“It is all too evident that our moral thinking simply has not been able to keep pace with such rapid progress in our acquisition of knowledge and power.” - The Dalai Lama
Free will is the capacity for agents to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded. Experiments seem to suggest that humans don’t have free will. For eg. suppose a scientist asks a subject to choose a random moment to move a finger and measures the build-up of an electrical signal called the readiness potential. The readiness potential reliably preceded the physical action. It is found that the unconscious brain activity of the readiness potential leading up to subjects' movements began approximately half a second before the subject was aware of a conscious intention to move.
This suggests to some that unconsciously the brain has made the decision before the conscious mental act to do so. Some believe the implication is that free will was not involved in the decision and is an illusion. One of the most heated debates in biology is that of "nature versus nurture", concerning the relative importance of genetics and biology as compared to culture and environment in human behavior. The view of many researchers is that many human behaviours can be explained in terms of human brains, genes, and evolutionary histories. This point of view raises the fear that such attribution makes it impossible to hold others responsible for their actions.
The chorus of neuroscientists saying, point blank, that free will is an illusion is echoed by psychologists and physicists. Could so many brilliant scientists be wrong? The philosopher Dan Dennett says in Intuition Pumps and other tools for Thinking that the scientists have typically been making a rookie mistake: confusing the actual scientific image with what we might call the folk ideology of the scientific image. For example, when scientists say that a solid is mostly empty space, they are factually correct but that doesn’t mean that the folk image of a solid, which reflects lived experience, is wrong.
Dennett says that he agrees with the scientists' view that the sort of free will that they are talking about is an illusion, but that doesn’t mean that free will is an illusion in any morally important sense. But, 'some of the scientists who now declare that science has shown that free will is an illusion go on to say that this “discovery” matters, in a morally important sense. They think it has major implications for morality and the law: nobody is ever really responsible, for instance, so nobody ever deserves to be either punished or praised. They are making the mistake people make when they say that nothing is ever solid, not really.'
He devices a thought experiment to make his point. It has been shown that deep brain stimulation by implanted electrodes is showing striking effects in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Imagine that a brilliant neurosurgeon said to a patient on whom she had just performed an implantation that the device controls his every decision, thanks to a master control system, which maintains radio contact with his microchip twenty-four hours a day i.e. 'I’ve disabled your conscious will; your sense of free will henceforth will be an illusion.'
'In fact she had done no such thing; this was simply a lie she decided to tell her patient to see what would happen. It worked; the poor fellow went out into the world convinced that he was not a responsible agent, but rather a mere puppet, and his behaviour began to show it: he became irresponsible, aggressive, and negligent, indulging his worst whims until he got caught and put on trial. Testifying in his own defence, he passionately protested his non-responsibility because of the implant in his brain. The neuroscientist, when called to testify, admitted what she had said, and added, “But I was just messing with his head — a practical joke, that’s all. I never thought he’d believe me!”'
What happened in the trial is irrelevant. The fact is that her ill-considered assertion robbed him of his integrity and crippled his power to make decisions. In fact, her false “debriefing” of her patient actually accomplished non-surgically much of what she claimed to accomplish surgically: she disabled him. Dennett writes:
. . . the neuroscientists currently filling the media with talk about how their science shows that free will is an illusion are risking mass-production of the same harm to all the people who take them at their word. Neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers need to take seriously their moral obligation to think through the presuppositions and implications of their public pronouncements on these issues with the same care that is demanded of people who hold forth on global warming or impending asteroid strikes. . . What would it be . . . [to] have scientists “discovered” that nobody is, or could be, wired right for moral responsibility?
The influence of what some call neurolaw is growing. In those cases, neuroscientific evidence has been admitted to show everything from head trauma to the tendency of violent video games to make children behave aggressively. Lawyers routinely order scans of convicted defendants' brains and argue that a neurological impairment prevented them from controlling themselves. Stephen J. Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania calls this “brain overclaim syndrome” and says, ‘The only thing different about neuroscience is that we have prettier pictures and it appears more scientific.’
He says that if adolescent brains caused all adolescent behaviour, “we would expect the rates of homicide to be the same for 16- and 17-year-olds everywhere in the world — their brains are alike — but in fact, the homicide rates of Danish and Finnish youths are very different than American youths.” Morse agrees that our brains bring about our behaviour and says “So what if there’s biological causation? Causation can’t be an excuse for someone who believes that responsibility is possible. Since all behaviour is caused, this would mean all behaviour has to be excused.” . . . “Some people are angry because they had bad mommies and daddies and others because their amygdalas are mucked up. The question is: When should anger be an excusing condition?”
To suggest that criminals could be excused because their brains made them do it seems to imply that anyone whose brain isn’t functioning properly could be absolved of responsibility. And since all behaviour is caused by our brains, wouldn’t this mean all behaviour could potentially be excused? Popular writers prefer to simplify things by describing lives either in Hobbesian terms or by stressing their friendly side, but in fact it’s never one or the other. Which nature dominates depends on the socialisation process in the society. Trust no one who says “it is human nature to do [any single thing].”