Michael Frayn on Uncertainty and Motivation

Tuesday October 14, 2008


Last week I was down in Birmingham at the book festival. It was good to be back in town catching up with old friends. The evening’s main event was an interview between playwrights Michael Frayn and David Edgar, both of whom were extremely thoughtful and impressive individuals. The conversation was particularly interesting because Frayn was discussing his play Copenhagen, which deals with the 1941 meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg in Copenhagen, and he was juggling with some of the issues that I have already discussed on this blog surrounding the drawing upon metaphors from particle physics for thinking through what it means to be human.

Frayn’s main concern was the relationship between uncertainty and human motivation. Perhaps the best summary of the problem is set out in the CERN courier, in an article written after Frayn’s visit last year.

“What fascinated me about the story are the questions it raises: Why did Heisenberg go to Copenhagen? What were his motives? And you can never really know the answer.” There is an uncertainty with human motivation and an uncertainty with the behaviour of a particle, and though the reasons are completely different, Frayn indicates that both have a theoretical barrier beyond which the human mind cannot reach, although he does encourage debate on this issue.

Of course, “though the reasons are completely different” cannot be stressed enough. We are talking about metaphors, and not about some kind of quantum weirdness underlying human motivation. But understood in this sense, I think that Frayn is really on to something in laying bare the uncertainty that underlies human action. After all, a good deal of drama is based upon the idea that there is a self in there who, if only we can get to them, has straightforward motivations. These motivations (the story goes) may be clouded, they may be complex, but they are – given the right kind of equipment – ultimately capable of being plumbed. Frayn, however seems to resist this idea, not merely by claiming that motivation is hard to establish, but by raising the possibility that there is no single true motivation down there that can be drawn out. What is being looked for – the reason for one’s act – is, in the final analysis, something that cannot be found.

This has quite wide implications. In certain approaches to ethics (although not in all), motivation is all-important, and what characterises an act as ethical or unethical is the motivation behind it. Not only this, but motivation is often given a kind of causal role in action. But what if it is not like this? What if, firstly, motivation cannot be definitively established and, secondly, it doesn’t have the kind of causal role we think it does? For it seems to me that, in the field of human psychology, motivation works (more or less) as an explanatory story after the act rather than a causal mechanism that leads to action. And if this is so, the superficial plausibility of the explanatory story does not mean it is necessarily a good guide to the causation of an event. There have been a great many experiments in which the tendency of the mind to confabulate motivations after the event is laid bare, and when one starts to become alive to this curious storytelling in which the brain indulges, it is possible to become increasingly sceptical about these stories.

Let me give an example. A long time ago now, I had a striking experience of this. I was studying in the beautiful town of Durham, and one lunchtime, having headed out of the office some time before, I found myself wandering the streets of the town in a somewhat vague and unfocused fashion. I came to my senses, and asked myself what I was doing. My mind provided a ready answer. It was lunchtime, so I must have come out for lunch. So I went to a small cafe and bought a bowl of soup and a roll. They made good soup in that cafe, home made, and I was looking forward to it. I ordered, paid, carried my soup to a table that overlooked the courtyard, and sat down.

So far, so good. It is relatively easy to trace the kinds of shortcuts that my mind was making. After all, I was wandering (probably with a vague sense of dissatisfaction) around town at lunchtime. I had been in that kind of situation before. My mind filled in the gaps.

lunchtime + dissatisfaction + wandering aimlessly = you want lunch.

Plausible, perhaps; but as it happened, this was not what was going on at all. Only when I took my first sip of soup did the fact of the matter hit me: I had already eaten lunch! So I stared into my soup and asked myself what the hell I was doing sitting there in the cafe at lunchtime. Why was I wandering the streets of Durham, if it was not for lunch? Was it because I was tired of work? Was it because it was a nice sunny day and a part of my mind said ‘Why not go for a walk?’ Was it because I had unresolved issues left over from childhood that need the probing of a psychoanalyst (may all the gods preserve me) to resolve? And it struck me then that I had absolutely no idea. Indeed, thinking back, I’m not sure whether, in this kind of investigation, you can ever hit bottom and find the motivation for an action – for any action. You can, of course, put forward hypotheses about the strength of various causal mechanisms at work, and these hypotheses can be evaluated for their plausibility, but this is post hoc theorising, and does not seem to naturally lead to a single, unambiguous answer. Of course, you can trace some causal threads which may be convincing, but the idea that there is a single thing lurking in there that is called ‘my motivation’ seems to border on superstition.

