Can Neuroscience Understand Free Will?

Perhaps free will won’t forever be an issue philosophers mull over for a lifetime. Whatever the result, there’s always the ironic answer to the question of whether we have free will: “Of course we do. We have no choice.” Screengrab via The Good Place / YouTube

In The Good Place, a cerebral fantasy-comedy TV series, moral philosophy gets teased. On YouTube, the show released a promotional video, “This Is Why Everyone Hates Moral Philosophy,” that gets its title from a line directed at Chidi, a Senegalese professor of moral philosophy who suffers from chronic indecision: The pros and cons of even trivial choices have long paralyzed him.

By Brian Gallagher | NAUTILUS

We see him, as a precocious boy, urged to get on with picking teammates for a soccer game. Flustered, Chidi explains, “I have to consider all the factors: athletic strategies, the fragile egos of my classmates, and gender politics! Should I pick a girl as a gesture toward women’s equality, or is that pandering? Or do I think it’s pandering because of my limited male point of view? I’m vexed!” The kids waiting to play shake their heads, facepalming. A friend later insists he “fix his brain.” An M.R.I., courtesy of a neuroscientist named Simone, shows he’s fine. “Wow, there are actual answers here—data you can observe, and learn from,” Chidi says. “Yeah, man! Science is all about getting answers,” Simone replies. “You philosophers can spend your entire life mulling over a single question. That’s why everyone hates moral philosophy professors.” Both of them chuckle and she adds, “No offense.”

This is mock-hate, born of love. Before Mike Schur, the show’s creator, started shooting scenes, he paid a visit to the UCLA moral philosopher Pamela Hieronymi for insight. She’s interested in the sort of control humans have over our intentions and emotions, and how it might differ from control over our actions. Her favorite thought experiment comes from a 1983 paper, “The Toxin Puzzle,” by Gregory Kavka. A delightful head-scratcher, it invites you to imagine that an eccentric billionaire has offered you a deal: If you merely intend to drink a toxin tonight, at midnight, that will make you painfully ill for a day, he will wire you a million dollars—it’ll be in your bank tomorrow morning. A sophisticated and reliable brain scanner will determine whether you really formed the intention to imbibe the toxin. After you have the funds in your bank account, you’re free to decide not to drink it. An easy way to become a millionaire, no? Just intend to drink it for the scanner and, once you have the cash, switch your intention.

The sense of freedom we have to act on our moral understanding is regulated and vulnerable, and can break.

This is absurd, of course, and that’s Kavka’s point: We don’t have that sort of control over ourselves. If you intend to drink it (for the sake of the scanner) but also intend, later, to not drink it (to avoid the sickness), you’re really intending to not drink it. Our intentions are only “partly volitional,” Kavka says. “One cannot intend whatever one wants to intend any more than one can believe whatever one wants to believe. As our beliefs are constrained by our evidence, so our intentions are constrained by our reasons for action.” The sense that you have of being in control, of having free will, is just that—a sense. And it can break.

read more