Freedom’s Fairytale? Pt. 1 or Wrinkly Dialectics


Cognitive dissonance, the psychological concept whereby subjects are seriously irked by contrary ideas rattling around in their skulls, recently received a blow at the hands of a discipline-wandering statistician. M. Keith Chen set out to disprove the application of cognitive dissonance to apes’ choice of candy, by way of applying the Monty Hall Paradox (arguing that psychologists were making a serious statistical error). The Paradox goes like this:

There are three doors before you and you are told that behind two of the doors there are goats and behind one door is a sports car. After choosing a door Monty opens one of the two doors that wasn’t chosen and reveals a goat. He then asks if you want to stay with your initial choice or switch. Despite the apparent probabilities of the situation – one should switch regardless. Put most simply – our originally choice will only we right 1/3 of the time whereas switching gives us a 2/3 chance at getting the car.

Chen took note of a popular psychological study in which monkeys were giving three differently colored candies (red, green and blue). If the monkeys favored red over green then, when given the choice between green and blue, they would, overwhelmingly, choose blue since they had, according to cognitive dissonance, associated green with a bad taste. Chen convincingly argues that the researchers overlooked the fact that the initial choice was between equal options (namely that the candies were all the same, setting aside color).

The conclusion is that psychologists utilizing cognitive dissonance assumed that there was nothing to persuade the monkey to choose one color over another (based on sensory data) and that once that choice had been made that they assigned negative value to the color not picked, that the road less traveled was less traveled for a reason.

What are the deeper conclusions here – if we do not necessarily devalue the road not taken, then what happens to the un-choosen and is there any cognitive ramifications when it comes to a choice, to a decision? The very word decision suggests a cut – where one thing is cut in two. As I have discussed earlier apropos Alenka Zupancic’s reading of Kant, the fundamental act of freedom is not a yes but a no, a no to the deterministic elements that entrap us or, put another way, the illusion of freedom, of thinking we are free subjects, allows us a certain amount of freedom. To paraphrase Zupancic this is the Real of the Illusion.

As I argued earlier we can explain the negative act of freedom as such:

1 – I am involved in a question/situation
2 – I must freely choose (my very existence condemns me to freedom)
3 – Because my choice is limited (by external factors), it is not an actual ‘free’ choice
4 – The question/situation is lacking (in Lacanian parlance not-All), and not an actual question/situation
5 – I do not have to answer and therefore I am free

The very refusal of a choice (whether couched in terms of Mu or Hofstadter’s Unasking) seems beneficial to yes or no and yet changing, once a decision has been made, is better than the initial choice. The question remains – why the red candy over the blue? Another reading of this decay of dissonance, suggests a odd view at several other popular psychological categories such as anchoring and confirmation bias.

Gary Marcus’ somewhat interesting but ultimately disappointing text Kludge, describes, with various studies as evidence, how the imperfections of the human brain (due to the sloppiness of evolution) cause our fundamentally irrational behavior.  Marcus seems to make the same categorical error as Chomsky, Dawkins, Dennet and other anayltic thinkers make in that he equates irrationality with stupidity (this is often due to a gross underestimation or misunderstanding of desire).  Furthermore, throughout Kludge Marcus points out the shotty construction of the human brain in comparison to that of computers – paying particular attention to how unsystematic our memory is compared to computers.  One might take EW Dijkstra’s quote “The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim” and tweak it thusly: “The question of whether a human can remember is no more interesting than the question of whether a computer can forget.”  The suggestion being (and there is a study which Marcus disregards without explanation) is that our ability to forget allows us to think about possibility – to connect seemingly unrelated thoughts to ‘futurize’ the present.

If choice is not fundamentally conservative via psychocology, what does this say, in a semi-related fashion, about Derrida’s well known neologism differAnce – that meaning is always differed and requires the obfuscation of the other option in order for the choice to appear as such? DifferAnce appears as a kind of meta-cognitive dissonance – that cognitive dissonance is avoided because a certain possibility is disregarded apriori. In other words, I appreciate the red candy only by disregarding the blue and green ones – I always see the red first and I see it at the expense of the blue and green.

A step further would be to suggest whether the initial choice has more to do with almost imperceptible differences among them or a predisposition in the chooser and whether this predisposition is more nature or nurture. Catherine Malabou argues that an opposition of nature and nurture (as well as the material and immaterial) is quickly shattered when one takes a look at the plasticity of the brain. The simply process of learning makes clear that a certain nurturing of nature takes place and that the brain is naturally designed to be nurtured as such. For Malabou the brain’s development is dialectical materialist one.  It should be noted that plasticity takes us into the middle of the conflict between dialectical materialism and metaphysics and subsequently, the difference of transcendence and immanence.

And, as Adrian Johnston strongly argues, our consciousness and our sense of freedom cannot be reduced to mere epiphenomenon – the fact that the ‘mirage’ of consciousness can physically re-wire and reshape the contours of the brain suggests, more than slightly, that our concept of mind has ontologically heft. Is it enough to say that this excess guarantees the abyss of freedom? Apropos Johnson and neuropsychologists like Joseph LeDoux and Francois Ansermet, we can say that even if consciousness is illusion simple acts of what could be called brain excercise – whether it’s learning a song on the piano or re-learning how to write after a stroke, rewrite the material complexities of the brain thereby stretching out our mental and physical capabilities.

So, to return to choice, does it end up in the mechanics of the brain between our ancestral (instinctive) capacities and our deliberative (rational) ones as Marcus puts it? A recent study showed that so called ‘gut decisions’ actually reveal a complex light show on neural imaging machines – suggesting that a split second thought process is not simply visceral, nor is it restricted to the instictive parts of the brain.

To delve into this relationship, and to continue on with decisions, we will, next time, investigate love once again.


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