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Modern Neuroscience Eroding Idea Of Free Will


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Free to choose?

 

Modern neuroscience is eroding the idea of free will

 

IN THE late 1990s a previously blameless American began collecting child pornography and propositioning children. On the day before he was due to be sentenced to prison for his crimes, he had his brain scanned. He had a tumour. When it had been removed, his paedophilic tendencies went away. When it started growing back, they returned. When the regrowth was removed, they vanished again. Who then was the child abuser?

 

His case dramatically illustrates the challenge that modern neuroscience is beginning to pose to the idea of free will. The instinct of the reasonable observer is that organic changes of this sort somehow absolve the sufferer of the responsibility that would accrue to a child abuser whose paedophilia was congenital. But why? The chances are that the latter tendency is just as traceable to brain mechanics as the former; it is merely that no one has yet looked. Scientists have looked at anger and violence, though, and discovered genetic variations, expressed as concentrations of a particular messenger molecule in the brain, that are both congenital and predisposing to a violent temper. Where is free will in this case?

 

Free will is one of the trickiest concepts in philosophy, but also one of the most important. Without it, the idea of responsibility for one's actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society (and even an unfree one) together. If businessmen were no longer responsible for their contracts, criminals no longer responsible for their crimes and parents no longer responsible for their children, even though contract, crime and conception were “freely” entered into, then social relations would be very different.

 

We, the willing

 

For millennia the question of free will was the province of philosophers and theologians, but it actually turns on how the brain works. Only in the past decade and a half, however, has it been possible to watch the living human brain in action in a way that begins to show in detail what happens while it is happening (see survey). This ability is doing more than merely adding to science's knowledge of the brain's mechanism. It is also emphasising to a wider public that the brain really is a just mechanism, rather than a magician's box that is somehow outside the normal laws of cause and effect.

 

Science is not yet threatening free will's existence: for the moment there seems little prospect of anybody being able to answer definitively the question of whether it really exists or not. But science will shrink the space in which free will can operate by slowly exposing the mechanism of decision making.

 

At that point, the old French proverb “to understand all is to forgive all” will start to have a new resonance, though forgiveness may not always be the consequence. Indeed, that may already be happening. At the moment, the criminal law—in the West, at least—is based on the idea that the criminal exercised a choice: no choice, no criminal. The British government, though, is seeking to change the law in order to lock up people with personality disorders that are thought to make them likely to commit crimes, before any crime is committed.

 

The coming battle

 

Such disorders are serious pathologies. But the National DNA Database being built up by the British government (which includes material from many innocent people), would already allow the identification of those with milder predispositions to anger and violence. How soon before those people are subject to special surveillance? And if the state chose to carry out such surveillance, recognising that the people in question may pose particular risks merely because of their biology, it could hardly then argue that they were wholly responsible for any crime that they did go on to commit.

 

Nor is it only the criminal law where free will matters. Markets also depend on the idea that personal choice is free choice. Mostly, that is not a problem. Even if choice is guided by unconscious instinct, that instinct will usually have been honed by natural selection to do the right thing. But not always. Fatty, sugary foods subvert evolved instincts, as do addictive drugs such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine. Pornography does as well. Liberals say that individuals should be free to consume these, or not. Erode free will, and you erode that argument.

 

In fact, you begin to erode all freedom. Without a belief in free will, an ideology of freedom is bizarre. Though it will not happen quickly, shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.

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I guess I just use a different definition of free will than they do. No where in my definition are influences ruled out. It has always seemed to me that when people change an influence into an unresistable force does free will fade away. But then again..... I have no choice to think that since it's all determined for me. ;)

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I don't believe anyone has freewill mainly because I would define it differently from those who believe that we have it. The whole debate between hard determinists and compatiblists is really a debate on the definition of "freewill". Most hard determinists differentiate between "will" and "freewill" whereas most compatiblists don't differentiate. It's a pointless debate really since it's a definition debate.

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I agree with Dave on this one.

 

Did his pedophilic tendencies force him to harm children?

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I even heard about that on NPR and still failed to understand what the problem was. It's not like deafness isn't commonly understood to be a geniuine hearing defect, and one would think working to give those folks a chance to regain or develop their hearing is quite the opposite of a malevolent pursuit.

 

I suppose it would make sense if it were the school's beurocracy up in arms over the fact that their institution will likely lose its prestige and funding when all the attendant students jump at the chance to hear; but again, I hardly see that as a terrible sacrifice.

 

Maybe someone else can explain it to me better?

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Even if there was something in my brain that is causing me to like other men that could be removed and make me like women, I wouldn't fix it (assuming it wasn't life-threatening). I like men too much. :)

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Maybe someone else can explain it to me better?

It's a community. If you are no longer deaf you are no longer part of that community. Being part of that community holds more importance to them than hearing. I guess you could think of it as a community with a gang mentality.

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I even heard about that on NPR and still failed to understand what the problem was. It's not like deafness isn't commonly understood to be a geniuine hearing defect, and one would think working to give those folks a chance to regain or develop their hearing is quite the opposite of a malevolent pursuit.

 

I suppose it would make sense if it were the school's beurocracy up in arms over the fact that their institution will likely lose its prestige and funding when all the attendant students jump at the chance to hear; but again, I hardly see that as a terrible sacrifice.

 

Maybe someone else can explain it to me better?

 

The market of improving their hearing are improving, three in five persons I know have cochlear implants but I'm not bothered by that. I do after all, have a choice not to be implanted. I heard from them that they disliked the way they impacted on their chances of getting into sport, sometimes if the implants is broken, they would get terrible headaches and they're expensive. So I don't want it.

