Determinism 2 – What is the Problem?

This post is a part of a series. Here’s the first one of the series.

The majority of people who responded to my thought experiment said they would try to forget about the news and just spend their day as they were planning to do anyway. Slightly fewer people saw themselves newly absolved of responsibility for their actions and therefore went for ice cream and telly. There were also a few who were going to spend the day proving that we do have free will, regardless of the panel’s findings, some of them brought issues of ethics or religion into it. One or two just remarked that they would do whatever they were pre-determined to do and one or two others said that of course we have no free will and everything is predetermined.

Of course there is more than one problem surrounding determinism and free will. It’s worth untangling them a bit.

First of all there is a relatively straightforward problem: In the pursuit of our daily lives we appear to exercise our will freely. From minor decisions as to what kind of breakfast cereal to buy, to major life choices such as whom we should marry or whether we should change jobs, careers even, or move to a different country, our life seems somehow to be up to us. Or at least we seem to have a say in the direction it takes. And we would like to think that even with major moral dilemmas, such as – during times of war – whether to join the resistance and fight the forces of oppression, or stay at home to look after a sickly relative, we would be free to make that decision. In such cases, I suspect, many of us would prefer the ability to make our choices freely to the alternative of not choosing at all. That would remain the case even if it ultimately means having an ability to make choices that will turn out to have been bad choices, tragic choices or fatal choices.

On the other hand, we understand the universe we inhabit to be a physical universe in which things follow the laws of physics and other sciences. Bodies move according to laws of physics that we can work out through observation and the other methods of science. In that physical universe every cause has an effect and every effect its cause. Certain things follow each other as night follows day. Even where a divine spirit is assumed to be a part of this picture, this spirit is the provider and enforcer of these laws that govern bodies. And human creatures are undeniably physical beings who – as bodies – are subject to the same laws. What’s more, with the progress of neuroscience, the more we can look into the activities of tiny particles in our brains and the mental processes triggered by these activities, the more scientists conclude that the lives of our minds are as governed by these laws of science as our bodies.

Secondly, there appears to be a kind of psychological problem: In the thought experiment, we have come across an overwhelming reason to believe that we have no free will. And yet, it is not just my perverse construction of the experiment that leads us ask ourselves the question “so what do we do now?” Acquiring the knowledge that we are predetermined creatures doesn’t seem to change our sense of agency. And for the small number of people who answered the thought experiment by saying “I’d do whatever I’m predetermined to do,” the challenge would be to describe how the experience of doing so is qualitatively different from the experience of living life exercising free will. A life where we just surrender to determinism, switching off whatever faculty we think we’re exercising when making choices or decisions for ourselves, doesn’t seem feasible.

Thirdly, there is the question of responsibility for our actions. Some people found the certain knowledge that their actions are a result of determinism, rather than an exercise of their free will, liberating. They chose to sit in front of the telly and eat ice cream. Watching TV and eating ice cream are of course just representative examples for how we might chose to live our lives if we were freed from the responsibility for our actions that we normally place upon ourselves or see ourselves under. There are unlimited other things people might choose to do if they saw responsibility for their actions lifted from them. Again, isn’t it an odd and paradoxical psychological effect that the sudden knowledge that their actions are pre-determined suddenly seems to free people up to do what they always wanted to do?

But aside from the psychological effect, there’s the ethical point that a lot of people see the seeming absence of responsibility for our actions, moral responsibility in particular, as so repugnant, that they would take that as a starting point to argue against determinism. It may also be possible to rescue moral responsibility through into a deterministic picture of life and the universe.

[The next post in this series is here.]

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Determinism – A Thought Experiment

You wake up one morning and as you’re going through your regular routine for starting the day, a news item catches your eye. Maybe it’s on the radio that you tend to switch on first thing to wake yourself up. Or it could be on the television that’s on in the background just to catch the morning news programme. Maybe it’s in an e-mail that someone sent you, or on one of the websites that you scan habitually as you wake up. Or perhaps you just catch glimpses of people commenting on social media.

Still half asleep, you ask to yourself “what was that? Did they really just say what I thought they were saying?” You look a bit more closely now and you realise that, yes, they did say what you thought they were saying. And it’s absolutely stunning news.

