The All-Seeing Eye

Musings from the central tower…

Free Will, Determinism, and Motivation

It is possible to look at the universe like a giant computer. If you know the software a computer is running and all of its inputs you can predict the result. Similarly, one might think that if you knew all the rules of the universe – that is, if you understood physics perfectly and accurately – and if you knew the position and velocity of each particle in the universe, you would be able to predict the results – that is, how everything would turn out. Such a view is called determinism. When Newton first proposed that all matter obeyed certain laws, he was accused of atheism, because the obvious implication of his theories was determinism, which is a theory that leaves no place for God and no place for free will.

The question of free will vs. predestination or determinism is, of course, older than Newtonian physics, but physics is the way in which I first conceived of the question. One might ask, if God is all powerful, how can anyone act in a way God does not want? One might ask, if God knows all, then isn’t destiny written – isn’t there no way to change things? I have never been particularly into theology, but physics always fascinated and frightened me.

Some time ago I read Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation trilogy, which despite its name consisted of approximately thirteen thousand books. This series is based upon the idea that there was a mathematician named Hari Seldon who was able to predict the course of history using mathematical models and a deep understanding of historical trends. I did not find this idea credible. People, after all, are far too complicated to reduce to a mathematical model. Aren’t they?

Can we predict what people will do in a given situation? If we can, what does that say about free will? If we can’t, how can we enact social change?

In Freakonomics, authors Levitt and Dubner describe a scenario in which parents were charged a small fee (I think it was $3) for being late to pick their children up from daycare. The result of this fee was that lateness increased dramatically. According to Levitt and Dubner, the fee was too low, and parents felt as though paying $3 justified their lateness. In other words, when no provision is made for lateness, the parents have to pick their kids up on time or risk their kids being scared and alone. When the daycare center charges for lateness, watching the kids for a few more minutes becomes just another service that the parent can buy, and buy they do. The point of this story is that incentives don’t necessarily work the way we think they will. There are complicated issues at stake even in something as simple as daycare. As we saw in the Traveler’s Dilemma, it’s not a simple task to predict how people will make their decisions, and sometimes rational behavior isn’t what theorists think is rational.

However, what both of these scenarios show is that despite the difficulty, despite the complications, it is possible to develop models and predictions for how people will behave. It is possible to find, with experimentation, the fee amount at which parents will begin picking their children up on time to avoid the fee. It is possible to find, with experimentation, the punishment amount at which people will begin picking the low number rather than the high number in the Traveler’s Dilemma. In other words, people’s behavior may be more complicated than we think, but it is not unreasonable. People act based on motivations, and although these motivations are often not obvious, they are there and they can be found.

Of course there will always be exceptions. There’s always room for free will. There will always be people on the far ends of the bell curve, people who defy expectations and act inexplicably. But in order to effect positive change in the world, we have to believe that we can predict behaviors for most people. We have to believe that there’s a number of dollars that will decrease the amount of late pickups from daycare. After all, isn’t this how we determine prison sentences? Isn’t there a number of years of incarceration that we believe will make the commission of murder unattractive to most potential criminals? Isn’t there a number of dollars that we believe will deter people from speeding and thus decrease the number of traffic accident fatalities?

I’ve never really believed in free will. I’ve always thought that everything is already determined by particle vectors, that everything I do is explainable by something that happened to me in childhood or by a set of circumstances that outlined my choice to such an extent that I didn’t really have a choice. And that’s why, for me, I think it is important for us to search for these motivations, search for these incentives, to build and discredit and rebuild these mathematical models to predict behavior. Because I want to set things up so that people have no choice but to make the right choices. I want a society full of people who pick 100 on the Traveler’s dilemma and pick their children up on time from daycare, and if we’re going to have that we have to pick the right game.

And that, in turn, is why it’s worth looking at something like the Traveler’s Dilemma and finding out that people will cooperate with each other as long as the risk for doing so isn’t too high. It’s why it’s worth looking at the daycare paradox to find out how much guilt is worth. It’s why it’s worth asking why people follow their king or their president against their best interests. We need to find out what motivates people. And in exploring incentives and economics, game theory and modeling, philosophy and psychoanalysis, that’s exactly what I hope to do. I hope to find a solution, a way to set up society so that we’re all playing a game that everyone can win.

