Thursday, January 22, 2009

I'm feeling quite determined today.

As noted in a previous post, I'm working on a complex piece for Skeptic about the American criminal-justice system. In connection with the assignment I recently interviewed celebrated trial lawyer Gerry Spence, long one of the more flamboyant members of a very flamboyant breed. Spence has had a remarkable career. (Remarkable is an overused word, but his career lives up to the intended meaning.) Just turned 80, he has not lost at trial since 1969and this is mostly in a realm, criminal law, where the conviction rate in serious felonies hovers above 90 percent. Spence first made national headlines when he won a $10.5 million judgment* against the late Karen Silkwood's former employer, nuclear plant operator Kerr-McGee. He then famously won acquittal for Randy Weaver in the Ruby Ridge gun-battle, and defended Imelda Marcos against racketeering charges.

Here's a quote from my interview of Spence that really leaped up at me as I went over the transcript:

"What I try to teach trial lawyers is that my decisions, and your decisions, and judge Scalia's decisions, and everybody's decisions are made in the gut first, and then the brain is called upon to produce something called reason or logic to support it."**
To me, that sounds like still more evidence for determinismthis notion that what we call decisions are really made deep inside, below the threshold of awareness, then the mind kicks into gear in an effort to justify/validate what we've already "decided." If that's the case, then where does the "choice" enter the picture?

Just thought it was worth mentioning.

* Appeals and significant post-trial wrangling eventually produced a settlement of $1.3 million.
** Spence created and presides over the Trial Lawyers College. He will not accept into the program lawyers who hail from the corporate realm.


Anonymous said...

I've never heard of Spence so looked him up and found this treasure trove on Wikiquote:

I particularly liked his take on arguement.

RevRon's Rants said...

"To me, that sounds like still more evidence for determinism"

Yeah, Steve... You'd probably rationalize a bowl of Cocoa Puffs into being more evidence for determinism. :-)

Perhaps the sticking point is in our differing perspectives as to the source of that "gut feeling." Where you might posit that it is a near-synaptic awareness of that which has already been established, another might perceive it as an intuitive glimpse into an ongoing evolutionary process. And we just might *both* be wrong!

Now, the ultimate *source* of that process - be it preordained or evolutionary - is a whole 'nother mess of greens. :-)

Rational said...

Well, do you always trust your gut instincts? I find them useful sometimes, but I wouldn't base major decisions on them.*

Isn't this really a debate about instinctive v. rational behaviour? We have the givens of confirmation bias and disconfirmation bias: knowing that, I think it's possible to attempt to make rational decisions. In some indeterminate way :-)

* Although I recall a self-defence teacher telling a group once that if they felt in danger in a situation, then act upon the intuition - and get out of there on the double.

Steve Salerno said...

Rat: I don't want to presume to speak for Spence (nor am I nominating him as the Oracle of All Great Knowledge), but the context of his quote leads me to believe that he thinks--as I do--that our "gut" pretty much decides the issue for us beforehand. The only time we "don't go with our gut" is when the gut isn't telling us to, or there's a competing "gut reaction" that neutralizes the original gut's effect.

Anonymous said...

Decisions from the gut seem okay in some contexts. Like on the People's Court when a judge is deciding who's being most truthful in a case of tenant vs landlord. But in the broader judicial system, the gut's not always relevant. Your gut may tell you that defendant is guilty but if evidence was improperly gathered or rights violated somehow, all that gut reaction ain't worth beans.

Steven Sashen said...

Spence's position suggests what many cognitive psychologists (especially "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not" author Robert Burton) like to say: that there is no such thing as rational thought, only the stories that are made up to "explain" non-conscious events.

But determinism?

The problem with strict determinism is that it would require us to be able to ascertain the state of the universe at a single moment in such a way that we could apply some analysis which would predict the next moment.

And the problem isn't whether this is practically possible (it isn't), but that doing so would require Heisenberg to be wrong about how you lose the ability to determine one aspect of a particle's state the more accurately you measure another.

