Thursday, May 9, 2013

Free Will and Personal Responsibility

The issue about free will is not so much whether we have any, but whether we exercise the free will we do have. Philosopher Immanuel Kant argues that we are essentially free and fail to live up to the promise of such freedom if we allow biology and external forces to rule us. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, despite all the flaws of his irreligious and political beliefs, had it right in his existentialist arguments that humans do not have a fixed nature handed out from biology. Humans make their own nature out of the freedom to do so in the environment in which they exist. Humans are regarded, in existential philosophy, as independently acting and responsible conscious beings.  Each individual brain is uniquely constructed from life experience, and much of that is self-constructed by willful choices. Science does not hold that the conscious mind is independent of genetics or environmental programming. But each mind is an independent being, acting in the world as a distinct entity, not as some Borg-like unit in a collective.

In terms of religion, Christianity is uniquely individualistic and demands personal responsibility and accountability. It is no accident that many of those who think free will is illusory are also atheists. Kierkegaard railed against growing collectivism, including that of organized religion. His emphasis was on the responsibility of individuals to be true to Christian ideals.

The conscious mind that believes in its power to choose also must believe that it can exert some control over the automatic purposes of its unconscious mind. No doubt, conscious mind has its own automatic purposes, which likewise are subject to veto or modification via free will. Such minds believe they can train and discipline their minds, bending them to freely willed purposes. Such minds say to themselves, “I can quit smoking.” “I can make myself learn how to be an engineer.” I will make this marriage work.” “I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do.” And so on.

Now it is true that all of us commonly surrender our decision-making autonomy to our baser instincts and compulsions. Much of our behavior is unthinking, knee-jerk responsiveness. Our capacity for free will is limited to our willingness to claim and exert it.

People who believe that humans have no free will are hard-pressed to explain why no one is responsible for their choices and actions. What is it that compels foolish or deviant behavior? Are we compelled to believe in God or to be an atheist? What compels us to accept one moral code over any other? Are we compelled to become a certain kind of person, with no option to “improve” in any self-determined way? Are we compelled in our choices of learning experiences? If so, what or who does the compelling? Are we inevitable victims of genetics and experience or even a robotic unconscious mind?

It seems to me that current debates about determinism and free will tend to obscure the important matters of our humanness. The door to understanding what is really going on is slammed shut by assertions that value choices and the decisions that flow from them cannot be free because they are caused by neural circuit impulse patterns. Free will debates distract us from a proper framing of the issues about human choices and personal responsibility.

While it is true that brain circuitry is programmed by genetics and experience, conscious mind makes choices about who to interact with and what experiences to value, promote, and allow. Conscious mind can insist that some lessons of experience need to be remembered and valued while others are not. In short, the mind gets to help shape what it becomes.

The free-will issue is more than an arcane scholarly argument. Positions become politicized. In a robotocist world, people are more likely to be victims and less able to change maladaptive attitudes and behaviors. Thus, society and government must help people do what they cannot do for themselves. Robotocists don’t seem to ask this question: is our decision to help fellow robotocists likewise a robotocist choice?
If we can’t make conscious choices, then there is not much we can do to improve ourselves or our plight in life. Or even if there are things that can be done to change us and our situations, the approach will surely have to be different if we can’t initiate the change by force of our free will. Without free will, the government or schools or some other outside force must program our unconscious. That, of course, is a driving force behind moves to increase the size and power of government.

If there is no "I" in charge, then there is no reason to demand or expect personal responsibility. All manner of bad brains and bad behavior can be excused. If we believe there is no free will, how can we justify our criminal justice system? If people cannot make choices freely, and if all their decisions emanate from unconscious processes, how can we hold them responsible for unacceptable morals or behavior? All crime should be tolerated or at least excused, because the criminal could not help it. The human robot committed the crime. This would mean that we should reform the criminal justice system so that no criminal would be jailed or punished. If criminals can’t stop themselves from bad acts, it is inhumane to punish criminals or even terrorists. Indeed, the only justification for locking anybody up for misdeeds would be to protect society from further crime or terrorism. Capital punishment has to be banned, as indeed it is in many parts of the world. In the minds of some, criminals are victims.

