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Free will, justice, and why neuroscientist Gazzaniga’s recent “emergent” arguments don’t work

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Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain

From Ron Bailey’s Reason review of Michael Gazzaniga’s neuroscience book, Who’s in Charge,, that (sort of) defends free will:

What Gazzaniga really fears are the potentially baleful effects of neuroscientific findings on our notions of personal responsibility. In general, the concept of free will is closely connected to the concept of moral responsibility. If neuroscience shows that we are in thrall to our neurons, then how can we be held responsible for our actions, both condemnable and praiseworthy?

Gazzaniga is right to worry. He persuasively cites a 2011 study [PDF] in which researchers found that inducing disbelief in free will decreased helpfulness and increased aggression among experiment participants. He also notes that other recent studies [PDF] reported that people were more likely to cheat in psychological experiments after reading passages that encouraged a belief in determinism. The researchers note with irony, “Perhaps, denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes.” The results also caused the researchers to worry that “if exposure to deterministic messages increases the likelihood of unethical actions, then identifying approaches for insulating the public against this danger becomes imperative.” Surely they can’t mean that wise sages must tell a “noble lie” about free will in order to keep the plebes in line? – “In search of free will and moral responsibility,” November 15, 2011

Gazzaniga illustrates how he thinks that courts misunderstand what neuroscience says about personal responsibility with the case of Atkins v. Virginia (2002). In that case the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a murderer should not be executed because he was deemed mentally retarded. Daryl Atkins and an accomplice drove to a convenience store planning to rob a customer. They abducted a victim at gunpoint, drove him to an automated teller machine forcing him to withdraw $200, and then drove to a deserted area where Atkins shot him to death.

Neuroscience gives us no reason not to hold criminals like Atkins responsible, asserts Gazzaniga. “Responsibility reflects a rule that emerges out of one or more agents interacting in a social context, and the hope that we share is that each person will follow certain rules,” he argues. “An abnormal brain does not mean that the person cannot follow rules.” As Gazzaniga points out, Atkins’ brain was functional enough that he could follow rules. Atkins clearly knew that he shouldn’t rob and kill people. That explains why he inhibited his murderous actions until he was in a deserted area.

Ultimately, Gazzaniga’s approach won’t work because he himself insists,

“Our current legal system has emerged from innate intuitions, honed by evolution, just as our moral systems have been,” argues Gazzaniga.

Which amounts to saying it is irrational, and therefore lacks moral force. It has only the force of unthinking tradition, which the social engineer can easily replace with his own- unashamedly unthinking – tradition (in which all minds, including his, are an illusion, but he has a research study which shows how best to manipulate his fellows).

For Gazzaniga’s position to be viable, he must hold that human instincts about justice reflect, however dimly, a sense of the real nature of the cosmos. That position unites Eastern, Western, and Aboriginal spiritual traditions – and no materialist atheist can honestly hold it. Thus, to the extent that materialist atheism is the default position of the sciences, the sciences must work against traditional civil liberties, and toward management of humans as if they were farm animals.

Note: A public policy argument against capital punishment – one that has been persuasive in some countries – is that capital punishment encourages the growth of crackpot judicial theorizing about human responsibility, of just the sort cited above. Judges may simply be unwilling to sentence the convicted murderer to death, and look for an escape. If the judge can sentence the defendant to fifteen years’ imprisonment, without an uproar, he may well just do that and stuff the harmful theorizing. One hopes for a study that compares the traction gained by crackpot theorizing in courts that can’t be expected to invoke a death sentence, vs. courts that can. It would be interesting to know.

See also: New scholarly neuroscience books question simple materialist theories of mind


Pioneer neuroscientist: Defining social life in terms of biology: “a fool’s game”

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Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

I find it odd that News is judging a book, not by its contents, but by another person's reviews. Seems to be a trend around here. Would be good to see UD authors actually to real reviews of their own. woodford
This points to why worldviews matter; unless society has a commitment to a perspective that makes free will a meaningful concept for personal responsibility, materialism and atheism can erode moral and ethical behavior. Ideas have consequences when articulated and argued in public forums. William J Murray

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