Science vs. Free Will: Maybe Eating All That Holiday Food Wasn’t Your Choice
posted by Deven Desai
The Economist reports that some aspects of neuroscience indicate that certain notions of when we exercise free will may be on the ropes. The article notes the case of someone who was a pedophile only when a tumor was present. When the tumor was removed the behavior ceased, but when it grew again, the behavior returned. The article focuses on the idea that much of criminal law (“the criminal law—in the West, at least—is based on the idea that the criminal exercised a choice: no choice, no criminal.”) and theories of the market (“Markets also depend on the idea that personal choice is free choice.”) rest on the idea of free will. According to the article one implication of these discoveries is “The British government[’s move] 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.” And for the market notions about our choices regarding consuming “Fatty, sugary foods … addictive drugs such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine [and] [p]ornography” may be suspect as well.
I think the article is correct when it offers
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.
Nonetheless as science continues to chart better how we think and behave, the way the law addresses certain issues will necessarily be challenged. For example Rebecca Tushnet presented a paper examining decision-making and dilution doctrine at a recent works-in-progress conference. The paper raises some great points and questions about assumptions in the doctrine and what research supports or undercuts those views. (In deference to Rebecca I offer this quote from her regarding the paper “I’ll just ask that people recognize this as a draft, and if you want to cite or quote it, please just be willing to update the reference if and when it’s published.”)
I am sure others are pursuing analagous research so if readers have other examples of law and neuroscience, please share them. Then again if all of you simply want to kick back, relax, and run to left-over “Fatty, sugary foods,” I understand. You can’t help it. You have no choice. In fact I think I hear my something in my pantry calling and must go now.