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Author Topic: Modern neuroscience is eroding the idea of free will  (Read 1438 times) Average Rating: 0
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SmoT
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« on: December 27, 2006, 12:09:44 PM »

Free to choose?

Dec 19th 2006
From The Economist print edition

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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« Reply #1 on: December 27, 2006, 12:54:43 PM »

But if appeal has to be made to pathological cases as counterexamples, what exactly does that prove? If in illness a man's will was impaired, what does this say about when he was healthy?

Even if science makes headway on exposing the mind's decision-making faculties (and certainly nothing of the sort happened here), those faculties are part of the man, no matter what. Responsibility isn't going to go away-- indeed, if the processes are better understood, should it not be incumbent upon the mand to better regulate them?
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« Reply #2 on: December 27, 2006, 01:02:39 PM »

Hopefully this will lead us to practical means of changing behaviour.
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« Reply #3 on: December 27, 2006, 01:06:21 PM »

Hopefully this will lead us to practical means of changing behaviour.

That would be the prudent thing to do. But I don't think it will ever happen because the ACLU and other such organizations will be pulling out the "NAZI" label very quickly.
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« Reply #4 on: December 27, 2006, 03:00:12 PM »

Quote
Science is not yet threatening free will's existence

Actually it is. There are quite a few studies now which seem to imply that man does not have free will in the classic sense. For one example, a number of studies have now shown that people start to respond physically to stimuli a few hundred milliseconds ahead of when their brain processes the sensory data produced by the stimuli. In other words, your body guesses as to what action to take before you consciously decide what action to take. Of course, this is far from proven, and it doesn't mean that you are unable to alter your body's initial physical guess (though your alteration isn't necessarily your own choice either), but it's an interesting start to exploring why and how we react to what our body perceives, and how our free will plays (or doesn't play) a part.

All of this stuff in the article seems natural to me. If there isn't some semi-material "soul" guiding us, and it is all dependent on the physical brain, then it's to be expected that changes to that brain, or the body, is going to effect us in weird ways. I was just reading yesterday about a gene in certain Jewish people that they think promotes long and healthy life. And of course it has long been known that things like depression can be caused by chemical imbalances. To be frank, I expected a bunch of posts against the original article when I saw the title. So much for my assumptions.  Smiley
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« Reply #5 on: December 27, 2006, 03:13:56 PM »

Well, the fact that we are controlled by chemical reactions in our brain is really beyond reproach, unless one seeks to replace good science with ignorance and superstition. The research is sound and quite reasonable and, in time, I have no doubt that we will better understand human psychology from a biochemical perspective and, hopefully, regardless of the opinions of the ACLU, be able to use this knowledge to guide the future evolution of humanity for the better.
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« Reply #6 on: December 27, 2006, 03:19:43 PM »

I think people should be genetically engineered to enjoy Barnaby Jones.  That's me though.
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« Reply #7 on: December 27, 2006, 04:51:29 PM »

I wonder if the only people who truly have free will are those who are able to choose to undertake behaviours contrary to self-preservation- such as keeping the fasts or keeping their Faith in the face of persecution and accusations of anti-intellectualism? Wink
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« Reply #8 on: December 27, 2006, 10:21:28 PM »

I wonder if the only people who truly have free will are those who are able to choose to undertake behaviours contrary to self-preservation- such as keeping the fasts or keeping their Faith in the face of persecution and accusations of anti-intellectualism? Wink

Dont worry, one of these days we'll be able to correct those neural imbalances. Wink
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« Reply #9 on: December 27, 2006, 11:17:45 PM »

Some comments as this subject disturbs me greatly :'(


<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?>

Which scientists?  Which reports?

<Hopefully this will lead us to practical means of changing behaviour>

Are you serious?

<Well, the fact that we are controlled by chemical reactions in our brain is really beyond reproach, unless one seeks to replace good science with ignorance and superstition.>

Are renowned psychiatrists like Peter Breggin, Thomas Szasz ignorant and superstitious?

<I wonder if the only people who truly have free will are those who are able to choose to undertake behaviours contrary to self-preservation- such as keeping the fasts or keeping their Faith in the face of persecution and accusations of anti-intellectualism?.>

Well said! Smiley

There is an overview of this problem i.e. abusive psychiatry at www.schizophrena-free.org
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« Reply #10 on: December 27, 2006, 11:23:49 PM »

There we go, I knew my assumptions couldn't be completely off. Thanks George and Observer.  Cool

Quote
<Hopefully this will lead us to practical means of changing behaviour> Are you serious?

People have been taking medications for years that change the body chemistry of people and effect their behavior. That's sort of an important aspect of the definition of "drug". Unless modern medicine is all just a sham and they just give us all placebos. What is in the future is more radical (and more helpful) changing of behavior.
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« Reply #11 on: December 27, 2006, 11:59:37 PM »

There we go, I knew my assumptions couldn't be completely off. Thanks George and Observer.  Cool

Ahhhh, were SmoT and myself ruining your fun of pointing at the kooky religious people in funny hats and laughing at our absurd and superstitious ideas? Wink

Quote
People have been taking medications for years that change the body chemistry of people and effect their behavior. That's sort of an important aspect of the definition of "drug". Unless modern medicine is all just a sham and they just give us all placebos. What is in the future is more radical (and more helpful) changing of behavior.

Perhaps we can just reject all of modern science as evil and bring back polio, smallpox, and the bubonic plague...humanity would be much more moral and better off in that case.
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