An international panel of leading philosophers, religious leaders, neuroscientists, physicists, psychologists and other worthies has finalised its reports after almost a decade of work. Convened under the auspices of the United Nations the panel was given endless resources and time to study, debate and reach conclusions amongst themselves. It set up sub-committees and working groups, drew in other scientists and people from various disciplines and held public consultations.

No one expected the panel to come up with anything clear or decisive. Everyone thought that they would conclude that the question they were asked was not one on which consensus could be achieved. People expected the panel to compile some interesting work but to leave the big question largely unanswered or to end up fudging it. Over a number of years – long enough for the whole commission to have been forgotten by everyone apart from those most closely involved and those providing secretariat services – the panel wrote 24 big volumes of densely written analysis. The executive summary is a book in itself. But at a press conference over night, the chair of the panel,  provided the clear and stunning conclusion in just one sentence:

The United Nation’s International Panel on Free Will and Determinism (UNIPFWD) found that we have no free will and that we are all fully pre-determined creatures.

Still thinking that this can’t be right, that it is sensationalist misreporting or a hoax, you look at more media channels and social media. It’s the same news story everywhere: We have no free will. Everything is pre-determined. It’s trending on social media: #nofreewill #determinism. You go outside, just because you suddenly feel a bit hemmed in as if the walls were closing in on you.

Your neighbour is already out and about. Excitedly he says, “did you hear the news… Amazing… what does it all mean? I’m struggling to get my head around this one…” You head to the corner-shop. The newspapers’ print deadline meant that they missed the story. Their headlines seem inane and meaningless now. The shopkeeper asks you whether you heard about the panel’s conclusion. He claims that he always thought that to be the case anyway.

You buy a few items and go back to your house. Now the question is:

What will you do all day?

This is the first of a series of posts on determinism and free will. The next one is here.

 

Cats and Dogs in the Library – Non-Human, Human and Superhuman Rationality

Writing this last post about some philosophers’ treatment of animals reminded me of another philosopher’s, Alasdair MacIntyre’s, book Dependent Rational Animals.

Philosophers over the centuries have been fairly binary in distinguishing between human beings and other animals, mostly on the basis that non-human animals lack some capacity for reasoning or deliberation. They act on instincts and drives, whereas human beings act on reflection and reasoning.

Rationality (meaning the ability to reason) also tends to be connected with language skills. What is key, is the ability to formulate for oneself and express to others one’s reasons for actions, to reflect on them and critique them even before acting. The advanced language skills of human beings have helped set ourselves apart – in the minds of philosophers at least – as the species that is able to reason, against the others that are unable.

This binary view can be attacked from two sides: Firstly, an argument could be made to bring human rationality (in the sense of being able to reason and act on reasons) closer to certain animal behaviours. Secondly, it could be argued that animals actually do have some capacity for reasoning that is not qualitatively different from that of human beings.

McIntyre pursues both those lines of attack. He argues, that we would do well to see our human reasoning capability as a development that emerges from our animal nature and is continuous with animal behaviours:

“It is not only that the same kind of exercise of the same kind of perceptual powers provides, guides, and corrects beliefs in the case of dolphins – and some other species – as in the case of humans, but that our whole initial bodily comportment towards the world is originally an animal comportment and that when, through having become language users, we under the guidance of parents and others restructure that comportment, elaborate and in new ways correct our beliefs and redirect our activities, we never make ourselves independent of our animal nature and inheritance. Partly this is a matter of those aspects of our bodily condition that simply remain unchanged, of what remains constant through and after the social and cultural scheduling and ordering of our bodily functions: toilet training, developing what one’s culture regards as regular sleeping and eating habits, and learning what constitutes politeness and rudeness by way of sneezing, spitting, burping, farting, and the like. And partly it is a matter of what is involved in our becoming able to reflect upon our overall comportment and our directness towards the goods of our animal nature, and so in consequence to correct and redirect ourselves, our beliefs, feelings, attitudes and actions.”

McIntyre also discusses at some length the research showing the ability of some species, e. g. dolphins, to learn and use language to develop and communicate hunting strategies and to adjust their behaviours to a changing environment.

In some experiments, dolphins were able to learn a made up vocabulary and syntax made up by human beings using dolphin sounds and distinguish sentences like “take the surfboard to the frisbee” from “take the frisbee to the surfboard.” (Dolphin researchers seem to live a fun life full of frisbees and surfboards.)

