Blog: How science and AI challenge the pillars of liberalism
Contemporary science debunks two primary tenets of liberalism — individualism and freedom of choice.
Liberalism’s quintessential tenets are individualism and freedom. These ideas have been long promoted since the inception of first democracies, but now, when scrutinized under scientific inquiry, these concepts become useless in their conventional understanding.
Liberals value free will so much because it is believed that only through self-reflection can a human make important decisions. It is crucial to listen to your own inner voice if you want to achieve the best possible decision. Of course, individuals are influenced by external factors, but in the end, it is a person who determines what and how to do. However, there is a contradiction between contemporary science and the liberal idea of free will. According to liberalism, we are free to make any decisions — but science debunks this myth.
For centuries, human’s inner parts have been like a mysterious black box. But thanks to dramatic advancements in science and technology, we were able to decipher some of the secrets of the soul.
It turned out that there is no soul and, consequently, free will. There are only groups of neurons, genes, and hormones which actively interplay with each other and obey certain biological, chemical and physical laws.
According to scientists, all of our decisions are the result of biochemical processes occurring in our brain. It is clear that decisions reached as a result of a chain of biochemical reactions are not free.
When we feel a particular desire, this feeling is created by a particular biochemical process, not because we wanted it.
Y. N. Harari in his book “A Brief History of Tomorrow” cited a great example of why we do not have free will.
Today we can use brain scanners to predict people’s desires and decisions well before they are aware of them. In one kind of this experiment, people are placed within a huge brain scanner, holding a switch in each hand. They are asked to press one of two switches whenever they feel like it. Scientists observing neural activity in the brain can predict which switch the person will press well before the person actually does so, and even before the person is aware of his own intention. Neural events in the brain indicating the person’s decision begin from a few hundred milliseconds to a few seconds before the person is aware of this choice.
To elucidate, when the biochemical reaction occurs in my brain and makes me feel something, I feel the desire to do it, but this is not a free choice. I do not choose my desires, I only feel them.
There will always be people who will not believe this fact. If you are still in doubt, then when a random thought pops up in your mind, ask yourself a question: why did this thought appear? Did you decide to think about this particular fact? Actually, this thought arose in your mind without your permission. If you can truly rule your thoughts, then try to think about nothing for 10 seconds. Did you succeed?
Returning to the discussion of liberalism, the fact that our desires are the result of biochemical reactions means that there is no free will and that we can actually be manipulated if neurons are impacted.
An example of how we can manipulate people’s thoughts are the recent experiments by DARPA (Pentagon’s research agency). The project aims to either implant chips into the brain or create a helmet that would exert signals on the particular parts of the brain which are responsible for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder, a very common illness among US military veterans). Sally Adee, a journalist from New Scientist, already tested the helmet on herself and was able to negate stress from fighting thanks to pressure exerted upon neurons. These helmets are expected to make US troops much more effective and protected from dangerous disorders.
There remains a lot of work to do, undoubtedly. However, sooner or later this technology will become widespread and we will be able to manipulate thoughts, and with chips, we will be able to routinely install software that will enhance our abilities.
Another myth of liberalism is the notion of individualism. In-dividual, unable to be divided, means that every human being has a unique and indivisible self. However, as it is in the case with free will, modern science undermines the concept of individualism as well.
According to scientists, our brain is comprised of two hemispheres: left, which is primarily responsible for speech and logical reasoning, and right, which is dominant in processing spatial information.
Experiments showed the divisive nature of humans, as two parts of the brain perform different functions and therefore there is often a clash between two of them.
Gazzaniga and his team flashed a picture of a chicken claw to the left-half brain — the side responsible for speech — and simultaneously flashed a picture of a snowy landscape to the right brain. When asked what they saw, patients invariably answered ‘a chicken claw’. Gazzaniga then presented one patient, PS, with a series of picture cards and asked him to point to the one that best matched what he had seen. The patient’s right hand (controlled by his left brain) pointed to a picture of a chicken, but simultaneously his left hand shot out and pointed to a snow shovel. Gazzaniga then asked PS the million-dollar question: ‘Why did you point both to the chicken and to the shovel?’ PS replied, ‘Oh, the chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.’
What happened here? The left brain, which controls speech, had no data about the snow scene and therefore did not really know why the left hand pointed to the shovel. So it just invented something credible. After repeating this experiment many times, Gazzaniga concluded that the left hemisphere of the brain is the seat not only of our verbal abilities but also of an internal interpreter that constantly tries to make sense of our life, using partial clues in order to concoct plausible stories.
Y. N. Harari compared interactions within the brain as those between CIA and State Department.
It’s as if the CIA conducts a drone strike in Pakistan, unbeknown to the US State Department. When a journalist grills State Department officials about it, they make up some plausible explanation. In reality, the spin doctors don’t have a clue why the strike was ordered, so they just invent something. A similar mechanism is employed by all human beings, not just by split-brain patients. Again and again my own private CIA does things without the approval or knowledge of my State Department, and then my State Department cooks up a story that presents me in the best possible light. Often enough, the State Department itself becomes convinced of the pure fantasies it has invented.
It is conspicuous that free will and individualism do not exist in their original meaning. Twenty-first-century science challenges long-standing beliefs. Experimental evidence proves that there are no such things as individualism and freedom of choice.