  Some felt a conviction that there are choices and some are better than others. We think that we would prefer some consequences over others so we want to participate in bringing those ends around. Value and reason should be involved in whatever actions you choose. Losing the concept of agency makes people lose the ability to make rational choices. Given this, we function as though there is agency even if we do not entirely understand where that agency comes from, or what things may affect our ability to have agency. The idea gives us accountability and responsibility and thus greatly impacts our behavior and our society.
However, there was distinct second opinion on the topic. Some of the group felt that there is no such thing as agency and that it does not matter, so nothing is at stake except perhaps “the truth”. Agency is perhaps the result of not wanting cognitive dissonance. We feel as though we have choices, so it is hard to believe that we do not.  However, with scientific advances, this cognitive dissonance may be disappearing. Agency does not also have any implications for morality or the justice system, we can punish people regardless of if we believe in agency and losing the idea of agency does not threaten culpability.  People of this opinion thought that the discussion of agency was purely academic and had no real meaning in society.
These dichotomous opinions then required a discussion of the shape of the ‘universe’; either bifurcating or determinist.  A bifurcating universe requires that the universe can go one way or another but regardless of what direction it goes, there was an alternative (Figure 1, a). For agency to exist, there must be a bifurcating universe, because if agency requires the ability to have done otherwise (meaning, the universe can go one of two different ways).   A deterministic universe requires a universe that can only go one direction.  However, other possibilities can be imagined giving the appearance of a bifurcating universe. Those who thought agency was not important felt that this was the more realistic universe. The idea of agency is this imagined split in the universe which does not actually exist (Figure 1, b).

Figure 1: a) A bifurcating universe where the universe can go one of multiple ways, and b) a deterministic universe where only one way, the solid black line, is possible but other options can be imagined, the hash marked line.

The primary disagreement appeared to be based on physical stochasticity. Those who felt the universe was (philosophically) deterministic were mostly concerned with sub-atomic (physical) stochasticity being the only force that could alter the course of the universe. Given this, the universe might branch as a result of contingent events, but never branch by intention. Distinguishing between those two became an abstract philosophy of physics question, with no practical import.  Everything was still driven sub-atomically.  The atoms show physical stochasticity, which is not the same age agency; agency then must not exist.
There was some talk about the levels of agency existing as:

  1. Forecasting: The ability to see that there may be choices in the future (before the choice happens).   This can happen in a determined universe, but these choices are just imagined).
  2. Steering, which may include making choices and taking action.
  3. Directing consequences, which are the implications of the steering (generally by using forecasting and steering).

However, this discussion was not completed because there was not a consensus on the bifurcating universe idea. The main problem is that we cannot tell if forecasting is looking at real or imagined choices.
The session ended before we were able to come to an agreement with which to proceed forward with. The idea of a bifurcating universe appears to make sense on a human level, however if we include the entire universe it is not as clear.
–    Sarah B

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This week’s guest speaker was Andrew Norton from the Classics department.

Andrew opened with a pre-Socratic fragment from Pindar’s Threnedes,written at the end of the 6th century/beginning of the 5th century:


“When the body (σομα/soma) yields to all-powerful death

The soul (eidolon/ειδολον) of the (τοι) life’s time/lifetime (aion/αιων) is the only thing that remains.”


The eidolon is like a soul — other synonyms are “shade” (skia), “shadow”, “ghost”, or the “image” of a person. Because the eidolon was given to us by the gods, it is both prescient and immortal. It is located within, and associated with the breath. The eidolon is different than the psyche but associated with it: The psyche is the life-force of a person, and it leaves the body upon death. When the psyche travels to its resting place in the underworld, it becomes the non-conscious eidolon. While we are alive, the psyche is what animates us, and when it is inactive, the eidolon is what is left. So, when the eidolon is asleep, the limbs of a person are said to be awake or animate. When the eidolon is awake, the limbs are asleep, and it is at this time that the eidolon can communicate with the body in the form of dreams. This communication is usually about future decisions (krisis), pleasures, or challenges.


The Greeks associated various parts of the body with functions of the mind or spiritual functions with two major camps, divided over whether choice and essence were to be found in the head or the heart.


For Plato, the logos or intellect was in the head; the thymos (virtue/masculinity/energy) was in the chest; and the epithymeticon, seat of irascibility and appetite was in the stomach.  The neck and diaphragm were considered important dividing lines.


This differs from Aristotle, who also had three aspects of the soul: the Rational, the Motive (animal or sentient*), and the Nutritive (vegetable).  He placed all three in the heart, considering the brain primarily a cooling device for the blood.


[*We use Aristotle’s sentience: “the ability to feel” rather than “ability to perceive self” here.]


