The Causes of Human Rights Violations (37): Our Brains

Using modern brain scanning technology, researchers have found delays of about half a second between a person’s brain committing to certain decisions and the person becoming aware of having made them.

Benjamin Libet is famous – or infamous if you want – for his experiments in the 1980s, showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before participants were consciously aware of their desire to move. Apparently, brain activity – unconscious buildup of electrical charge within the brain – precedes conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts. In other words, unconscious neuronal processes precede and potentially cause volitional acts which are retrospectively felt to be consciously motivated by the subject. If unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts, then there is no free will; or if there is free will it shouldn’t be viewed as the initiating force.

If unconscious brain processes have already taken steps to initiate an action before consciousness is aware of any desire to perform it, the causal role of consciousness in volition is all but eliminated. (source)

An example:

scientists in 2008 were able to predict with 60% accuracy whether subjects would press a button with their left or right hand up to 10 seconds before the subject became aware of having made that choice. (source, source)

How can a choice be free if scientists can predict it with relative certainty? It seems that our conscious experience of decision-making is nothing but a secondary effect, a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on our actions and reactions.

If this demotion of free will is correct – and that’s a big if – then rights violations aren’t caused by people who decide to violate them. They are instead caused by their brains. This is a depressing idea because it implies that we can’t do much about rights violations, short of clinical or chemical interventions in the brain. It also implies that we can’t hold violators responsible for their actions, since it’s their brains rather than their conscious volition that is the real cause of those actions.

More on free will here. More posts in this series are here.

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6 thoughts on “The Causes of Human Rights Violations (37): Our Brains

  1. Yeah, I’d be careful about making too much of this “death of free will” research. Most of these experiments rely on repeated patterns of stimulus input & participant output – the brain eventually economizes its own activity within the confines of the experiment, making what appears to be predetermined decisions before conscious awareness, though these are after an initial “free”, rational calculation.

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