Whilst some scholars recognise boundaries for scientific research, others strongly resist the thought that science has limits. One of the sensitive areas involves human consciousness and free agency. The authors of an essay on law and human behaviour write that "many contemporary neuroscientists assume that the essential ingredients of the human condition, including free will, empathy, and morality, are the calculable consequences of an immense assembly of neurons firing." This view "assumes that violence and antisocial behaviour emanate from a mechanistically determined brain". This effectively means that our sense of free agency is an illusion.
Whilst this stance man have legal implications (because of laws about diminished responsibility and even freedom from liability if declared legally insane), suffice to note here that our approach to the science of human behaviour has important ramifications.
What difference does this approach make to our thinking about humanity and society? "Clearly free will is a prerequisite for moral agency, and for society to run smoothly, we all need to believe that we are in full control of our actions." This sounds very much like living an illusion! To paraphrase: we cannot do without a sense of personal responsibility in order to have a society that works, but the neuroscientists know better (i.e. our behaviour is governed by neurons firing in our brains).
When we ask: 'how do we know?', we find out that the evidence is equivocal. No one has proved that the firings of neurons lead to "free-will, empathy and morality". The authors of the essay are right to use the word "assume". It is a major assumption that everything has a natural expanation: chance and necessity explains all (after Monod).
If these authors (and mechanistic neuroscientists) are right, then it is not only society that has to live an illusion. We ourselves have to live a delusion. We think we choose (but really it is only the firing of our neurons); we think we love (but this is just another form of brain signalling); and we think we know right from wrong (and this too is the product of neuron activity). Furthermore, our claims to be truth seekers are empty, because our response to truth is also an illusionary experience.
The authors write: "New studies of the criminal brain are likely to shape moral views on responsibility and free will, with possible impacts on how legal systems punish and treat criminals". If we are concerned about these issues, we need to look very carefully at the assumptions we bring to the science underpinning these studies.
Law, Responsibility, and the Brain
Dean Mobbs, Hakwan C. Lau, Owen D. Jones, Christopher D. Frith
PLoS Biol 5(4): e103 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050103
Archaeological discoveries of traumatic injuries in primitive hominid skulls strongly hint that our species has a long history of violence. Despite repeated attempts throughout history, including efforts to eliminate violence through the imposition of criminal sanctions, we have yet to dispel our violent nature. Consequently, criminal violence remains a common feature of most societies. As policy-makers seek deeper understandings of criminally violent and anti-social behaviour, many contemporary neuroscientists assume that the essential ingredients of the human condition, including free will, empathy, and morality, are the calculable consequences of an immense assembly of neurons firing. Intuitively, this view opposes Cartesian dualism (i.e., the brain and mind are separate, but interacting, entities) and assumes that violence and antisocial behaviour emanate from a mechanistically determined brain.
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