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Neurorelevance (Nita Farahany)

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Nita Farahany in conversation with Howard Burton

When someone starts talking about free will, I normally look searchingly for the exits.

I’ve read enough to know that philosophers, as they are wont to do, have created all sorts of categories over the years to describe different intellectual positions: compatibilists and incompatibilists, soft determinists and hard determinists, radical libertarians and modest libertarians. But I can’t shake the feeling that all of these categorizations, and many more besides, often end up obscuring the issues much more than clarifying them. Frankly, the only philosopher who makes any sense to me on this issue is John Searle, who has a refreshing ability to pare away all the silly jargon and simply get right to the heart of the matter.

Which is this: every serious scientist these days believes that the world around us is made of material stuff – atoms and molecules. This naturally applies not only to tables and chairs, but to ourselves too – and, equally obviously, not just to our legs and fingernails, but to our brains as well.

This is hardly a very surprising insight, given how our brains respond to LSD, alcohol or even headache medication. Moreover, since our brains seem to be located very much in the natural world, it’s pretty hard to imagine how they could somehow consist of non-material stuff at all.

How, exactly, we go from the specific chemistry in our brains to the consequent feelings, emotions and desires that we all possess is sufficiently poorly understood that it gives ample space for philosophers to once again wade in and start throwing words around, such as The Mind-Body Problem, together with a whole slew of celebrated names from René Descartes to Benjamin Libet.

But the central point is that, however complicated the details might turn out to be, if our minds are, somehow, manifestations of physical processes in our brains that must necessarily follow the underlying laws of physics; and those laws of physics are deterministic so that each initial brain state naturally implies a subsequent brain state just like a pen falling to the ground under the influence of gravity; then it’s awfully difficult to conceive how, essentially, we brain-based creatures are anything more than merely glorified automatons.


Image: David Boyashi CC

Personally, I’m strongly convinced that I’m not an automaton, glorified or otherwise. In fact, like most of us, I believe that I make free choices all the time. For example, I have an unshakeable conviction that I have freely opted to not procrastinate and write this blog piece right now instead of immersing myself in the final of the UK Snooker Championships from start to finish (freely choosing, too, to root for Ronnie O’Sullivan over Mark Selby). But I’m a lot less sure of how I could rigorously justify those strong convictions. When pressed, I sometimes throw out words of my own – like “degeneracy”, “randomness” and “quantum mechanics” – as a way of pointing towards a possible way out of the logical vice that materialism seems to put me in. But most of the time I just shrug my shoulders and ignore the whole business: of course I make decisions all the time, I tell myself. It doesn’t really matter if I can’t precisely prove how.

Closer examination of the problem reveals that the whole issue is predicated on the even deeper mystery of how consciousness can somehow emerge from the lump of chemicals on top of my shoulders. After all, it doesn’t seem to make much sense puzzling over whether I truly have free will when I don’t even know, scientifically speaking, what “I” actually is.

So most of the time I just forget about it and push the whole awkward business to the back of my mind/brain.

But sometimes, like a bad dream, the question of free will comes bouncing back into our everyday lives.

Nita Farahany has experienced this more than most. A legal scholar at Duke University who is co-equipped with a J.D. and a doctorate in philosophy, Nita specializes in the intersection of law and neuroscience. The law, of course, naturally assumes that most of us have the capacity to exercise our free will, with associated implications of responsibility.

“To hold someone responsible,” Nita told me, “we say, ‘He has to have acted voluntarily, and he has to have done so with a particular kind of mental state.’ Those mental states are typically categorized as ‘purposely’ or ‘knowingly’ or ‘with disregard for the kind of risk that might be created in society.’

All quite reasonable. But what happens when you combine reasonable legal definitions with our latest understanding from the frontiers of neuroscience? Things can get muddled pretty quickly.

Imagine someone who has sustained a brain injury so that she becomes much more predisposed to a certain type of behavior. Is she still acting “voluntarily”? Well, it depends on who you ask.

“Voluntary actions in neuroscience represent a narrower category in many ways than voluntary actions in criminal law. In criminal law, we say that everything is voluntary, other than a few things that we regard as involuntary, like a reflex or a convulsion. From a criminal-law perspective, involuntary processes only occur whenever conscious awareness is not part of the decision-making. Whereas in neuroscience, they say, ‘Well, that’s not quite right, because there are a lot of things that are involuntary that are not in the category of a reflex or convulsion.’

“What we’re having to do in criminal law  right now is be much more deliberate and specific about what we mean by those concepts, because criminal defendants are now coming into the courtroom and saying, ‘It wasn’t voluntary because it happened too quickly. I couldn’t have consciously premeditated or thought about it because it happened far too quickly, and here’s the evidence about how the brain actually works under these circumstances…’”

So what does this all boil down to? Has all this talk of neuroscience merely mired us once again in the not terribly helpful realm of throwing words and definitions around, with the only dubious difference being an exchange of academic philosophers with defense attorneys?

Not for Nita. For her, the key role for neuroscience isn’t so much that of rigorously assessing the factors that led to why someone did what they did. After all, as she points out in the clip below, when it comes to our scientific understanding of human behavior, neuroscientific factors typically come a distant second to sociological ones.

Instead, for Nita, the true value of our rapidly developing knowledge of neuroscience might well be used for something quite different.

“We can identify someone who commits a heinous act as the appropriate agent of responsibility for having done some bad thing, but now what do we do with her? Do we put her in jail? Do we give her some drugs? Do we give her brain surgery? All of the above? That’s the most challenging issue to me. Maybe what neuroscience should be leading us to do is rethink and re-imagine what the appropriate responses to responsible actions are.”

Which, I must admit, strikes me as a most sensible way of sidestepping the whole academic free will debate to concentrate on something vastly more socially relevant. A wise choice, you might say.


For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos featuring Nita Farahany, click here. Meanwhile, the eBook called Neurolaw, is available on Amazon (see here). Institutional subscriptions are offered through our Academic, School and Public Library portals.


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