Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Truth in Free Will

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Breakdown of conflicting arguments about free will:

Determinism: The assertion that human consciousness is predetermined with free will being an illusory experience

Libertarian Free Will (Agent-Causal Indeterminism): The assertion that human consciousness is not predetermined so agents have complete control over their actions, with the power to intervene in the physical world.

Free will and the discussion surrounding its existence is pivotal to determining whether or not people can be held responsible for their actions. Whilst it is generally accepted that free will does exist, there are many disciplines that provide sensible arguments against it. Instances of diminished responsibility in law recognise the absence of free will in cases where a defendant may plead insanity.

?Need for discussion: The ability of free will is crucial in defining morality, guilt etc. [1]

Truth in Law and Case study[edit]

Truth in Legal Doctrine

- The law developed based upon Cartesian dualism as truth and so there are remnants of this as shown by a complete study into the prevalence of Cartesian dualism in law and so libertarian indeterminism has shaped it. [2]

Explanation of how the debate free will within law needs to be resolved and how truth is the basis of these problems caused.

An example of dualism manifesting itself in the law can be found in the case of a man found guilty of child molestation. Throughout the year 2000 the man had acquired a growing collection of pornography, much of which focussed on children and adolescents, which he denied having any previous interest in or attraction to. After making sexual advances on his step-daughter he was diagnosed with pedophilia and given the aforementioned charge, with the choice of undergoing a 12-step program for sexual addiction or face jail-time. Despite a strong desire to avoid prison and an awareness that his behaviour contradicted his own moral knowledge, he made sexual advances on staff and was sentenced to prison. A neurologic examination was later conducted when the man's medical history showed a closed head injury 16 years prior, with no previous psychiatric or developmental history as well as no past deviant sexual behaviour. The man walked with an uneven gait, and magnetic resonance imaging of his brain showed that a tumour had displaced his right orbitofrontal lobe.[3] The tumour was removed and just hours after the operation was complete his gait was fixed, seven months later he had completed a sexual rehabilitation programme. The man's life had returned to normal - until he relapsed into his old behaviours of sexual deviancy and persistent headaches. More scans indicated the tumour had returned, and upon its removal the man appeared to have been cured once more. This begs the question: is the man to blame for his unlawful sexual behaviours if it were evident he could not control them? And so, does he really have free will if his actions are controlled by something other than his own desires?

Dr James Cantor: Rather than the tumour causing him to display paedophilic behaviour, it diminished his ability to hide the fact that he actually had internal paedophilic tendencies all along. The orbitofrontal cortex of the brain is involved in the cognitive process of decision making, so by impeding on this region, the tumour interfered with his ability to regulate his behaviour.

This is an interesting consideration with regards to free will. If this theory is true and he indeed had pre-existing paedophilic preferences that were simply exacerbated by the tumour, it could be thought that his true will would have been to act on these preferences and, were there no laws or social taboos surrounding these actions, he would have done so without the presence of the tumour. However, the fact that he did not act on these preferences implies that his will was not to act, and this will was negated when the tumour was present, meaning it did not matter whether he really wanted to act on there preferences or not - he had no choice, and therefore no free will.

(Why do we do things? Because we either want to or we are forced to. But can we control what we want?)

Truth in Free Will[edit]

Free Will in Christianity[edit]

Christianity is characterized by its view that humans not only consist of a material body, but also a distinct nonmaterial soul that connects them with God, who is entirely nonmaterial. Vastly shaped by Rene Decartes, this substance dualism is opposed to the idea of materialism or monism, which claim that humans, just like everything in the world, are made up of and governed solely by physical laws. Dualism allows for the existence of free will and the freedom of humans to choose alternative paths in life, because they are not merely tied to physical matter. Current Christian theologists like Karl Barth and John Cobb also argue in favor of human actions and intentions being not merely subject to deterministic factors, but to free choice and self-determination. What is remarkable here is that Christianity holds a very fixed image of what are good and bad deeds, and sees the individual in freedom to choose one or the other. Moral freedom is therefore strongly linked to a specific moral code, that every human is encouraged to follow if they want to enter heaven in their afterlife. Humans‘ moral freedom shall ultimately lead to them sacrificing themselves for their neighbor‘s well-being. God wishes individuals to free themselves from their selfish will, including all their primitive desires and impulses, and transcend to selflessly doing good for less privileged people. Martin Luther formulates this paradox as the Christian individual being „free lord of all; subject to none“ whilst being a „dutiful servant of all, subject to all in love.“ [4] Ted Peters

Free Will and Christianity in US Law[edit]

Article 6 in the US constitution, which was ratified in 1788, holds that „no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States". (Further examples why US is secular, Bill of rights, first amendment) Therefore, supposedly US politics and law act independently of any religious matters. However, the theologist Derek H. Davis argues that saying the US state and church were completely separate would be too simplistic.

