Governed by Committee?  Who Is Responsible?


Liberalism and Neurology: Free to Choose?

We must believe in free will, we have no choice.

- Isaac Bashevis Singer


Modern Neuroscience Is Eroding the Idea of Free Will

In the late 1990s a previously blameless American began collecting child pornography and propositioning children.  On the day before he was due to be sentenced to prison for his crimes, he had his brain scanned.  He had a tumour.  When it had been removed, his pædophilic tendencies went away.  When it started growing back, they returned.  When the regrowth was removed, they vanished again.  Who then was the child abuser?

His case dramatically illustrates the challenge that modern neuroscience is beginning to pose to the idea of free will.  The instinct of the reasonable observer is that organic changes of this sort somehow absolve the sufferer of the responsibility that would accrue to a child abuser whose pædophilia was congenital.  But why?  The chances are that the latter tendency is just as traceable to brain mechanics as the former; it is merely that no one has yet looked.  Scientists have looked at anger and violence, though, and discovered genetic variations, expressed as concentrations of a particular messenger molecule in the brain, that are both congenital and predisposing to a violent temper.  Where is free will in this case?

Free will is one of the trickiest concepts in philosophy, but also one of the most important.  Without it, the idea of responsibility for one's actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society (and even an unfree one) together.  If businessmen were no longer responsible for their contracts, criminals no longer responsible for their crimes and parents no longer responsible for their children, even though contract, crime and conception were "freely" entered into, then social relations would be very different.

For millennia the question of free will was the province of philosophers and theologians, but it actually turns on how the brain works.  Only in the past decade and a half, however, has it been possible to watch the living human brain in action in a way that begins to show in detail what happens while it is happening.  This ability is doing more than merely adding to science's knowledge of the brain's mechanism.  It is also emphasising to a wider public that the brain really is just a mechanism, rather than a magician's box that is somehow outside the normal laws of cause and effect.

Science is not yet threatening free will's existence: for the moment there seems little prospect of anybody being able to answer definitively the question of whether it really exists or not.  But science will shrink the space in which free will can operate by slowly exposing the mechanism of decision making.

At that point, the old French proverb "to understand all is to forgive all" will start to have a new resonance, though forgiveness may not always be the consequence.  Indeed, that may already be happening.  At the moment, the criminal law - in the West, at least - is based on the idea that the criminal exercised a choice: no choice, no criminal.  The British government, though, is seeking to change the law in order to lock up people with personality disorders that are thought to make them likely to commit crimes, before any crime is committed.

Such disorders are serious pathologies.  But the National DNA Database being built up by the British government (which includes material from many innocent people), would already allow the identification of those with milder predispositions to anger and violence.  How soon before those people are subject to special surveillance?  And if the state chose to carry out such surveillance, recognising that the people in question may pose particular risks merely because of their biology, it could hardly then argue that they were wholly responsible for any crime that they did go on to commit.

Nor is it only the criminal law where free will matters.  Markets also depend on the idea that personal choice is free choice.  Mostly, that is not a problem.  Even if choice is guided by unconscious instinct, that instinct will usually have been honed by natural selection to do the right thing.  But not always.  Fatty, sugary foods subvert evolved instincts, as do addictive drugs such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine.  Pornography does as well.  Liberals say that individuals should be free to consume these, or not.  Erode free will, and you erode that argument.

In fact, you begin to erode all freedom.  Without a belief in free will, an ideology of freedom is bizarre.  Though it will not happen quickly, shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.

Source: 19 December 2006


See also:

bulletI'm Not Guilty - But My Brain Is (in the Science section) - a prominent neuroscientist has sparked a storm by arguing that crime should be taken as evidence of brain abnormality, even if no abnormality can be found, and criminals treated as incapable of having acted otherwise.  His claims have brought howls of outrage from academics across the sciences and humanities.  But Singer counters that the idea is nothing but a natural extension of the thesis that free will is an illusion - a theory that he feels is supported by decades of work in neuroscience...
bulletMorality and the Brain (in the Science section) - particularly the article midway down the page entitled "Perspective on Imitation: Empathy and Criminal Responsibility" which discusses the important difference between autists and pschopaths.
bulletWhat Is Autism? (also in the Science section) - Scientists focused on structures within the brain known as cell minicolumns which play an important role in the way the brain takes in information and responds to it.  The cell minicolumns of autistic patients were found to be significantly smaller, but there were many more of them.  ...the increased amount of cell minicolumns in autistic people could mean that they are constantly in a state of overarousal.  Their poor communication skills could be an attempt to diminish this arousal...

Parasite Makes Men Dumb, Women Sexy


A common parasite can increase a women's attractiveness to the opposite sex but also make men more stupid, an Australian researcher says.  About 40% of the world's population is infected with Toxoplasma gondii, including about 8 million Australians.  Human infection generally occurs when people eat raw or undercooked meat that has cysts containing the parasite, or accidentally ingest some of the parasite's eggs excreted by an infected cat.