Since I can't see how Heisenberg is wrong, I can't see how strict determinism works (you know I argue for a non-linear determinism).

Imagine stopping time so that we can see the position of all objects. And imagine that you see a ball in the street. You know specifically where it is, but you have no way of knowing how fast it was moving or in what direction.

But for strict determinism, you would need all 3 of those bits of info (and many more, no doubt).

Yekaterina said...

"that sounds like still more evidence for determinism"

One man's opinion, no matter how remarkable that man may be, is not "evidence" of anything.

Steve Salerno said...

Yekat: We consider many opinions to be evidence, when we respect the general level of intellectual function of the source. E = mc2 was hailed as a breakthrough vision of energy potential, long before Einstein (or anyone else) could prove it. (I'm still not sure we've proved it, but that's another matter.)

Steven: But this--your argument--in a nutshell is what I don't get about the whole Shrodinger's cat paradigm and related forms of QP/QM argument: It is true that if we wer able to freeze time and look at the ball, we could know where it is in relation to other objects while having no idea of its velocity and ultimate destination. But that example merely expresses unknowability from the human vantage point. Regardless of what we can see or measure (or can't see or can't measure), that ball is on its way somewhere, to a definite place--to exactly where it had to end up, based on its mass, velocity, etc. So, though we have no way of knowing that the ball is going to roll across the street, fall into the gutter and bounce precisely 42.7 inches down the street until it runs up against a small branch that fell during the rainstorm that had to happen last Tuesday at 6:04 p.m. because of the precise interaction of atmospheric forces somehow linked to the sandstorm in Lebanon that erupted with a particular wave of intensity because it contains some of the fallout from the nuclear testing in and around St. George, Utah, that we undertook because we were afraid of Hitler, who (unbeknown to anyone) got weird after he banged his head when he was 3 on a brick left over from a construction project begun in 1888 that would not have begun, had it not been for a recent emigre from Vladivostok, who...etc.,...the fact is, that ball is going to end up there. It can't possibly end up anywhere else. Our knowledge of it (or even our awareness of it) is irrelevant.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Our knowledge of it (or even our awareness of it) is irrelevant."

Except insofar as we choose to *make* that knowledge relevant. Any belief system - yours, mine, or anyone else's - as well as our interpretation of events and the forces that drive those events, is based more upon our own *assumptions* than upon any set of concrete, quantifiable and qualifiable facts.

When all the available data have been collected and analyzed, we each interpret that data and - based upon our interpretation - develop our own conclusions. Those conclusions are typically transitory, awaiting further data, interpretation, and subsequent conclusions. We end up believing what "feels" most right to us, and look to others whose conclusions mirror our own for support. The assertion that the events and data must be the result of forces in sync with our own interpretation, no matter the interpretation, is essentially flawed. No matter how diligently we attempt to define our beliefs as ultimate truths, our cognitive capacity simply lacks sufficient scope to define, much less assign "truth."

Or, to summarize, "We're all bozos on this bus." (Courtesy Firesign Theater)

Sarsabu said...

Brownian Motion hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Jen said...

It is amusing to watch these conversations unfold. So far, this one has gone from the complexities of the criminal justice system to a bus full of clowns!

When you talked about the lawyer's cases, I remembered a book by one of the other authors whose book found a coveted spot on the list of "10 Essential Books for the Skeptic." Jon Ronson also wrote THEM: Adventures with Extremists, which you can quickly find on Google Book Search. Chapter 2 is about the Weaver family. Although the whole chapter is not online, you can read a significant portion of it there.

As you say, ...

"Just thought it was worth mentioning."

Steven Sashen said...

I understand what you're saying, Steve, but the issue isn't that everything is in motion and will end up where it ends up by following immutable laws that do not require the intervention of any non-physical forces. (You know I agree with that contention.)

That position, though, is what I would call "philosophical determinism," in that it's impossible to prove, disprove or test, but is simply an explanation that's arguably consistent with observed phenomenon.

But for determinism to escape the realms of being merely philosophical, we would need to be able to conclude, prove or test determinism. Which would require overcoming the Heisenberg problem.

