What's the difference between brainwashing and rehabilitation?
- The book and movie, A Clockwork Orange, powerfully asks us to consider the murky lines between rehabilitation, brainwashing, and dehumanization.
- There are a variety of ways, from hormonal treatment to surgical lobotomies, to force a person to be more law abiding, calm, or moral.
- Is a world with less free will but also with less suffering one in which we would want to live?
Alex is a criminal. A violent and sadistic criminal. So, we decide to do something about it. We're going to "rehabilitate" him.
Using a new and exciting "Ludovico" technique, we'll change his brain chemistry to make him an upstanding, moral citizen. Alex will be forced to watch violent movies as his body is pumped with nausea-inducing drugs. After a while, he'll come to associate violence with this horrible sickness. And, after a course of Ludovico, Alex can happily return to society, never again doing an immoral or illegal act. He'll no longer be a danger to himself or anyone else.
This is the story of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and it raises important questions about the nature of moral decisions, free will, and the limits of rehabilitation.
Today's Clockwork Orange
This might seem like unbelievable science fiction, but it might be truer — and nearer — than we think. In 2010, Dr. Molly Crockett did a series of experiments on moral decision-making and serotonin levels. Her results showed that people with more serotonin were less aggressive or confrontational and much more easy-going and forgiving. When we're full of serotonin, we let insults pass, are more empathetic, and are less willing to do harm.
As Fydor Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, if the "entrance fee" for having free will is the horrendous suffering we see all around us, then "I hasten to return my ticket."
The idea that biology affects moral decisions is obvious. Most of us are more likely to be short-tempered and spiteful if we're tired or hungry, for instance. Conversely, we have the patience of a saint if we just have received some good news, had half a bottle of wine, or had sex.
If our decision-making can be manipulated or determined by our biology, should we not try various interventions to prevent the criminally inclined from harming others?
What is the point of prison? This is itself no easy question, and it's one with a rich philosophical debate. Surely one of the biggest reasons is to protect society by preventing criminals from reoffending. This might be achievable by manipulating a felon's serotonin levels, but why not go even further?
Today, we know enough about the brain to have identified a very particular part of the prefrontal cortex responsible for aggressive behavior. We know that certain abnormalities in the amygdala can result in anti-social behavior and rule breaking. If the purpose of the penal system is to rehabilitate, then why not "edit" these parts of the brain in some way? This could be done in a variety of ways.
Credit: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine via Flickr / Wikipedia
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a surprisingly common practice in much of the developed world. Its supporters say that it can help relieve major mental health issues such as depression or bipolar disorder as well as alleviate certain types of seizures. Historically, and controversially, it has been used to "treat" homosexuality and was used to threaten those misbehaving in hospitals in the 1950s (as notoriously depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Of course, these early and crude efforts at ECT were damaging, immoral, and often left patients barely able to function as humans. Today, neuroscience and ECT are much more sophisticated. If we could easily "treat" those with aggressive or anti-social behavior, then why not?
Ideally, we might use techniques such as ECT or hormonal supplementation, but failing that, why not go even further? Why not perform a lobotomy? If the purpose of the penal system is to change the felon for the better, we should surely use all the tools at our disposal. With one fairly straightforward surgery to the prefrontal cortex, we could turn a violent, murderous criminal into a docile and law-abiding citizen. Should we do it?
Is free will worth it?
As Burgess, who penned A Clockwork Orange, wrote, "Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?"
Intuitively, many say yes. Moral decisions must, in some way, be our own. Even if we know that our brains determine our actions, it's still me who controls my brain, no one else. Forcing someone to be good, by molding or changing their brain, is not creating a moral citizen. It's creating a law-abiding automaton. And robots are not humans.
And yet, it begs the question: is "free choice" worth all the evil in the world?
If my being brainwashed or "rehabilitated" means children won't die malnourished or the Holocaust would never happen, then so be it. If lobotomizing or neuro-editing a serial killer will prevent them from killing again, is that not a sacrifice worth making? There's no obvious reason why we should value free will above morality or the right to life. A world without murder and evil — even if it meant a world without free choices for some — might not be such a bad place.
As Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, if the "entrance fee" for having free will is the horrendous suffering we see all around us, then "I hasten to return my ticket." Free will's not worth it.
Do you think the Ludovico technique from A Clockwork Orange is a great idea? Should we turn people into moral citizens and shape their brains to choose only what is good? Or is free choice more important than all the evil in the world?
Philosophers, theoretical physicists, psychologists, and others consider what or who is really in control.
- What does it mean to have—or not have—free will? Were the actions of mass murderers pre-determined billions of years ago? Do brain processes trump personal responsibility? Can experiments prove that free will is an illusion?
- Bill Nye, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Michio Kaku, Robert Sapolsky, and others approach the topic from their unique fields and illustrate how complex and layered the free will debate is.
- From Newtonian determinism, to brain chemistry, to a Dennett thought experiment, explore the arguments that make up the free will landscape.
How does philosophy try to balance having free will with living in a deterministic universe?
- People feel like they have free will but often have trouble understanding how they can have it in a deterministic universe.