This ultimately leads MacIntyre to the suggestion that there is a spectrum of reasoning ability, and that some animals are further along that spectrum, closer to where human beings are, than others:

“To acknowledge that there are these animal preconditions for human rationality requires us to think of the relationship of human beings  to members of other intelligent species in terms of a scale or a spectrum rather than of a single line of division between ‘them’ and ‘us.’ At one end of this scale there are types of animal for whom the sense of perception is no more than the reception of information without conceptual content. […] At another level are animals whose perceptions are in part the result of purposeful and attentive investigation and whose changing actions track in some way the true and the false. And among such animals we can distinguish between those whose perceptions and responses are more fine-grained and those whose perceptions and responses are less so.”

This leads MacIntyre to a revision of a famous moment in philosophy:

Wittgenstein remarked that ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’ (Philosophical Investigations II, xi, 223). About lions perhaps the question has to be left open. But I am strongly inclined to say of dolphins that, even although their modes of communication are so very different from ours, it is nonetheless true that if they could speak, some of the greatest of the recent interpreters of dolphin activity would be or would have been able to understand them.

The “spectrum” idea of animal rationality reminds me of one more thought. That is a text by the philosopher-psychologist-theologian William James, who is forever condemned to have the tagline “brother of the novelist Henry James” after his name. He wrote:

“I firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human experience is the highest form of experience extant in the universe. I believe rather that we stand in much the same relation to the whole of the universe as our canine and feline pets do to the whole of human life. They inhabit our drawing rooms and libraries. They take part in scenes of whose significance they have no inkling. They are merely tangent to curves of history the beginnings and ends and forms of which pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are tangent to the wider life of things.”

Even if the human species represents a point relatively far along a spectrum of rationality, it is still only a point on a spectrum. That leaves open the possibility that there are points on the spectrum beyond human rationality. Not everyone will find the idea palatable that there are already beings in the universe – divine or alien, presumably – who have a higher form of experience than ours, relative to whom we are like domesticated cats and dogs in drawing rooms and libraries. But whether it is already available to any creature, or not, the possibility remains there that rationality could develop further than that of human beings.

There is no reason to be so ego-centric and grandiose from the human perspective to assume that we represent not only the high-point, but the end-point of rationality. And it is intriguing to think about some of the consequences of that. Some points, briefly, that spring to mind:

  • It could be argued that human beings don’t even use their rationality for much of the time. We often act automatically, instinctively, reactively, habitually. That is fine and probably saves time as well as mental effort. But we need to be clear that for much of the time we don’t make use of the highest form of our rationality. If, as Viktor Frankl says, there is a space “between the stimulus and the response and in that space lies our power and our freedom” we should be aware of how often we don’t make use of that space, but act in a more animal-like stimulus-response mode.
  • The cats and dogs that thrash the furniture of the drawing rooms or make a mess of the libraries are not the ones that are most popular with the people who understand the features of those rooms. In the same way we should approach our environment, the universe, whose features we can’t fully comprehend, with a certain humility and a desire to leave it intact.
  • We should keep alive the hope that it is possible to refine our rationality to a higher point on the spectrum, not just over evolutionary history for our species, but over a lifetime. The dolphins that learned a more advanced level of vocabulary and syntax, developed their language and reasoning capabilities to a point that wasn’t necessarily available to other individuals of their species. But they were trained by human beings who were further along the spectrum of rationality. If we were to aspire to develop beyond our point, whom would we look for training? It’s a tough question. But we have concepts of perfection: Plato’s idea of the Good, the Stoic concept of the wise person, religiously inspired images of the highest attainable mode of living, the contemplation of beauty, the virtues, or even love. (“Will not ‘Act lovingly’ translate ‘Act perfectly’, whereas ‘Act rationally’ will not? It is tempting to say so” writes Iris Murdoch)

 

A Cheetah, Sea Creatures and a Spider – Philosophers Looking At Animals

Here are three philosophers looking at animals:

Hursthouse’s Cheetah

“I once saw a nature documentary which followed a cheetah in the wild through her pregnancy and managed to capture in full the extraordinary sight of her trying to bring down a small deer (on her own, of course, because cheetahs are solitary) when very near to her term. Apart from the pregnancy, she was nothing but skin and bone and sinew, and although she started off with the characteristic gravity-defying bounds, she couldn’t keep it up, and collapsed. According to the documentary, she had been, in the last few weeks, a little unlucky in the availability of prey, but only a little; near starvation and exhaustion after attempts at hunting during pregnancy are, it was said, pretty much the female cheetah’s lot.”

