Back Transdisciplinarity and the Unity of Knowledge: Beyond the Science and Religion Dialogue

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Maureen Sie
Arno Wouters
Brain Science and Personal Responsibility: What Is the Problem?


The behavioral, cognitive, and neurosciences (hereafter: the BCN-sciences) gradually reveal the mechanisms that make us who we are. Or so it seems. The success of this enterprise has led to worries among the public that the BCN-sciences will undermine our notion of free will and the idea that people can be held responsible for what they do.

These worries are usually discussed in relation to what philosophers call ‘libertarian free will,’ which is the idea that people are responsible for what they do to the extent that they have the ability to do otherwise, that is the ability to act different from what they in fact do. Problems for libertarian free will arise when people have reason to think that their actions might be determined by factors beyond their control, in this case by the interaction of genes and environment mediated by their nervous system.

In the course of history we find several responses to the perceived threat of determinism to our views of what it is to be a person. Libertarianists deny or downplay determinism. Hard determinists accept determinism and argue for a reform of our practices of holding people responsible. In this talk, I want to draw attention to a third response, called ‘compatibilism,’ according to which determinism does not exclude human freedom and personal responsibility. This view starts with the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century and has been the majority view in philosophy ever since. In the second half of the twentieth century, a new form of compatibilism has been developed that puts aside the determinism issue as irrelevant to free will and personal responsibility. According to this very influential ‘new compatibilism,’ it is our ability to act for reasons rather than the ability to do otherwise that grounds our practice of holding people responsible for what they do. Unfortunately, compatibilism has received little attention in debates about the implications of recent brain science for our ideas of personal responsibility. Although both philosophers and neuroscientists occasionally wave aside worries about neuroscience and personal responsibility with reference to compatibilism, a serious consideration of the implications of the BCN-sciences for current compatibilism is still lacking. In the first part of my talk, I introduce current compatibilism; in the second part, I will discuss some problems the BCN-sciences pose to this view.

Maureen Sie (PhD practical philosophy, Utrecht University, 1999) is assistant professor of mathematics at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam.  She seeks to develop a concept of moral agency that accommodates those recent developments in the cognitive and neuroscience that can be subsumed under the heading of the ‘Adaptive Unconscious.’  Her publications about free will and responsibility include: Justifying Blame: Why Free Will Matters and Why it Does Not (Vibs, Rodopi, 2005) andOrdinary Wrongdoing and Responsibility Worth Wanting,” (European Journal of Analytic Philosophy, vol. 1 (2005), no. 2, pp. 67–82).

Arno Wouters currently works as a postdoc at the Department of Religious Studies of the Radboud University Nijmegen on a project titled ‘Neuroscience and Personhood’. This project investigates the implications of recent developments in the neurosciences for anthropological notions like 'free will', 'responsibility', 'self' and 'person' in theology and philosophy.  He studied biology (Wageningen) and philosophy (Groningen) and earned a PhD in philosophy of science from Utrecht University (1999). 


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