The latest movie I’ve seen is The Adjustment Bureau. Moving past the cliched love story, it circles around the concepts of Determinism and Free Will. The movie is a an interesting adaptation of Philip K. Dick short story infused with suspense and imagination. Let’s start with the line I consider to be defining:
Thompson : We actually tried free will before. After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of the Roman empire, we stepped back to see how you’d do on your own. You gave us the Dark Ages for five centuries until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought that maybe we just needed to do a better job with teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you raised hopes, Enlightenment, scientific revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason. Then in nineteen ten, we stepped back. Within fifty years you’d brought us World War One, The Depression, Fascism, The Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuba missile crisis. At that point the decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn’t fix.
Atrack and don’t deviate. They are the helpers of a Chairman (we might assume this is another name for God). So, this rekindles the problem of Free Will vs. Determinism that has puzzled philosophers for thousands of years. On the level of conscience, liberty can be defined as the possibility to choose. The principles used in the movie can basically be found in Leibniz’s doctrine: God predetermined broadly all the actions of the human beings, but leaves them with the choice of little things such as what to wear, what to eat, etc. He believes that the universe is created by God according to a divine plan and that freedom and determinism are compatible with each other. People have freedom, but they are limited by their imperfection and passions.
Using the idea of freedom as spontaneity, Leibniz argues that our reliance on voluntary action by a chain of causes does not exclude a wonderful spontaneity. To exercise one’s free will means to act under one’s own wishes and inclinations, regardless of outside influences. Since the divine order prescribes classes of acts and not particular acts, we is free. However, this freedom of action manifests itself on God’s predetermined territory.
I sometimes wonder at the absurdities of life. Late trains plus rain and no umbrella, grumpy waiters who are grumpy for no apparent reason and the ringing of the phone just at the very moment I thought about somebody specific. I also wonder about why only the glass bottles slip out of my fingers and the plastic ones do not. But when I pause and stop to wonder and look around closely, in the big picture of things, these are really only minor problems and they do not disturb my personal freedom at all. I can walk and enjoy the rain and I can either accept that glass bottles simply slip through my fingers or buy the other version. But what if these little choices in life are simply not there anymore? Continue reading “Value your Freedom!”
A recent article in Consciousness and Cognition continues the debate over Benjamin Libet’s famous free will experiment.
In 1983 Libet showed that before subjects announced their decision to perform an action (and hence, or so Libet assumed, before deciding to perform an action) their motor cortex was already preparing the way for the act in question. Libet concluded:
“These considerations would appear to introduce certain constraints on the potential of the individual for exerting conscious initiation and control over his voluntary acts.” (Libet et al. 1983) Continue reading “I didn’t do it, my brain did.”
A highly influential experiment, conducted over 30 years ago, presented an array of indistinguishable stockings to subjects who were then asked to pick the one they found most appealing. Overwhelmingly, the subjects preferred the stockings on their right. When asked about the reasons for their choice, none of the subjects indicated the relative location of the item. Rather, they explained their choices by pointing out superior features of the chosen item. Of course, since the items were in fact indistinguishable in all relevant respects, no such superior features were present. The subjects were confabulating.
The results of this experiment, and others that followed, are quite surprising. They suggest that we are tremendously bad at introspecting on the reasons for our choices, and all too naturally come up with irrelevant explanations for them. We are often completely unconscious of the actual reasons for our choices. If this is the case, it puts our conception of ourselves as self-determining agents in jeopardy.
In this week’s Newsweek, Sharon Begley reports on a fascinating new study by Daniel Casasanto that reveals a pervasive spatial bias that depends on handedness. According to the study, subjects associate positive ideas with the region of space that corresponds to their ‘strong’ hand. For example, right-handed subjects judge stimuli presented on their right as more positive (e.g., good, intelligent, happy, attractive) than those presented on their left. This pattern is reversed in the case of left-handed subjects.