"Are We Puppets or Free Agents?"

 Posted by on 13 December 2004 at 11:44 am  Uncategorized
Dec 132004

This article discusses the latest developments in neuroscience, and asks if we may have to revise our notions of free will and responsibility, particular in the context of criminal law.

Now I have no problem with the idea that most people can distinguish right from wrong and are capable of acting volitionally. Nor do I have a problem with the fact that a small minority of people (for whatever biological or psychiatric reasons) are incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, and hence should be treated as legally insane.

The biggest problem I have is with the proposed category of people who purportedly can distinguish right from wrong, but who lack the ability to volitionally act upon that knowledge (and who presumably should be treated differently in the eyes of the law because of this). I’m not saying that this phenomenon is impossible, but the scientific case would have to be made much more convincingly than is currently supported by the evidence.

Nonetheless, I think this article is interesting both in its own right as well as being an example of a potentially important intellectual current worth keeping abreast of. As neuroscience continue to advance, I expect to see more discussion and (probably very heated) debate on this precise topic, both in academic journals as well as the popular press.

Neuroscientific discoveries can be used both to help work out the scientific basis behind volition (which would be terrific), as well as used to bolster arguments of those who wish to deny or attack the concept of volition (which would be bad).

For example, one of the psychologists cited in the article attempts to use neuroscience to defend a version of determinism:

Neuroscience can help us see that all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent’s control… And if we can see that, then I hope we will think differently about punishment, that we’ll think of it as a practical tool and not as a way of balancing the universe’s moral books.

As always, it will be fascinating to see what the upcoming scientific and legal debates reveal about people’s underlying philosophical premises.

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