Thursday, December 4, 2014

Do people around you control your mind?

A recent Washington Post article titled "People around you control your mind: The latest evidence" refers to a statistical analysis of the behavior of thousands of airplane passengers and, based on some observed regularities, concludes that you don't control your mind--other people do!

This analysis shows, for example, that people are more likely to get a drink or a snack on the plane if a person next to them gets one first. The study interprets this as evidence that the behavior of people around us controls our mind.

This is, at best, a rushed interpretation, and at worst a logical fallacy. Why? First of all, do you believe in free will, that is, do you believe that you have some say in the way you live your life? If you think you don't, then this is a good spot to stop reading this post. In that case, you should be perfectly fine with the idea that something outside of you controls your mind.

However, if you believe in free will, then there are a few things you might want to notice. First, the claim that other people control your mind misunderstands the relationship between human choice and the objective facts around us. Within the framework of human choice, objective facts do not control our minds; they are simply the raw material that enters our judgment.

You, as an individual with free will, observe the objective facts around you and then use your subjective judgment to evaluate those facts. Your evaluation of the reality around you is up to you. This evaluation determines your actions and thus guides your life path. The objective properties of the world around you matter inasmuch as they are the raw information that enters your subjective judgment.

You might say that this is too extreme. What about, say, food and water; we are surely bound by laws of nature there, you might say. However, even in this extreme case, the laws of nature do not determine our actions, at least in the sense that these laws do not determine our preferences about life and death. It is true that if one wants to live, one has to eat and drink, but it is not implied in the laws of nature that one must want to live. Most of us have had moments in our life when we made a conscious decision to choose life over death. Implicitly, we make that decision every moment of our waking life.

Some individuals, however, have made a different choice. For example, some people sacrifice their own lives to save others. It is also not uncommon that, during wars, people would rather die than be captured by the opposing army. Some people start hunger strikes for political or ideological reasons fully committed to taking their strike to its logical conclusion if their demands are not satisfied.

I avoided including the case of suicide in the above examples because it is commonly believed that suicidal tendencies are an illness with a biochemical background. However, if suicide was completely determined by the objective facts around us and by the natural laws that bind those facts, that is, if our free will had no say in it, then it would be an illusion to believe that suicide prevention efforts prevent anything.

So, how can we explain the fact that people tend to buy more stuff on an airplane when other people around them buy something first without invoking the idea that some people's minds are controlled by other people's actions?

One possibility is that some people simply don't like to be the only ones buying food or drinks on a plane. But, they lack information about other people's preferences, so they wait for others to reveal those preferences. Once someone reveals that he is willing to buy something, the people who don't like being the first movers obtain new valuable information. They then make the choice to buy a snack or a drink based on that information.

In this interpretation, at no pint did the first movers control the minds of people around them. They simply provided the facts that were used to inform the decisions of people around them. These decisions were controlled by the subjective preferences of the people making the decisions, not by the actions of other people.

We simply can't derive metaphysical conclusions using statistical correlations. The fact that some behaviors occur more frequently than others says nothing about our ability to control our actions. It is simply a historical record of our actions, nothing less and nothing more than that.

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