Monday, July 20, 2009

Free will and a cup of coffee

Recently, Lawrence Williams and John A. Bargh showed that holding a warm cup of coffee makes you have more positive attitudes towards a stranger than when you hold a cup of ice coffee. In another experiment it came out that people who held a cold pad in their hands were more selfish than people holding a warm pad. If these results can be substantiated in other experiments, then the conclusion must be that our physical environment has an important influence upon what we want and wish. But if the temperature of a cup of coffee can influence what we do, what does remain then of the free will? Maybe it is that we must first decide whether we want to have our coffee hot or cold before we take a decision, but not while drinking another cup of coffee.

Monday, July 13, 2009

“By accident” and “by mistake”

In his “A plea for excuses”, J.L. Austin makes a distinction between “by accident" and “by mistake”. However, he does not elaborate this distinction and the only clear difference between mistake and accident that he makes in this article is this: “In an accident something befalls: by mistake you take the wrong one [i.e. wrong decision-btw]”. Nonetheless, it can also happen that a mistake results in an accident. J.A.C. Coady expresses the distinction by saying that a mistake is something that happens in your thought process or perceptions, while an accident happens because something went wrong in the outside world.
At first sight this distinction seems to be clear. However, if we dig deeper, “mistake” and “accident” appear to be more like shades of the same: some cases are clear mistakes and some cases are clear accidents and there is much in between. Actually this is expressed by Austin himself, when he writes: “If a mistake results in an accident, it will not do to ask whether ‘it’ was an accident or a mistake, or to demand some briefer description of ‘it’ ”. But why not? If a traffic accident is clearly the consequence of a miscalculation of one of the drivers, and we should see it only as an accident, why then ask the question of responsibility?
A building collapses by a miscalculation of the architect. Why do we call it an accident? Shouldn’t we call it a mistake? In a certain sense it is both.
I saw something black in the reed: “Look, a moorhen”. But when it came out I said: “I made a mistake, it is a coot”. Do we call it only a mistake and not an accident, because it does not have serious consequences?
I shoot at the bull’s eye and I miss. Is it an accident or a mistake? And makes the answer any difference, whether I am a beginner or a professional bowman?
By mistake, for example a slip of the tongue, I gave the wrong answer in the quiz, for I thought that I knew better, and I won the first prize. Is it an accident or is it a mistake that I won the first prize and I shouldn’t I have received it?

The upshot is that sometimes the distinction looks clear, and in his article Austin treats the mistake-accident distinction mainly like that. But often things aren’t that way, with all the consequences for the question of responsibility.

Monday, July 06, 2009

“If you start a man killing, you cannot turn him off like a machine”

Guy Chapman told somewhere in his memoir of the First World War about an officer who looked at the enemy and then said to the sergeant next to him: “I surrender”. The sergeant took his rifle and shot the officer straight through his head. Another soldier who saw it asked Chapman what to do. He answered: “What can you do? If you start a man killing, you cannot turn him off like a machine”.
This story tells much about what people can become and then do in extreme circumstances, when they have been brought there by other people. But are the scene and the end of it not an extreme reflection of what on a “lower level” happens in daily life? Through the years we learn a lot from other people, our parents, our teachers, the people around us, about how to behave. These are rather basic things like keeping right on a road, that it is not allowed to steal and what other rules we have to follow, what tastes we have, and so on. But what we learn can also be on the level of prejudices. Some men do not like people with a certain religion, people from a certain neighbourhood, people who are black, people who are white, people who are gay, people who are from a certain country, and so on. All these things are considered “normal” in a certain sense. Our habits are difficult to change, once we have interiorized them. When I am in a country where the traffic keeps left, in the beginning it is almost impossible for me not to look to the left instead of first to the right, when I cross a street. It is an automatism. And when I drive on the left, I feel unhappy. So it is also with many of our prejudices. Once we have them, it is difficult to change them, even when we are aware that they are prejudices and when we want to get rid of them. We cannot change our beliefs at will. Seen that way, what Chapman describes is only an extreme case of what happens in daily life, indeed. Nonetheless, this is no excuse. For although it is true that we cannot turn ourselves or other people off like machines, the quotation implies also that we are no machines. It is so that we cannot learn from one moment to the next to keep to the left, once we have been taught to keep to the right. However, it is a fact that we can learn it and after a shorter or longer time we can behave as if the new situation is normal to us. And it is the same for all the other things we do. We can change our habits and beliefs, even though it can be a long process. Therefore, it can be no excuse that we are what we have become and that’s it. Although we cannot turn other people or ourselves off like a machine, they and we can change. And that’s why Chapman was right and not right at the same time.