Responsibility

In Search of Free Will and Moral Responsibility

A review of Who's In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain

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In Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain, University of California, Santa Barbara cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga sets off in search of free will. After four chapters of digging for a useful theory of mind among the neurons, his results are disappointing. Far more impressive, however, is his intriguing and persuasive treatment of the moral implications of modern neuroscience. Metaphysics aside, what is really important is that people believe we have free will.

Gazzaniga convincingly argues that morality is an emergent property of minds (brains) interacting with one another. His discussion of the evolution of human sociality is fascinating. Over the eons humans have changed their physical and social environments, which in turn has shifted the sorts of genes, behaviors, and brains that successfully reproduce in a generally more cooperative direction. Gazzaniga cites the hypothesis of primatologists Brian Hare and Michael Tomasello who suggest that humans may have undergone a process of self-domestication in which overly aggressive or despotic individuals were reproductively weeded out—by being ostracized or killed by the group.

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?

"Is accountability what keeps us civilized?," asks Gazzaniga. He pretty clearly believes that answer is yes and he fears that if people don't believe in free will, they will no longer hold themselves or others accountable for their actions. This is dangerous because numerous psychological experiments have shown that punishment [PDF] is the key to cooperation. If free riders cannot be punished, the networks of cooperation that underpin civilization break down. Of course, the worst type of free riding is criminal behavior, e.g., robbing, assaulting, and murdering others for personal gain.

"Our current legal system has emerged from innate intuitions, honed by evolution, just as our moral systems have been," argues Gazzaniga. He notes that people often cite different rationales for punishing others, e.g., retribution, utility, and restoration. Retribution punishes offenders in proportion to the moral magnitude of the harms they committed. Utility justifies punishment as incapacitation or deterrence. And restorative justice extracts reparations to victims from offenders. Research shows that while many people talk deterrence, when asked to judge how criminals should be punished the vast majority of people opt for retribution. People intuitively want to hold criminals personally responsible for their actions.

In fact, Gazzaniga's fears about how neuroscience might be (mis)used in the courts have begun to be realized. Defense lawyers are beginning to claim the equivalent of: "Members of the jury, my client is innocent because his amygdala made him kill his wife." For example, brain scans were used to get convicted murderer Simon Pirela off death row in Pennsylvania in 2004. His attorneys argued that the scans showed that Pirela had aberrant frontal lobes in his brain.

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.

In the context of our legal system, Gazzaniga shows that neuroscience has lots to tell us about the unconscious biases found in the judge, jury, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, the reliability of eye-witness testimony and lie detecting, and even about our motivations for punishment. But neuroscience cannot absolve us from responsibility for our actions. Who's in charge? Each one of us is. 

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. A song by an obscure, ancient band just started playing in my head.

    1. That’s interesting.

      1. city-STATISTS, and they’re quite convinced they’re right, they say the gambolers are just too greedy, and they grab up all their land, but the gambolers can’t help their feelings, if they like the way they can gambol about forest and plane, and they wonder why the city-statists can’t be happy with the same.
        Officer, am I free to gambol?

    2. Were you thinking about this classic?

      1. Take off, eh? I was thinking more foreign.

        1. Well, this one is from Canada. That’s almost foreign.

  2. Gazzaniga illustrates how he thinks that courts misunderstand what neuroscience says about personal responsibility

    If neuroscience is wrong about such things it really doesn’t matter if courts “understand” it correctly.

  3. So moral responsibility can emerge from the interaction of individual organisms in society, but free will can’t emerge from the interaction of individual neurons in a brain.

    Got it.

    1. If you look at social animals, they seem to present more “moral responsiblity” within their group than they do “free will”. Do they have free will at all?

      1. Um, well, that’s the problem with free will isn’t it? It’s kind of a feature (or not) of consciousness. So looking at bees and meerkats doesn’t seem that useful when we’re trying to identify a uniquely human attribute.

        1. “So looking at bees and meerkats doesn’t seem that useful when we’re trying to identify a uniquely human attribute.”

          SPECIEST!
          Seriously, I don’t think it’s limited to humans. One dog responds to a sound differently than does another.
          Not sure where the complexity of the animal brain tips, but I’m pretty sure it’s not limited to primates.