Thomas Aquinas believed the life-force was located throughout the body. He subscribed to a Platonic distinction between the imperfect world perceived by the senses and processed in the common sense (part of the physical creation) and the perfect realm of ideas perceived through the intellect (part of the spiritual creation).  With Aristotle, he would have said that both required a soul, but the former was present in all animals, while the latter, related to will, conscience, and immortality, was unique to humans, being in the “image and likeness of God.”


Descartes combined common sense, intellect, and will into one concept: “mind”, located totally outside the physical realm in a separate, mental reality.


Neuroscientists have suggested that there is no one seat of consciousness, will, or identity.  This concept offends against the Cartesian (and arguably Kantian and Thomist) notions that there is one seat of the self.  It may not be inconsistent, however, with older models of humanity like Plato’s, that separate out our different impulses and see them as possibly competing as we make choices.


We spent the remainder of the session talking about how these concepts lined up with our ideas about intelligence, consciousness, and will presented two semesters ago (see meetings 4.1 and 4.8).


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(edited and re-posted 12 Oct 2012)

We read two articles: “Mistaking randomness for free will” by Jeffrey Ebert and Daniel Wegner, and  “Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will” by Shaun Nichols. Shaun Nichols of the UA Philosophy department joined us this week, and we discussed his article and also definitions of determinism, indeterminism, and stochasticity.


Ebert and Wegner describe key press experiments in which subjects were asked to describe whether they felt they could have acted otherwise, and experiments where subjects were asked whether an alien actor could have acted otherwise. The studies found that subjects identified randomness of action as agency of action, and speculated that non-predictability could be a criterion for us in attributing agency.


Nichols’ article explores the problem of free will through experimental philosophy, focusing on the psychological aspects of the problem. People’s perceptions and intuitions about agency are highly variable, depending on the level of abstraction of the question, with abstract questions about the universe in general or other universes generating incompatibilist responses, and questions about specific situations or about our specific universe generating compatibilist responses. Experimental philosophy explores the metaphysics of agency: why people have these beliefs about their actions, and asks whether these reasons are sound or not.



According to Mill and others, most people think that they have agency, believing they “could have done otherwise”, but think ‘hypothetically acting otherwise’ relates to a difference in the antecedent conditions; i.e. the traffic light was green instead of red, my favorite food was broccoli, etc. rather than actual agency.


However, most people’s intuitions track indeterminist agency/free will. The Libertarian explanation for this is that a theory of agency appeals to us because it captures the way we experience our actions. These experiences lead to our beliefs about our agency. Up to the point of the decision, all events in the past are the same, and they feel the same, so there is no difference in antecedents. At the precipice of the decision, as we are about to decide, we have the experience that we have the option to choose differently. This tracks surveys in which people are asked to explain why determinism is false. The responders cite experience as supporting indeterminism (responders also cite religious teachings as telling them that indeterminism is true).


There are several problems with appealing to our beliefs and experiences as justification for indeterminism:

– Our experiences themselves could be informed by determinism.

– We could have learned an indeterminist perspective from so early of an age that it seems true to interpret our experiences as supporting this view.

– Raw experience as a counterfactual “I could have done otherwise” is not really possible. We have experiences, like toothaches, that are primary: they are not second-order ideas and analysis. Counterfactuals are a second-order analysis of primary experiences.


According to Spinoza, we believe in indeterminist free will because we are ignorant of the actual causes of our actions. Since we perceive a causal gap, we fill in the gap with free will.


Glimcher (2005): if all inputs of a system are known, and the same inputs produce different outputs, it is reasonable to assume the system is indeterminate.

William of Ockham made a similar argument:

(1)  Factors that are introspectively accessible don’t determine my choice,

(2)  I have introspective access to all the factors that influence my choice.

(3)  Ergo, my choice isn’t determined.


Nichols has conducted some pilot studies attacking (2) of Ockham’s argument showing people that they don’t really have introspective access, to their perceptions or their decisions. When these people are presented with the results of the study, they are less likely to agree with indeterminism.


While Nichols presented (2) as a common belief, none of the forum members felt it was a reasonable assumption.  Psychology (e.g., Baumeister), economics (e.g., Kahneman, Thaler), and neuroscience all demonstrate hidden factors.


Having complete introspective access is controversial because of the “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” phenomenon: If I am extremely hungry, I go to the store and have the option of purchasing a frozen pizza or some broccoli and rice. I go for the pizza, thinking it seems like a good choice. However, when I get home, I would have rather chosen the broccoli and rice. It is only after I’m at home do I realize that it was because I was so hungry that the pizza seemed like a good idea.


During our discussion, Shaun also brought another perspective on some of the concepts we interact with regularly in this forum.


There was some discussion about the meaning of several terms.  Shaun identified what we have been calling “philosophical determinism” and “philosophical indeterminism” with “non-agency” and “agency”, respectively, but wasn’t entirely comfortable with the use of “determinism.”


