Column on Can We Choose

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
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?

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