To believe in the absence of free will creates an intolerable social nihilism. Many defense lawyers increasingly use neuroscience inappropriately to convince jurors that the defendant was not responsible for the evil deeds. They even have a name for this kind of defense: “diminished capacity.” Indeed, to them the whole notion of evil might seem inappropriate. Lawyers are adept at stressing mitigating circumstances where criminal behavior was caused, they say, by a terrible upbringing, poverty, social discrimination, or brain injury. To be sure, most murderers have been found to have a standard profile that includes childhood abuse and some kind of neurological or psychiatric disorder. But many non-murderers have a similar profile. How can lack of free will explain such difference? The reality is that most people have brains that can learn social norms and choose socially appropriate behavior. Ignoring those norms is a choice.
A most disturbing book, written by Laurence Tancredi,[1] uncritically accepts the notion that free-will is an illusion. He argues that human morals are “hard-wired,” with the “wiring” created by genetics and molded by uncontrollable forces in life experiences. Tancredi, is a lawyer and practicing psychiatrist. Not surprisingly, the poster boy for his arguments was a psychopathic serial killer, Ricky Green, who was abused as a child and had relatives with serious mental problems. Thus, Tancredi stresses that bad genes and bad treatment as a child made Green become a “biologically driven” murderer. Yet, in recounting the case history, it became clear that Green was not insane. He was fully aware of his childhood past, and was fully aware of, even remorseful over, his murders. He was also aware that his out-of-control episodes were triggered by the combination of sex and alcohol. So, it was clear, even to Green, that his crimes could have been prevented by avoiding alcohol. He apparently was not an alcoholic who had no control over drinking. Even if we give the benefit of doubt to the conclusion that Green could not control himself, it is a stretch to argue that the uncontrollability of psychopaths applies to everybody else. One would have to argue that normal people are only normal because they got good genes and had a childhood in which their mental health was not damaged. Virtue would be an illusion.

Interestingly, Tancredi acknowledges the brain is changeable if skilled therapists provide structured rehabilitation for dysfunctional thinking. But the general tenor of his argument is that the individual is powerless to produce such changes. It has to come from others. Because dysfunctional people are victims who seemingly can’t help themselves, it is the duty of psychiatrists and government to mold the brains of people so they overcome bad genes and whatever bad experiences life has thrust upon them. People, robots that they supposedly are, do not have the power to nurture their brain. Thus, government must create a cultural and educational environment in which humans are molded to conform to some pre-defined state of normality.  Does this remind you of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World?

Also not considered by Tancredi and his crowd, is that dysfunctional people might have become that way through their own freely determined bad choices along their life’s journey. Those bad choices may have even sculpted maladaptive changes in their brain function. Arguing that the brain is modifiable by experience is a two-edged sword. While one edge slashes the idea that a person can’t change his brain, the other edge slashes the idea that people can’t be changed by the influence of others or by their own conscious decisions.
A major function of consciousness, as I have argued, is to program the brain, which inevitably causes lasting changes in its structure and functions. If consciousness provides capability for freely chosen intentions, choices, and decisions, then people are responsible for how those powers are deployed.

Tancredi acknowledges that many people have bad genes and very traumatic childhoods, yet overcome it. Sexually abused children do not necessarily become sexual predators as adults and may, in fact, become crusaders to protect children from abuse. But they don’t get any credit for a freely chosen decision to live a wholesome and helpful life. Their virtue is attributed to necessity, not to anything they voluntarily chose to do. How then do we account for the effect of schools and religious teachings? Do we conclude that it is the inner robot that decides which ideas and beliefs to accept and which to reject? If so, why do some brains accept the teachings and others reject them?

It is true that brain scans, for example, can sometimes predict that certain people will commit crimes or other antisocial behaviors. But nobody seems to consider the alternative to a “bad brain” cause of misbehavior: namely, that what people freely choose to do changes the brain in ways that make more likely that similar behavior will be repeated. People who voluntarily indulge mind-altering experiences, such as unsavory friends, drugs, or destructive ideologies and lifestyles, have nobody else to blame for those choices.
The evidence for brain plasticity, for good or bad, is overwhelming. Yet, this evidence tends to get ignored when excuses are sought for inappropriate behavior. It is true, of course, that children usually have little control over their circumstance and rising above it is surely hard, but they still have a human capacity to overcome as adults. Many millions have done just that. To deny that people have such capacity is dehumanizing.

Bad brains can surely cause bad behavior. But it is equally true that bad behavior can cause bad brains. What you choose to experience, think, and do sculpts brain function and anatomy to shape what you will become.
We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit —Aristotle

The corollary is, in my view:
I will become what I repeatedly do.

[1] Tancredi, L. 2005. Harwired Behavior.  What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality. Cambridge U. Press, N.Y., N.Y.

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