The parasite is known to be dangerous to pregnant women as it can cause disability or abortion of the unborn child, and can also kill people whose immune systems are weakened.  Until recently it was thought to be an insignificant disease in healthy people, Sydney University of Technology infectious disease researcher Nicky Boulter said, but new research has revealed its mind-altering properties.  "Interestingly, the effect of infection is different between men and women," Dr Boulter writes in the latest issue of Australasian Science magazine.  "Infected men have lower IQs, achieve a lower level of education and have shorter attention spans.  They are also more likely to break rules and take risks, be more independent, more anti-social, suspicious, jealous and morose, and are deemed less attractive to women.  On the other hand, infected women tend to be more outgoing, friendly, more promiscuous, and are considered more attractive to men compared with non-infected controls.  In short, it can make men behave like alley cats and women behave like sex kittens."

Dr Boulter said the recent Czech Republic research was not conclusive, but was backed up by animal studies that found infection also changes the behaviour of mice.  The mice were more likely to take risks that increased their chance of being eaten by cats, which would allow the parasite to continue its life cycle.  Rodents treated with drugs that killed the parasites reversed their behaviour, Dr Boulter said.

Another study showed people who were infected but not showing symptoms were 2.7 times more likely than uninfected people to be involved in a car accident as a driver or pedestrian, while other research has linked the parasite to higher incidences of schizophrenia.  "The increasing body of evidence connecting Toxoplasma infection with changes in personality and mental state, combined with the extremely high incidence of human infection in both developing and developed countries, warrants increased government funding and research, in particular to find safe and effective treatments or vaccines," Dr Boulter said.

Source: 26 December 2006

The Culture-Shaping Parasite

The Prevalence of Toxoplasma Gondii, a Single-Celled Parasite, Accounts for Some Cultural Differences

by Maggie Wittlin

You are not the only one controlling your mind.

Approximately one-quarter of Americans host a parasite that has been shown to affect personality in both rodents and humans.  According to a recent study, this single-celled organism may be able to shape entire cultures.

In a paper published in the online edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society, United States Geological Survey researcher Kevin Lafferty argues that a significant factor in why some countries exhibit higher levels of neuroticism than others may be the prevalence of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii.  The study also indicates that it may influence a society's preference for strict laws, an expression of uncertainty avoidance, and its valuation of "masculine" priorities such as competitiveness and financial success over "feminine" values like relationship-building.

"Toxoplasma appears to explain 30% of the variation in neuroticism among countries, 15% of the uncertainty avoidance among Western nations and 30% of the sex role differences among Western nations," Lafferty said.  Lafferty analyzed preexisting data on Toxoplasma prevalence and mean trait levels in 39 countries.  He found a significant linear correlation between latent Toxoplasma prevalence and neuroticism with a few outliers, including the unusually neurotic nations of Hungary and China and the notably easygoing Turkey.  Links between Toxoplasma, uncertainty avoidance and concerns about masculinity initially appeared to be insignificant but later emerged when Lafferty focused on Western nations.

Lafferty based his analysis on earlier research by Jaroslav Flegr, a parasitologist at Prague's Charles University, which showed that in humans, Toxoplasma infection correlates highly with certain personality traits: Infected men tended to have lower levels of intelligence, superego strength and novelty-seeking, while infected women exhibited higher levels of intelligence, superego strength and warmth.  Infected people of both sexes tend to be susceptible to feelings of guilt.

Lafferty chose to analyze cultural neuroticism because Toxoplasma appears to influence neuroticism-related traits equally in both sexes, he said, unlike, say superego strength.  "Given the previous results from the rodent models and Flegr's human studies, I'm not sure I would have chosen 'neurotism'/'neurotic' elements of human cultures as the measure here, particularly across genders, but that is a matter for debate," said Imperial College London epidemiologist Joanne Webster.  She noted that uncertainties remain as to why the link between Toxoplasma and cultural dimensions known to be associated with neuroticism are so evident in Western nations.

In 2000, Webster reported that rats infected with Toxoplasma are less fearful of and, in some cases, can even be attracted to their feline predators.  She surmised that the parasite subtly manipulates a rat's behaviour to increase the rodent's chances of being eaten by a cat - the only animal in which it can reproduce - thereby upping the odds of the parasite reproducing.  Lafferty acknowledges that his data set alone does not necessarily imply that latent toxoplasmosis creates cultural neuroticism.  "For any correlation, it is possible that you have cause and effect mixed up," he said.  "However, for this study, I can only think of a logical mechanism for the possibility that Toxoplasma affects culture - not the reverse."

Flegr, who advised Lafferty on his analysis, said that the new study jives with some of his own lab's unpublished results, especially with respect to masculinity.  "We have the data showing that Toxoplasma-infected men are scored as more dominant and more masculine than Toxoplasma-free men by female observers."

Source: 16 August 2006

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