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?”
The John Templeton Foundation recently awarded Alfred Mele, the William H. and Lucyle Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University (FSU), a $4.4 million grant to “oversee a four-year project to improve understanding of free will in philosophy, religion and science.” Funding for the project, “Free Will: Human and Divine — Empirical and Philosophical Explorations,” will support international researchers (“who submit proposals to study the science, conceptual underpinnings and theology of free will”), research colloquia and a postdoctoral position at FSU’s department of philosophy over the next three years, a two-week seminar in the summer of 2012, and as much as $30,000 in prize money Continue reading “$4.4 Million Grant to Study Free Will”
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.
In July, Brian Thomas strangled his wife Christine to death. He was acquitted because he suffers from a sleep disorder. This is far from unprecedented. The first defence of this kind in court occurred back in 1846 by Albert Tirrell for the murder of Maria Ann Bickford. The prosecution in Mr Thomas’ case summarised the situation like so.
“In other words, at the time of the killing the defendant was asleep and his mind had no control over what his body was doing.”
What does this mean? We cannot say that he was entirely unaware of his surroundings or his own limb movements (and so perhaps actions) during the episode. For he reports believing, at the time, that someone had broken into their room and was on top of Christine. This motivated him to strangle someone, but a person other than he thought it was. Presumably this action would have involved some kind of control over his limbs in the sense that he could guide his hands toward someone’s neck, despite the neck moving around, move his body over to a given location, and so on. So then is it not false that ‘his mind’ had no control over ‘what his body was doing’?
Another explanation of what the prosecutor has in mind can be got from papers by Jennifer Hornsby (Knowledge, Belief, and Reasons for Acting) and John Gibbons (Knowledge in Action). They present Gettier cases of beliefs that play a part in the explanation of an intentional action. What they find is that if the beliefs are only luckily true, then the intuition is that the action is not intentional. So then, applied to this case, Mr Thomas had a belief that there was someone there, that he was strangling, but because of the state he was in, he mistook his wife to be someone else, an intruder. So the action was not intentional. This was not because his mind had no control over his body. But because he did not have the right kind of awareness of how things are for his action to be intentional.
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.”