In closing, right now I feel that most people are not playing a game that everyone can win. There’s a game called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this game, two prisoners are in the custody of law enforcement, but the police don’t have enough evidence to convict them of a serious crime. Each of them is told that they are both suspects and given the following options. If one prisoner gives up the other, that prisoner will go free and the other will go to jail for a long time. If neither of them confesses they will both serve a short sentence for whatever smaller crimes the police can put on them. If they both confess they’ll both serve a short sentence. The implications of the game are that it is better for each player, no matter what the other player does, to confess their crime. Unlike the Traveler’s Dilemma, the Prisoner’s Dilemma tends to lead to uncooperative behavior – in other words, it is much better for each player to screw the other player over, unlike in the TD in which screwing the other player leads to a greater loss.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma game describes many situations in modern life – situations in which people have a great incentive to hurt other people. If there is some way to change the rules of the game so that, like in the Traveler’s Dilemma, or many other games, people have an incentive to help other people, then everyone could benefit immensely. Changing the rules of the game is what I’m aiming for, but it’s going to take a lot of searching to find the right game and a lot of convincing to get people to play it.

February 10, 2008 Posted by | About, Economics, Game Theory | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What’s in a name?

This blog’s URL is “” I chose the name “panoptical” for several reasons. First, the inspiration for this blog was a concept I came across several months ago while studying Foucault that I call the “panoptic model of power.” The second is that “panoptical” means “observing all,” and I intend this philosophy blog to be highly interdisciplinary: I intend, to the extent possible in my spare time, to observe all. The third is that “panoptical” gets few google hits and is therefore a reasonably distinctive name.

The panoptic model of power merits more explanation, because I intend to delve very deeply into that subject and I have plans to use this model extensively to explain all manner of social institutions, from the free market to the public school system. Foucault made a study of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, a physical prison building designed, before modern surveillance techniques, to make it easy for a single observer to supervise a large number of people. The structure of the panopticon consists of a single, central tower surrounded by a large number of individual cells situated such that each cell can be seen into from the vantage point of the tower. Ideally, the inmates should be isolated from each other, so that no communication is possible. Additionally, the inmates ought not to be able to see into the central tower, so that at any given time they will not be able to determine whether or not they are under surveillance.

The proposed psychological effect of the panopticon is that the inmates exercise self-surveillance and self-discipline. Because the inmates know, at any given time, that they might be under surveillance, they will tend to watch their own behavior to ensure that it conforms to the way they would act if some authority figure were actually watching. It may also be an important aspect of the panopticon that the inmates are isolated from each other. The twin effects of isolation and self-surveillance serve to magnify the power of the central authority over the inmates.

The implication of the panopticon is that this panoptic magnification of power also takes place outside the physical structure. In other words, isolation and self-surveillance occur in individuals in our society due to various other institutions and social factors, and it may be the case that when these things come together with a perceived authority or set of norms, they govern the individual as surely as if the individual were actually in a prison cell. This is where Foucault comes in, because he re-envisioned power as the cumulative effect of every relationship and institution, rather than as the simple effect of one person ruling or dominating another.

This is all a vastly brief summarization of a set of theories that are farther-reaching in their implications than perhaps anything I’ve ever studied, so if things seem a bit unclear, don’t worry – I’ll be going over all of these issues with a fine-toothed comb. To give you an idea of just how far-reaching these implications are, I’ll say this. For about five years I adopted the political and economic philosophy of Libertarianism, studying many of its facets and related ideas, such as Objectivism, Austrian Economics, praxeology, and anarcho-capitalism. All of those systems, at their very core, assume a theory of power that Foucault may have made obsolete. The panoptic model of power and its implications could, therefore, lead me to retrace five years worth of steps and start over at the beginning. The scope of that project is why I felt I needed a new blog and the inspiration, the panoptic model of power, is where this blog gets its name.