          1. An interesting paper on the subject of brain complexity and consciousness can be found here:

            http://journalofcosmology.com/…..ss142.html

            The authors rank the equivalent complexity of various mammalian brains:

            Human 45.5 (I’m at least a 47)
            Dolphin 43.2
            Chimp 41.8
            Elephant 41.8 (they never forget, it’s said)
            Gorilla 40.0
            Rhesus 36.5
            Horse 34.8
            Dog 34.4
            Cat 32.7
            Rat 25.4
            Possum 24.9
            Mouse 23.2

            They say that self-awareness needs an EQ of 40 or higher, right about the level of baboons.

        2. Pssst, I have a secret for you: we are animals too.

  4. ::cracks knuckles::

    This will be a good thread. I’ll make sure of it.

    1. Given the vast complexities of the brain neuroscience hasn’t even begun to dig into, I think free will is still very much on the table.

      Hell, my dog has it. Otherwise he would not have eaten those shoes *grumble*

      1. Maybe doggie satan made him eat the shoes. That was my dog’s excuse when I asked him why he pissed on the chair.

        Honestly, I was so surprised that he was able to articulate a response in perfect english that I ignored the irony of it being a rather lame excuse.

        1. Well he still seemed to mistake the question framework, so I wouldn’t chalk it up to amazing just yet.

          My dog love roofs, Babe Ruth and rough things, but I’m not waiting until he realizes Dimaggio was better before I credit him.

  5. Smart dudes can be so stupid.

    “Perhaps, denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes.”
    They call it irony, I see free will.

    1. You can “choose” to do something and still not have free will. Either it was determined by pre-existing conditions that you would make that specific choice, or it was not determined, i.e. random. Where’s the free will?

      1. Or you decided for yourself what you were going to do, constrained by physical reality. (I can decide to throw my PC across the room, but I can’t decide to throw my desk across the room).

  6. Good evening. Tonight on ‘It’s the Mind’, we examine the phenomenon of d?j? vu. That strange feeling we sometimes get that we’ve lived through something before, that what is happening now has already happened. Tonight on ‘It’s the Mind’ we examine the phenomenon of d?j? vu, that strange feeling we sometimes get that we’ve. . .(looks puzzled for a moment). Anyway, tonight on ‘It’s the Mind’ we examine the phenomenon of d?j? vu, that strange. . . .

    1. There seems to be no end to McTeagle’s poetic invention. ‘My new cheque book hasn’t arrived’ was followed up by the brilliantly allegorical ‘What’s twenty quid to the bloody Midland Bank?’ and more recently his prizewinning poem to the Arts Council: ‘Can you lend me one thousand quid?’

  7. This whole article was a let down.

  8. Look, I don’t need a lot of egg-head jargon and gobbelty-gook. I just want a simple yes or no: can I run around raping and killing people, and have it not be my fault? If so, then I support neuroscience. If not, then neuroscience can GTFO.

    1. Or you could play GTA.

      1. No, I couldn’t. That game has been weak-sauce for at least 6 or 7 years now.

        Besides, I’m still trying to beat the Jaws NES game. It’s hard as fuck.

        1. Saint’s Row 3?

          1. Don’t waste your pixels, Epi. Anyone who can’t appreciate the genius of GTA: Vice City is clearly beyond the reach of sane men.

            1. I can’t believe that Jim is that far gone. I must at least try and reach him.

              1. That’s not Jim anymore, Epi. Jim is dead. Only difference between him and other dead men is he’s still up walking around.

                Just aim for the head and put him down. You’ll be doing him a mercy.

        2. Get a bunch of shells, use them to buy shit, then kill jaws.

        3. Only NES game I couldn’t beat (mostly because it was so freaking BORING). Well, that and Zelda 2.

          1. Link is a pretty good RPG for an 8-bit system. Not as good as most of the other Zelda games, but what game is?

            1. It is hard as shit though

              1. I actually never beat the original Super Mario Bros.

  9. Before we can even start the debate between ‘free will’ and ‘determinism’ we need a clear definition of terms. Otherwise, it’s straw all the way down.

