- Published: November 14, 2012
Although neuroscience is quite a young field, it has had a significant influence on the way we view our own minds. The way human brain works seems to be completely based on the activity of chemical neurotransmitters and electrical signals. We can see different areas of brain lighting up on fMRI scans as we perform different tasks; stimulating different areas of brain can make someone lift up his/her arm even though he/she had no intention to do so. Genes set the basics of how our brains act; our experience and environment also shape our brain. In this elaborate system, there simply doesn’t seem to be a space for something other than those scientific stuffs to come in and play a role. This kind of approach makes us wonder: do we have a say in how we behave and how we make choices? Do we have a free will?
This question has important implications for the legal system. We punish criminals because we assume that they are responsible for whatever criminal act that they committed. As Greene and Cohen () point out, “intuitively, a mind is, amont other things, an uncaused causer. Consequently, when something is seen as a mere physical entity operating in accordance with deterministic physical laws, it ceases to be seen, intuitively, as a mind.” But according to what the neuroscientists have found, a mind is not at all uncaused. So some people are "not guilty by reason of insanity" even though they committed insane criminal act; apparently, it's not their own mind but the conditions of their brians that made them do what they did. Well, does it make sense? After all, aren't we all doing what our brains tell us to do? If free will doesn't exist for the insane people, then it doesn't exist for the rest of people just the same. Why can only the "insane" people get off the hook while "sane" people have to take all the responsibility for their own behaviors?
I think we are going through the period in which we are trying to accept the new approach but still have so many assumptions from our old approach. We still have old assumptions about free will as we procede with legal processes, but we have all those findings from neuroscience, so those scientific findings are trying to find their place in the current legal system before we have had time to establish new ways of understanding our mind. I am sure that more studies in neuroscience and philosophy will guide us to better understanding of our mind and adjusting our legal system in accordance with what we find out about our brains.
Greene, J., and Cohen, J. (2004). For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything. Philos. Trnas. R. Soc. Lond. B Biol. Sci.
"Do you have free will? Yes, it's the only choice." http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/science/22tier.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0