Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

We can formulate a number of objections to the thesis argued in the previous post.

First, if a belief that one is going to do something is the same as the decision to do it, another person’s belief that I am going to do something should mean that the other person is making a decision for me. But this is absurd.

Second, suppose that I know that I am going to be hit on the head and suffer from amnesia, thus forgetting all about these considerations. I may believe that I will eat breakfast tomorrow, but this is surely not a decision to do so.

Third, suppose someone wants to give up smoking. He may firmly hold the opinion that whatever he does, he will sometimes smoke within the next six months, not because he wants to do so, but because he does not believe it possible that he do otherwise. We would not want to say that he decided not to give up smoking.

Fourth, decisions are appropriate objects of praise and blame. We seem at least somewhat more reluctant to praise and blame beliefs, even if it is sometimes done.

Fifth, suppose someone believes, “I will kill Peter tomorrow at 4:30 PM.” We will wish to blame him for deciding to kill Peter. But if he does kill Peter tomorrow at 4:30, he held a true belief. Even if beliefs can be praised or blamed, it seems implausible that a true belief should be blamed.

The objections are helpful. With their aid we can see that there is indeed a flaw in the original proposal, but that it is nonetheless somewhat on the right track. A more accurate proposal would be this: a decision is a voluntary self-fulfilling prophecy as understood by the decision maker. I will explain as we consider the above arguments in more detail.

In the first argument, in the case of one person making a decision for another, the problem is that a mere belief that someone else is going to do something is not self-fulfilling. If I hold a belief that I myself will do something, the belief will tend to cause its own truth, just as suggested in the previous post. But believing that someone else will do something will not in general cause that person to do anything. Consider the following situation: a father says to his children as he departs for the day, “I am quite sure that the house will be clean when I get home.” If the children clean the house during his absence, suddenly it is much less obvious that we should deny that this was the father’s decision. In fact, the only reason this is not truly the father’s decision, without any qualification at all, is that it does not sufficiently possess the characteristics of a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, in the example it does not seem to matter whether the father believes what he says, but only whether he says it. Second, since it is in the power of the children to fail to clean the house in any case, there seems to be a lack of sufficient causal connection between the statement and the cleaning of the house. Suppose belief did matter, namely suppose that the children will know whether he believes what he says or not. And suppose additionally that his belief had an infallible power to make his children clean the house. In that case it would be quite reasonable to say, without any qualification, “He decided that his children would clean the house during his absence.” Likewise, even if the father falsely believes that he has such an infallible power, in a sense we could rightly describe him as trying to make that decision, just as we might say, “I decided to open the door,” even if it turns out that my belief that the door could be opened turns out to be false when I try it; the door may be locked. This is why I included the clause “as understood by the decision maker” in the above proposal. This is a typical character of moral analysis; human action must be understood from the perspective of the one who acts.

In the amnesia case, there is a similar problem: due to the amnesia, the person’s current beliefs do not have a causal connection with his later actions. In addition, if we consider such things as “eating breakfast,” there might be a certain lack of causal connection in any case; the person would likely eat breakfast whether or not he formulates any opinion about what he will do. And to this degree we might feel it implausible to say that his belief that he will eat breakfast is a decision, even without the amnesia. It is not understood by the subject as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the case of giving up smoking, there are several problems. In this case, the subject does not believe that there is any causal connection between his beliefs and his actions. Regardless of what he believes, he thinks, he is going to smoke in fact. Thus, in his opinion, if he believes that he will stop smoking completely, he will simply hold a false belief without getting any benefit from it; he will still smoke, and his belief will just be false. So since the belief is false, and without benefit, at least as he understands it, there is no reason for him to hold this belief. Consequently, he holds the opposite belief. But this is not a decision, since he does not understand it as causing his smoking, which is something that is expected to happen whether or not he believes it will.

In such cases in real life, we are in fact sometimes tempted to say that the person is choosing not to give up smoking. And we are tempted to this to the extent that it seems to us that his belief should have the causal power that he denies it has: his denial seems to stem from the desire to smoke. If he wanted to give up smoking, we think, he could just accept that he would be able to believe this, and in such a way that it would come true. He does not, we think, because he wants to smoke, and so does not want to give up smoking. In reality this is a question of degree, and this analysis can have some truth. Consider the following from St. Augustine’s Confessions (Book VIII, Ch. 7-8):

Finally, in the very fever of my indecision, I made many motions with my body; like men do when they will to act but cannot, either because they do not have the limbs or because their limbs are bound or weakened by disease, or incapacitated in some other way. Thus if I tore my hair, struck my forehead, or, entwining my fingers, clasped my knee, these I did because I willed it. But I might have willed it and still not have done it, if the nerves had not obeyed my will. Many things then I did, in which the will and power to do were not the same. Yet I did not do that one thing which seemed to me infinitely more desirable, which before long I should have power to will because shortly when I willed, I would will with a single will. For in this, the power of willing is the power of doing; and as yet I could not do it. Thus my body more readily obeyed the slightest wish of the soul in moving its limbs at the order of my mind than my soul obeyed itself to accomplish in the will alone its great resolve.

