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Free will on trial

June 27, 2011

Anyone who’s not scared by recent advances in neuroscience hasn’t been paying enough attention. Changes in how we view the brain change how we view free will; and changes in how we view free will don’t matter just to arm-chair philosophers, they can have real-life consequences. There’s a good article at the Atlantic website–good, but again, scary–called “The Brain on Trial,” about the impact of neuroscience on criminal law. His point, basically, is that “Was it his fault, or his biology’s fault?”

is the wrong question to be asking. The choices we make are inseparably yoked to our neural circuitry, and therefore we have no meaningful way to tease the two apart. The more we learn, the more the seemingly simple concept of blameworthiness becomes complicated, and the more the foundations of our legal system are strained.

The article includes a number of interesting examples of how that strain would happen, some of which I’d heard of before, some of which I hadn’t. But it’s mostly worth reading because it makes you realize that these questions have practical consequences. Whether or not we have free will matters.

And right now, I think, the idea that we have free will is losing. Of course this isn’t a new problem. Dostoevsky has some things to say about it. But the difference between now and 1870 is that now, neuroscience can for the most part back up its claims with actual evidence. Back then it was only theory; now it can be put into practice. It’s not on the theoretical level that we’ll lose; we’ll lose when the law starts changing to look like what this article describes. At that point, it won’t matter if we can defend free will on some abstract level, it won’t matter if we can do what the Underground Man does and say, “tell me what I’m going to do, O Science, and I’ll do the opposite, just to prove I’m free.” Yes, we’ll still be able to do that, but as the importance of free will begins to fade into the background, we’ll stop wanting to. And I’m not sure what to do about that.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2011 2:23 pm

    -An excellent post. One thought: Might not these neuroscientific-behavioral revelations have a positive side? If we are compelled to act in a certain (or universal) way in response to a neural condition or evene external stimuli, wouldn’t this act in our defense? If we choose to commit a wrong with proper neural “safeguards,” (i.e., correct mental balance, brain function, etc.,) we may be accountable, yet if we simply react (governed by neurological hard-wiring or tumor, awry chemistry, etc.,) and commit a wrong, might we not be accountable? Might we see an upswing of treatment sentences vs. jail time? I don’t think this is alarming – I see it as encouraging. We have free will within our biological confines. Makes perfect sense. Two cents.

  2. May 27, 2014 1:34 pm

    If we don’t have free will, then the dark conclusion that could be drawn from this is that we need to eliminate the genes that hard-wire deviant behavior that harms society. We could do this by genetic engineering; we could also do it by widespread capital punishment, castration, sterilization, and similar approaches that have been tried now and again. Not a good future to contemplate.

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