As I’ve observed in a previous posting, brain science is a hot new area of research, and some of the experts are absolutely convinced that new knowledge about brain function will lead to big changes in how we view ourselves. Once we know that what seems to be free choice is, in fact, a mechanical process organized by the necessary laws of nature, then our inherited assumptions about moral responsibility and the meaning of human action will no longer be tenable. Or so the argument goes.
It is not at all clear that an explanation of brain function entails the sort of metaphysical determinism that contradicts ordinary assumptions about moral responsibility. Moreover, many philosophers argue that traditional accounts of moral responsibility do not presume that our decisions and actions are undetermined. But a recent article in the Journal of Philosophy sets aside the theoretical nuances and pursues a fascinating question. Do people actually change their moral views when faced with comprehensive, deterministic scientific accounts of mental life?
“Bringing Moral Responsibility Down to Earth,” coauthored by Adina L. Roskies and Shaun Nichols, offers an interesting summary and analysis of a simple experiment. They concocted a short, succinct statement of comprehensive and conclusive scientific results that clearly show that, as they put it, “a person’s decision is always completely caused by what happened in the past.” In other words, they formulated a brief in favor of determinism, one that cancels our ordinary intuitions about free choice and moral responsibility. They recruited a subject population of University of Utah undergraduates, asked them to read the statement, and rated their level of agreement with a statement about the impossibility of moral responsibility.
But that’s not all. What is so clever about the experiment is that Roskies and Nichols divided the students into two groups. One group was told, “Many eminent scientists have become convinced . . . ,” and then the summary went on with the brief in favor of determinism. The other group was encouraged, “Imagine an alternative universe, Universe A, that is much like earth. But in Universe A, many eminent scientists have become convinced . . . ,” and then gave exactly the same summary account of deterministic scientific theories about human choices and behavior.
“The results,” Roskies and Nichols report, “were striking.” The students asked to imagine a universe in which determinism is true were much more likely to agree that moral responsibility is impossible than students who were presented with the deterministic account of our actual situation. The same held for a question about moral blame and punishment. The group asked to imagine a world in which determinism was scientifically proven set aside the traditional notion that people who commit crimes are blameworthy. In contrast, the group asked to contemplate a deterministic account of behavior in our present world were much more likely to retain link between bad actions and moral judgment.
This is fascinating. The results suggest that our everyday assumptions about human action, moral responsibility, praise, blame, and punishment will not be very much influenced by advances in cognitive science. Roskies and Nichols point to Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, who have prophesied, “As more and more scientific facts come in, providing increasingly vivid illustrations of what the human mind is really like, more and more people will develop moral intuitions that are at odds with our current moral practices.” It turns out that Greene and Cohen are confusing what is likely to happen with what they want culture to look like in the future: a common mistake among scientists.
Greene, Cohen, and others misjudge our reactions to new scientific knowledge because they fail to recognize that their theories interact in infinitely complex ways with the things we already believe. As the Roskies and Nichols experiment shows, reality does not just supply our arguments with empirical premises by way of scientific progress. It has many subtle ways of influencing our minds.
Roskies and Nichols canvas some of the reasons why we react differently to a real world scientific consensus than the same consensus in a hypothetical world. The first is fairly obvious: Real-world consequences focus the mind. If we imagine a world in which determinism is true, then it’s easy to draw the obvious conclusionmoral responsibility is an illusion. But shift the context to my actual life, and we don’t move so quickly to conclusions, especially conclusions we find troubling.
Now, we can write off our resistance to unpleasant conclusions as an irruption of irrationality. As Roskies and Nichols observe, “people are more likely to believe things they want to be true than things they do not want to be true.” True enough, but in the main we believe things about free choice and morality because we have reasons. It turns out that ordinary people have a fair amount of experience of what it means to be human. We’re in a pretty good position to know whether it is reasonable to treat ourselves and others as morally responsible.
When a scientist reports that action x can occur if and only if there is an antecedent brain state y, which in turn requires brain state z, then he is identifying y and z as necessary condition for and not the causes of x. We all know that what counts as a free choice is not a mental moment suspended in ether, unconnected and uninfluenced by emotions, habits, and intuitions. The ability of science to explain and illuminate the webs of interconnection does not dislodge our deeper intuition that our deeply embedded, highly influenced, and profoundly physical mental lives are somehow genuinely our ownand somehow our responsibility to discipline and cultivate.
Roskies and Nichols think that we are more sophisticated philosophically than philosophers (and scientists) give us credit. It’s quite reasonable for us to reason about the actual world differently than an imagined worldand their experiment shows that we do. This is especially true when we are asked to reflect on the moral significance of abstractionsand the proposition “all our choices are determined and not free” is nothing if not an abstraction.
As Hillary Putnam has observed in a related context, “The impossibility of a metaphysical grounding for ethics shows that there is something wrong with metaphysics, and not with ethics.” The undergrads at University of Utah don’t know Hillary Putnam from Sir Edmund Hillary, but they seem to agree. “In the world taken as actual,” Roskies and Nichols conclude, we assume that “people are morally responsible regardless of the truth of determinism.”
I feel sorry for scientists. They undergo extraordinary intellectual training, and they have developed a powerful set of theories to explain the natural world. The ever-accelerating pace of technological innovation makes their expertise extremely valuable. Grant money cascades into cutting-edge laboratories. Researchers win prizes, apply for patents, and start companies. The medical-industrial complex grows and grows. Yes, big science is important, successful, and lucrative. Yet the consequences for culture are surprisingly thin.
So maybe ordinary folks aren’t just surprisingly wise philosophers, but also decent historians. Copernicus dislodged the earth from the center of the universe. Darwin shows how the human species emerges from the great genetic flux. The science was revolutionary, but the cultural implications have been the opposite of what anyone would have predicted. True enough, we’ve had Social Darwinism and other noxious attempts to make morality scientific. But, in the main, the trend has been otherwise. In the centuries when science has successfully persuaded Western culture that our earth is not the cosmic focal point and the human species does not have a unique biological status, humanism has predominated as a moral outlook. That’s another reason to chuckle when scientists warn that their discoveries will threaten our anthropocentric, morally animated culture.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University.
“Brain Science and the Soul” by R.R. Reno