• April 20, 2014

Free Will Is an Illusion, but You're Still Responsible for Your Actions

Neuroscience reveals that the concept of free will is without meaning, just as John Locke suggested in the 17th century. Do robots have free will? Do ants have free will? Do chimps have free will? Is there really something in all of these machines that needs to be free, and if so, from what? Alas, just as we have learned that the world is not flat, neuroscience, with its ever-increasing mechanistic understanding of how the brain enables mind, suggests that there is no one thing in us pulling the levers and in charge. It's time to get over the idea of free will and move on.

Understanding the mechanisms of mind is both daunting and thrilling, as well as a central part of modern knowledge and life. We humans are about becoming less dumb, and making better decisions to cope and adapt to the world we live in. That is what our brain is for and what it does. It makes decisions based on experience, innate biases, and mostly without our conscious knowledge. It is beautiful to understand how that happens.

But brain determinism has no relevance to the concept of personal responsibility.

The exquisite machine that generates our mental life also lives in a social world and develops rules for living within a social network. For the social network to function, each person assigns each other person responsibility for his or her actions. There are rules for traffic that exist and are only understood and adopted when cars interact. It is the same for human interactions. Just as we would not try to understand traffic by studying the mechanics of cars, we should not try to understand brains to understand the idea of responsibility. Responsibility exists at a different level of organization: the social level, not in our determined brains.

Viewing the age-old question of free will in this framework has many implications. Holding people responsible for their actions remains untouched and intact since that is a value granted by society. We all learn and obey rules, both personal and social. Following social rules, as they say, is part of our DNA. Virtually every human can follow rules no matter what mental state he or she is in.

Thus Jared Loughner, who has been charged with shooting Representative Gabrielle Giffords, is judged to be insane. Yet he followed one kind of rule when he stopped to make change for the taxi driver on the way to murder and cause mayhem. Should society really allow that the act of not following another kind of rule (not to kill anyone) be accepted as an excuse for murder? Since responsibility exists as a rule of social interaction and not normal, or even abnormal brain processes, it makes no sense to excuse the breaking of one kind of social rule but not another.

We should hold people responsible for their actions. No excuses. That keeps everything simple and clean. Once accountability is established, we can then take up the more challenging questions of what as a society we should do about someone engaged in wrongdoing. We can debate punishment, treatment, isolation, or many other ways to enforce accountability in a social network. Those are truly difficult issues. Establishing how to think about responsibility is not.

Michael S. Gazzaniga is director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is the author, most recently, of Who's In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain (HarperCollins, 2011).

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