From the whiteboard:

Philosophical determinism with physical determinism is classical hard determinism, (including fatalism)

Philosophical determinism with physical indeterminism is either stochasticity (moderate) or skepticism (hard) (Nichols calls these both “hard indeterminism” positions)

Philosophical indeterminism with physical determinism is classic compatibilism

Philosophical indeterminism with physical indeterminism is an expansion of compatibilism (moderate) or classical free will/classic libertarianism (hard)

-Sarah Williams

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14 Sep 2012


This week’s reading was an excerpt from Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” In his book, Kahneman describes two distinct modes of cognition: fast cognition, which is rapid, automatic and involuntary, and slow cognition, which is effortful, operates on slower timescales and involves reasoning and conscious decision making. These fast and slow cognitive subsystems are often referred to as System 1 and System 2, respectively.
We  began with a discussion of how theories of human choice-making have changed over time. Much of traditional economic theory is based upon rational choice theory, which assumes that humans make rational decisions in order to optimize their self-interest. However, beginning in the 1960s and 70s, researchers in the emerging field of behavioral economics began conducting psychological studies to investigate how people actually make economic decisions, and found that much of human decision making is in fact, not rational. These ideas have received a great deal of attention in recent years with the publication of several popular books. The observation that humans do not make decisions in a completely rational way has important implications, particularly in that it calls into question the results of classical economic theory, which assumes that humans are rational actors.
Our focus then moved to a more detailed discussion of the notions of fast (System 1) and slow (System 2) cognition, and how these ideas relate to the broader questions of agency and will. We began by discussing system 1. System 1 cognition uses automatic heuristics for monitoring and reacting to the environment. It operates on fast timescales, and does not require voluntary control or conscious effort. Examples of tasks primarily involving system 1 include recognizing emotion in a facial expression, orienting to a sudden loud noise, driving on an empty road, walking at a comfortable pace, or recoiling from an unpleasant or painful stimuli. A question was brought up as to whether system 1 was philosophically deterministic, i.e. whether agency could play a role in the functioning of system 1. While we typically think of system 1 as operating automatically and outside of our conscious control (and lacking agency), a potential complication is that system 2 (which we associate with more “free will-like” behaviors) can alter the functioning of system 1 through training. The related, and more difficult question of whether agency requires conscious awareness was also brought up.
In contrast to system 1, slow (system 2) cognition thinking is characterized by conscious, deliberate activity which requires mental effort. Examples of tasks requiring system cognition include complex arithmetic, long term planning of actions, and paying attention to a single speaker in a crowded and noisy environment, walking at a faster pace than normal, or monitoring the appropriateness of one’s behavior in an unfamiliar social context. In various circumstances, system 2 can effectively “override” system 1 when necessary, allowing for conscious control of actions that are typically automatic. For example, breathing typically occurs automatically and without conscious effort, but can be brought under conscious control. Similarly, experienced drivers will drive a car primarily using system 1, unless a challenging or unexpected traffic situation arises, at which point system 2 is engaged.  Interestingly, in humans, the level of mental effort required for a task was found to correlate with amount pupil dilation. Consequently pupil dilation has be used as an externally measurable indicator of the level of conscious mental effort required for a task.
An important aspect of system 2 thinking is that it is costly, both metabolically and in terms of allocating attention. First, the set of stimuli to which we can consciously attend is intrinsically limited, implying that attention is a finite resource. This can be demonstrated in the classic “invisible gorilla” experiment, in which subjects watch a video of two basketball teams, one wearing black shirts and the other white shirts, passing basketballs. Halfway through the video, someone in a gorilla costume walks through the scene. When given the task of counting the number of passes made by the white team (a difficult, attention-demanding, system 2 task), roughly half the subjects fail to notice the gorilla. In addition to attentional costs, there is evidence that conscious mental effort is metabolically costly, and that performing cognitively demanding tasks can degrade one’s self-control and performance on subsequent tasks simply as a result of low blood sugar, a phenomenon known as “ego depletion”. One example of this mentioned in the reading was a study of a group of judges showing that the proportion of parole requests which were approved spikes shortly after lunch and then decreases as a function of the time since the judge’s most recent meal. The implication is that hungry or “ego depleted” judges tended to give less careful consideration to the cases, and defaulted to simply denying the parole requests.
This observation that System 2 is both metabolically costly and slow allows one to concoct possible evolutionary explanations for why it may be useful for some animals to possess the capacities for both fast, system 1 thinking and slow, system 2 thinking. System 1 cognition sacrifices adaptability and accuracy in unfamiliar contexts for speed and metabolic efficiency, whereas System 2 cognition sacrifices speed (in some cases) and metabolic resources. Thus one can imagine that in stable, familiar, and predictable contexts, system 1 may be preferred, while system 2 provides a way of dealing with unexpected events or unfamiliar and unpredictable environments. One should note that both slow and fast modes of cognition can involve the use of heuristics. This becomes apparent when considering a number of logical fallacies and cognitive biases that are commonly observed when people are presented with certain decision-making tasks.


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