When someone commits a heinous crime, like James Holmes in the recent Colorado movie theater shootings, we feel a combination of outrage and bewilderment at the perpetrator. How could he possibly do something so terrible? we think. Perhaps modern neuroscience asks the opposite: how couldn’t he?
Sarah Lucas explores the idea of free will in the latest issue of The Humanist. In particular, she uses Anders Breivik, the Norwegian shooter who killed over seventy in a rampage last year, as a paradigm case. According to Lucas, “We take for granted that humans possess free will, and that each individual is therefore at liberty to act as he or she chooses … Free will does not, however, flow from a materialistic (non-supernatural) understanding of the world. Without resorting to the supernatural, it is difficult to make a case for the existence of free will, at least for the type that would imply moral responsibility.”
Lucas, working off of conclusions from neuroscience, deconstructs many of our deeply held beliefs about crime, punishment, and moral responsibility. If we are merely physical objects, the product of the same mindless process that produced everything else in the universe, then how can our behavior be anything but the product of purely natural processes? On a purely materialistic understanding of reality, we are about as free and in control as a rock falling down a hill.
But this would include people like Anders Breivik and James Holmes.
The introduction of the findings of neuroscience into courtroom proceedings is a new field called neurolaw. And I am sure it will have a rising profile in the coming years as neuroscience advances.
Interestingly, philosopher Edward Feser also recently tackled the idea of free will. Feser, writing for the Biologos Forum offers key insights that question a purely materialistic understanding of the human person. Feser argues that humans and their thought life are a “seamless unity of the material and immaterial.”
"At this point there will no doubt be those who object that positing ectoplasm or spook stuff is hardly a better explanation of thought than an appeal to brain activity is. And that is quite true. But then, I said nothing about ectoplasm or spook stuff in the first place. When a mathematician points out that it is just muddleheaded to speak of the square root of 25 as if it were a kind of physical object, it would be silly to accuse him of believing that the square root of 25 is made out of ectoplasm or spook stuff."
Feser is not arguing for a worldview informed by Ghostbusters. Rather, he is pointing out that there are entities that exhibit non-physical properties, and therefore aren’t fully amenable to scientific inquiry. A full explanation of the universe, therefore, will not be exhausted by science. Says Feser, “If your picture of reality cannot accommodate numbers alongside physical objects, that is your problem... Mathematics simply provides a powerful example of a body of truths that cannot be captured in the language of physics, chemistry, neuroscience, and the like.”
Whichever side of this argument one agrees with, it is clear that it is far from settled. It will be interesting to see the unfolding of neurolaw in our courtrooms, as well as the arguments offered by those who do believe that man has an immaterial aspect, be it a soul or mind, or whatever. Time will tell who wins out.