Rosalind Hursthouse “On Virtue Ethics”

Wiggins’ Sea Creatures

“Two or three years ago, when I went to see some film at the Academy Cinema, the second feature of the evening was a documentary film about creatures fathoms down on the ocean-bottom. When it was over, I turned to my companion and asked, ‘What is it about these films that make one feel so utterly desolate?’ Her reply was: ‘apart from the fact that so much of the film was about sea monsters eating one another, the unnerving thing was that nothing down there ever seemed to rest.’ As for play, disinterested curiosity, or merely contemplating, she could have added, these seemed inconceivable.”

David Wiggins “Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life”

Nagel’s Spider

“One summer more than ten years ago, when I taught at Princeton, a large spider appeared in the urinal of the men’s room in 1879 Hall, a building that houses the Philosophy Department. When the urinal wasn’t in use, he would perch on the metal drain at its base, and when it was, he would try to scramble out of the way, sometimes managing to climb inch or two up the porcelain wall at a point that wasn’t too wet. But sometimes he was caught, tumbled and drenched by the flushing torrent. He didn’t seem to like it, and always got out of the way if he could. But it was a floor-length urinal with a sunken base and a smooth overhanging lip: he was below floor level and couldn’t get out.

Somehow he survived, presumably feeding on tiny insects attracted to the site, and was still there when the fall term began. The urinal must have been used more than a hundred times a day, and always it was the same desperate scramble to get out of the way. His life seemed miserable and exhausting.

Gradually our encounters began to oppress me. Of course it might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to. None of the other regulars did anything to alter the situation, but as the months wore on and fall turned to winter I arrived with much uncertainty and hesitation at the decision to liberate him. I reflected that if he didn’t like it on the outside, or didn’t find enough to eat, he could easily get back. So one day toward the end of the term I took a paper towel from the wall dispenser and extended it to him. His legs grasped the end of the towel and I lifted him out and deposited him on the tile floor.

He just sat there, not moving muscle. I nudged him slightly with the towel, but nothing happened. I pushed him an inch or two along the tiles, right next to the urinal, but he still didn’t respond. He seemed to be paralysed. I felt uneasy but thought that if he didn’t want to stay on the tiles when he came to, a few steps would put him back. Meanwhile he was close to the wall and not in danger of being trodden on. I left but when I came back two hours later he hadn’t moved.

Animals – Human and Otherwise

Why do philosopher’s look at animals when they’re considering the big questions about human existence?

Maybe because it makes sense to remind ourselves that we are also animals. And then it helps us think about the ways in which we are different from other animals and the ways we are alike.

Wiggins’ sea creatures for example who don’t rest, play or contemplate, show us that these activities are important to us. In Wiggins’ words:

“If we can project upon a form of life nothing but the pursuit of life itself, if we find there no non-instrumental concerns and no interest in the world considered as lasting longer than the animal in question will need the world to last in order to sustain the animal’s own life; then the form of life must be to some extent alien to us.”

Human animals need to be able to pursue something more than survival itself. The world is – to us – of non-instrumental interest. We can care about it beyond our lifespan. And it is part of who we are, as a species, to look for meaning and purpose. (Wiggins almost looks like he’s arguing that any life form that doesn’t concern itself with philosophical questions is alien to us.)

Hursthouse’s cheetah, reminds us that as animals our lives and what constitutes a good life are to some extent bounded by what is biologically possible for us. In contrast to cheetahs though, we can correct what is “natural” for us through our thinking, our actions and our institutions. Hursthouse writes:

“But in virtue of our rationality – our free will if you like – we are different. Apart from obvious physical constraints and possible psychological constraints, there is no knowing what we can do from what we do do, because we can assess what we do do and at least try to change it.”