Arguments against: • national motto: „in God we trust“ • national day of prayer • political candidates allowed to emphasise role of their religion

Further points: • bias; preference of Christianity

Truth in Determinism[edit]

‘Split Brain‘ Experiment[edit]

Roger Sperry's study of 'split brain' patients in 1968 can be seen as the advent of physicalism within the discipline of neuroscience. By performing experiments with patients who had previously had their corpus callosum severed in order to prevent epileptic seisures, Sperry was able to show that both hemispheres of the brain could work independently of one another.[5]

Further, by isolating each patient’s vision so that the right and left eye saw objects independently of each other, Sperry showed that the different hemispheres controlled different brain functions. The left hemisphere controlled the right side of the body and was the main language centre, responsible for articulating, understanding and remembering language. The right hemisphere controlled the left side and could recognise but not articulate language and was responsible for spacial construction and non-verbal reasoning.[6]

This research fostered a physicalist view in neuroscience, where localised areas of the brain could not only control specific functions, but perhaps also human psychology. This then raises the question of whether all human behaviour can be explained by biological processes, leading to the rise of deterministic thinking within neuroscience.[7]

More recent developments in neuroscience, particularly with the advent of fMRI technology, have led to the increased prominence of determinism; the assertion that human consciousness is predetermined and that free will doesn’t exist.

The ground-breaking experiment carried out by Benjamin Libet in 1983[8], asking participants to flick their wrist at a random moment of their choosing. He found that the time of start of neural activity associated with completing this motor action preceded the time of conscious intention to act by at least several hundred milliseconds, suggesting conscious will has no role to play in enacting the action.[9] A more recent study has taken this even further, finding that the outcome of a choice between pressing 2 buttons can be traced in the neural activity of the prefrontal and parietal cortices up to 10 seconds before it enters the conscious awareness of the agent.[10]

Neuroscientists have conducted several similar studies, testing the time between their neural signature and conscious appearance of various kinds of action or choice which are localised to different parts of the brain.[11] Their results have corroborated with Libet’s and Soon’s, that unconscious activity begins before conscious conception of an action.[12]

This research has begged the question; ‘from where and how does this activity arise?’

From these studies, prominent and leading neuroscientists such as Dr Sam Harris have concluded that it is from the within brain that this activity arises and here where thoughts begin and thus advocated for hard determinism. [13]

This is a rational conclusion from the data collected. Yet, the fact that this particular conclusion has been drawn is based on the relationship between neuroscience and truth.

As a discipline with a positivist approach to truth, this means that theories are formed based on empirical evidence from the realms of that which we can currently measure within the contemporary scope of scientific technology.

Further, this makes the discipline not very concerned about the personal relationship to subjective experiences and means it sees people's own feeling of having free will as below the standard of evidence required to draw conclusions from.

This must be considered alongside the fact that neuroscience is a science which is predominantly physicalist in theory of mind and non-religious. This means that everything is physical and mental states are not above or over the physical realm.[14] This follows that the soul, or interactionalist mind as answers to the question 'from where and how does this activity arise?' are not considered, thus leading neuroscience to the aforementioned conclusion.

( Yet, as we do not know what consciousness is and have a full picture of how it is induced, the subjective and personal relationship individuals have to consciousness (which aren't conducive with the nature of scientific evidence) a vital tool and entry point into understanding consciousness and informing further the debate surrounding free will, perhaps allowing a layer to be peeled back beyond the physical. ) --> for conclusion?

Positivism and physicalism in this way determine the ideas formed about free will in this discipline, which sets it down a conflicting path to theology and law where fundamentally different truths about the nature of existence are held which in turn allow for the conclusion of free will.

(Will be trimmed down and bits moved to conclusion section)

Conflicts about Truth[edit]

Disciplinary attitudes to the existence of free will:Law vs sciences - law as a discipline requires free will, or the concept of culpability falls apart. but some disciplines such as psychology or classical physics tell us that free will does not exist.

"A substantial body of scholarship has concerned itself with the importance of free will to the theory of the criminal law. Even given the importance of the subject, the quantity of attention is surprising because of the lack of fundamental disagreement among scholars, who overwhelmingly endorse the criminal law's assumption of free will."[15]

Looking at free will through neuroscience.[16] (potential application to the field of law)


  1. John Fischer : Free Will and Moral Responsibility
  2. Pardo MS, Patterson D. Philosophical foundations of law and neuroscience. U. Ill. L. Rev.. 2010:1211.
  3. Burns JM, Swerdlow RH. Right Orbitofrontal Tumor With Pedophilia Symptom and Constructional Apraxia Sign. Arch Neurol. 2003;60(3):437-40.
  4. Ted Peters. Free Will in Science, Philosophy, and Theology, pp.149-153. 2019
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