How The Adjustment Bureau Threatens Free WIll

Sure the Bureau is fiction. We still lack free will.

Posted Mar 08, 2011

Spoiler Alert: Plot points of The Adjustment Bureau are revealed here.

In my last post, I pointed out that the view of humanity portrayed in The Adjustment Bureau was not one of humans truly being free. Instead, it endorses a very mechanistic, materialistic, view of human nature--a nature devoid of free will. Our actions and decisions are dictated by our reason, personality, and emotions, each of which is dictated by the structure of our brain, which is in turn dictated by our DNA and environment (and sometimes the Bureau)--none of which are under our control. I also pointed out that this is the view of humanity that is being endorsed by more and more academics, especially philosophers and neuroscientists. The view that "the soul" houses our personality, and makes our decisions, has fallen out of favor. Instead, many are embracing the view that all of what we do is controlled by the brain.

Why are philosophers and neuroscientists embracing this view?

The more we study the concept of the soul, the less the concept makes sense. How could a non-physical entity, without location or position cause--physically cause--anything to happen in a physical body with location and position? Here's a fun way to think about the problem. Suppose your "soul" makes a decision to move your arm. Why would that decision move your arm? Instead of, say, Charlie Sheen's arm? It can't be because your soul is closer to your body than his; your soul has no location. It is non-material. It is, literally, nowhere. In virtue of what is it attached to your body, and not his? What would it even mean for something that is non-physical, which has no location, to be attached to anything? Without answers to such questions, and many more, "soul talk" doesn't make a lot of sense. (For a readable rundown of the philosophical problems with the concept of the soul, see Richard Taylor's Metaphysics.)

The more we study the brain, the more we understand how and why we do what we do. We can actually see where decisions are made in the brain. In fact, we can see that most of what we do originates in unconscious parts of our brain. We can see why certain people can't control the impulses brought upon them by their emotions, and other's can. You have heard of Tourette's, where people are overcome by uncontrollable urges to swear or twitch. You might think they could resist, if they only "put their mind to it." But we can actually see what is wrong with the brain that, literally, makes such actions impossible for Tourette's sufferers to resist. If it was up to their soul, they could just will their twitches away. But they can't, because the sophisticated parts of the brain that silence the urges are either malfunctioning or not wired correctly (they can't send inhibitory signals). (Some Tourette's sufferers have enough connection so that they can suppress the urges for a while, but have to give in eventually, just like one can only hold his breath for a limited time.) It seems it is only a matter of time before we can similarly see why anyone does anything, we'll just have to look at her brain. (For a readable rundown of what we have discovered about the brain that threatens free will, see Rita Carter's Mapping the Mind.)

Why does this threaten free will? One's freedom at least requires that it be possible for one to not do what one indeed does--to refrain from acting as they do. But if one's actions are determined by the physical processes of the brain, how could anything but what the physical laws determine the brain will do occur? One could point out that quantum events, which are truly random and non-deterministic, might occur in the brain. But if we can "do otherwise" only because our actions are ultimately the result of random quantum events, how is that free? You don't control random quantum events. And ultimately, to be free, your actions have to be "up to you." But if your brain structure is not up to you, and the quantum events in your brain aren't up to you--how is what you do, up to you?

Some philosophers have tried to avoid this problem by redefining free will; your actions are free as long as they ultimately flow from your desires, they suggest. But if your desires are not up to you--again, how is that freedom? If I built a robot that was programmed to always do what it desires, would such a robot be free? It wouldn't seem so. Yet our wants and desires are programmed by our environment and DNA.

But one does not even need to look to philosophy or science to question free will, one need only look at politics. Which brings me back to The Adjustment Bureau. At the beginning of the film, after losing a Senate race, David Norris (Matt Damon) gives a speech where he reveals some of the political tricks his team insisted he use to gain approval. He can't wear ties of certain colors because it will make people draw certain conclusions. Yellow makes people think he isn't serious; silver makes them think he has lost connection with his roots. His shoes have to be scuffed to a certain degree--not too shiny so as to alienate the common person, but not too scuffed so as to alienate lawyers, bankers and their money. And this is not science fiction. Why do you think Obama only ever wears blue or red ties? Humans are just that gullible, and just that predicable. We respond to hundreds of physical cues; we are not even consciously aware of them. But political strategists are, and they take advantage of them.

This says some pretty sad things about us. For one, too many of us are not voting for good reasons; in fact, we don't use reason at all. Some of us are voting for red ties. But more importantly it seems to be a pretty good indication that we do not make decisions freely. If our "souls" were really in charge of our decisions, would we be so easily manipulated? Would we be so predicable?

Of course, the intuition that we are free is unshakable. I know. I share it. But it may very well be an illusion.

Copyright: David Kyle Johnson

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