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While reading Incognito by David Eagleman, there was a chapter about justice and the neural plasticity of the brain. The ability (or in some cases inability) to regulate "moral" functioning. The legal implications of this are boggling in some cases - someone who has a brain tumour removed stops acting like a total jerk.

It also explains how our brain is built by neural pathways which start forming inside the womb. Some can get messed up pretty early due to sounds, violence, malnourishment and other nature/nurture interactions. Leading to a free will which is based more on chaos and situation than actual choices.

Then it struck me that our whole legal systems in democracies, which are ethics science based on a notion of free will or choice, which as an athiest, is an illusion based on that knowledge.

How can you blame someone for how things have turned out for them. Let alone ask someone choose to change, unless they have adequate brain plasticity or opportunities/access to information/support. (12/10/12 Edit: This part of the question has been answered - Thanks.)

That's quite depressing. It's almost as though you have to acknowledge the existence of a "soul" or a permanent consciousness (or subcouncious) which "knows better" that guides you as a moral person.

But I find hope in an atheist way by being a humanist (which is hard at times!). In that I have hope that technology and the economies of scale will change the opportunities problem and tap into the "wisdom of crowds" that emerges in human nature as in the rest of nature. Maybe technology is adding to the complexity thereby by giving us more free will.

Brain plasticity is the ability to change and adapt more productive functions and loose the negative ones.

Times which change seems to occur are often when there are periods of self-discovery, of searching for meaning, overcoming adversity/reading self-help/spiritual/psychedelic experiences/scientific knowledge/societal change. Encounters of a disruptive nature to our normal state.

These disruptive encounters can be made more likely by for example having access to the internet or education - more points of view or posibilities to draw from.

It seems that we need faith in something or we start to get depressed and stagnate. Even if that's in the illusion of choice and free will (or enhancing it).

As Neo so eloquently puts it “the problem is choice”. Maybe the problem isn’t choice. In fact our faith should be built on it. With us needing the machines too!

12/10/12 Edit: So my question really is; do you think free will is added to by the compounding the possibilities of choice? And does that make you feel any better about being a causal machine - instead of taking the attitude that "what will be will be" and not bothering to try to change things for the better?

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What, exactly, is the question here? –  Michael Dorfman Oct 11 '12 at 9:12
Exactly, there is no question here. Can you re-write this so as to ask a question? –  thisfeller Oct 11 '12 at 13:01
I'm not sure what you're asking, but you might be intersted in compatibilism –  Xodarap Oct 11 '12 at 16:23
@Trevor: I have suggested a (rather substantial) revision to your post, to present the existing material into a moral question. Please let me know if this is an acceptable interpretation of the subject you would like to explore. –  Niel de Beaudrap Oct 11 '12 at 16:37
"Then it struck me that our whole legal systems in democracies, which are ethics science based on a notion of free will or choice, which as an athiest, is an illusion based on that knowledge." Are you seriously claiming that atheists (generalised) do not believe in a free will and that atheists (generalised) therefore claim that the legal system (generalised) is based on an illusion? And on another line: Are you saying that atheists can't be deontologists? –  iphigenie Oct 11 '12 at 17:33
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closed as not a real question by Michael Dorfman, Joseph Weissman Oct 20 '12 at 1:44

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Your confusion I think stems from the difference between Free will and free will. (I forget whether one/both of the Churchlands or Dennett (or all three) make this sort of distinction.) That is, most people are capable of differentially reacting to stimuli and to some extent optimizing their conditions. That there are occasional exceptions with brain tumors affecting regions of the brain responsible for declarative control etc. does not change this basic fact.

All you need to justify our current system of laws is to note that people are free in this sense, not Free in some metaphysical sense, and that since we do not want people to do X, we say that if they do then Y will happen, engaging their volitional abilities to prevent them from doing X.

All you need to have a moral sense is an awareness of the constraints of operating in a social environment, and we have those innately as one would expect (see works by Marc Hauser, Robert Wright, and Jonathan Haidt among others).

You don't get into trouble until you run into situations where you know that P couldn't avoid doing X--so your reason for inflicting Y is invalid--but also know that Q can only stop themselves from doing X if they are sure they will be punished, and they will only be sure if you actually punish P. Now you have to ask awkward questions like: is it ethical to punish P for its beneficial-to-the-rest-of-us effect on Q? A few moments' reflection should convince you that this is always the case: if P did X, they in practice were unable to avoid doing X, so the strategy of threatening Y failed. I'm unaware of a really solid argument showing where to go next, though I will note that the universe is completely happy to smash your nose if you can't help running into walls, so imposing punishments anyway is not completely without precedent.