    1. Turtles goddamnit

    2. Re: Gibreel,

      Free will: Because I want to.

      Determinism: Your ass is mine.

      1. It’s important we separate out ‘what could this lead to’ from ‘is it true or not.’ Otherwise we get arguments like, “It’s for the children.”

    3. The idea that you can choose definitions slants things towards the free-will faction at the outset.

      1. Except if those choices are just an illusion. In any case, we have to start with some agreed upon denotations otherwise we’ll just get lost in semantics.
        And while Bailey raises a legitimate concern about the possible outcomes if we shift towards determinism it doesn’t get us any closer to whether there is such a thing as free will.

      2. Of course it does. The idea of Determinism is something created via free will.

        In a deterministic universe the idea of ‘free will’ would never occur–because that universe is structurally null, it contains all it’s content in it’s totality. When these types of universes form they collapse fairly instantaneously. For all practical purposes, they can’t exist with any duration.

        One uses free will to question free will.

    4. “Before we can even start the debate between ‘free will’ and ‘determinism’ we need a clear definition of terms.”

      OK,
      “Free Will” = action by an individual not mathematically predictable by an outside party with access to all data leading to that action.

      1. Thus free will exists due to the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle.

        1. Not sure it has to do with quantum uncertainty; more likely analogous to the ‘many body problem’.
          Feedback loops in complex animal behavior likely begin near birth and continue throughout life.
          I suggest the problem of developing AI as an example. It’s not to say the subject is not open to inquiry, just that the complexity is far beyond what we can currently define.

          1. The many body problem is deterministic (though chaotic).

            Deterministic != easy to calculate.

            1. Is it now calculable? At one time, it wasn’t. David Morrison sort of ducked the question when I had a chance to ask him a year or so ago, suggesting that close was good enough for his purposes.
              If it is, the analogy still applies in that “free will” might be someday found to be “deterministic”.
              And someday, AI might be ‘solved’.

              1. It isn’t calculable. It’s usually chaotic.

                But the motions of the system are governed by well-known differential equations so it is deterministic.

              2. I should be more careful. It isn’t *exactly* calculable. It is approximatable but because it’s chaotic errors in the initial conditions (which will always be present) are magnified over time.

                1. Since the initial state cannot be precisely defined due to uncertainty, no calculation can be more than an approximation. Since many bio systems are chaotic (non-linear), small uncertainties can lead to widely different outcomes. Determinism is impossible.

                  1. BigT, chaos is only non-deterministic in the practical sense. We can’t practically predict the outcome of a butterfly effect. But the outcome is still determined by the initial conditions (discounting randomness).

                    http://bjps.oxfordjournals.org…..5.abstract

                    1. When we are talking about free will, practical determination is unimportant. We already know that it seems like we have free will. That is presumably because chaos has sufficiently masked our choices from their causes.

                    2. If you have to say ‘discounting randomness’ then the outcome cannot always be determined by the initial conditions.

                2. “It isn’t *exactly* calculable. It is approximatable but because it’s chaotic errors in the initial conditions (which will always be present) are magnified over time.”
                  Which is sort of what I’m suggesting.

              3. AI surely is “solvable,” since the brain came into existence through a natural, causal process.

                1. “AI surely is “solvable,” since the brain came into existence through a natural, causal process.”

                  Could well be, but the complexity may well mean the solution is beyond solution in real time.

      2. Now that’s the kind of free will I can get behind…I think.

      3. I disagree with the definition. Free will means that we consciously make choices. Even if you know what choice I’m going to make, as long as I had the choice it’s free will.

        Say it three times:

        compatibilism, compatibilism, compatibilism

        1. But if the outcome is predetermined, you aren’t making a choice, you just think you’re making a choice.

          incompatible

          1. We make the choices we do because of who we are. That is free will.

            1. Who you are is not (just) your own creation.

      4. OK,
        “Free Will” = action by an individual not mathematically predictable by an outside party with access to all data leading to that action.

        That isn’t sufficient though. A random outcome is unpredictable, but we wouldn’t call that free will. Free will implies personal control, which already makes no sense since control is a causal concept.

