Friday, May 21, 2010

be good for goodness sake

Neuroscience, the study of the brain, is leading to some very interesting conclusions about making choices and morality.

In The Brain and the Meaning of Life, philosopher and psychologist Paul Thagard argues that the scientific evidence suggests that the mind and the brain are the same: "most psychologists and neuroscientists are materialists and believe that minds are brains: the mind is what the brain does."

This may not seem a big deal, but as Thagard says: "General acceptance of this view would amount to the most radical conceptual revolution in the history of human thinking".

For example, "it implies that our treasured thoughts and feelings are just another biological process", and it makes problematic "the highly compelling doctrines of free will and moral responsibility".

Free will is no longer possible or believable, he says, "decisions are brain processes". "If choices are caused, then freedom and responsibility seem to go out the window. If your thinking is just a brain process, then you may seem no better than a toaster as far as concerns your ability to control your own actions."

He then goes on to argue that this loss of "free will in the absolute sense" is nothing to worry about. He references Daniel Dennett and Owen Flanagan in suggesting that while we don't have free will as most people understand it, we do have some desirable characteristics of free will, that the processes that control us at least occur inside our own brains.

He mentions that many people feel uncomfortable about this conclusion. But there is another side to the story. A recent article in Scientific American describes psychological experiments done to to test the effects of people believing they either do or don't have free will. They found that there is a strong correlation between belief in determinism and an increased propensity for anti-social behaviour.

Studies found that people exposed during the study to deterministic statements were more likely to cheat in a test or steal money, and "less likely than [others] to give money to a homeless person, or to allow a classmate to use their cellular phone."

Thus the article identifies a "dilemma facing social scientists: if a deterministic understanding of human behavior encourages antisocial behavior, how can we scientists justify communicating our deterministic research findings?"

So, the author asks: should scientists lie, or at least not tell what they see as the truth?

I am one of those who feel uncomfortable and sceptical about the conclusion that we have no free will as we generally understand it. I accept the findings of science, but I don't see how scientists can jump from what they have measured brain activity and behaviour) to claiming what they cannot measure (consciousness and will) have no meaning beyond their physical measurements.

But these studies raise further concerns, that if the general population comes to believe we have no free will, then public ethics and social behaviour will suffer.

Read more about the brain, consciousness and free will in are our brains like computers?

1 comment:

  1. If they have no freewill how can they decide to tell the truth or not?


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