(Also, punishments that also serve as prevention (e.g. imprisonment of someone violent) or restitution (e.g. fines used to fix whatever problem the person caused) are justifiable (to some extent anyway) independent of whether the agent in any sense could have avoided doing what they did.)

Anyway, bottom line is: (1) moral sense is built in, as you'd expect from game theory; don't worry about that; and (2) people have thought about punishment in situations where there is only freedom not Freedom and concluded that it is non-problematic. I encourage you to read them, or maybe watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opM7E6ty28A (Disclaimer: haven't watched it myself, but I know what it ought to contain and should be relevant....)

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Thanks for your reply. And as others have pointed out, your explanation of the social benefits of punishing bad behaviour is quite obvious (I liked your analogy about running into a wall - smashingyour nosebeing the deterant). But –  Trevor Kenwrick Oct 12 '12 at 15:14
...But I was using the example of law as a starting point to then look at personal responsibility for doing good things - and how we feel knowing that our actions are based on causality. At the end of the lecture by Churchlands you reccomended, a student points out that even after knowing this, you are still left with the problem; if free will exists. My proposal is that free will is enhanced by adding complexity to the system. –  Trevor Kenwrick Oct 12 '12 at 15:29
@TrevorKenwrick - More complexity doesn't make it more Free, but it may make it more free by giving you more diverse inputs from which to select. I still think that "personal responsibility" boils down to what I said above, though--it's the internal implementation of social rules, and the troubling aspects are the same (i.e. do you hold yourself responsible as a way to change your behavior even though in some sense "you" are not responsible)? –  Rex Kerr Oct 12 '12 at 15:54
"More complexity doesn't make it more Free". I don't think this is quite true. I think that (as in the example of a paper bag flowing in the wind) because of the variables being increased it makes outcomes less predictable. –  Trevor Kenwrick Oct 12 '12 at 16:10
@TrevorKenwrick - I think you misunderstand my distinction between Free and free. Agents that depend upon both internal state and external inputs to select an action are free; the more dependencies and wider range of conditions that the actor can handle in its decision-making, the more free it is. But it's not Free in the sense of being unconstrained by states; it is a deterministic consequence of the internal and external states (plus randomness) so there is always a level at which you can look where the agent "couldn't help it". –  Rex Kerr Oct 12 '12 at 16:31
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First, as a pre-amble, given your apparent grounding in ideas of philosophical naturalism (as opposed to mere "atheism", or disbelief in gods, which is a frequent conclusion that naturalists come to):

[...] I have hope that technology and the economies of scale will change the opportunities problem and tap into the "wisdom of crowds" that emerges in human nature as in the rest of nature. Maybe technology is adding to the complexity thereby by giving us more free will.

It's not clear what precisely you are identifying as human nature, nor how this would help. As a naturalist, it is clear that humans in principle have some "nature", though my definition is both tautologous and impossible to quantify in practise; no more or less than the range of behaviour that you should expect in any given situation, ranging over all possible people and all possible situations. The range of behaviour may be wide, and vary quite substantially from whichever 'average' you might like to propose, or even any way of determining an 'average' or a deviation from it, that you might propose. Indeed, the ability to vary from the average is exactly what many people would like to talk about when they consider freedom of choice. To the extent that "human nature" means anything at all, it is anathema to freedom of choice.

Nor does technology help; it only changes the distribution of our behaviour away from what it would be without our sharp and/or shiny tools, so that restricting to situations in which we have various technology available to us distorts the very idea of what "human nature" means as a phrase. Even if you want to talk about technology giving us the freedom to accomplish certain things that people want instead of a behaviouristic approach of observing what people do (in order to distinguish 'will' from 'choice'), the things that we want are often shaped by what we imagine possible. Few people wanted to play video games before they were invented, with the possible exception of the first video game authors.

Inasmuch as you're concerned with medical or environmental causes of criminal behaviour, what you're considering is not freedom of choice, but to be free of things that drive us to act in socially unacceptable ways. What you're envisioning is a (relatively mild) normative force on human behaviour which prevents us from acting in a way that will cause us strongly negative social consequences. Perhaps technology will make this possible; certainly forms of mass-media, such as television and centrally distributed platforms for purchasing music and video, do have a tendancy to promote convergence of behaviours and ideas. But it is not clear that we can eradicate all causes of social disruption which could be attributed to unfortunate environmental or biological influences, while adopting a typical humanist platform of promoting self-realisation and intellectual development.

