NPR Science Friday:
What would it mean to live in a world in which people are simply mechanical devices responding to natural laws beyond their control, bobbing like corks in a sea of causes? If determinism is true, then the consequences are profound. First, we would need to radically overhaul our conception of moral responsibility. After all, if the choice you make in a given situation is preordained—is the only choice you can make—then what are we to do about blame? Absent the capacity to choose, according to a school of thought called hard determinism, there cannot be any blame. And if no one can be blamed, no one is morally deserving of punishment.
If you commit an evil deed, it is not your fault. Nor is it to your credit if you behave like a saint. This account of human agency is devastating to the idea of free will (or “ultimate” freedom, as some philosophers call it). Hard determinists believe that society should adjust its legal practices accordingly. Philosopher-neuroscientist Joshua Greene and psychologist Jonathan Cohen contend that neuroscience has a special role to play in giving these age-old arguments more rhetorical bite. “New neuroscience will affect the way we view the law, not by furnishing us with new ideas or arguments about the nature of human action, but by breathing new life into old ones,” they write. “[It] can help us see that all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent’s control,” Greene adds. For emphasis, he and Cohen invoke an old French proverb, Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner (To know all is to forgive all). Their ultimate hope is that society will discard blame-based punishment as a nasty relic of a pre-neuroscientific age and insert in its place penalties whose purpose is to shape future behavior.
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