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Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Neuroscience, free will and determinism: 'I'm just a machine'

This is an interesting new idea. If we can be affected by forces outside of us for example by magnetism, does that have a bearing on whether we should be held responsible for all of our actions?

In the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience, in Queen Square in London, the nerve centre – if you will – of British brain research, Prof Haggard is demonstrating "transcranial magnetic stimulation", a technique that uses magnetic coils to affect one's brain, and then to control the body. One of his research assistants, Christina Fuentes, is holding a loop-shaped paddle next to his head, moving it fractionally. "If we get it right, it might cause something." She presses a switch, and the coil activates with a click. Prof Haggard's hand twitches. "It's not me doing that," he assures me, "it's her."

The point here of course is not simply to perform a simple parlour trick - a rather dull experiment to affect the involuntary movement of someone's fingers, but to illustrate the larger question of how our world, the surrounding atmosphere in which we inhere every day, actually has a profound effect on us and in ways we cannot often imagine. And what happens when some of us are hot-wired differently from others? Doesn't that also mean that we are affected by nature in lots of different ways as well? Both negatively as well as positively? And if this is true, what happens when some people do odd things, for example, murder another human being? Can we really hold them to account in the way we always have?

As Prof Haggard says,

"What happens if someone commits a crime, and it turns out that there's a lesion in that brain area? Is that person responsible? Is the damage to the machine sufficient for us to exempt them from that very basic human idea that we are responsible for our actions? I don't know." He refers to a major project in America, where "lawyers, neuroscientists, philosophers and psychiatrists are all trying to work out what impact brain science has on our socio-legal sense of responsibility".

It seems we may have to re-evaluate what truly constitutes our notion of true free will.

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