        1. “A random outcome is unpredictable, but we wouldn’t call that free will.”

          True enough, but as an outside party, you’re simply admitting you couldn’t predict the outcome and are therefore calling it “random”. I might call it desire.

          1. And the question becomes where that desire came from?

          2. And nothing is random. Every event or state is caused by something, whether we know in particular which causal phenomenon or combinations of them led to the particular outcome.

  10. Let me be clear.

    Only those making less than $250K/yr should have free will.

  11. http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Free_will_(solution)

    tl;dr “Free will or determinism?” isn’t a productive question to ask.

  12. I think I have free will, therefore I do.

  13. It doesn’t look like these studies present participants with detailed statements on the implications of determinism or indeterminism. Rather they are exclusively focused on rejecting or accepting determinism (there are neutral statements as well).

    I wonder how the results would change if participants were presented with a positive view of determinism like this piece?: http://www.naturalism.org/determinism.htm

    Gazzaniga can’t find contra-causal free will, but looks to be trying desperately to ensure nothing changes if society begins to have its doubts. If someone’s actions /desires are the result of some combination of genetics and environmental factors then it makes little logical sense to put someone to death for an action they ultimately weren’t responsible for.

    I personally beleive that I have become more understanding since rejecting contra-causal free will and thus more helpful. This does not mean I reject holding people accountable to an extent as a functioning society is impossible without it as people naturally would still want to avoid the pain that comes with punishment and/or embarrassment in a world lacking free will.

    1. “contra-causal free will”
      Defintion missing

      1. Contra-Causal Free Will: the belief that an individual is able to take more than one possible course of action under a given set of circumstances and that the action he/she takes is motivated by a desire that was personally cultivated (uncaused).

        1. “a desire that was personally cultivated (uncaused).”

          Hmmm, no causes leading to a desire? Interesting assertion. I’ve got this bridge I’d like to sell you…

          1. I don’t believe that is the case. He was asking for a definition of contra-causal free will and I gave him one.

        2. “and that the action he/she takes is motivated by a desire that was personally cultivated (uncaused).”

          Have a problem with “uncaused” as opposed to ’caused by incentives an outside party can’t define’.

  14. The experiment that shows people behaving poorly as a result in belief in determinism are interesting and color the position I hold with respect to morality and the law. I think preferring a utilitarian model over a retributive one is a hallmark of an advanced society, and struggle to justify leaving in place traditional habits that tend to consider the latter over the former.

    Morality is presumably calibrated by evolution to produce approximately useful outcomes, at least for people living in the Pleistocene, but I don’t think it gets close enough for the purposes of modern life. Punishing someone for being bad doesn’t actually help anyone except in a vague emotional way, and the desire for retribution isn’t necessarily something that should be encouraged. What should matter in treating transgression is what maximizes the good in a society, even including that of the transgressor.

    But a deterministic funk that causes people to act worse seems plausible, and if true should inform the discussion. I’ve never had cause to support keeping people ignorant for any reason, but that’s not the most solidly justified principle I have.

    1. Shithead actually posted this:
      “Punishing someone for being bad doesn’t actually help anyone except in a vague emotional way,”
      The stupid is deep here.

      1. Let me help:

        Punishing someone for being bad doesn’t actually help anyone except in a vague emotional way

        1. It deters others from acting badly.

        2. Tony|11.15.11 @ 10:16PM|#
          “Let me help:
          Punishing someone for being bad doesn’t actually help anyone except in a vague emotional way”

          Shithead, that is no “help”; it’s a restatement of a lie.
          Is that clear, shithead? Are you familiar with the concept of ‘incentives’ shithead?

    2. I think preferring a utilitarian model over a retributive one is a hallmark of an advanced society

      Utilitarianism has to take into account human nature though. So retribution can (and probably will) be part of a utilitarian model.

      1. Yes, some forms of punishment would still remain, but it’s highly likely the most retributive punishments like the death penalty and extended solitary confinement would be sevrely restricted or in the case of the former disappear entirely.

        1. If you end the death penalty you’re going to have an increase in vigilantism and suspects of heinous crimes killed by cops.