While cheetahs are not widely seen to be organising themselves to make pregnancy and childbirth less burdensome and potentially lethal for female cheetahs, human beings have, for example, adopted Millennium Development Goals to improve maternal health, reduce child mortality, promote gender equality, empower women and achieve universal primary education. As a species we have even made some progress towards these over the decades. We can critique our nature from the inside and do something about it in a way that cheetahs can’t.

Nagel’s spider serves as a metaphor for the absurd human existence. With hindsight he sees that he went wrong in “rescuing” the spider. He assumed that this miserable existence in a urinal could not possibly be a worthwhile life for a spider. But it turned out that when the spider was “liberated” from his bleak existence, that was the moment when life was no longer worth living. The point of view of the spider and that of Thomas Nagel were incompatible with each other in a way that turned out to be fatal for the spider. What Nagel takes from the episode is that there are “hazards of combining perspectives that are radically distinct.”

Whereas in that example we have the spider’s perspective and the human being’s, Nagel’s point is that the human mind seems capable of taking up two similarly radically distinct points of view all of its own: a subjective, “inner” point of view within which our projects have supreme value and importance, but also an objective, “outer” view, the view from nowhere, or the point of view from the universe, where everything shrinks into insignificance compared to eternity and where any human being’s interests (even mine) are worth as much as any other’s.

How can we find our lives meaningful when we are aware of the objective perspective? From the point of view of the universe, our lives could look a bit like that of a spider living in a urinal. And yet, we can clearly also experience enjoyment and lead a life worth living in the subjective view. But, though we may try, we can’t ever completely let go of either perspective.

Nagel argues that we can’t reconcile the two perspectives, but we can reduce the jarring between them. We can do this through devices, such as morality, “which seeks a way to live as an individual that affirms the equal worth of other individuals and is therefore externally acceptable.”

Or through a certain form of humility: “the recognition that you are no more important than you are, and that the fact that something is of importance to you, or that it would be good or bad if you did or suffered something, is a fact of purely local significance.” This humility, Nagel says, “falls between nihilistic detachment and blind self-importance.” As he says, with it:

“We can try to avoid the familiar excesses of envy, vanity, conceit, competitiveness, and pride – including pride in our culture, in our nation, and in the achievements of humanity as a species.”

That latter point is interesting. We may even be able to learn something by looking at other species.

 

 

Vote Yourself Happy!

Voting makes you happy!

Or as the classic research paper on the subject puts it rather more simply:

A cross-regional econometric analysis suggests that institutional factors in the form of direct democracy (via initiatives and referenda) and of federal structure (local autonomy) systematically and sizeably raise self-reported individual well-being. This positive effect can be attributed to political outcomes closer to voters’ preferences, as well as to the procedural utility of political participation.

(Frey, Bruno S. and Stutzer, Alois ‘Happiness, Economy and Institutions’ 2000)

This study was done in Switzerland where the level of democratic activity differs from canton to canton (regions). It therefore lends itself well to looking at correlations between levels of happiness and participation in democratic processes.

A key part of the findings was that voting makes you happier, whether the outcome or person you voted for wins or not.

So, no matter who you vote for, make sure you vote!

 

What I Learned From Social Media About the State of Philosophy

A couple of months ago, I wrote this blog post about the fear (mostly felt by philosophers) that philosophy was disappearing from public debate. I posted it on Reddit – an online space for public debate – and it got the strongest response out of anything I’ve ever written.

(For those of you who don’t know Reddit,  it is a place where you can post things and other users can vote it up or down. They can also comment on it. The more up-votes something gets, the higher up the list of links it goes so more people will see it. People can also up- or down-vote the comments.  There are “communities” in Reddit who have their particular “sub-reedits.” So this discussion on my blog post took place in a philosophy-themed part of Reddit. I suppose you have to see it, really…)

My post got more than a thousand up-votes and almost 300 comments. The comments contained discussion among people who are studying or studied philosophy academically and those who never did but are interested. So pretty much the sort of group you would want if you wanted to work out why philosophy’s role in the public space is diminishing. Because the question has two sides: 1.) what is happening to philosophy? And 2.) what is happening to public debate.

Anyway, a lot of the comments on Reddit make for interesting reading, and there are some good discussions there.

