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Sunday, 24 December , 2006 / Iperione

The Economist: “Free to choose?”

Ecco un articolo pubblicato sull’ ultimo numero dell’Economist.

Liberalism and neurology

Free to choose?
Dec 19th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Modern neuroscience is eroding the idea of free will

IN THE late 1990s a previously blameless American began collecting child pornography and propositioning children. On the day before he was due to be sentenced to prison for his crimes, he had his brain scanned. He had a tumour. When it had been removed, his paedophilic tendencies went away. When it started growing back, they returned. When the regrowth was removed, they vanished again. Who then was the child abuser?

His case dramatically illustrates the challenge that modern neuroscience is beginning to pose to the idea of free will. The instinct of the reasonable observer is that organic changes of this sort somehow absolve the sufferer of the responsibility that would accrue to a child abuser whose paedophilia was congenital. But why? The chances are that the latter tendency is just as traceable to brain mechanics as the former; it is merely that no one has yet looked. Scientists have looked at anger and violence, though, and discovered genetic variations, expressed as concentrations of a particular messenger molecule in the brain, that are both congenital and predisposing to a violent temper. Where is free will in this case?

Free will is one of the trickiest concepts in philosophy, but also one of the most important. Without it, the idea of responsibility for one’s actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society (and even an unfree one) together. If businessmen were no longer responsible for their contracts, criminals no longer responsible for their crimes and parents no longer responsible for their children, even though contract, crime and conception were “freely” entered into, then social relations would be very different.

We, the willing

For millennia the question of free will was the province of philosophers and theologians, but it actually turns on how the brain works. Only in the past decade and a half, however, has it been possible to watch the living human brain in action in a way that begins to show in detail what happens while it is happening (see survey). This ability is doing more than merely adding to science’s knowledge of the brain’s mechanism. It is also emphasising to a wider public that the brain really is a just mechanism, rather than a magician’s box that is somehow outside the normal laws of cause and effect.

Science is not yet threatening free will’s existence: for the moment there seems little prospect of anybody being able to answer definitively the question of whether it really exists or not. But science will shrink the space in which free will can operate by slowly exposing the mechanism of decision making.

At that point, the old French proverb “to understand all is to forgive all” will start to have a new resonance, though forgiveness may not always be the consequence. Indeed, that may already be happening. At the moment, the criminal law—in the West, at least—is based on the idea that the criminal exercised a choice: no choice, no criminal. The British government, though, is seeking to change the law in order to lock up people with personality disorders that are thought to make them likely to commit crimes, before any crime is committed.

The coming battle

Such disorders are serious pathologies. But the National DNA Database being built up by the British government (which includes material from many innocent people), would already allow the identification of those with milder predispositions to anger and violence. How soon before those people are subject to special surveillance? And if the state chose to carry out such surveillance, recognising that the people in question may pose particular risks merely because of their biology, it could hardly then argue that they were wholly responsible for any crime that they did go on to commit.

Nor is it only the criminal law where free will matters. Markets also depend on the idea that personal choice is free choice. Mostly, that is not a problem. Even if choice is guided by unconscious instinct, that instinct will usually have been honed by natural selection to do the right thing. But not always. Fatty, sugary foods subvert evolved instincts, as do addictive drugs such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine. Pornography does as well. Liberals say that individuals should be free to consume these, or not. Erode free will, and you erode that argument.

In fact, you begin to erode all freedom. Without a belief in free will, an ideology of freedom is bizarre. Though it will not happen quickly, shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.

Copyright © 2006 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.



Leave a Comment
  1. herpes / Dec 24 2006 2:44 PM

    BOOOOOOOM!!!! Questi sì che sono botti di Natale e capodanno!!!!! Finalmente i nodi cominciano a venire al pettine.
    Le aree cerebrali associate con i vari comportamenti erano già cosa nota, invero, però l’articolo non considera la “plasticità” del sistema nervoso, come possibilità di variare dinamicamente le connessioni neuronali, per cui non è vero stricto sensu che sia tutto pre-determinato!

  2. herpes / Dec 24 2006 3:03 PM

    Certo, a questo punto bisognerebbe vedere cosa stabilisca la formazione di queste interconnessioni…..per il cibo secondo me il discorso è diverso, l’appetito di cibi grassi potrebbe essere un istinto ancestrale legato a quando l’uomo non viveva nelle condizioni attuali di agio domestico e nutrizionale (il che è avvenuto piuttosto di recente da quando ci sono l’homo sapiens e compari), considerato l’alto potenziale calorico dei grassi. Per i voluttuari il discorso cambia ulteriormente: la dipendenza è una sorta di reazione molecolare alla sostanza (in linea di massima è dovuta al fatto che quando prendi una sostanza per tempi prolungati, i recettori a cui si lega diminuiscono prima la sensibilità-questa è l’assuefazione-poi ne aumenta il metabolismo inattivatore, per cui per avere lo stesso effetto devi prenderne di più). L’individuo ha un riscontro immediato nell’assunzione di uno stupefacente, che è un benessere psicofisico, poi si innesca il processo di tolleranza-assuefazione-dipendenza, ma non credo che in queste fasi vi sia un significato evolutivo.

    Darwin de’noantri

  3. herpes / Dec 24 2006 3:05 PM

    Personalmente credo che noi siamo il nostro cervello.

  4. Maggie / Jan 7 2007 9:54 AM

    I disagree with some of these points. I don’t belive in what Britain wants to do. If a person is INCAPABLE of controlling their choices because and only because of a glitch in their genetics, they should not be prosecuted as criminals. But the point about these types of people being moinitered to prevent them from doing something they don’t mean to do does make sense to me. I believe that if they are a risk, they should spend time in a facility that moniters and cares for these people, and not in a prison, where they’d be looked at as criminals.

  5. Iperione / Jan 8 2007 8:30 PM

    I think the problem really is the DNA database project, because I can see only social dangers coming out from listing people because founded guilty of having some “psychological” flaws.

    Social sciences, behavioral sciences all work on the same pattern: trying to find how human beings do their task and why there are deviations from what we know and view as normal. Politics is responsible for the “usage” of these tools and findings. I think that’s the whole point of the article, also because I am not THAT scared of a revolution of the meaning of free-will.

    Thank you very much, Maggie.

  6. nemoforone / Mar 30 2007 8:09 PM

    What about the possibility of pulling out of Iraq, letting Iran invade and lose resources fighting their own kind,
    and then come in and mop up the dregs?

  7. Eva Inframezz / Jul 22 2009 8:02 AM

    Ditemi che questa non e’ liberta’ di scegliere!!!!!!

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