- Several models of free will exist which try to incorporate physics into our understanding of our experience.
- Even if physics could rule out free will, there would still be philosophical questions.
Most people with a scientific worldview agree with the idea of causal determinism, the notion that everything is subject to the laws of physics, and anything that happens is the result of these laws acting on how things exist in the world or existed in a prior moment. However, it can be challenging to figure out how this idea meshes with the notion of free will.
After all, if everything else is subject to causal determinism, how can we not be? How can our decisions be somehow exempt? Many people argue that we obviously are also part of a clockwork universe and that physics kills off free will.
But is this saying too much? Can we really treat free will as the subject of physics alone? Today, we'll consider some stances on free will and how they relate to physics alongside some philosophers' ideas on if we can outsource our views on the human experience to science.
Some philosophers have taken the argument of casual determinism mentioned above and used it to say that there is no room for free will at all. This stance, called "hard determinism," maintains that all of our actions are causally necessary and dictated by physics in the same way as a billiard ball's movement.
The Baron d'Holbach, a French philosopher, explained the stance:
"In short, the actions of man are never free; they are always the necessary consequence of his temperament, of the received ideas and of the notions, either true or false, which he has formed to himself of happiness; of his opinions, strengthened by example, by education, and by daily experience."
While physics and philosophy have both advanced since the enlightenment era, hard determinism still has supporters.
As some of you are probably thinking right now, quantum physics, with its uncertainties, probabilities, and general strangeness, might offer a way out of the determinism of classical physics. This idea, sometimes called "indeterminism," occurred to more than a few philosophers too, and variations of it date back to ancient Greece.
This stance holds that not every event has an apparent cause. Some events might be random, for example. Proponents of the perspective suggest that some of our brain functions might have random elements, perhaps caused by the fluctuations seen in quantum mechanics, that cause our choices to not be fully predetermined. Others suggest that only part of our decision-making process is subject to causality, with a portion of it under what amounts to the control of the individual.
There are issues with this stance being used to counter determinism. One of them is that having choices made randomly rather than by strict causation doesn't seem to be the kind of free will people think about. From a physical standpoint, brain activity may involve some quantum mechanics, but not all of it. Many thinkers incorporate indeterminism into parts of their models of free will, but don't fully rely on the idea.
Also called "compatibilism," this view agrees with causal determinism but also holds that this is compatible with some kind of free will. This can take on many forms and sometimes operates by varying how "free" that will actually is.
John Stuart Mill argued that causality did mean that people will act in certain ways based on circumstance, character, and desires, but that we have some control over these things. Therefore, we have some capacity to change what we would do in a future situation, even if we are determined to act in a certain way in response to a particular stimulus.
Daniel Dennett goes in another direction, suggesting a two-stage model of decision-making involving some indeterminism. In the first stage of making a decision, the brain produces a series of considerations, not all of which are necessarily subject to determinism, to take into account. What considerations are created and not immediately rejected is subject to some level of indeterminism and agent control, though it could be unconscious. In the second step, these considerations are used to help make a decision based on a more deterministic reasoning process.
In these stances, your decisions are still affected by prior events like the metaphorical billiard balls moving on a table, but you have some control over how the table is laid out. This means you could, given enough time and understanding, have a fair amount of control over how the balls end up moving.
Critics of stances like this often argue that the free will the agent is left with by these decision-making models is hardly any different from what they'd have under a hard deterministic one.
This is the stance with the premium free will people tend to talk about—the idea that you are in full control of your decisions all the time and that casual determinism doesn't apply to your decision-making process. It is "incompatibilist" in that it maintains that free will is not compatible with a deterministic universe.
People holding this view often take either an "agent-casual" or "event-causal" position. In an agent-casual stance, decision-makers, known as "agents," can make decisions that are not caused by a previous action in the same way that physical events are. They are essentially the "prime movers" of event chains that start with their decisions rather than any external cause.
Event-casual stances maintain that some elements of the decision-making process are physically indeterminate and that at least some of the factors that go into the final choice are shaped by the agent. The most famous living proponent of such a stance is Robert Kane and his "effort of will" model.
In brief, his model supposes an agent can be thought responsible for an action if they helped create the causes that led to it. He argues that people occasionally take "self-forming action" (SFA) that helps shape their character and grant them this responsibility. SFAs happen when the decisions we make would be subject to indeterminism, perhaps a case when two choices are both highly likely- with one being what we want and one being what we think is right, and willpower is needed to cause a choice to be taken.
At that point, unable to quickly choose, we apply willpower to make a decision that influences our overall character. Not only was that decision freely chosen, but any later, potentially more causally-determined actions, we take rely at least somewhat on a character trait that we created through that previous choice. Therefore, we at least partially influenced them.
Critics of this stance include Daniel Dennett, who points out that SFAs could be so rare as to leave some people without any real free will at all.
Can’t we just outsource free will to physics?
No, the question of free will is much larger than if cause and effect exist and apply to our decisions. Even if that one were fully answered, other questions immediately pop up.