Here are some factors that Reddit users thought were particularly relevant:

1. Philosophy isn’t taught in schools. As one commenter put it:

“By the time you get to college, the only exposure most people have of philosophy is, “what is the meaning of life?” That question in of itself is a great question but to most people, it’s incredibly stuck up. People see no practicality from philosophy and it’s treated as a joke. My friend wants to study philosophy and go to law school but his parents are forcing him to major in something else or they won’t help pay for college.”

There was then also a long discussion about whether philosophy as a subject at school or university is useful for getting into other career paths, e. g. law. Several people argued that it was. People also argued that a philosophy degree wasn’t the one that led to the highest “starting salaries” after university.

2. Where Philosophy is taught, it is often taught badly. This puts people off. This view is based on the subjective experience of individual commenters but there was a lot of discussion about different approaches. The teaching of philosophy based on the work of individual philosophers, with a stress on being able to quote them, was deemed less inspiring than discussion of philosophical issues in a way that is relevant to people’s lives. One commenter encapsulated it neatly as:

“We need to stop naming the study by the people who did it/wrote it first or best, and instead study the lines of thought themselves – as loosely correlated and organized by particular named philosophers. […] What you really learn studying the “thing” behind each of these [names] is really not the person, but the body of thought and understanding they now represent. If instead of organizing the study by these old, stodgy names, we named each of the lines of thought by the themes and ideas they created and explained – then it would remain an integral part of teaching in a timeless way.”

3. As the academic study of philosophy is becoming more and more specialised and narrow, it is becoming less and less relevant to a lot of people. This point was put stridently and in language unfamiliar to philosophical debate by a commenter who said:

“As a person who majored in Philosophy in college I wholeheartedly agree with this.

Even on Reddit, most of the Philosophy threads I see make the front page are stuck up posts that have zero bearing on modern life.

In our current times, ethical and political philosophy are the only “useful” areas of thought and should be frequently discussed.

If the people who actually know philosophy are sitting around debating topics like metaphysics, then it is our fault that philosophy is disappearing because we’re essentially jerking ourselves off, saying ‘I’m so smart’, and providing no direction toward worthwhile discourse for a regular person.”

Others took issue with the idea that philosophy should be useful. This sparked a lot of debate. Ultimately, those who put forward the view that philosophy ought to have a use for society in order to justify its existence saw their view re-inforced by those trying to make arguments to the opposite.

Another way of putting the point about the narrowing scope of philosophy due to specialisation was this:

“Philosophers are professional hairsplitters. They hit a stubborn stasis, split some hairs, debate a more fine-grained detail, arrive at a stubborn stoppage and split again. Philosophical debates are so finely grained and abstract that they don’t get traction with real-world public policy.

Philosophy needs more lumping rather than splitting. Instead of playing the tenure game of “saying something new”, philosophy needs some sort of meta-analysis to tie all of the work together. It needs more generalists to make connections between the detail work and the work of living well.”

4. The nature of public debate has changed. It was suggested that all discussion in our culture (the commenters were largely American but this goes wider) had become about narrow point scoring and winning an argument, rather than improving ideas and thinking through reasoned debate. Where philosophy goes along with that, it turns off people who are generally interested in ideas, where it doesn’t, it doesn’t fit with public debate. A debased political debate was seen as a parallel or context to this phenomenon.

5. Related to this, the nature of the media had changed. It was argued that the media used to have an aim of raising the bar of public debate, but that now it was merely profit-focussed.

Mostly what it suggested to me was that there could be massive public interest in philosophy, certainly online. In order to cater for it, philosophy needs to be relevant to the lives of human beings, presented in a style that is intelligible to intelligent human beings, consensus-seeking and positive. It would help if it was supported by teaching at schools and a public atmosphere that acknowledged that there doesn’t need to be a choice between financial and commercial success on the one hand, or philosophy on the other.

Go online philosophers!

Drowned Rats and Mad Dogs: Terrible Things That Have Been Done to Animals to Learn about Human Nature

Drowned Rats

In the 1950s Curt Richter was doing experiments on stress responses in wild and domesticated rats when he accidentally came across a strange phenomenon.

The experiment involved putting rats into large jars full of water and measuring the length of time the rats would swim in water of varying temperatures before they drowned. He was able to show that there were temperatures at which rats survived for longer, and temperatures at which they drowned sooner. (Don’t ask me about the use of this experiment.) The problem was that there were outliers with large variation in the results. Some rats swam for 60-80 hours, while others, particularly wild rats, would drown within minutes.