How can there be such a strange anomaly? And why is it? Let thy mercy shine on me, that I may inquire and find an answer, amid the dark labyrinth of human punishment and in the darkest contritions of the sons of Adam. Whence such an anomaly? And why should it be? The mind commands the body, and the body obeys. The mind commands itself and is resisted. The mind commands the hand to be moved and there is such readiness that the command is scarcely distinguished from the obedience in act. Yet the mind is mind, and the hand is body. The mind commands the mind to will, and yet though it be itself it does not obey itself. Whence this strange anomaly and why should it be? I repeat: The will commands itself to will, and could not give the command unless it wills; yet what is commanded is not done. But actually the will does not will entirely; therefore it does not command entirely. For as far as it wills, it commands. And as far as it does not will, the thing commanded is not done. For the will commands that there be an act of will–not another, but itself. But it does not command entirely. Therefore, what is commanded does not happen; for if the will were whole and entire, it would not even command it to be, because it would already be. It is, therefore, no strange anomaly partly to will and partly to be unwilling. This is actually an infirmity of mind, which cannot wholly rise, while pressed down by habit, even though it is supported by the truth. And so there are two wills, because one of them is not whole, and what is present in this one is lacking in the other.

St. Augustine analyzes this in the sense that he did not “will entirely” or “command entirely.” If we analyze it in our terms, he does not expect in fact to carry out his intention, because he does not want to, and he knows that people do not do things they do not want to do. In a similar way, in some cases the smoker does not fully want to give up smoking, and therefore believes himself incapable of simply deciding to give up smoking, because if he made that decision, it would happen, and he would not want it to happen.

In the previous post, I mentioned an “obvious objection” at several points. This was that the account as presented there leaves out the role of desire. Suppose someone believes that he will go to Vienna in fact, but does not wish to go there. Then when the time comes to buy a ticket, it is very plausible that he will not buy one. Yes, this will mean that he will stop believing that he will go to Vienna. But this is different from the case where a person has “decided” to go and then changes his mind. The person who does not want to go, is not changing his mind at all, except about the factual question. It seems absurd (and it is) to characterize a decision without any reference to what the person wants.

This is why we have characterized a decision here as “voluntary”, “self-fulfilling,” and “as understood by the decision maker.” It is indeed the case that the person holds a belief, but he holds it because he wants to, and because he expects it to cause its own fulfillment, and he desires that fulfillment.

Consider the analysis in the previous post of the road to point C. Why is it reasonable for anyone, whether the subject or a third party, to conclude that the person will take road A? This is because we know that the subject wishes to get to point C. It is his desire to get to point C that will cause him to take road A, once he understands that A is the only way to get there.

Someone might respond that in this case we could characterize the decision as just a desire: the desire to get to point C. The problem is that the example is overly simplified compared to real life. Ordinarily there is not simply a single way to reach our goals. And the desire to reach the goal may not determine which particular way we take, so something else must determine it. This is precisely why we need to make decisions at all. We could in fact avoid almost anything that feels like a decision, waiting until something else determined the matter, but if we did, we would live very badly indeed.

When we make a complicated plan, there are two interrelated factors explaining why we believe it to be factually true that we will carry out the plan. We know that we desire the goal, and we expect this desire for the goal to move us along the path towards the goal. But since we also have other desires, and there are various paths towards the goal, some better than others, there are many ways that we could go astray before reaching the goal, either by taking a path to some other goal, or by taking a path less suited to the goal. So we also expect the details of our plan to keep us on the particular course that we have planned, which we suppose to be the best, or at least the best path considering our situation as a whole. If we did not keep those details in mind, we would not likely remain on this precise path. As an example, I might plan to stop at a grocery store on my way home from work, out of the desire to possess a sufficient stock of groceries, but if I do not keep the plan in mind, my desire to get home may cause me to go past the store without stopping. Again, this is why our explanation of belief is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and one explicitly understood by the subject as such; by saying “I will use A, B, and C, to get to goal Z,” we expect that keeping these details in mind, together with our desire for Z, we will be moved along this precise path, and we wish to follow this path, for the sake of Z.

There is a lot more that could be said about this. For example, it is not difficult to see here an explanation for the fact that such complicated plans rarely work out precisely in practice, even in the absence of external impediments. We expect our desire for the goal to keep us on track, but in fact we have other desires, and there are an indefinite number of possibilities for those other desires to make something else happen. Likewise, even if the plan was the best we could work out in advance, there will be numberless details in which there were better options that we did not notice while planning, and we will notice some of these as we proceed along the path. So both the desire for the goal, and the desire for other things, will likely derail the plan. And, of course, most plans will be derailed by external things as well.

A combination of the above factors has the result that I will leave the consideration of the fourth and fifth arguments to another post, even though this was not my original intention, and was not my belief about what would happen.


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