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Dessa Debates Determinism

An empty soda bottle can speak volumes about the choices we make—whether we’re aware of them or not.

Dessa Debates Determinism
Photo by Kelly Loverud

When I was thirteen, my best friend moved back to Sweden, where she was born. Devastated, I saved up my Dairy Queen paychecks to go and spend the summer there. I learned to curse in her provincial accent, acquired a taste for salt licorice, and we made wine in a plastic drum we buried in the woods. Her brother’s older friend taught us a clever trick: He sat cross-legged and dropped a coin into an empty beer bottle then spun it, faster and faster, until thwacking it against his shoe—the coin shot out, leaving a perfect little hole. The trick never worked in front of my friends back home. I’ve heard Swedish bottles are thinner, which wouldn’t surprise me; Swedes are famously conservation-minded. Recently, Sweden actually ran out of garbage. They started importing trash from Norway to feed the incinerators that supply heat and power.

We’ve got no such problem here, where PSAs still desperately entreat us to recycle. Cleveland installed chips in its recycling bins to see how often they were rolled to the curb, a program including fines for noncompliance. Some states charge a deposit on bottled products that’s refunded when the bottle is returned for recycling. Minnesota is considering one of these bottle bills now. If passed, we’d deposit a few cents on every beverage. Proponents hope Minnesota’s recycling rate for those containers would shoot from around 40 to 80 percent.

Our lives are full of incentives or penalties designed to persuade us to choose a particular path. But some behaviors don’t arise from conscious choices. A pair of researchers at the University of Alberta and Boston University recently found that people recycle pristine-looking containers more readily than damaged or altered ones. Study participants recycled unblemished soda cans 80 percent of the time, dented ones only 20 percent. The conclusion: When stuff looks like garbage, people throw it away. Of course, we’re not actively thinking, This Sprite can is imperfect, can’t recycle it—to the waste bin! The thought happens beneath the surface of our consciousness. Which cues up an interesting question: If we’re not making conscious choices about what we’re doing, who’s in charge during those moments? If the environment (a crushed can, say) drives our behavior without us knowing it, are we really at the helm?

Some philosophers believe that all our thoughts and actions are explainable as products of this kind of cause and effect. Just because it feels as though we’re choosing doesn’t mean that we are. After all, it feels like the sun is circling us, though we know otherwise. Human behavior is tough to predict, but maybe that’s true only because there are so many variables at play—maybe our actions are just the product of a lot of complicated algorithms. After all, Minnesota weather is also tough to predict, but that doesn’t mean a cold front has free will. Maybe we flatter ourselves with the notion that we’re in total control. In Delusions of Gender, psychologist Cordelia Fine writes that when students are asked to indicate their gender before taking a test, scores are affected: They increase for boys, decrease for girls.

Like most people, however, I’m unwilling to surrender my free will entirely. We sense that we’re built in two distinct halves: the thinking, deciding part and a more machine-like half automatically responding to its surroundings—we’re all a little bit Robocop. If that’s true, the question becomes: How can we shape the environments that are shaping us? What should I expose myself to in order to become the me I want to be? Maybe a big change involves not only external carrots and sticks, but  also magnets we set up ourselves to pull us in desirable directions.

Here in Minnesota, we have a long way to go before we’ll be asking Canada for its garbage. If we do end up adopting a bottle bill, though, it’s worth putting a refunded dime into an empty and giving it a spin. If you can pull it off, it’s a hell of a trick.

Dessa is a musician and essayist who splits her time between a Minneapolis apartment and an Econoline tour van.


Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

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Mar 3, 2014 11:33 am
 Posted by  PhilosopherQueen

Very nice post. Your concrete examples make determinism seem plausible while your appeal to free will is simple and intuitive, which is all it needs to be for many of us. For many of my philosophy students, it seems obvious that we develop a capacity for personal responsibility at some point and that this responsibility depends on some kind of freedom. It may seem paradoxical that we, as social learners, must learn this free will by some sort of training. I appreciate my opportunity to teach philosophical skills that are useful to cultivate freedom of thought and will, and I am thankful that I have outside resources such as your music that I can integrate into philosophical discussions in order to make it more accessible for the students. You never dumb down your music. Your listeners must think and cultivate their own philosophical and interpretive skills to understand your texts. Thanks, Dessa, for writing essays and music that make people reflect. You model perfectly the kind of behavior that serves as and answer to the questions you ask at the end of your essay.

Mar 3, 2014 11:34 am
 Posted by  PhilosopherQueen

Very nice post. Your concrete examples make determinism seem plausible while your appeal to free will is simple and intuitive, which is all it needs to be for many of us. For many of my philosophy students, it seems obvious that we develop a capacity for personal responsibility at some point and that this responsibility depends on some kind of freedom. It may seem paradoxical that we, as social learners, must learn this free will by some sort of training. I appreciate my opportunity to teach philosophical skills that are useful to cultivate freedom of thought and will, and I am thankful that I have outside resources such as your music that I can integrate into philosophical discussions in order to make it more accessible for the students. You never dumb down your music. Your listeners must think and cultivate their own philosophical and interpretive skills to understand your texts. Thanks, Dessa, for writing essays and music that make people reflect. You model perfectly the kind of behavior that serves as an answer to the questions you ask at the end of your essay.

Mar 3, 2014 12:28 pm
 Posted by  Japhy

Science through fmri is showing us that our ideas, decisions and actions all happen seconds before we 'think' of them. As you said, we don't determine anything without various subconscious biases directly effecting the outcome, we are not what we think. We inherit our instincts and are overpowered by culture in every facet, even after so many years of Jung, the public depth of conscious is a frail collective projection of monetized instincts. Our fate is determined by this projection, unless the world starts to look within for answers we will continue to be governed by our inability to not break from a culture that doesn't reward nature. "Culture is not our friend" as the late Terence McKenna eloquently said.

“The artist’s task is to save the soul of mankind; and anything less is a dithering while Rome burns. If artists cannot find the way, then the way cannot be found.”tm

Mar 3, 2014 02:10 pm
 Posted by  eyeonyou

Well said. And yet ... the masses still don't give a rat's keister about recycling period, much less the fine distinction between dented can and pristine looking can. How to make the masses care about such matters? The uninformed, uneducated, unwashed and unrepentant majority who wait salivating for the next Kardashian sitcom and who look down on educated well-spoken folk who they believe look down on them? (which, let's be real, they mostly do, especially for not doing their civic duty and recycling) Rather than speculate upon free will, how about we talk about how best to transform the thinking (and behavior) of those who could make a dramatic impact upon the shaping of our environments if they would only stop doing more harm than good and come to understand that in so doing they might find themselves in a position of superiority to college educated do-gooders.

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