neuroscience and free will

A review in the financial times about some of the latest books on free will, including Searle’s new book, Freedom & Neurobiology. The article starts of very poorly, getting mixed up about the very concept of free will, claiming that it should be possible under free will to simply decide to be a more humorous person and have it happen instantaneously ?!! Then they marvel at the fact that electrocuting people’s brains modifies their behavior:

Two neuroscientists working in Australia have taken Libet’s discovery one step further. They found that, when asking people to choose to move either their left or right hands, it was possible to influence their choice by electronically stimulating certain parts of their brains. So, for example, the scientists could force the subjects always to choose to move their left hands. But despite their choice being electronically directed, these patients continued to report that they were freely choosing which hand to move.

Is it really that surprising that free will – whatever it turns out to be – is linked to physical phenomena? Such results – though fascinating – shouldn’t surprise anyone … Further on, the thinking gets more interesting and moves on to the ethical consequences of the neuroscientists’ discoveries:

But if this is true, the implications for our systems of morality, of crime and punishment, are shattering. We only punish those we think voluntarily did wrong – not those who literally had no choice but to act as they did. But if there is no free will, then no one has ever had a choice but to act as they did. That Eve ate the apple was as predetermined as the leaves falling to the ground in autumn. None of us could ever truly be said to be responsible for our actions. In very different ways, three new books tackle the question of whether we are free and what it means if we are not.

The answer is unequivocal:

Derk Pereboom recognises that our lack of free will means we need to rethink morality – but sees this as no bad thing. It would, he suggests, lead to sensible reforms, such as shifting the focus of the criminal justice system away from retributive punishment and towards re-education and deterrence – or towards protecting society: ”Suppose that a serial killer continues to pose a grave danger to a community. Even if he is not morally responsible for his crimes, it would be as legitimate to detain him as it is to quarantine a carrier of a deadly communicable disease.”

We are again dealing with science (finally!) encroaching upon philosophical territory. What is philosophically interesting about this new free-will problem is exactly the same thing as is interesting about the new ethical situation. Science is doing what it always has done: explaining to us things that previously appeared mysterious. Only now, the explanations have to do not with nature out there but with the inner workings of our selves – of our very brains (the part that is doing the explaining in the first place).

We are left with a conundrum. If our brains (note the plural) can explain to us how a brain (singular) works, then ought we perhaps to try to change how our brains work – that is, improve upon their functionality?

We have lost our ethical innocence and irretrievably moved beyond the comfort of traditional theories of ethics that seemed right to everyone. Now they seem wrong. Science, in clearing the weeds of wrong assumptions will help us think clearly and distinctly about the problems. It will not, however provide us with the solutions.

In the case at hand (free will and punishment), the question for philosophers is no longer “(how) are we free?” but “how should we best deal with our new knowledge of how we behave?” The problem is the eternal philosophical one of trying to reason about questions that lie beyond empirically verifiable knowledge. Philosophers (and others) must find a principle or two that will not tell us about our free will, but about the meaning of free will.

The beginnings of a solution lie in the singular-plural distinction a few paragraphs ago: it must be kept in mind that the scientists are telling us how one brain works. That is interesting. What is important, though, is how all the brains work together. Humanity must decide how it wants to modify and deal with its constituent parts. For such reasoning we require many brains and not only knowledge of how single brains work, but also intuitions about how we want our brains to work in the future. The problem of individual free will is being solved. Now we philosophers must move on to the higher order problem of the free will of all existing free wills, our free will.


One Comment to “neuroscience and free will”

  1. Interesting post.

    I once read that the Scandinavians (some anyway) take a much more progressively humane (and probably effective) approach to criminal justice.

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