 

I am not concerned about deaf schools closoing but as seeing they are very important for engendering Deaf person's identity and place in the world, I can see why they would panic.

 

It's a community. If you are no longer deaf you are no longer part of that community. Being part of that community holds more importance to them than hearing. I guess you could think of it as a community with a gang mentality.

 

I am Deaf, I am involved with the Deaf community here in NZ. I've observed that ones that you say are in a "gangster" mentality are actually the older Deafs who are in anxiety of losing their language and culture. They are used to being quiet, talking in sign and going to deaf clubs. Their early years consisted of busybodys forcing them to speak, whipping their hands with rulers if they signed, breaking the rules of their residential Deaf schools (As they were called in the early days of Deaf education) by signing in secret in their dorms. Being Deaf in these days was either to be viewed in pity or "That's so sad!" or being mercliessily picked on by the hearing brats.

 

So they got together, united in themselves, founded clubs, organised events, formed families and friendships. They were in their own world, shielded from nasty hearing people and discrimination. It's still here but not as shielded. Interpreters, hearing people who can sign, parents of Deaf children all are considered honorary Deaf persons. That wouldn't have existed in the Deaf community of 60 years ago. Cos the Deafs in these days were mostly divorced from their families or individuals seeking solace in a world that they can understand. Hearings refused to treat them as people, most of the time. People like Helen Keller were an exception, much feted. So it engendered these bad feeling in the deaf people of the day, resulting in the bitterness towards hearing people.

 

The famed "rude deaf person" stereotype is just a Deaf person struggling to understand the world or just enjoying angering people for the sake of it or frustrated at the lack of communication. Assholism are in every culture and groups, no exception but so is goodness. There is no clear cut reason for the assholism of some people in the Deaf community, these are the best reasons I can find.

 

Now, me. I am a modern Deaf person. I recognise the past but I also look to the future.

I am not offended by the cure to deafness but I choose not to take it because I'm happy as I am except for the Cerebal palsy. I decry the zealot anti Cochlear implant deaf people, as well I decry the Zealot Pro Cochlear Implant people.

 

What really irritates me is Fundie Christians leeching on to some Deaf people, to give them a God they can't hear, can't see and don't need. It actually did a lot more harm than good. God is deeply engrained in these Deaf people but the things makes me happy: They don't act as if they're Christian, they have a wicked sense of humour, have a good sense of community, are extremely accepting of GBLT people and are not elitist as of the yesterday's Deaf Community (Deaf is better than hearing)

 

Free will or not, deaf or hearing, it's important that you know how to be loving.

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Science is not yet threatening free will's existence: for the moment there seems little prospect of anybody being able to answer definitively the question of whether it really exists or not. But science will shrink the space in which free will can operate by slowly exposing the mechanism of decision making.
Decision making, like all else, is biochemical..so of course it can be tampered with. But that really answers the question, disease 'affects' decision making. The existence of free will then is found in 'unaffected' normal healthy brains.

 

What if they find in the neurosciences that some tumor or chemical imbalance causes people to desire the same sex?

 

Postmortem studies indicate that the nucleus in the anterior hypothalamus is smaller in homosexual men than those found in heterosexual men, and closer to size of those found heterosexual females. And this is 'hugely' controversial. Though, the only contention with merit is the one suggesting that AIDS has an impact on nuclei volume. This is not substatiated by medical science. The original study also included an almost equal number of heterosexual males with AIDS, further rendering those claims untenable.

 

Even if there was something in my brain that is causing me to like other men that could be removed and make me like women, I wouldn't fix it (assuming it wasn't life-threatening). I like men too much.

 

Good new, you can't live without your anterior hypothalamus.

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"Something in your head" makes you do everything! I'm afraid the idea of "fixing" my brain is rather worrying to me. Who makes the decision on what needs fixing. Yes, on a small enough scale it's all biochemical reactions and yes, Maybe its wiring in the brain that makes the guy peadophillic. The point is to protect children from him. If this happens of a bi-product of life saving surgery then.....yay.

On the "fix" for gayness thing. There are plenty of studies here. Something known as the sexually divergent nucleus is closely tied with gender and often, in extremem transexuals (those who truely think they are a women), it is found that men have that of a women, or at least much more like that of a women.

If it was possible to fix gayness, I'd rather be able to take it the other way. Turn every other baby gay and you solve the overpopulation crisis. I'd not mind a gay son. Or even taking the hit myself. If it wern't for the annoyances from the christian camp I could see an upside to it.

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Thanks Onyx, I was hoping you'd respond. It's very nice (and highly informative) being able to get an "inside" explanation; that clears up my confusion nicely.

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  • 2 weeks later...
Guest Paul M

I have felt for some time that a fundamental flaw of the way we do law and justice is that it is based on outmoded and unscientific ideas of goodness, badness, guilt, volition, etc. Fixing it is a slow process.

 

It's important to note that someone's being genetically disposed to antisocial behaviour doesn not make them any less a bad person - indeed, that it precisely what being a bad person is. And possibly, the best thing is to simply lock 'em up to protect the rest of society.

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It's important to note that someone's being genetically disposed to antisocial behaviour doesn not make them any less a bad person - indeed, that it precisely what being a bad person is. And possibly, the best thing is to simply lock 'em up to protect the rest of society.

 

Exactly. I think research into the brains of murderers, rapists, and thieves should be conducted. I don't think an explaination for an unsavory behavior equals an excuse. The research done may one day lead to non-invasive therapies which can help save young children predisposed to grossly antisocial behaviors from violence and prison.

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