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.
Philosophers shop for free will as hypochondriacs do for good health. Nothing but the real thing will do, and yet they refuse to trust the countless everyday indications that they already possess their quarry. Of course it seems to be the case that to act on one’s decisions is to exercise one’s freedom, but can it be true that, winding time back to the crucial moment, you or I could have done otherwise?
Enter the biologists. We can account for free will so long as we are willing to share it with flies, leeches, and all forms of life that enjoy a nervous system. As Bjorn Brembs has recently argued in The Royal Society, we should equate free will with variability, or an organism’s power to determine the precise way in which it responds to its environment. Variability, Brembs contends, is a (as yet little understood) neural process that amplifies random fluctuations in the brain in order to introduce non-sensory dependent variations into Continue reading “Flies Do It, Leeches Do It— Even Biologists Do It: Free Will Explained”
In the Annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture, BBC, this Monday, Sir Terry Pratchett offered a perhaps controversial view on medically assisted suicide in case of a terminal illness. Since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, he is openly furthering the debate about assisted suicide in Great Britain. He is proposing to be used as a test case for a tribunal that would be made up of specialists in palliative care, and hopefully in ethics as well. Most important criterion to be on the tribunal is to be over 45 years of age, in order to hopefully having gained a little wisdom and compassion. Both are needed to decide Continue reading “Why are we so afraid of Death?”
Besides its surprisingly good action cinematography, ‘Minority Report’ owes its huge success to the deep discomfort it created in viewers. The movie constructs a future world where law enforcement makes use of ‘Pre-Cogs’ — humans who have been given the gift of foresight through genetic modification, so that they can see crimes before they happen. When a crime is predicted, the purported criminal is promptly apprehended and the crime prevented. The movie forces the viewer to confront a host of questions that have troubled philosophers for millennia.
If the future is predetermined, in what sense can we be said to be free? Central to our commonsense conception of freedom is the inherent possibility of doing otherwise. If the future is closed to alternate possibilities, then there is no sense in which a murderer could have acted differently and then it seems that the act of murder is not a free act. Relatedly, if a person cannot do otherwise, is there a sense in which the person is morally responsible for the action? Hume, most famously, articulated the seemingly essential relationship between the notion of moral responsibility and the possibility of freely choosing your actions. ‘Ought implies can,’ he said. One is morally obligated to act in a certain way only if one can in fact act in such a way. If the future is predetermined, then in a clear sense the murderer could not have failed to murder. But then what sense is there to the claim that the murderer ought not to murder? And if there is no sense to be given in response to this question, there is little reason to hold the murderer morally responsible. The murderer is no different from a person who happens to slip on a banana, land on an innocent bystander, and accidentally snap his neck. The person is causally responsible for the unfortunate killing, but, since the person could not have done otherwise, is not morally responsible for it.
New Scientist flags a Nature News report that an Italian judge named Pier Valerio Reinotti recently shaved a year off a man’s sentence after learning he is genetically predisposed to aggression. (Though the Nature News article is behind a paywall, you can read an excerpt on the Sentencing Law and Policy blog.)
I suppose Reinotti must have hard determinist intuitions– that is, he must believe that criminals can’t be morally responsible for their deeds if those deeds were caused by prior events. And I suppose he must also be a retributivist– that is, he must think only desert justifies punishment, not deterrence or rehabilitation. I wonder how common this combination of views is. It strikes me as an especially awkward combination of views for someone charged with doling out criminal punishments. The more he learns about genetics, biology, and psychology, the fewer people he’ll be able to punish.
What if you could know when and how you were going to die? Would you choose to remain ignorant, or would you prefer to confront the facticity of your own mortality directly? This question has engaged philosophers for millennia. Until recently, the question was merely a matter for personal speculation, eliciting intuitions about mortality, self-determination, and free-will. This has all changed. At least, so it seems.
A new industry has emerged, as a result of the last decade’s exponential technological advances in the field of bioinformatics. Now, a glimpse of our most likely personal Reaper is less than 100 dollars away (just two years ago the glimpse was ten times the distance and ten times more blurry). Gene sequencing companies have sprung up everywhere, like mushrooms after a rain. For a modest price, each of us can have our DNA analyzed, and receive a report of our personal predisposition to acquire a variety of potentially debilitating or terminal diseases. Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, lung cancer, breast cancer, obesity, and multiple sclerosis are but a few of the many worrisome conditions targeted by such DNA analysis.
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.”