As to your question:

How can you blame someone for how things have turned out for them [?] Let alone ask someone choose to change, unless they have adequate brain plasticity or opportunities/access to information/support [...] It's almost as though you have to acknowledge the existence of a "soul" or a permanent consciousness (or subcouncious) which "knows better" that guides you as a moral person. [...] We need faith in something or we start to get depressed and stagnate. Even if that's in the illusion of choice and free will.

If you abandon the notion of choice, you must also abandon the notion of blame.

If you disbelieve in choice, it is not clear what "blame" could mean, beyond mere attributing of causal agency. If someone kills a child because they had a brain tumour, which gives them voices in their head which they are compelled to obey, this does not change the fact that this quite disturbed person was the proximal cause of the death of the child. The killing of people — children especially — is socially prohibited (which is in one sense an understatement, but at the same time is precisely what is at issue when we speak of law). So we must raise the question of how to react to the killing.

Much of what is socially unacceptable, is unacceptable because it is greatly disruptive to society. It is harder to maintain a stable society with a large murder rate, for example. It seems to me that we have agreed to laws in which murder has strong punishments, and to a society which is structured so that the chances of being prosecuted for murder is quite high if you perform the act, because we view the stability that such a society brings as a worth-while trade-off for this limitation on behaviour. Other prohibitions, such as theft, exist for similar reasons; and still other laws or social customs exist merely as conventions in order to put boundaries on the range of peoples behaviour — in order to make people more predictable, and interaction with other people more tractable as a result of that range of predictability.

People who are for whatever reason inclined to violate these laws or conventions put themselves, to one extent or another, outside of the vaguely collective agreements of society. At the least, they may be a source of minor controversy, which can be good for a society; but in the case of someone who kills others in society, whether out of a sort of existentialist lust to realise their freedom of choice (as in Camus' The Stranger) or for medical reasons outside of their control, they are from a straightforwardly causative perspective a danger to society; and so we must react to maintain the stability, if we find the compromises of society preferable to its limitations.

What differs, if you have a concept of "blame" or not, is how you react. If you have a concept of "blame", because you think that the tumour-suffering person could always have chosen not to kill anyone, then you punish them to satisfy your affronted sense of justice. But the very emotion of righteous indignation is likely to be an animal response, preferentially selected for the effect that it produces of preventing people from passively accepting whatever harm might befall them; it is a clumsy and inefficient judge of how best to react to achieve a more compassionate response. Better still would be to simply remove whatever caused the violent behaviour, and forego the inefficient decision procedure of deciding whether to "blame" them.

Of course, this very thought process of medically removing the causes of violent behaviour is exactly what is portrayed in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, in the forms of electroshock therapy, medication, and finally lobotomization. This illustrates the importance — and the peril — of allowing a society to judge what is a sufficiently "disruptive" behaviour to require medical treatment, what is a reasonably likely medical cause for the behaviour, and what is a reasonable treatment for that behaviour. Any heavily simplified model for disruptive behaviour may be as oppressive, or more so, than the marginal behaviours that it was devised to treat. Given people's strong preference for very simple world-models — especially when they operate as part of a committee, and in the name of an abstract ideal such as "justice" or "morality" — this is a danger not to be neglected.

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The problem of choice was often considered by philosophers. One of them was Kant who was especially interested in cognitive abilities of people. He noted that our thoughts are limited by categories, which are imposed on us by our mind structure. He also defined freedom as the state when the human wants what he/she can achieve.

Actually the problem of free will was therefore sidestepped. For his definition of freedom it's not important whether what the person thinks is in any way determined by the environment or not. The problem is the relation between the state of mind and the environment.

When it comes to justice itself, punishment was always a method of social engineering. Otherwise there would have been no punishment for crime in Christian states - because God wouldn't punish all sins. But the punishment was needed to protect the living and to set an example for the potential sinners. A teachers of philosophy I met even said that the death punishment was considered by many strongly religious people as an act of mercy regarding the criminal - he/she was given the possibility to reflect on his/her future life, which often happens when one faces death. In anticipation of death many criminals confessed their sins, therefore, according to the doctrine, they could be saved instead of being condemned (I greatly regret I don't remember what philosopher was referenced).

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