Using the ball example, we would need to take the ball back in time to the initial condition of the universe.

Do you believe the universe began with an initial condition, or that it's been an ongoing something-or-other forever-and-ever?

Because if there was no initial condition, then there's no way we can have anything other than a philosophical chat about how everything *could* be deterministic. Everything always has and always will do what it does based on the laws governing things doing what they do.

But if there *was* an initial condition, we would have to examine whether that condition were theoretically measurable or if it was subject to Heisenberg's Principle (or something else that makes it impossible to determine all the states of all the "things").

In other words, it seems our discussion is less about determinism (if we leave out the possibility of non-linearity) than about the state and structure of the universe itself.

Talk about a conversation for a different post! (or best had over food and beverage)

Anonymous said...

Jon Ronson's book 'Men who Stare at Goats' is funny and ultimately very scary about the kind of Black Ops being tested by the US Military Intelligence.
Knowing that such idiotic things are being tried by such influential bodies as 'military intelligence' (an oxymoron, as has been endlessly pointed out) would, were I a determinist, send me swiftly over the fence to the personal choice and responsibility camp.
I don't much care what the theories say, we need to err on the side of sanity in our day to day living and that means personal choice and responsibility.

Steve Salerno said...

I don't quite understand why people think that embracing the reality of a predetermined world means abdicating a sense of personal responsibility in daily life--or for that matter, really changes anything at all (though I would certainly argue for a more understanding attitude towards those among us who misstep). But I guess I'm never going to get that point across, so maybe I should quit trying.

P.S. Even if I do decide to go over to the "personal choice and responsibility camp," that choice is predetermined.

Anonymous said...

I would agree that embracing the reality of a predetermined world will not in fact change anything at all in the global sense.

It could, however, change my personal perception of the world and, in a day to day sense, radically affect my personal experience of living.

If I am honest I would also admit that my personal perception, determinist or otherwise, matters not a jot to anyone else but me and has very little effect on others until it it influences my real-time behaviour--which, eventually, it most certainly will.

As to the demand for more understanding for those who 'misstep', I would suggest that until the misstepping person attains more understanding of his behaviour, my or anyones elses' understanding is of no use whatever-----why? because it is my understanding and can never be the understanding of the misstepping person.

The demand for others' understanding when there is no personal understanding is a thinly concealed ploy for unearned sympathy and unearned absolution--no learning process or change in behaviour or personal responsibilty required.

Reminds me of confession in the Catholic church and just about as effective.

Even with copious personal understanding, the honest man has to admit that his behaviour has real consequences for others in the world, there is no wiping out of sin in reality:

'The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it'

-- Omar Khayyam

Steve Salerno said...

The demand for others' understanding when there is no personal understanding is a thinly concealed ploy for unearned sympathy and unearned absolution...

Oh, I see. So therefore, by that logic, when we see a dog suffering because of its own behaviors--like, say, a pit bull in a ring--we should have no empathy or feeling for the animal, because it hasn't yet achieved sufficient self-knowledge to "change"?

My point about determinism is that under its dictates, we must all do what we do. In a sense, we're all that pit bull in that ring. Or maybe you, Anon, turned out to be a cocker spaniel (albeit a rather judgmental one, it would seem, if yo're the Anon I think you are). Lucky you. If we must do what we do, then none of us is really "to blame," in the classic sense of the term. As I've said before, there are concessions we must make to pragmatism in order to have a functioning world; we can't have the Ted Bundys running around loose just because we "understand" them and their predetermined quandary. But a bit more empathy would be nice. And even though none of us can help what we feel at a given moment--because that too is, of course, predetermined--maybe through the process of some thought and introspection, and interaction with others who think differently, we can learn to have empathy we don't presently have.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I don't quite understand why people think that embracing the reality of a predetermined world means abdicating a sense of personal responsibility..."

It would be equally valid for you to state that you don't understand why I can't "embrace the reality of" my womanhood. Both concepts (determinism and my womanhood) are equally alien to me, subject to discussion and conjecture, but neither consistent with my experiential or conceptual base.