          1. Can you prove this empirically?

            I also dont’ see how this is a proper response to an argument that is talking about whether murderers are ultimately responsible for what they do. It would seem to be a better response to arguments that deal with the costs of putting someone to death for example.

            1. Can you prove that the death penalty is less utile than life imprisonment?

              1. It’s more expensive to taxpayers with no additional value over non-death punishments.

                1. Tony|11.15.11 @ 10:24PM|#
                  “It’s more expensive to taxpayers with no additional value over non-death punishments.”

                  OK, shithead, I agree (for reasons that your ignorance totally misses) that the death penalty is a mistake.
                  But, shithead, you posted a lie to support your ignorance. Is that clear, shithead?
                  http://www.cbsnews.com/stories…..1428.shtml
                  Whether it is a deterrent misses the point shithead, and you’re too stupid to know that.

              2. Can you prove that life imprisonment wouldn’t be drastically different in a society that rejected libertarian free will and thus ultimate moral responsibility? I personally believe treatment of prisoners would change drastically and that the goal of incarceration would turn towards rehabilitation. I’d also point out some countries have already abolished life imprisonment sentences altogether.

                My opposition to the death penalty in this regard can’t be boiled down to utilitarianism. I believe it would be fundamentally unfair to kill someone for crimes they ultimately had no control over.

                1. the goal of incarceration would turn towards rehabilitation

                  Rehabilitation is already one of the goals of sentencing (and even incarceration). It works for some, doesn’t work for others and can’t work for certain people.

                  1. It should be the primary goal if not the only goal save for protecting the public from currently dangerous individuals. Retribution clearly plays a big role in American justice system and I believe studies have shown that other less retributive countries have been far more successful at reintegrating prisoners.

                    1. [Rehabilitation] should be the primary goal if not the only goal

                      Why?

                      I believe studies have shown

                      That’s an oxymoron; either there are such studies (which can be referenced) and then there’s no need for belief in their existence or there are no such studies and then no amount of belief in their existence suffices.

                    2. I think there are, but I haven’t looked into this issue for a while, so I was unsure.

                      I intend to look for them when I have a chance, but I have been busy lately.

                    3. Here are the links you wanted:

                      http://www.rijksoverheid.nl/be…..en2007.pdf

                      http://www.pewcenteronthestate…..divism.pdf (see especially the section on Michigan)

                      I have more as well, but I’m only allowed two links.

                2. without free will, there is no “fairness”

                  we execute, because of the way we are.

                  1. This is true to an extent, but societal disbelief in free will would act as a new causal input and could very well (and I believe would) cause people to question whether it makes sense to execute someone for actions they ultimately were not responsible for.

            2. You can put someone to death for less than a shiny Roosevelt Dime.

        2. And TBH, if we neglect moral considerations, the death penalty is far more utilitarian than locking someone in prison for the rest of their lives. A person locked in prison is a net drain on society.

          1. For various reasons, trials that can result in the death penalty are quite a bit more costly than those where life without parole is the maximum. Both are a drain on society, but people who face the death penalty are much more so.

            1. Because bleeding heart liberals like yourself don’t give a shit about people rotting in prison for the rest of their lives, so they don’t get the extra appeals.

              1. It’s not about extra appeals for the most part, contrary to common wisdom, but the costs leading up to and including the original trial, which in death penalty cases have longer jury selection and sentencing phases and more investigative costs.

                1. Tony|11.15.11 @ 10:22PM|#
                  “It’s not about extra appeals for the most part, contrary to common wisdom, but the costs leading up to and including the original trial, which in death penalty cases have longer jury selection and sentencing phases and more investigative costs.”

                  Which is a lie, shithead.

            2. And also because you guys have forced massively expensive execution techniques on us. Ropes and bullets are very utilitarian.

              1. Or method of execution.

        3. Yes, some forms of punishment would still remain, but it’s highly likely the most retributive punishments like the death penalty and extended solitary confinement would be sevrely restricted or in the case of the former disappear entirely.

          Not at all.

          From a purely utilitarian pov, a death penalty is preferable to lifetime encarceration because it is cheaper.

