Free Will – What Does Science Say?

What does science say about free will? The short answer is science does not really know. But if entire societal constructs have been built around the idea of free will, paradigms that have governed and shaped every facet of our lives for millennia in one guise or another, what do we do if it turns out that free will is just fiction? Religions, legal systems and political ideologies all are based on the concept of free choice, or at least they are presented that way. Biology however, has for a while being suggesting that their premise is built on sand.

The consequences of the idea that people lack free will are stark. If you are a religious person this is of significant concern, but more importantly there are very real issues for legal systems.

Personally, I fall somewhat into the “soft” determinist category within the free will debate. I strongly believe that our behaviours are governed by a myriad of biological and environmental factors, including a healthy role played by evolution. Our actions cannot be 100% predicted of course, and we do retain a semblance of control. I can choose (or I am under the impression I choose) when to actually perform an action; if my predilection is for risky behaviour I still can choose the type of behaviour, and when to do it, largely. But the chances are high I will continue to engage in this behaviour over the long term, as opposed to the behaviour of a person who fears leaving the house. That person too will have to leave the house from time to time, otherwise they will starve. In other words, they can choose to go against their own determinist forces that drives their general behavioural profile.

So, there are two hypothetical tropes I will use here: A hypothetical me, and a hypothetical gangster.

If I killed a man for no apparent reason, I will be arrested (I am sure I would be arrested quite fast as I am not a talented crime doer) and locked away, charged with murder, and left in jail pending trial. However, while in jail I begin to suffer headaches and nosebleeds, along with very strong urges to kill again, to kill anything at all. I am found to nurture a growing and aggressive tumour in the frontal lobe of my brain. Tumours in the frontal lobes are known to commonly interfere with behaviour and decision-making process for the worse, including being implicated in murder (ref) and paedophilia (ref). Therefore, it may be validly argued that I am not responsible for my behaviour.

The next case behind me at the criminal court is that of a vicious gang member who coldly and calmly shot dead a rival gangster as he was getting a hair cut. He has no tumour, and his entire demeanour and interaction with the legal system is of professional calm with a healthy measure of distain; he does not fear it. Getting caught is just an occupation hazard for him. He also has an illustrious history of prior convictions for a range of violent organised crime offences. All this, of course, curry’s him no favours with anyone.

Upon sentencing, the consequences for us both are very different. The gangster is tried on the basis of the legal moral principle of free will: he chose to kill the other man in violation of civil and criminal (and indeed moral) law. He is considered a malcontent and ends up being locked away for 20 years in a maximum-security prison. I, however, am presented by my legal team as a very sick man who desperately requires cranial surgery, after which my criminal intentions will be no longer. The judge and jury, when presented with my brain scans, medical reports, as well as proof that my life and behaviour up to now has been entirely crime free, agree and I am sent to a reasonably comfortable modern psychiatric hospital. My tumour is removed, and my murderous intentions disappear. After a year or two of close observation and testing, I am released under supervision for a further two years before I am considered cured and societally safe once again. Unless my tumour returns.

So, I am free, and the gangster is locked away until his old age. And here is where things begin to become somewhat controversial.

My behaviour was considered to be heavily influenced by biology (the cells in my brain became a tumour) and that forced me to act in murderous ways. It was  a simple problem (from a theoretical viewpoint), caused by one easily understood factor. But is the gangster not also a result of a range predetermined factors deciding his choice of actions, albeit far more complex factors? Biology and neuroscience are increasingly generating evidence that a person and their choices are interlinked with their neural circuitry (ref, ref 2) which is wired up as we develop according to genetics and environment. Indeed, sociological research is increasingly leaning towards environmental factors as culprits in a person’s likely behaviour (ref). There is a widening scientific consensus that most or all of our memories, dreams, desires and hopes are the products of our nueral activity (ref). That statement remains extremely controversial however, as the interpretation of the empirical evidence that supports it is hotly debated.

However, famously, it has been shown that electrical activity will build up in the brain not only before we carry out a physical act (for example, moving a leg) but also that it builds up before we even are consciously aware that we are going to act (ref). So, if our brain physically decides to do something before we become aware of it, and then we “agree” with our brain, we might not actually be the conscious progenitors of our actions.  It now seems certain that the notion of free will is merely a fiction like law, money or religion.  But like the belief in law, money and religion, we may in fact be better off in believing in free will anyway.

A gangster is a pretty good example to use here, because the raging debates for or against the possession of free will hinge on nature or nurture, or both; is it biology or environment that maketh the man or woman or killer? Or both. A career gangster will most likely to have been raised in poverty, be it emotional or economic poverty, or both, and his brain will most likely show tendencies towards psychopathy, or at least lack of empathy. On the other hand, and at the same time, his genetics may highlight certain genes or mutations that produce hormones or proteins that may elevate certain behaviours related to crime (ref – though, I personally do not believe that one or a small number of genes could be found to be causative factors for increasing risk to engage in anti-social behaviour. It is most likely an entire range of interlinked genetic networks, heavily influenced by environment).

But the question must be asked: If he is a product of his environment (physical and emotional poverty, childhood abuse, exposure to violence and anti-social behaviour during formative years), his presence there being not his choice, and his behaviour a result of a certain neurological conditions and the production of different hormones, which wired up as a response to exposure to his adverse environment why should he be convicted of his murderous crimes in a different manner than I was? Why should the gangster not also be treated, rather than punished? What if a justice system was designed with the notion that correctional sentences involved a series of tailored medical, psychological, pharmacological or other positive interventionist treatments befitting particular crimes?

The idea of retribution is strong within most of us, especially when wronged. The desire to beat a rapist to within an inch of his (they are mostly men) life is unlikely to be becalmed with a shortened custodial sentence, one that requires him to cry out his fears and pains to a therapist. Similarly, on a larger scale, the introduction of new justice system that replaces long term (and expensive) incarceration for serious crimes with much shorter (and cheaper) jail terms with tailored intervention treatments, would most likely result in a public outcry. Even if recidivist rates did dramatically fall as a result.

The idea of criminals and offenders being treated rather than being punished is difficult to stomach. But such a reaction is an emotional one, not a rational one. The sacrosanct view of “free will” as the all-important defining characteristic of what it means to be human (such as portrayed in books such as A Clockwork Orange) cuts little mustard in the face of increasing evidence that choice may be an illusion. It cuts even less mustard when considering the possibility of a significant reduction in repeat offending among the criminal population, which of course means less victims. What for instance would a protester say if an institutional embrace of determinism resulted in a cure for psychopathy? Or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a significant factor in childhood and teenage delinquency?

I argue that the possibility of eliminating such destructive disorders overrides any fanciful and out of date and, what is becoming increasingly clear, disproven notions of free will, free choice and moral responsibility. If neither the offender or the victim choose to be in their respective situations, and treatment of the offender can eliminate or reduce the number of victims, there really should be no other alternative, no matter what side one sits on the political, religious or moral fences.

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