While the evidence in support of the fact that I am a male is objective and easily qualifiable and quantifiable, the "evidence" supporting the existence of determinism is subjective, dependent upon our individual and very unique perspectives. Expecting someone to discard a perspective is ludicrous. Challenging that perspective is generally productive, since it helps the individual (ideally, *both* individuals) to better understand their own thoughts, and sometimes to modify or even reverse those thoughts.

As we've seen over the course of numerous discussions on the topic, there exists compelling evidence to support *both* the existence of free will and determinism, yet the existence of a "convert" is rare. And for good reason: the "evidence" on both sides is wholly dependent upon individual interpretation, and as such, lacks the empirical qualities essential to the formation of a "truth." The best we can hope for is for each thesis / hypothesis to evolve into synthesis; in this case, for the opposing sides to agree to disagree. Your perception is just as "right" for you as it is "wrong" for me, and vice versa.

And while I have joked that I am really a lesbian, trapped inside a man's body, I really have nothing concrete upon which to base a judgment on what it is like to be a woman. So it is with determinism. It is just as alien to my admittedly subjective experiential base as is the notion that everything in life is acting according to some predetermined plan. Conversely, your own *belief* in the existence of determinism suggests that *your* equally subjective experiential base does not allow for the existence of free will. Tomaytoes, tomahtoes...

Steven Sashen said...


I'm hoping you're not suggesting that personal experience has any bearing on the truth/falsity of whether we have free will.

Our experience often dramatically misrepresents reality. For example, we definitely don't see the earth rotating... we see the sun "rise" and "set" as it moves around the earth. Various "optical illusions" show us how our visual system is seriously flawed. Our ability to locate the source of sound is equally sketchy. And don't even get me started on how off-base our thinking is (or how a large percentage of people think that if a ping pong ball rolls out of a coiled hose, it will continue to travel in a curved path).

Clearly, as I pointed out earlier, we don't have "proof" for determinism. To prove it would be to predict, in advance, the state of some thing (electron, ball, Paris Hilton) based on initial conditions. And Heisenberg's Principle says that we can't know all of the states of any object (the more we know about one, the less we'll know about others).

That's why I'm calling Steve's description "philosophical determinism" and it has to be explored in that context (e.g. it requires a universe that doesn't have an initial state).

For those with Eastern leanings, this is like discussing Buddhist Madyamika or Hindu Advaita. These are philosophical positions that argue with our day-to-day experience. They're positioned as being more true than our experience. And even though people talk about "feeling emptiness" or "non-dual experiences," their personal experience neither proves nor disproves the philosophical stance (which, like Steve's version of determinism, is consistent within a set of constraints).

Anonymous said...

'when we see a dog suffering because of its own behaviors--like, say, a pit bull in a ring--'

Spurious argument, I don't anthropomorphise dogs, I judge dogs on doggy behaviour; dogs fight, its their nature, neither good nor bad.
'Pit bull in a ring' is intentional, knowing, human behaviour that involves a huge number of choices to get those dogs to the point of fighting in that ring and yes, I judge that harshly.

Judgement is not a dirty word, I have a capacity to judge and I use it constantly--as do you and every other human on the planet. Our capacity to judge and discriminate finely is one of the differences between humans and pit bulls.

You do seem to be taking this abstract discussion very personally, I do hope that you are not equating your judging and discriminating abilities with those of a pit bull.

Mike Cane said...

Steve apparently needs a 101.

Book: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

TV: Lie To Me (FOX; shut up; it's good!)

Determinism?! Really, WTF?

Determinism is a computer taking the same input and giving the same output. What, you think Spence has a Formula? Please.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I'm hoping you're not suggesting that personal experience has any bearing on the truth/falsity of whether we have free will."

No, I'm not. What I am saying is that all we can have is our own perspective on what is "true," and that since actual "truth" exists somewhere beyond the limitations of our experiential and conceptual base, it is ludicrous to assume that another's perspective is false, simply because it is formed within the realm of their experiential/conceptual base, rather than our own.