January 27, 2008 Posted by | About | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The System Of The World

Aside from being the final installment in Neal Stephenson‘s excellent Baroque Cycle, The System Of The World is an important part of a metaphor for my approach to matters philosophical. It goes like this:

Picture a system of equations. Or just consider this one:

a + b = 3
2a + b = 4

It’s a very simple system with a very easy solution: a = 1, b = 2. But how does one solve this system? Well, one method is to examine one equation to try to find a relationship that can help us solve another equation. If we consider the first equation, we can discover that b = 3 – a. If we use this insight about b’s value in the second equation, we get the equation 2a + 3 – a = 4, which we can then solve for a. Once we know that a = 1, things become very easy.

So a system of equations can be solved by, essentially, cross-referencing the information in one equation with the information in the others.

This sort of action, however, is not limited to manipulation of numbers. Philosophy, I believe, works the same way. We can analyze one work of philosophy, or literature, or what have you, and use the conclusions we draw to analyze another different work in a different field, and from this cross-referencing we can derive new equations – perhaps ones with easier solutions.

Let’s work on a very prominent and easy example: The Oedipus complex. Freud looked at a dramatic and mythological character, Oedipus, and from his story drew some conclusions about human nature, which he then applied to the field of psychoanalysis to achieve new and unexpected results. We can challenge Freud’s particular assertions, his methods, etc, but we cannot challenge the fact that Freud was incredibly influential and his insights essentially generated a whole new science.

So where do we find insights like Freud’s? Insights that, regardless of their ultimate validity, help us to look at old problems in new ways? Insights that open up entire new fields of enquiry? The answer is, anywhere.

Each philosophy, each story, each insight, represents a piece of information, an equation in the System of the World. Each equation helps us decode other equations, helps us situate other ideas in reference to one another. All that is needed is for us to find relations, but the fun thing is that everything is related. Anything can be a metaphor for anything else, if creativity and thought are put into it. You might even say that every thought and image we have is a metaphor – after all, a picture of a pipe is not a pipe. And now we’re verging into epistemology and cognitive science. How, exactly, are thoughts organized in our minds? How do we form knowledge? Difficult questions, and well beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that time will tell whether my methods are valid – whether the insights I am able to produce contain truth or falsehood.

January 24, 2008 Posted by | About | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hello world!

Ah, the Hello World. I can still remember my first programming class – we used QBasic, in which the Hello World program consisted of the following instruction:

PRINT “Hello World!”

Before that class I used to “program” my personal computer: A Commodore 64. That machine used plain old BASIC, and my first program reflected my priorities at the time:


And that, I hope, may be contorted into some sort of useful metaphor concerning this blog. My first program was not the conventional, didactic, “Hello World,” but rather something that I dreamed up. I’m not claiming that it takes much intellectual horsepower to conceive of displaying one’s own name on a TV screen, which is what we used for a monitor that first year we got the Commodore. But since then I have made my own path in many more significant ways, and ventured, untaught, into many additional fields. Computer programming wasn’t the first (it was preceded, in predictable little-boy fashion, by my study of astronomy and dinosaurs), but it was the first that really stuck in my personality, that really gave me a new tool with which to analyze and communicate ideas.

And that, in a nutshell, is what this blog is about: finding, evaluating, and using an ever-expanding collection of analytical tools that will help us better understand and affect the systems around us.

I like to tell stories, and a lot of my previous writings have consisted of a story followed by the implications of that story and how they apply to some current issue. Much like a sermon, which tells a story from the Bible, only to draw a concept out of that story and then from that concept extrapolate some lesson or advice to the congregation that is hearing the sermon.

The thing is, I see stories everywhere. In economics, politics, philosophy, psychology, theatre, literature, history, cognitive science, even mathematics. When I hear a story told by an economist I want to learn a new way to look at human behavior. When I hear a story told by a philosopher I want to learn a new way to look at politics. My goal is to come up with whole new ideas – but I’ll be satisfied with new ways of looking at old ideas – that can be usefully employed to change peoples’ lives. That’s a tall order for a lone blogger, and I may end up, like Albert Jay Nock, writing for an unknowable potential future audience (“the Remnant”) in need of my ideas, or worse, for no one at all. But despite the risk of failure or irrelevance, I have ideas, and I might as well write them down before they go away, or else, to quote Emerson, “to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”

January 24, 2008 Posted by | About | , , , , | Leave a comment