          1. And who says we would be operating from a purely utilitarian view or that lifetime incarceration would still be in place?

            Can you please provide evidence for your assertion that the death penalty is cheaper? This is the subject of much controversy and if it is not significantly cheaper then it is not that big of a deal considering the other issues associated with the death penalty.

          2. From a purely utilitarian pov, a death penalty is preferable to lifetime encarceration because it is cheaper.

            That may be true if you assign absolutely no utility to the life of the convicted. I don’t know why you’d do that.

          3. From a purely utilitarian pov, a death penalty is preferable to lifetime encarceration because it is cheaper.

            It also cuts way down on recidivism.

      2. True, but there are definitely societies that treat criminals in a less bloodthirsty way than ours, and we have a long way to go before any problems associated with denying a retributive outlet would surface, and as I said I struggle to think of what those problems would be.

    1. Tulpa doesn’t like it when the commentariat is split. He becomes quite irate when he can’t post cheap contrarian bullshit to keep up his illusion of intellectual superiority.

  15. “Free Will” = action by an individual not mathematically predictable by an outside party with access to all data leading to that action.

    I don’t think this definition is quite what most people intend by the term. Since humans are rational, logical creatures who respond to their environments, all of our actions are theoretically reducible to mathematical equations; however, this does not negate free will. Determinism and free will are not mutually exclusive. We choose an action because, based on the information we have available, it is the most likely action to achieve our goals. The origin of those goals is ultimately our genes (the deterministic element). However, our selection of a particular action is still our selection (or our exercise of free will), it just happens to coincide with the reasonable (or predictable) selection.

    Or maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about.

  16. No doubt B.F. Skinner’s work is considered in many of the posts here . Actions by individuals may indeed have environmental factors which influence decisions – yet why take this rational to the point where free will is no longer in the equation ?

    Skinner’s work seemed to involve predicting and controlling others …is that the motivation here ?

    1. Behaviorism does not equate to determinism. Geneticists and socio-biologists are just as likely or more so to be determinists. At the very least we’re wired to act in certain directions. It’s not the whole story but it’s a big part of it.

      In any case, no matter how we act, those decisions are not noncausal events, where no preceding causes led us there, even if we don’t know what those causes were…yet.

      1. Are you saying the notion of autonomous man is a myth because his decisions are solely influenced by physiology and environmental factors ? … I’m more inclined to favor the autonomous than the automaton .

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    1. Do bots have free will?

  18. Too many homunculi hiding among the assumptions. Free will and determinism (or determinism modulo heisenberg) aren’t incompatible because the obscenely complex deterministic entity doing the deciding is “us”.

  19. “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?”
    Easy, you are responsible for your neurons.

  20. There is no ghost in the machine. No matter how complex and practically unpredictable the workings of the mind are, the minutia of its workings still operate by fixed rules. Our behavior is solidly deterministic.

    This in no way impacts the criminal justice system or our view of morality as punishment, retribution, and being held accountable are part of the deterministic equation; they strongly affect the pre-determined outcome. Taking them away, just as changing any of the input, changes the outcome.
    Neuroscience is a worthy field of study for lots of reasons, but with regards to morality and justice it can only change semantics, not practice. We already absolve responsibility in cases where punishment does not factor into the deterministc equation; insanity or retardation. ( Cant percieve reality correctly or know right from wrong)
    This changes nothing. Damn i hate writing on an iphone

    1. But if no one is ultimately responsible for what they do then certain practices would appear to be untenable at least to me like the death penalty.

      Also, punishing for the sake of punishment would likely become obsolete. Punishment would only be employed insofar as it functions to aid in an indvidual’s improvement as well as a deterrent.

      I would bet that rehabilitation and restorative justice would become the favored models.

      1. But you’re still talking as if determinism rules the day, but then claiming you have free will to determine what justice system to roll out. If everything is deterministic, the discussion is moot and the conclusion is preordained.

        1. No, I’m talking as if determinism matters.

  21. Whoa… Ron Bailey. WHAT criterion do you use as justification for your conclusion that we are all personal responsible for our actions?