If people limited their perspective - their "truth" - to their experiences alone, most people would believe that the earth is flat, having never seen the earth from space or even having observed the curvature of the earth from a high-altitude vantage point. That experiential base, however, is expanded by the conceptual base; we have been provided with objective, empirical data which proves that the earth is not flat, and we are capable of conceptualizing the implications of that data, even if we are not capable of actually observing it.

In the case of determinism vs. free will, there simply isn't objective empirical data available which establishes either perspective as being "truth." We are forced to rely upon conclusions formulated via our personal (and very subjective) understanding and evaluation of the arguments offered for both ideologies. Thus, my "truth" may be another's folly, and vice versa. For me to state that it is inconceivable how another can come to a different understanding and conclusion about an inherently subjective subject is a statement about my own conceptual limitations, rather than of the other person's.

The value of the Eastern perspective is not that it attempts to establish some separate "truth," but that it challenges us to look at every "truth" with admittedly limited vision, seeking not to disprove anything, but to recognize that no matter how broad the scope of our "vision," there is always more. We recognize that humility is more capable of perceiving truth than is assurance.

Anonymous said...

'it challenges us to look at every "truth" with admittedly limited vision, seeking not to disprove anything, but to recognize that no matter how broad the scope of our "vision," there is always more.'

Admirably put.

Steven Sashen said...

Hey Ron,

Okay, phew (re: personal experience) ;-)

But I think your take on "the Eastern perspective" is a bit romantic.

Those guys and gals, like all others who aren't "Eastern", are pretty specific about what "the truth" is, and many of them are QUITE dogmatic (there's a reason that the various schools of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam have splintered, and while some of those reasons focus on the methods, many focus on the goals.

I don't know if you've lived in Buddhist or Hindu cultures, but they are no less sure that their interpretation of their personal experience (or, more often, what they've been taught) is correct than anyone else I've ever met.

The alleged admonition of the Buddha to put things to the test rather than simply believe what you've been taught *sounds* good, but is rarely practiced, even by those Buddhists who like to quote this teaching.

And, to give credit where it's due, Western Philosophy has more than its fair share of people who've investigated what most consider the unarguable truth.

In other words, skepticism has no borders.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I don't know if you've lived in Buddhist or Hindu cultures, but they are no less sure that their interpretation of their personal experience (or, more often, what they've been taught) is correct than anyone else I've ever met."

Two & a half years as a Rinzai novitiate / disciple. Romantic? Hardly. I did, however, have extensive contact with people who were committed to living the teachings, rather than merely paying those teachings lip service. I can assure you that, just as with every religion (East or West), there are a lot of folks who bend the teachings to match their own priorities - the notion of being "right" high among those priorities. That mentality is the true source of dogma in most religions, and especially Buddhism.

BTW - I'm not trying to foster some kind of competition between East / West. Both have their rightful place. Just clearing up a couple of common misconceptions & send the occasional strawman packing.

Mike Cane said...

More 101 for Steve:

Trust your gut: Too much thinking leads to bad choices

Anonymous said...

'Just clearing up a couple of common misconceptions & send the occasional strawman packing.'

Even Rinzai, hierarchic, tradition-bound, rigid and corrupt, teaches that the only strawman to be examined is your own.

Even Rinzai, with all its faults in practice, teaches that when examining strawmen we think are external to us, we can still only see ourselves.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Even Rinzai, hierarchic, tradition-bound, rigid and corrupt, teaches that the only strawman to be examined is your own."

Actually, it is the Soto order that is more rigid and bound in tradition, not Rinzai. And as far as corruption, it shares the same fate as every religion, where the principles are morphed into the machine by those whose agenda bears little resemblance to the teachings.

During my time as a novitiate - and especially once I became a disciple - in the order, I witnessed none of the "corruption" you claim to exist... at least, not among those priests charged with leading the order & teaching its principles. I'm curious as to whether you actually observed evidence of such corruption and subversion of the principles, or merely read about it somewhere.