This problem is, I think, a problem of meaning, the problem of what we mean to do when we do x. But the question What do we mean to do when we do x? is to put the cart before the horse. The more interesting question – because it admits of a multiplicity of answers and a recognition of causal complexity, rather than of a single answer and an insistence upon single causes – goes like this: given that we have done x, what meanings can we draw from it? Such meanings can never be single because motivation never appears to us, even in our acting, in a clear and distinct fashion. This is, no doubt, why form many psychoanalysis is such an enormously entertaining ways of spending one’s free time: because if there is not, in fact, a single motivation lurking in there, but if it seems as if it is, then one can spend many happy hours projecting superficially plausible, but probably spurious stories, onto any action whatsoever. The disadvantage of such forms of entertainment, however, is that we never find out anything particularly new about the causality of our actions, because we only find a reflection of our favoured causal story, and that causal story is almost always so simplified that it just does not do justice to the phenomena of human action.

But to come back to ethics, I have long suspected that the problem with ethics is the claims that are made to ethical certainty. The idea of ethical certainty is seductive, for it renders a complex world simple and unambiguous; but if motivation itself is something that is neither simple nor amenable to certainty, then perhaps ethics is less about fixating upon certainties, and more about finding our way through the shifting seas of uncertainty. Perhaps ethics cannot do without a frank confession of how little we really know about the causes and conditions of human action.

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#1 · ramon sanchez

15 October 2008

you are a being with an egoself which explains your actions(after the event).your brain creates constructs continuously; this is well known to science now..it is relatively easy to catch yourself out in the sense of getting your brain to change your story.an example is if you have a strong opinion your brain can change imput to your self to make your experience seem to support this story.(ask am i a racist ?then check) so buddha was it ? who said that we are clinging to our wreckage clinging to our story…….. cling strongly and you can find anything anywhere.ethics for instance can be at the bottom of everything but then again so can cortinas( an old ford car)

#2 · Ed Knight

16 October 2008

To study the self is to forget the self and learn from the 10,000 things. Dogen

#3 · Will

16 October 2008

Thanks for that Dogen quote, Ed! One of my favourites.

#4 · David Chapman

4 November 2008

Your Durham lunch experience is what cognitive psychologists call a “capture error”. I did some work on those back in graduate school. (This was when Phil Agre and I were studying routine activity.) The term is strongly associated with Don Norman, but I think it predates his work on the topic.

The connection you make with ethics reminds me forcefully of the reaction I had to Sam Harris’ atheism book (“The End of Faith”). There is a lot I like about that book, but overall it is a disaster. He comes to what I think are catastrophically wrong moral conclusions (basically, that the West ought to clobber Islam, and is justified in using torture, nukes, etc. to do so). He uses a nice bit of deductive logic to come to that position.

A main take-home message of Camus’ “The Rebel” (a book anyone seriously interested in ethics might do well to read) is that when your convincing chain of logic leads to the conclusion that you ought to kill a whole lot of people, it is time to reexamine your premises.

Harris got an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Stanford in the late 80s. I hung around with Stanford philosophers then too. He extensively cites the sort of rubbishy smug analytical-lite cognitivist philosophy of mind that was popular at Stanford at that time. In particular, the “BDI” theory of mind, which takes beliefs, desires, and intentions as the unanalyzable primitives that have causal power over action. I put a lot of effort into debunking that then, but I had no idea how high the stakes were.

Harris unreflectively assumes there is a neurological fact-of-the-matter in every case as to whether one believes something. (His doctoral research proposes to determine the precise neurological substrate of belief.) Propositional attitudes determine actions as a matter of inexorable physical cause-and-effect. So, either Abdul believes “A good Muslim must kill unbelievers” or not, and if he does, then he simply will do so, willy-nilly.

This is a disastrously wrong theory of belief, from a philosophy-of-mind point of view — and it makes forcefully Keynes’ point that “Philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else… Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Getting philosophy of mind wrong could lead to World War III, if anyone took Harris seriously. Philosophy is, unfortunately, still dangerous.

I think it’s clear that belief — and, as you suggest, motivation — are complex and ambiguous affairs. They are neither unanalyzable primitives, nor are they binary matters.

I think hardly anyone has clear-cut religious beliefs, despite “believers”‘s protestations to the contrary; and if they do, those beliefs certainly do not determine action. I think this because essentially no one acts on the explicit tenets of the religions they claim to believe in.

For example, if you really believed in Christianity, you would want to know something about it. Recent polls found that the majority of American self-described Christians do not know who preached the Sermon on the Mount, can’t name the writers of the four Gospels, and so forth. Second, you would be inclined to follow some of its basic prescriptions for action; but almost all American Catholics practice birth control; pre- and extra-marital sex is more prevalent among Christians than non-believers; most Christians couldn’t name the Seven Deadly Sins, much less the Seven Contrary Virtues; and so forth. A couple of years ago I read a bunch of books written by Christian ministers for Christian ministers, and they were all in something one would describe as despair at the total lack of interest in, knowledge of, understanding of, or respect for, Christianity by Christians — were it not for the fact that despair is a sin.

The same goes for Buddhists. To a first approximation, there aren’t any. There are several hundred million people who say they are — but they have zero interest in either learning about or practicing Buddhism. So I assume that the same is true for Islam.

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