Patricia Churchland over free will

From: Antidotes for chimps Using philosophy and psychology to become a better ape.

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If a man molests a child because of a tumour in his brain, can we say that he freely chose to do so? Is he responsible for his actions?

This is a true case from the American state of Virginia back in 2000, in which a tumour in a man’s orbitofrontal cortex – an area that regulates social behaviour – created strong paedophilic urges, causing him to molest his stepdaughter. When the tumour was removed after being discovered by doctors, the desires vanished. Some years later the tumour returned, along with his sexual urges towards children. Its removal once again caused the paedophilia to disappear.

This dark situation is a question of free will – should he be held accountable for his actions, given that they were caused by his brain tumour? Was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?

Wikipedia defines free will as “the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.” Philosophers have been musing about the existence of free will for centuries, with three major standpoints emerging from their perceptive brains. We’ll consider this situation from each unique philosophical stance.

Hard determinists

“Life calls the tune, we dance.” —John Galsworthy

Hard determinists believe that the tumour, and the man’s crimes, are a result of natural cause and effect for which the man had no control over. The existence of his tumour, and the uncountable number of causal events that happened prior to the point of his misconduct, were not decided by him. In the world of hard determinists, everything is determined – it was his fate to be the host of a disastrous brain tumour, and to subsequently molest his stepdaughter.

Determinists believe that all events are caused by past events, and nothing other than what does occur, can occur. There’s nothing that could have been done to change the man’s path to paedophilia – free will is an illusion and does not exist. We’re nought but puppets of fate.

“There is an unbroken chain of prior occurrences stretching back to the origin of the universe” – Wikipedia on causal determinism

Pre-determined, with no choice of direction
Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

This position has deeply troubling consequences for personal responsibility – if there’s no free will, are we really responsible for anything? How could a legal system function under such circumstances?

It’s impossible for us to examine every single causal event that occurred up until this moment, and given that we didn’t choose these events, to what degree can we claim to be free? We almost certainly feel free to make decisions, but at the same time, we had no control over the events that led up to the decision.

From this philosophical standpoint, the man who molested his stepdaughter cannot be held accountable for his actions. The tumour doesn’t change anything, because even tumourless paedophiles aren’t in control of their own decisions.

“We are all just cogs in a machine, doing what we were always meant to do, with no actual volition.” —Baron d’Holbach

Libertarianism

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” —Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Libertarians believe that while the tumour was clearly not chosen as a growth in the man’s brain, he did have the free will to choose whether to molest the child. In this sense, determinism is false to the libertarians – we have the freedom to choose different courses of action, and not giving in to peadophilic urges is one of them.

The freedom to choose – left or right?
Photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash

Libertarians believe in agent causation – our powerful ability to affect the causal chain of the universe, though it’s unclear where those decisions actually come from. Claiming that they come from our brains is accurate, but the causal nature of the universe, and all of the classical mechanics science that supports it, would state that something must have caused our brains to make the decision. Libertarians seem to believe that it simply comes from the ether, that the decisions-making brains of humans are somehow exterior to the concept of cause and effect, as though in a vacuum.

Quantum mechanics supports the libertarian argument, with evidence to suggest that the tiniest, quantum-level elements of our universe are not necessarily subject to classical cause and effect. They can even be in two places at the same time. According to scientists, the measurable properties of a sub-atomic particles simply cannot be predicted based on what happened previously. If the tiniest elements in our brains sit outside the rigid realm of cause and effect, then free will can be said to exist.

Compatibilism (soft determinism)

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

Compatibilists would agree with the libertarians, as they’re also staunch believers in free will. Unlike the libertarians though, they do believe that everything is determined, which seems contradictory – if everything is pre-determined, how can we possibly be free to choose? If the growth of the tumour was determined by forces outside of the man’s control, was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?

This contradiction is reconciled by the compatibilists belief that, even though the man’s actions were caused by the tumour, it was still him who made the decision. He wasn’t coerced by an outside force, and acted according to his own motivation; the tumour, though unwanted, was still a part of him. As such, and in spite of his tragic misfortune, he should be accountable and punished for his actions.

Degree of control – a new approach

Canadian-American philosopher Patricia Churchland believes that free will should be considered from a different angle. The existence of free will doesn’t matter in this situation – whether consciously decided or not, the child was still molested. Instead, Churchland thinks that we should consider how much control we have in any given situation. The greater the control, the greater the responsibility.

In the case of our tumour-driven paedophile, we would have to understand the man’s ability to resist the sexual impulses in his brain. There’s probably many paedophiles alive today who choose not to commit crimes, because their sense of morality dictates that it’s the wrong thing to do.

To what degree is the man’s tumour affecting his ability to resist his urges? For Churchland, reframing the question in this way helps us to understand how responsible the man is for his crimes, and while it’s an undoubtedly difficult thing to measure, regarding the situation from a philosophical position is even fuzzier.

Until our scientific knowledge advances to a point where we can answer these questions confidently, the paedophile’s ultimate responsibility will continue to be debated by philosophers. The tumour caused his nefarious actions, and according to the libertarians and compatibilists, he should be held accountable. This seems terribly unfair, and yet, the mercilessness of hard determinism is equally as cruel – the outcome is the same, after all.

The seemingly contradictory nature of compatibilism, the freedom-certainty of the libertarians, or the rigid idea of determinism offers little guidance for personal responsibility. From a practical perspective, Churchland’s reframing of free will from a position of control allows us to measure responsibility, determine accountability, and decide the consequences for an immoral action.

While it doesn’t answer the intriguing question of whether free will exists, it does fulfill an important concern – the ability to measure how responsible we are for our actions.

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