Neuroscience, Free Will, and Selfhood – a National Core for Neuroethics Journal Club

In keeping with our new endeavor to summarize and present the Core’s (usually) weekly journal club discussions, here is the abstract of Kaposy, “Will Neuroscientific Discoveries about Free Will and Selfhood Change our Ethical Practices?” from Neuroethics (2009).

Over the past few years, a number of authors in the new field of neuroethics have claimed that there is an ethical challenge presented by the likelihood that the findings of neuroscience will undermine many common assumptions about human agency and selfhood. These authors claim that neuroscience shows that human agents have no free will, and that our sense of being a “self” is an illusory construction of our brains. Furthermore, some commentators predict that our ethical practices of assigning moral blame, or of recognizing others as persons rather than as objects, will change as a result of neuroscientific discoveries that debunk free will and the concept of the self. I contest suggestions that neuroscience’s conclusions about the illusory nature of free will and the self will cause significant change in our practices. I argue that we have self-interested reasons to resist allowing neuroscience to determine core beliefs about ourselves.

Will neuroscience find itself in the predicament of Cassandra?

An additional catalyst for conversation was a very similar paper by Roskies, “Neuroscientific Challenges to Free Will and Responsibility” from Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2006), whose abstract is as follows:

Recent developments in neuroscience raise the worry that understanding how brains cause behavior will undermine our views about free will and, consequently, about moral responsibility. The potential ethical consequences of such a result are sweeping. I provide three reasons to think that these worries seemingly inspired by neuroscience are misplaced. First, problems for common-sense notions of freedom exist independently of neuroscientific advances. Second, neuroscience is not in a position to undermine our intuitive notions. Third, recent empirical studies suggest that even if people do misconstrue neuroscientific results as relevant to our notion of freedom, our judgments of moral responsibility will remain largely unaffected. These considerations suggest that neuroethical concerns about challenges to our conception of freedom are misguided.

Our participants often bring in relevant quotes from other sources. In this case, one contentious feature of the article was Kaposy’s rather unfavorable forecast regarding the extent to which neuroscientific perspectives will impact humanity’s self-understanding – that “our social norms are stronger determinants of what we believe than any esoteric field of science.” A passage from Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate suggests that Messrs. Newton, Darwin, and Mendel, among others, would appreciate a brief word with Kaposy:

Newton’s theory that a single set of laws governed the motions of all objects in the universe was the first event in one of the great developments of human understanding: the unification of knowledge, which the biologist E. O. Wilson has termed consilience. Newton’s breaching of the wall between the celestial and the terrestrial was followed by a collapse of the once equally firm (and now equally forgotten) wall between the creative past and the static present. That happened when Charles Lyell showed that the earth was sculpted in the past by forces we see today (such as earthquakes and erosion) acting over immense spans of time.

The living and the nonliving, too, no longer occupy different realms. In 1628 William Harvey showed that the human body is a machine that runs by hydraulics and other mechanical principles. In 1828 Friedrich Wohler showed that the stuff of life is not a magical, pulsating gel but ordinary compounds following the laws of chemistry. Charles Darwin showed how the astonishing diversity of life and its ubiquitous signs of design could arise from the physical process of natural selection among replicators. Gregor Mendel, and then James Watson and Francis Crick, showed how replication itself could be understood in physical terms.

The unification of our understanding of life with our understanding of matter and energy was the greatest scientific achievement of the second half of the twentieth century. One of its many consequences was to pull the rug out from under social scientists like Kroeber and Lowie who had invoked the “sound scientific method” of placing the living and the nonliving in parallel universes …

This leaves one wall standing in the landscape of knowledge, the one that twentieth-century social scientists guarded so jealously. It divides matter from mind, the material from the spiritual, the physical from the mental, biology from culture, nature from society, and the sciences from the social sciences, humanities, and arts. … this wall, too, is falling.

When considered in these terms, the potential impact of advancing knowledge in neuroscience may indeed appear more impressive. Of course, how can we know for sure until after the fact? Presumably we cannot; as one journal clubber observed, Kaposy may be right to challenge the future-tense, indicative-mood certainty of, e.g., Tancredi (2005) or Greene and Cohen (2004), but this does not justify his own certainty to the contrary; many of Kaposy’s predictions are as stark as those he takes to task.

Further discussion focused on Kaposy’s discussion and subsequent (largely implicit) dismissal of cognitive polyphasia as an explicitly adopted method for simultaneously entertaining the otherwise conflicting perspectives of neuroscience and pre-theoretic human understanding. Opinion was mixed; some identified the tactic as precisely what they have employed all along to get by as both scientists and human beings, or characterized the idea – which consists of holding contradictory ideas in different contexts, essentially maintaining multiple ‘belief-boxes’ for different cognitive applications – as a “clean-burning alternative” to more exclusivity-oriented views of scientific truth versus phenomenological truth.  Others worried that a move toward cognitive polyphasia dispenses too easily with a basic standard for consistency of belief. Moreover, it was suggested that polyphasia may well turn out to be impossible to maintain for such deep beliefs as free will and selfhood, especially if we try to begin thinking of dearly valued relationships – especially familial ones – as “robotic” in some sense.

To editorialize briefly, I had a problem with Kaposy’s defense of compatibilism on logical grounds. If, as we all seem to agree the case is alleged to be, neuroscience has placed both the notions of free well and a deep self under conceptual fire, then we cannot leave one out in the open while defending the other. But the author, in explaining compatibilism, uses language that is completely rife with I, me, and my. Essentially, the intelligibility of compatibilism in this case is parasitic on a notion of selfhood which in turn is indicted by the very perspective that compatibilism is trying to placate. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve been on a big Quine kick all week, and the general form of the critique is straight out of Two Dogmas.) This does not necessarily make compatibilism a circular concept, but unless Kaposy is able to shore up selfhood without making some appeal to free will, his compatibilist option makes for a poor argumentative strategy.

As always, we invite commentary and discussion from our readers.


2 thoughts on “Neuroscience, Free Will, and Selfhood – a National Core for Neuroethics Journal Club

  1. While I agree that compatibilism isn’t logically consistent, I don’t see how “thinking of dearly valued relationships as robotic in some sense” comes any closer to an appropriate reaction. We have a long history of using new technical and scientific innovations such as robotics, computers, etc. as metaphors for life, but usually these metaphors do not clarify but add more problematic conceptual baggage. Ironically, they form the opposite side of the “free will” coin: both the free-willed essential Self and the robotic flesh machine are great distortions of biological reality. Is it true that neuroscience suggests that “free will” and “selfhood” are meaningless in most of their ordinarily understood senses? Yes. Is it true that, to someone who relies heavily on these concepts in their everyday perceptions, to lose them might leave them feeling “robotic?” Definitely. But isn’t better to simply allow neuroscience to inform our understanding of our everyday lives, rather than introducing metaphors of robots, computers or machines? These metaphors are, in my opinion, a primary source of the anxiety that some people feel about neuroscientific reductionism. However, the qualities of these machines that people wish least to identify with (their (relatively) immense simplicity, easy control by a designated user, and emotionlessness) are not and never have been characteristics of the brain.

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