Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Tuesday Thought Experiment: Accountability

In the modern age of neuroscience, it is seen that the brain is no less deterministic than anything else in nature. That is to say that the brain is made up of the same atoms that are governed by the forces of physics. So that while it seems to us that we have choices, the path taken in the brain is determined and thus free will is an illusion. Since our actions are causally determined, we cannot be held accountable for our actions.

So consider the following scenario:
A woman is being charged with murder, and the evidence presents that she did the case beyond reasonable doubt. All tests reveal she understands what it means to murder someone, what moral and societal implications there are for such an act, shows remorse for her actions and wishes to atone. Nearing the end of the trial, it is revealed that a toxicology report finds drugs in her system that affected parts of her brain involved in decision making. Is she as accountable in light of this evidence as she was before this evidence emerged?

The hardest concept at least for me to grasp about the natural world is when it applies to the brain. How can I relate the notion of free will and accountability alongside what is inevitably a causal product? Quite clearly the experiment shows that our notion of free will and accountability differs given circumstances, yet shouldn't it apply that a woman who acted on her own volition has the same accountability as one who was mentally challenged or under the influence of a mind-altering device?

This seems to show one of two things: a) that our understanding of the forces of nature is wrong, or b) that our application of the forces of nature to us as agents is wrong. That is to say, either the brain works contrary to the laws of nature or we're thinking about it the wrong way.

To me the latter option seems a better path to take. Here's why. The cells in our body are constantly dying and being replaced. We are taking in new atoms and losing old atoms. It's an odd notion that while we experienced those memories formed in childhood, not a single atom that's in our body today was there when that memory was first formed. The neural structure is still there, but the atoms that formed that structure ain't.

What this is trying to point out is that we are not a summation of the atoms inside us, to think of us in purely physical terms misses who and what we are. We are not the atoms that make us, even if we are made of atoms. So while it seems that free will is irreconcilable with the notion of the forces in physics, thinking in purely physical terms negates what it means to be an agent. Dan Dennett has a term for this kind of thinking: greedy reductionist.

To get off the tangent and back to the reality, what does this mean for free will? If I weren't speculating and over-stretching, then I wouldn't be doing my job as a blogger. My interpretation is that free will shouldn't be taken on the atomic level, that it makes no sense to think about it as pure material. To talk of free will as contra-causal inadequately describes what is really going on in our heads.

A grown woman with mental illness isn't held as accountable in the same way that a woman without such disorder is held accountable. Yet if we took the notion that the only free will can be contra-causal, that is if our brain function is purely determined by the laws of physics, then surely we couldn't hold anyone accountable for actions they take as opposed to recognising will, intent and understanding of consequences as we do now.

This is not to argue for punishment, but to argue for a differentiation between how we look at free will in the light of the material mind becoming more and more empirically verified. It shouldn't be that one who is mentally ill or under the influence of mind-altering devices should be referred to having the same level of accountability as one who is not. It seems to me that one has to either discard the notion that there is no such thing as free will or that free will doesn't need to be contra-causal.

It should be recognised that we are moral-based agents capable of making moral-based decisions. Our brains are wired for making choices, for operating with one another and in an environment that can never be relied upon to be exactly the same. That our brains have capacities for reasoning, for considering implications and making choices based on those implications.

This doesn't break free from causality (and quantum randomness provides no better than to add arbitrary randomness) but it does in my mind give a capacity to talk about human agency in the context of decision making. That those who don't have such capacities or have those capacities inhibited cannot be held accountable in the same way that one who has those capacities. That free will is for the mind to operate as an agent not in isolation but with respect to other agents. The inhibition of such capacities takes away responsibility, and thus cannot be accountable.

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