The Science of Free WillPosted: December 25, 2006
Do we have free will? Possibly not, according to an article in the new issue of the Economist. Entitled ‘Free to choose?’, the piece examines new discoveries in the fields of neuroscience and psychology that may be forcing us to re-examine the concept of free will. The specifically cite a man with paedophilic tendencies who was cured when his brain tumor was removed. ‘Who then was the child abuser?’, they ask.
There is a pretty big leap of logic (also taken by Robert Wright in his book The Moral Animal) from the idea that there is a strong neurological basis for our behavior and the conclusion that we have no free will.
Jewish thought has something called the Yetzer Ha’ra – the evil “inclination”. The idea, in short, is that we may be inclined to do something wrong, but we still have the choice not to do it. Although the portrayals of this inclination are often given in mystical and even anthropomorphic terms in the Talmud, I believe these are meant to be purely metaphorical, and that the evil inclination can today be seen as our inherent, genetic traits.
The key point is the difference between inclination and programming. I may not feel like washing the dishes, but I wash them anyway, because I need something to eat off of. That is, I’m inclined not to wash the dishes, but I can still choose whether or not I’m going to.
In fact, Cognitive Science takes this a step further – an alcoholic may desire to drink, but he may also desire to not desire to drink any more. This is called a “second order desire”. Keith Stanovich’s Robot’s Rebellion (which deals with free will) brings in this concept as an example of how our brains are more complex than our simple first order desires (formerly known as the “id”).
The pedophile who was “cured” after brain surgery lost his inclination towards pedophilia – there may have been a part of his brain that made him sick, but there were other parts of his brain that countered that. Why should we assume that the pedophiliac part of his brain was insurmountable by the inihibitory parts? I’m not without sympathy for the man – clearly he was cursed – but I think it greatly oversimplifies things to say that the man had absolutely no control over his actions. We should definitely consider his pedophilia as an ailment that needs to be treated, and be sensitive that it’s much, much harder for him to avoid illegal behavior than most people, but even so, he still can avoid it, and therefore needs to be held accountable.
Last but not least, if none of us have free will, then what’s the point of this stupid conversation? Legislators will write whatever laws they’re programmed to write. The people will vote for whomever they’re programmed to vote for. The police will arrest whomever they’re programmed to arrest. Etc. Etc. Etc. The idea that we can shape public policy around the idea that there’s no free will is absurd at best – once there’s no free will, no one is shaping anything, now, are we?