My Thoughts on Free Will and Neuroscience

There have been a few articles written about neuroscience and its implications for free will in the last few days; here’s one in Salon, here in Scientific American, and here from Mind Hacks, which also links to an October article in the New York Times and August article from Nature

I’ve found that none of these reflect my own perspective, which is why I thought I’d add my thoughts to the mix just in case you wanted another opinion. Basically these articles portray a struggle over the definition of free will, and make it seem as if some people (namely neuroscientists) find free will soundly disproven while others (namely philosophers) think more evidence is needed. Philosophers argue that neuroscientists are seeing free will as something immaterial, a ghost in the machine, which is not how they see it – free will can coexist with a purely material brain.

My thought is that free will is irrelevant. Free will is an intuitive model for human thinking, a historical assumption. Now we have evidence for another model for human thinking, one based on physics via chemistry via biology. Is there any reason to continue to consider free will as a relevant way of thinking about thinking? I really don’t think so. It may be interesting to philosophers for the moment, but practically speaking what does it tell us? What reason is there for thinking it exists? Whether it exists by one or another definition is irrelevant if it’s a useless, unfalsifiable concept. 

The only point that’s brought up in these articles for the utility of free will is in courts, for assigning responsibility. However, we already acknowledge the flaws of free will in court, via the insanity plea. The idea is that insanity prevents a suspect from using their reason. I don’t think there’s any difference between that case and the case where reason prevents a suspect from using their insanity. There’s this common conception of a “normal” brain and a “defective” brain, instead of the more realistic acknowledgment that every brain is unique and has its own predispositions. Why would a brain we culturally consider defective not have free will, while an equally deterministic “normal” brain has free will? It doesn’t actually make any sense. 

So where does that leave us in terms of legal and moral responsibility? I think it leads us towards rehabilitation instead of pure punishment. The point of rehabilitation is to acknowledge and use determinism – change a convict’s circumstances, change their brain. We just have to realize that this applies to everyone, not just the people we currently don’t think have much free will, like children or the mentally ill.

I could probably ramble on, but I’ve probably made my point clear: free will is, as far as I can tell, a useless concept, and if anything it just obstructs a more effective justice system, as opposed to being the only thing between us and anarchy as some people would claim. I don’t think neuroscientists should be worrying about it at all, given what we know now, so I don’t. 

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3 Responses to My Thoughts on Free Will and Neuroscience

  1. Lyndon says:

    This was well stated, especially:

    “Free will is an intuitive model for human thinking, a historical assumption. Now we have evidence for another model for human thinking, one based on physics via chemistry via biology. Is there any reason to continue to consider free will as a relevant way of thinking about thinking?”

    Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science and biology, has a new book called the Atheist’s Guide to Reality that makes this his key point.

    There simply is no reason to use the term “free will” any more. We should instead be focusing on behavior- and granted science will not fill in all the answers about behavior- but it is in the right realm. “Free will” and other agentic expressions are used to obscure over processes of behavior that we do not understand, that may help in maintaining certain pro-social behaviors at this point, but there are better lines of analysis and better questions to be asked about controlling such behaviors than sticking within such obscuring expressions.

    • Thanks, and thanks for commenting! You and I shall lead the way boldly into the future! … or, just sort of wait for everyone to change their minds. One way or another it’ll come 🙂

  2. Pingback: 10 Essential ADD Coaching Concepts « ADD . . . and-so-much-more

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