Is the agency left to us, if any, after we learn how much of our decision-making is determined by outside factors enough for us to say that we are free? How much moral responsibility do people have under each proposed understanding of free will? Is free will just the ability to choose otherwise, or do we just have to be responsible for the actions we make, even if we are limited to one choice?
Physics can inform the debate over these questions but cannot end it unless it comes up with an equation for what freedom is.
Modern debates outside of philosophy departments tend to ignore the differences in the above stances in a way that tends to reduce everything to determinism. This was highlighted by neuroscientist Bobby Azarian in a recent Twitter thread, where he notes there is often a tendency to conflate hard determinism with naturalism—the idea that natural laws, as opposed to supernatural ones, can explain everything in the universe. .
Lastly, we might wonder if physics is the right department to hand it over to. Daniel Dennett awards evolutionary biology the responsibility for generating consciousness and free will.
He points out that while physics has always been the same for life on Earth, both consciousness and free will seem to have evolved recently and could be an evolutionary advantage of sorts—not being bound to deterministic decision making could be an excellent tool for staying alive. He considers them to be emergent properties we have and considers efforts to reduce us to our parts, which do function deterministically, to be unsound.
How to balance our understanding of causal determinism and our subjective experience of seeming to have free will is a problem philosophers and scientists have been discussing for the better part of two thousand years. It is one they'll likely keep going over for a while. While it isn't time to outsource free will to physics, it is possible to incorporate the findings of modern science into our philosophy.
Of course, we might only do that because we're determined to do so, but that's another problem.
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Some experts say there's no such thing. I choose to believe there likely is.
Everyone wants to be free; or at least have some choice in life.
We all have our professional, family, and social commitments. On the other hand, most people believe that they are free to choose what to do, from the simplest to the more complex: Should I drink coffee with sugar or sweetener? Do I put some money in savings or do I spend it all? Who should I vote for in the next elections? Should I marry Carmen or not?
Last week I wrote about the three problems of consciousness. A deeply related question is that of free will, essentially a question of agency. Who is in charge as we go through our lives making all sorts of choices?
Traditionally, the nature of free will has been a topic for philosophers and theologians. But recent work in neuroscience is forcing a reconsideration of free will, to the point of questioning our freedom to choose. Many neuroscientists and some philosophers consider free will to be an illusion. Sam Harris, for example, wrote a short book arguing the case. This shocking conclusion comes from a series of experiments that have revealed something quite remarkable: our brains decide a course of action before we know it. Benjamin Libet's 1980s pioneering experiments using EEG—and more recent ones using fMRI or implants directly into neurons—found that the motor region responsible for making a motion in response to a question fired up even seconds before the subject was aware of it. The brain seems to be deciding before the mind knows about it.
If this is indeed true, the choices we think we are making—of our own free will—are actually being made subconsciously, without our explicit control. Could it really be that we are so deluded?
Fortunately, the situation is not so simple. For one thing, defining free will is complicated. An operational definition is that free will is the ability to choose under reasonable coercion. Of course, we are always subjected to all sorts of constraints in our lives, from our genetics to our upbringing to our experiences. There is no blank slate over which we choose. Still, can it be that we are led to believe that we are the conscious agents of our choices when we are not?
A popular argument against free will goes like this: imagine that in the future, scientists will be able to map and decode all your mental states with precision. They could then predict what you will do before you are aware of your choice. If this situation were possible—and it seems to me that it couldn't be, for many reasons—free will would presumably be in trouble.
To my mind, such an abstraction is mere fantasy: machines can't measure all our mental states in rapid succession if we don't even know how these states emerge. Any measurement that needs to track the evolution in time of the simultaneous activity of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses and neurotransmitters flowing between them is very far-fetched. Also, what sort of deterministic laws connect different mental states in time? How do we begin to formulate the question of how consciousness evolves in time as a physical system? No one has a clue.
Not a deterministic machine
To state that knowledge of a current mental state determines future ones (in a simplistic mechanistic way, such as planets revolving around the sun) would only make sense if the mind were a deterministic machine, working as a clockwork mechanism under strict laws. Quite the contrary, the beauty of the mind is that the same external inputs generate, in different people, very different outputs. The same song makes some cringe and others cry.
When it comes to free will, there is a high risk of trivializing a complex, multifaceted question by cutting it down to shape so that it can be analyzed quantitatively with the techniques we have at hand.
In fact, the experiments are limited to decisions that are far removed from the truly complex choices we make in our lives, those that take a lot of back and forth, of confusion, of pondering, of talking to other people, of taking your time to come to a conclusion. There is a huge gap in cognitive complexity from pushing buttons in a lab experiment to deciding whom you will marry, your profession, or if you will commit a crime (psychopathic pathologies aside).
When it comes to the choices we make, there is a spectrum of complexity, and this spectrum is reflected in the issue of free will. Some do indeed happen before conscious awareness, while others don't. The question of free will is not simply a black-and-white or yes-or-no kind of question, but one that embraces the full complexity of what it means to be human.
If you'd like to dive deeper into this topic and explore the philosophical and neuroscientific issues at stake, I strongly recommend this new online course by Professor Peter Tse from the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department at Dartmouth College. Of course, only you can decide whether or not you will watch this excellent course.