Change Work August 2011

Welcome to my world

Presuppositions are powerful things.  They are the unspoken, unnoticed beliefs that you hold which form the background to everything you say and do.  "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" is the classic example of a question that presupposes that the other person is guilty, regardless of their answer.  They don't have to be as obvious as that and they do save a lot of time.  Imagine how long a conversation would take if you had to describe the whole basis of knowledge, experience and assumptions that underpinned every statement you made.

There's another kind of presupposition, and that's the very general kind that you adopt consciously and quite deliberately. Not necessarily believing them to be true in all circumstances (like a law of nature) but choosing to act as if they were true - because you believe that this works better most of the time.  Examples of this kind of presupposition are:

These three are related and express the idea that we all inhabit our own world and we can only do things which seem possible within that world.  From that set of "possibles" we choose the best, positive option.

It's surprising how different someone else's world can be from yours or mine and I think this idea goes a long way towards explaining a lot of "irrational" behaviour. For instance, the recent riots in England have led to a debate about the appropriate punishment that should be meted out to the perpetrators.  Now punishment historically seems to have two aims: deterrence and retribution.  Leaving aside the question of whether society is ever right to seek retribution (are my unconscious presuppositions showing?) let's think about deterrence. This presupposes that the offender (and others thinking of offending) are capable of being deterred.  That is, they are concerned about the consequences that they will suffer.  And there has been discussion about individuals being "caught up in the moment" and therefore not completely in control of their actions. The implication is that they were temporarily blinded to the consequences of what they were doing.

Coincidentally, while all of this was going on, I was reading "Incognito", a book by the neuroscientist David Eagleman.  He discusses the way that the structure of the brain affects perceptions of reality and how, among other things, damage to brain tissue can drastically change the subject's personality.  For instance, they may begin to indulge in behaviour that they would have previously considered to be antisocial and unthinkable.

Even more significant in the riot context is the following:

"The main difference between teenage and adult brains is the development of the frontal lobes. The human prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until the early twenties, and this underlies the impulsive behaviour of teenagers. The frontal lobes are sometimes called the organ of socialization, because becoming socialized is nothing but developing circuitry to squelch our basest impulses."

David Eagleman:  Incognito - The Secret Lives of the Brain

So, the possibility arises that some people, maybe not just teenagers, simply don't have the machinery required to recognise that certain impulses are "wrong" and to suppress them.  (And that blindness to consequences might be a persistent state for some people.)

How do we now regard rioting youths if we presuppose the possibility that they weren't in control of their actions?

I don't know!  We probably need a moral philosopher to help with that question and, in any case, it's way off where I wanted to go with this discussion.  So, returning to more familiar territory, what can you or I do with these insights?

I'll offer one suggestion. When you next find yourself blaming another for something they've done, take a moment to ask, "What must the world look like from inside their head in order for them to think that it was OK to do what they did?"  The glimpse into another world that this gives you will be illuminating - and probably quite disturbing!