Does Neuroscience Negate Personhood? (Updated)
"Should we ditch the concept of personal responsibility and construct the therapeutic state?," asked Michael Shapiro, a University of Southern California law professor.
Shapiro posed the question during a panel discussion devoted to "Responsibility and the Law," on the second day of the Our Brains and Us conference at MIT. Do any of the findings of contemporary neuroscience force us to ditch the concept of personal responsibility? Shapiro argued they don't. Why? Because we already knew that we are embedded in a network of physical causes from which our behavior arises. Neuroscience may give us a better understanding of the physical bases of causes in our brains, but it does not change the fact that our behavior has always been caused.
Those are the opening paragraphs from a new article, "Prozac Justice: Does Neuroscience Require a Therapeutic State?" by Ron Bailey, now on the Reason magazine website. It is sure to excite some comment from those of us who believe in free will and personal responsibility.
Bailey ends up expressing concern about a world where crime is regarded as a sign of illness rather than wrong-doing, and he rightly abhors the possibility of "prospective intervention" and indeterminate "therapy." But the article is plagued by a misunderstanding of free will, leading to the topsy-turvy view that while determinism would not negate moral responsibility, freedom of the will, if it existed, would. Thus:
Shapiro recognized that many people naively believe that free will, and thus personal responsibility and moral culpability, depends on the notion that people are somehow uncaused causers. But can someone really be held responsible in such a contra-causal world? Not really. As psychologist and philosopher William James put it: "If a 'free' act be a sheer novelty that comes not from me, the previous me, but ex nihilo, and simply tacks itself on to me, how can I, the previous I, be responsible?"
What's a contra-causal world? Free will does not mean actions are uncaused. It means they are caused by persons. The popular notion that persons can be reduced to mechanistic neurological processes is self-refuting—if true, its advocates are uttering not words but meaningless sounds. The "causes" of actions, Thomas Szasz reminds us, are called reasons. But those cannot be reduced to brain activity, however much they may depend on it.
Shapiro and Bailey surely can do better than James's straw-man argument—although not much better. The fact is, the free-will proposition is a self-evident axiom. One must tacitly acknowledge it even in trying to refute it.