Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sam Harris and Free Will

The philosopher, neuroscientist and renowned atheist Sam Harris has recently expounded his philosophy of "free will," or to put it more clearly, the lack thereof.   In his latest book "Free Will" he states his viewpoint that the "belief in free will has given us both the religious conception of 'sin' and our commitment to retributive justice."  Harris maintains that it is the total biological makeup of the brain and mind, not a metaphysical cause that is responsible for actions.  He cites evidence that advanced brain imaging and recording have shown predicted activity before an individual is even aware of an action which he is about to perform.

He gives the following example to ponder:

1.  A 25-year-old man, raised by wonderful parents and never abused, intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met "just for the fun of it."
2.  A 25-yeard-old man with an absolutely identical background performed exactly the same act for exactly the same reason, but an MRI shows a brain tumor in the region considered responsible for behavior and emotion control.

Both acts are controlled by the brain, but, though the outcome was the same, the outrage we feel is mitigated by the tumor in case No. 2.  Even though the action in case No. 1 is in all likelihood also secondary to some brain malfunction, we have a different moral reaction towards it.  It is also quite possible that the tumor in case No. 2 was not the primary etiology for man's actions, but was merely a "bystander," and the malfunction is, in fact, identical to that in case No. 1.  And, finally, before technology gave us MRI's and PET scans, the tumor may have easily gone undiscovered and the Case No. 2 perpetrator considered in a manner identical to that of Case No. 1.

Cerebral malfunction can be considered as a cause of the "conscious intention" in both cases, with the causative disorder in Case No. 1 yet to be fully explained. But, recognizing that a future physical etiology may be discovered to explain the actions of Case No. 1, should not our compassion be extended equally to both of the individuals?  Shouldn't the "psychopath" be considered in the same light as the brain tumor victim?

This is not intended to argue that  individuals may not be a danger to society and may require separation from the general public, free will or no free will! As sympathetic as we may be towards the man with the brain tumor, if he were incurable and untreatable, incarceration would still be required.

Incarceration, or separation from society, is quite different from punishment.  One cannot punish an individual whose "physical disorder" was responsible for his negative actions.  We need to separate the  "treatable" by punishment from those "untreatable" by punishment.  Like any other known physical disorder - some are treatable and curable, and some are not.

"Free will" and "morality" may be terms presently needed to describe behavior on a metaphysical basis, though what may be the true "physical" explanations are yet to be neurologically mapped and determined.

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