Neuroscience and free will

Is free will an illusion?

Neuroscience and free will

Neuroethics also encompasses the ethical issues raised by neuroscience as it affects our understanding of the world and of ourselves in the world. For example, if everything we do is physically caused by our brains, which are in turn a product of our genes and our life experiences, how can we be held responsible for our actions? A crime in the United States requires a “guilty act” and a “guilty mind”.

As neuropsychiatry evaluations have become more commonly used in the criminal justice system and neuroimaging technologies have given us a more direct way of viewing brain injuries, scholars have cautioned that this could lead to the inability to hold anyone criminally responsible for their actions. In this way, neuroimaging evidence could suggest that there is no free will and each action a person makes is simply the product of past actions and biological impulses that are out of our control. The question of whether and how personal autonomy is compatible with neuroscience ethics and the responsibility of neuroscientists to society and the state is a central one for neuroethics.

Additionally, in late 2013 U.S. President Barack Obama made recommendations to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues as part of his $100 million Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. This Spring discussion resumed in a recent interview and article sponsored by Agence France-Presse (AFP): “It is absolutely critical… to integrate ethics from the get-go into neuroscience research,” and not “for the first time after something has gone wrong,” said Amy Gutmann, Bioethics Commission Chair.” But no consensus has been reached.

Miguel Faria, a Professor of Neurosurgery and an Associate Editor in Chief of Surgical Neurology International, who was not involved in the Commission’s work said, “any ethics approach must be based upon respect for the individual, as doctors pledge according to the Hippocratic Oath which includes vows to be humble, respect privacy and doing no harm; and pursuing a path based on population-based ethics is just as dangerous as having no medical ethics at all.” Why the danger of population-based bioethics? Faria asserts, “it is centered on utilitarianism, monetary considerations, and the fiscal and political interests of the state, rather than committed to placing the interest of the individual patient or experimental subject above all other considerations.”

For her part, Gutmann believes the next step is “to examine more deeply the ethical implications of neuroscience research and its effects on society.”

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