Neuroscience is challenging the notion of “free will” as traditionally understood.
Writing in the July 1, 2011, issue of The Atlantic, David Eagleman explains that what neuroscientists are discovering about the workings of the brain raises serious questions concerning individual responsibility, especially in courts of law.
“Perhaps not everyone is equally ‘free’ to make socially appropriate choices.” Malfunctions and misfirings in the brain – whether the products of nature or nurture – can make it difficult, if not impossible, for some individuals not to commit socially unacceptable acts. Should we hold them responsible? Guilty?
Dr. Eagleman insists that we need to “build a legal system more deeply informed by science, in which we will continue to take criminals off the streets, but will customize sentencing, leverage new opportunities for rehabilitation, and structure better incentives for good behavior.” He makes a very good point.
Genes and environment make us who we are, according to Dr. Eagleman, and “every experience throughout our lives can modify genetic expression – activating certain genes or switching others off – which in turn can inaugurate new behaviors.” He concludes, “The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens – equal before the law – possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt.”
Yet our legal system presupposes the existence of “free will,” or, individual responsibility for our actions. Dr. Eagleman opines, “Free will may exist (it may simply be beyond our current science), but one thing seems clear: if free will does exist, it has little room in which to operate.”
As I mentioned, Dr. Eagleman has some very good thoughts about the implications of bringing more science into the legal field. He also believes that more sophisticated practices of biofeedback can help individuals understand better what’s going on in their brains so that they can make adjustments as needed.
This is an important conversation, but it’s not one that should be pursued without the perspectives of theology and philosophy. An approach to human understanding and legal reform based only on reductionist science can lead to the kinds of abuses we saw all too often during the previous century. When questions of “social acceptability”, “choices”, and “responsibility” are in the air, we need the presuppositions concerning moral environments that religion and philosophy can contribute.
Christians have an interest in justice and human wellbeing. We bring a particular point of view – one informed by revelation and history – to the discussion, a point of view not readily welcomed by secular thinkers, but one that can demonstrate a venerable record. Theological and spiritual perspectives on human behavior can have powerful effects on the kinds of experiences human beings know, and how they respond to them, and this can affect “the cards we’re dealt” to play with in other situations.
Christians must engage such conversations, collaborate with like-minded practitioners, and publish our findings and views without apology. We are commanded to pray for the shalom of the society to which God has assigned us; but we must also invest whatever abilities and insights we may have to address the pressing issues of the day.