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Monthly Archives: June 2009

John Bargh and automaticity

The new issue of Edge has an interview with John Bargh, the Yale evolutionary psychologist, who is best known for his work on automaticity: his work basically suggests, and tries to prove, that much of our thought and behaviour, and even our higher cognitive processes, are automatic and intuitive, and happen without our free will or reason.

Reason, in his model, is reduced to what Jonathan Haidt called a ‘post-hoc justifier’ – we automatically or intuitively arrive at a conclusion about someone or something, and then our reason follows on behind and invents a rational justification for this gut feeling.

Worth reading, but I’d make one quick point in reply. In taking on the idea of free will and consciousness, Bargh is basically taking aim at traditional philosophy, and particularly Stoic philosophy, which has such a strong emphasis on our free will and the power of our freedom to control our decision-making.

I would say, in defence of Stoicism, that the Stoics understood earlier than most how automatic and habitual our thought processes were. That’s precisely why they emphasized habits, and the need to repeat exercises over and over, until they became automatic.

The fact that we can change our automatic responses through repeated reasoning has been proved, by cognitive behavioural therapy. Someone may automatically react to situations with depression, or with panic attacks, and after a course of CBT, using rational philosophy, they will no longer react that way. They acquire new habits.

So this proves, to my mind, that we are to some extent the master of our own soul, we have an element of freedom. Put it this way – we are driving a car, and we are to some extent just cruising, not really focusing on our driving, doing it automatically. And then BAM, we hit the side of the road, scrape the paint off the door, put a dent in the fender. That will tend to jolt us out of our automaticity, and we may then try to consciously re-programme our driving, and then we may slip back into automaticity, and BAM again we have to re-calibrate. And eventually we may learn to be a better driver, and these new driving skills will in turn become more automatic.

Socrates was guilty!

Shock news from Cambridge University, reports the Telegraph:


The trial of Socrates was justified by the laws of the time, according to a new study from Cambridge University.

Through the centuries, historians have portrayed the 399BC trial as a travesty, with Socrates forced to face charges invented by his ignorant fellow citizens.

He was found guilty of “impiety” and “corrupting the young”, sentenced to death, and then required to carry out his own execution by consuming a deadly potion of the poisonous plant hemlock.

But, in a new study launched today, Professor Paul Cartledge has concluded that the trial was legally just and Socrates was guilty as charged.

Prof Cartledge said: “Everyone knows that the Greeks invented democracy, but it was not democracy as we know it, and we have misread history as a result.

“The charges Socrates faced seem ridiculous to us, but in Ancient Athens they were genuinely felt to serve the communal good.”

Historians have traditionally claimed that Socrates’ open criticism of prominent Athenian politicians had made him many enemies, who used the trial to get rid of him.

Socrates was made a scapegoat for a series of disasters to strike Athens, including a plague and major military defeat, it has been claimed.

But Prof Cartledge pointed out that many citizens would have seen these events as a sign that their gods had been offended by undesirable elements.

He argued that Socrates, who had questioned the legitimacy and authority of many deities, fitted the latter description.

With the gods clearly furious and more disasters perhaps just around the corner, Prof Cartledge said that a charge of impiety was seen not only as appropriate, but in the public interest.

The professor’s study also concluded that Socrates essentially invited his own death. Under the Athenian system, in this kind of trial a defendant could suggest his own penalty.


Socrates first joked that he should be rewarded, and eventually suggested a small fine but his jurors did not see the funny side and passed the death sentence.

“By removing him, society had in, Athenians’ eyes, been cleansed and reaffirmed,” Prof Cartledge concluded.

The study is included in the professor’s new book, Ancient Greek Political Thought in Practice.