    You seem to assert that science has indeed indicated we have no true free will. But the truth of this is too frightening to behold. So instead, you perpetuate an untruth to justify continued punishment. Because, clearly, punishment is the best way to enforce group cooperation.

    I’m aghast. Does this have any place on a libertarian website? Is libertarianism a defense of personal responsibility? Or liberty from coercion?

    According to your article’s thesis, both scientific truth (whatever that is) must be suppressed in favor of methods of punishment that have in the past demonstrated a loose sense of group cooperation.

    Please read Rene Girard if you haven’t already.

    Instead, maybe you should suggest acceptance of scientific indications and utilize it in favor of better methods. Maybe prisons and unjust punishment (perhaps all force is necessarily unjust) are not the solution? Perhaps freedom from coercion is possible if people allow themselves to be open to new ideas, new empirical evidence, and deeper philosophical introspection?

    This article makes my stomach hurt. This is deeply mired in past mistakes. But no, I’m not holding you personally accountable for what, to me, seems a very terrifying rejection of progress.

    1. Yeah Shawn, dont forget rainbows and butterflies and stuff. Oh yeah, and lollipops sprouting up out of the ground too.
      Read my post above.

      1. You do not understand the ‘ghost’ and have miniscule conception of what the ‘machine’ is. You are barely rational creatures who consider yourselves an ‘end’.

        There can be no determinism. Determinism precludes existence. When every move is predetermined the only move possible is the last one. Deterministic universes collapse upon creation.

      2. Thank-you for your response Suthenboy.

        I understand what you’re saying, and it does resonate with me. But I take issue with it for a number of reasons.

        It seems to take for granted that the present is the best possible. I don’t really feel that’s the case. There was a time when slavery was the determined equation. Most of us would now disagree. Considering the TOE is probably elusive (Godel?), it seems rash to pretend we know the equation.

        My main point is that, as libertarians, we are against the use of force. Generally, we would like there to be as little government as possible. We usually think drugs should be legalized, because they are victimless crimes.

        Now clearly, rape and murder are not victimless. But then we must ask ourselves two things. 1. What causes an offender to offend and 2. What makes someone “guilty”

        Now, if, through neuroscience, we are able to finally understand why someone rapes, then we also probably will know how to prevent rape. Perhaps this could be a point where coercion might have purpose. Either treat yourself so you have a normal sexuality (I do not mean castration), or face a safe removal from society.

        However, this neuroscience also forces us to reconsider who is guilty. Perhaps the greatest threat neuroscience prevents is that we really cannot consider ourselves responsible for our successes or pat ourselves on the back for not being among those “godless” pervs and perps.

        We would be force to realize that we really are no better than charles manson and osama bin laden. We just pulled the long straw. And this realization has the ability to really hurt our egos. We’ll realize that, if someone can be demonstrated to no longer have any greater capacity for murder than the regular population, then there is no reason to incarcerate them for life (let alone execute them).

        Why, look at how dominated hollywood is by super-heroes. Super-heroes from what? To save us from the crime menace that ravages our streets? Really?

        Why is it that the U.S. locks up far more people per capita than any other nation on earth- including China or Russia.

        Land of liberty? Hardly.

        So how can we possibly snub our noses at a development that might promote freedom from coercion amongst law-abiding citizens and criminals alike?

        That’s what I was trying to get at.

        But, I really am trying to understand where you are coming from. I understand what I am saying is pretty naive. But… it’s the best I got. If a perpetual scapegoat class of society must exist so I can dawdle my life away in a suburb till I die.. well, maybe it’s not so bad to get murdered.

  22. Surely they can’t mean that wise sages must tell a “noble lie” about free will in order to keep the plebes in line?

    The fact that our beliefs about free will change our behavior is proof that free will exists.

    Unless it was predetermined that we would hear about determinism first. In which case, scientists ought not to worry, because everything will happen exactly as it was pre-ordained to happen.

    1. Methinks the “wise sages” are telling themselves the noble lie about free will, if they actually believe in determinism. If all of our actions are actually determined by preceding actions, then the wise sages can’t really decide whether to teach about determinism or not, because what they will do one way or the other has already been determined by their own training and experiences, and is totally out of their control.

  23. this is really interested me.

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