This variation reduced the significance of Richter’s findings, so he wanted to work out why some of the rats drowned almost immediately. Having ruled out some other factors, Richter worked out what was going on by considering the whole situation the rats are in. He writes:

“The situation of these rats scarcely seems one demanding fight or flight—it is rather one of hopelessness; whether they are restrained in the hand or confined in the swimming jar, the rats are in a situation against which they have no defense. This reaction of hopelessness is shown by some wild rats very soon after being grasped in the hand and prevented from moving; they seem literally to “give up.”

Next Richter finds a way to prevent the rats from literally just “giving up.” He does this by training them in the idea that their situation is not hopeless. As he describes it:

“Support for the assumption that the sudden death phenomenon depends largely on emotional reactions to restraint or immersion comes from the observation that after elimination of the hopelessness the rats do not die. This is achieved by repeatedly holding the rats briefly and then freeing them, and by immersing them in water for a few minutes on several occasions. In this way the rats quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless; thereafter they again become aggressive, try to escape, and show no signs of giving up. Wild rats so conditioned swim just as long as domestic rats or longer.”

Let’s just note for now that the rats who learned not to become hopeless in this way didn’t necessarily survive the experiments. They simply stop messing up Richter’s experiment by being hopeless outliers. Ultimately they were still participating in an experiment to work out how long a rat normally struggles for in a tank of water before it drowns. The difference is that after having been given hope they then died of exhaustion rather than hopelessness. (I’m sorry if that sounds gruesome. It is what it is.)

Let’s also note for now that Richter thought these experiments were relevant to human beings. He suggested that the immediate drowning (“sudden death”) is comparable to so-called “voodoo” deaths – instances of “mysterious, sudden, apparently psychogenic death, from all parts of the world.” But he also thought it might be comparable to patients dying in hospitals, not from disease or unsuccessful operations, but simply from fear of an operation. He also cites instances of soldiers dying in good health during the second world war.

Richter’s hopeless rat experiments have become famous for their simple message: look at what the simple presence of hope in the mind makes possible! The physical endurance of a rat in a water tank is greater by a factor of hundreds, just due to a simple mental ingredient: hope!

What strikes me as interesting though, is the picture one must have of the kind of universe we inhabit, if these experiments are meant to be meaningful to our situation. Presumably the experimental set-ups would need to reflect our environment in some way and the things that happen to the rats and dogs would have to be comparable to the kinds of things that happen to human beings.

Is a rat struggling to stay afloat in a water tank suitably similar to life on earth for a human being?What of the experimenter holding the rat briefly and  then freeing it? What about immersing it in water for brief periods of time at first? Is life meant to be like that – short periods of captivity, pain and struggle followed by momentary relief giving us hope that there is point in struggling on? But what for? Only to be able to withstand longer periods of struggle and then drown anyway?

I know that the experiment by necessity is a simplified model of reality. But this experiment is said to deal with concepts like hope, death and survival. And all this in an environment where there is no meaning and no vision of the good (or even just the good life for a rat) apart from survival itself? What are these rats who are not hopeless meant to be hoping for?

And what is the experimenter who gives the rats a careful taste of freedom every now and then in order to make them hopeful? Is it a God in our universe? A cruel God? Or is the experimenter just trying to recreate a situation where painful experiences alternate more or less randomly with less painful, neutral or even positive ones while we make up our own minds about the meaning in it all?

What if the rat experiment had been carried out in an entirely different framework of thought, say in one where death was seen as liberation from the necessary suffering that is life? What if the end of life for a rat was seen as an opportunity for re-incarnation as a different, less ratty, life-form or a chance to enter into nirvana?  Then the rats that drown first aren’t in fact losing hope or giving up, but simply letting go, no longer clinging on to life under the misguided notion that it is worth clinging onto?

Then the experimenter who gives hope to the rats by holding them briefly, then letting them go, or by putting them into the water tank briefly, then taking them out is not giving them hope, but rather strengthening in them a tendency to grasp, to believe that it is possible, if they just work hard enough, to fulfil their cravings, to be free of struggle and suffering.

Mad (Sad) Dogs

About fifteen years after Richter’s rat experiments, Martin Seligman and colleagues did some influential experiments with dogs.

