Monday, December 08, 2008

Can We Choose?

Tibor R. Machan

Although philosophical topics rarely get direct attention in popular culture, they are nonetheless touched upon on several fronts. There is the ubiquitous question of God’s existence, of course, that rarely leaves the arena at home or abroad. Such issues as whether torture is ever justified touch on several philosophical questions, such as how do we tell what we ought and ought not to do. The narrower field of political philosophy is never very far from consciousness, as for example when the famous Watergate episode is revisited and Nixon is recalled saying that if the president does it, it cannot be illegal (an idea not that far from something John Locke, the granddad of American political thought, discussed quite directly).

Currently there is also quite a lot of discussion of the old conundrum about whether genuine, authentic free choice is possible to human beings. That’s because the brain, where all mental processes are supposed to take place, is under very close scrutiny with the assistance of more and more sophisticated tools. In some popular forums where we mostly get news about current scientific work, various non-philosophers chime in about free will without much compunction. Thus, Tom Siegfried, the editor-in-chief of my favorite news magazine about the sciences, Science News, writes in a recent issue:

“'Free will' is not the defining feature of humanness, modern neuroscience implies, but is rather an illusion that endures only because biochemical complexity conceals the mechanisms of decision making."

And he goes on to tell readers that “free will seems merely to emerge from electromagnetic networks of neuronal interactions.” Siegfried makes these observations in connection with his discussion of a little known aspect of the human brain, namely, the habenula, “an obscure structure found deep in the brain, beneath the corpus callosum near the thalamus and in front of the pineal gland….” What stands out in his discussion is how readily the contribution of philosophy to the free will debate is dismissed because, as Siegfried claims, “the original question about free will is ill posed.” He tells us that asking whether we "have free will is like asking which came first, chicken or egg. It’s not a meaningful question.” (Actually, both are quite meaningful!)

Sometimes those in diverse disciplines need to ward off the temptation of intellectual imperialism, the belief that theirs is, in fact, the only valid field of study. Many have made the mistake of advocating this idea--sociologists, psychologists, economists and, yes, philosophers. But the world is complicated and can use being studied from several different perspectives.

One thing philosophy might still manage to contribute to the free will discussion is to point out that there is a logical difficulty with denying that people can choose. For if the denial is true, then that denial itself is something unavoidable, something the proponent cannot help making, just as the skeptic cannot help being a skeptic. And then all questions about truth and falsehood appear to vanish. Robots do not say what is true or false but only what they must, akin to a parrot or a tape recorder.

In order to be in the business of truth seeking and discovering, human beings seem top need mental independence, just as jurors need it if they are to come up with true verdicts instead of mere prejudice. Scientists need to be in the position to freely assess the evidence and arguments bearing on their work, otherwise what they “discover” is no more than a claim they cannot help but make. But what use is such a claim to us? It would all come to a standstill--I have to assert X while you had to assert not-X and neither of us is free to do otherwise.

This is just one bit of philosophical, logical aspect of the free will discussion that is quite pertinent and will not be replaced by any neuroscientific work, only supplemented by it.

No, the free will issue is not simple, although at one level the common sense idea that we, normally, have free will is telling. If we didn’t have free will, then a belief about whether we do or do not is itself just an event that had to happen, like rain falling from the sky. Which is an odd idea, isn't it?

Machan wrote Initiative--Human Agency and Society (2000).

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