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Ginger Campbell, MD
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Saturday
Mar292008

The Myth of Free Will: Revised and expanded

mythoffreewill-2nd.jpg Back in Episode 12 I reviewed the first edition of The Myth of Free Will: Revised & Expanded Edition (2008) by Cris Evatt. I am proud to announce that I have a short chapter in the revised edition "My Brain Made Me Do It." This essay is a reflection on the implications of the recent findings of neuroscience that indicate that a large amount of our brain's decision-making occurs outside our conscious awareness. Even so I argue that the concept of personal responsibility should not be abandoned because our frontal lobes do have the ability to overrule many reflex decisions. I also consider the implications of neuroplasticity.

You can find this book in the Books and Ideas aStore within Amazon.com.

Reader Comments (2)

In the Books and Ideas Pod-Cast, Episode 12, Dr. Ginger Campbell discussed The Myth of Free Will: essays by 40 leading thinkers edited by Cris Evatt (url: http://www.crisevatt.com/myth.htm). Dr. Campbell made the following points:
Point 1: There are two common interpretations of free will:
a. freedom from external constraints (e.g. a gun at your head).
b. freedom from internal constraints (psychological forces).
Point 2: There are two common beliefs about the source of free will:
a) That free will comes from supernatural sources (e.g. a soul).
a) That free will arises from natural sources (e.g. within the brain).
I was disappointed that Dr. Campbell, one of my favorite pod-casters (I particularly like her companion “Brain Science” pod-cast), made what I believe is an illogical leap to the assumption that the absence of free will implies freedom from responsibility, and spent the rest of her discussion talking about the importance of personal responsibility. Her argument is that if we conclude that free will does not exist, that implies that one is not held responsible for their actions.
Dr. Campbell believes that many decisions are made in the unconscious part of the brain. I agree that an emotional response and a “gut feeling” are generated in the unconscious part of the brain. These are the genetic heritage of evolution. I also agree that the rational portion of the brain has the ability to intervene--within limits. That intervention is only possible if the rational facility, first of all, recognizes the emotional response for what it is, in time to intervene (an ability which itself requires careful development); secondly, if the culture and environment have taught judgment that the instinctual promptings are not the wisest course of behavior and provides the support the rational facility needs to resist emotional impulses, usually in the form of moral and penal incentives, and most important, only if the person’s culture and environment have provided training in the techniques required to divert, work around, and compromise with the strong hormonal-driven impulses of the unconscious brain. Strict suppression, denial and/or simple defiance (“just say no”) can backfire in sudden explosions of these impulses. In other words, in my opinion, the rational facility emerged first to help the unconscious brain attain its goals; it developed the ability to conflate rationales for instinctive reactions after the fact, and finally to manipulate the unconscious and, to a limited extent, to steer its stone-age drives into constructive channels.
Now, let’s go back to the personal responsibity issue. The rational facility of the brain needs support from the environment. Incentives to resist the promptings of the unconscious are part of that support. Experiments using the “honor system” have proven that moral incentives have not been internalized enough to prevent cheating for the majority of humanity. The simple environmental support of an observer (even without the threat of a penalty) is extremely effective in increasing moral behavior. This experiment works exactly the same way with children and Halloween candy. In other words, holding people responsible for their actions is an important part of required cultural support for the brain’s rational facility, providing it with needed incentives in its struggle against hormonal promptings of the hindbrain we inherited from our reptilian ancestors. Those who consider free will a myth maintain that decisions are a consequence of heritage and environment. The enforcement of personal responsibility is a part of that environment. The debate about free will is not going away. But the argument that the absence of free will abrogates personal responsibility is a red herring.
Doctor Campbell’s pod-casts can be heard on her “Brain Science” and “Books and Ideas” websites. You can listen to this specific discussion at http://booksandideas.com/ if you search for “The Myth of Free Will” and scroll down to “Listen to Books and Ideas #12 Now”.

May 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPat

Pat,

Thank you for putting so much time into the comment you posted about Episode 12 of Books and Ideas.

I agree with you that it is "an illogical leap to the assumption that the absence of free will implies freedom from responsibility."

It was actually that leap that I was attempting to attack, which is why I focused on "the importance of personal responsibility" later in my discussion. This emphasis naturally reflects my own response to the book I was reviewing. I am sorry if I did not make that clear.

You might want to post your comments on the Discussion Forum at http://brainscienceforum.com. There is a section there for Books and Ideas. That is the best place to share ideas with fellow listeners.

I hope you will keep listening.

Ginger Campbell, MD

May 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdocartemis

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