They gave electric shocks to a group of dogs who had access to a switch with which they could make them stop. They also gave electric shocks to a group of dogs who couldn’t make them stop. Later they put the dogs into a cage where they received electric shocks but could move over a small obstacle to a different part of the cage where they wouldn’t receive shocks. The dogs from the first group found out quickly how they could avoid the shocks and largely did so. The dogs from the second group just suffered the shocks. The conclusion: These dogs had learned helplessness.

Seligman was immediately interested in the implications for human suffering and wellbeing. He says the animals who had learned helplessness looked “downright depressed.” And it was the implications of learned helplessness in dogs for depression and other mental illnesses in human beings that looked interesting.

But again, there are some outliers. And the outliers begin to look even more interesting than the normal cases. As Seligman writes:

“It all stems from some embarrassing findings that I keep hoping will go away. Not all of the rats and dogs become helpless after inescapable shock, nor do all of the people after being presented with insolvable problems or inescapable noise. One out of three never gives up, no matter what we do. Moreover, one out of eight is helpless to begin with – it does not take any experience with uncontrollability at all to make them give up. At first, I try to sweep this under the rug, but after a decade of consistent variability, the time arrives for taking it seriously. What is it about some people that imparts buffering strength, making them invulnerable to helplessness? What is it about other people that makes them collapse at the first inkling of trouble?”

Seligman’s experiments provided the foundations for a new school of psychology. Positive psychology focussed on helping people lead happier, more effective lives, rather than on removing psychological diseases and weaknesses. Some of it focussed on the characteristics of those outliers who refused to learn helplessness, assuming that these could help others. This led to the insight that it helps to view bad events as temporary rather than permanent and specific rather than universal. These non-human and human animals apparently have hope. Hope again emerges as a key factor, this time not only in longer survival but in wellbeing and happiness.

But What Does It All Mean?

The experimental set-up again contains some ideas about what life in this universe is like. Some individuals may experience phases in life where they are unable to control the painful events (electric shocks or other) that they are exposed to. From this experience they may conclude that it is pointless to try to avoid painful events in later life phases and surrender to them. They no longer struggle against painful events or look for ways to avoid them. They continue in this resigned state, even in later phases of their lives when they could avoid painful events

But how is the universe and human life really set up with regard to painful events? Is it more like having a switch with which we can make them stop or more like not having one? Is it more like being able to move from a part of a cage where we are exposed to electric shocks to another part where we aren’t?

The kinds of painful events human beings outside of experimental settings are exposed to are more diverse than electric shocks. And there are other things we can aim for in life than the avoidance of pain. What if the painful events are on the path to a greater good that makes them worthwhile? (To be fair to Seligman, he fully recognises that purpose, meaning, pursuing a greater good are key to happiness. In that he seems to have left the dog experiments well behind.)

Another experiment, more of a “thought experiment,” comparing a dog’s life to that a human being’s, stems from around 2000 years before Seligman. It’s that of an ancient Greek Stoic philosopher who says that a person’s relationship to fate is like the relationship between a dog strapped to a cart and his master. The master will get the dog to pull the cart from A to B. It’s the dog’s choice whether he goes willingly, or whether he gets beaten by the master every bit of the way.

Note how the assumptions about man’s (and dog’s) ability to avoid pain are different in this example from the assumptions in Seligman’s experimental set up. By necessity, we have to undergo the experiences predestined for us. ( How painful they are depends not so much on our efforts to avoid them. Quite the opposite – the ride becomes less unpleasant if we adjust our mental attitude to undergoing them willingly.

Clearly the strength of our belief in our ability to avoid events that are bad for us and move towards those that are good for us influences how hard we try. So a belief that we can change things for the better and that some events are under our control can be a positive thing to have.

What I’m less sure about at the moment is what happens to hopeful people when it turns out that events really aren’t under their control. (Making the assumption that such events are an inescapable feature of the human condition in this universe.) Do more realistic people then fare better – in that they waste less time struggling unsuccessfully? (Think about the fact that in the universe Richter creates for them all the rats drown in the end.) Or in that they are better, like the Stoic dog, at embracing the journey and submitting to it, thus at least not compounding the pain of painful events with the pain from thinking that things should be otherwise and struggling against them.