Alkahest my heroes have always died at the end

March 30, 2010

In which my denial of free will receives support from Science [tm]

Filed under: Random — cec @ 4:56 pm

I’ve long maintained that free will is an illusion.  That the mind arises from the physicality of the brain and that there is no room for an active will separate from the physical processes of the brain.  That’s not to say that I’m a fatalist.  I don’t believe that thoughts are deterministic, let alone subject to perfect prediction.  My position boils down to the brain as a (gigantic) black box containing an uncountable number of states.  Input from the senses changes the state of the brain and occasionally results in actions.

Assuming (which I don’t) that the processes of the brain were completely deterministic, chaos theory tells us that they would not be predictable (what’s the solution to the three-body problem? [other than a king-sized bed]).  Moreover, the processes themselves are dependant on physicalities small enough that quantum effects are relevant and therefore the state changes contain a strong stochastic component.

Philosophically speaking, none of this affects the way we should live.  Education, punishment, personal interaction all affect the state of the brain and are therefore worthwhile [and inform my position that the real purpose of the criminal code should be rehabilitation and not warehousing, punishment or societal retribution… but that’s a post for another time].

Yesterday, I heard the coolest story on NPR.  In a nutshell, moral judgements are apparently influenced by the right temporoparietal junction so that a magnetic pulse disrupting that region of the brain affects those judgements.  In the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), the researchers told one of four stories to the participants.  The stories addressed permutations of effect (neutral or negative) and intent (neutral or negative).  So, one story described an unintentional (neutral intent) poisoning resulting in death (negative effect), another described an intentional (negative intention) failed poisoning (neutral effect), etc.

When making moral judgements, adults generally consider intention.  So if you didn’t intend to poison someone and did, it’s understandable; whereas if you intended to poison and failed, you are still morally culpable.  This is exactly what the researchers found in their controls.  However, after disrupting the right temporoparietal junction, participants started making moral judgements based on the effect.  You intended to kill someone, but failed?  No problem, the person is still alive.  You didn’t mean to kill someone and did?  You bad person, someone died.  Apparently, this is common in children before they learn to make moral judgements based on intention.

So, in a nutshell, temporarily altering the physicality of the brain affects people’s thoughts with respect to moral judgements.  I’ll consider that support for my position that the mind arises from the physicality of brain and any belief you have in a free will separate from those physical processes is an illusion.


  1. Thank you, this pretty much lays out my thoughts on the matter. Have you read yet? It very much lends credence to these thoughts (although from a philosophical/mathematical background instead of a neurological one). If you haven’t read Hofstadter yet, you should, you’d enjoy him.

    Comment by Bryn — March 31, 2010 @ 9:18 am

  2. I’ve thought about reading it, but it always looked too trendy 🙂

    Most of what I’ve read wrt free will has been Schopenhauer’s On Free Will, The Oxford Handbook of Freewill (iirc), and a few other miscellaneous things. But I did have a lot of peripheral interest in neuroscience in grad school since I was working on artificial neural networks. But I may check out I’m a Strange Loop.


    Comment by cec — March 31, 2010 @ 11:18 am

  3. It’s passée now, you’re safe.

    Comment by bryn — March 31, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

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