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Free will: An illusion?
Some neuroscientists are of the view that the idea of our being fully aware and in charge of decision making might not be quite valid. It would appear that unconscious processes play a significantly larger role than previously thought. If this were to be established beyond a shred of doubt, than there would be serious moral and legal ramifications.
In early experiments, using EEG or electroencephalography, it was found that activity occurred in the brain motor cortex, which is responsible for muscle movement, several hundred milliseconds before a person felt the decision to move was made.
This work was extended using the more sophisticated fMRI or functional magnetic imaging technology. For simple movements, it was found that some seven to ten seconds before a conscious decision was made, detailed information of the action was already existing in particular brain regions. It was concluded that our brains are making the decisions for us and thus the idea that human beings have a free will needs to be revisited.
Of course, there are other neuroscientists who disagree with this interpretation pointing out that even if this were so, the conscious brain still has the ability to veto or modify such decisions and thus we do have a free will or some measure of it. The issue is under active and intense debate within scientific and philosophical circles. The body is incredibly complex and many of its internal works, like breathing, digestion and release of hormones, to name but a few, are unconsciously activated and maintained.
Similarly for our thoughts; they arise continuously in our minds without any deliberate effort. Using meditation techniques, one may be able to observe and thus be aware of one’s thoughts or breathing. But this does not mean that we are in control of them. It might be deduced that the churning, forming and reorganisation of neuronal memories formed by past experiences and habits drive the decision-making process unconsciously and continuously prior to them being actuated at the conscious level.
Free will is not to be confused with resolve. We may decide consciously to maybe eat less or cut the coffee intake by two cups but are unable to do so because upon smelling the coffee, the resolve disappears. The physiological experiments that provide strong and repeatable evidence of the role of the unconscious mind serves to underline how much more needs to be done before we can fully understand the mind-body processes.
The focus on investigating the biological origins of the mind is providing new and interesting insights and is a fast-growing endeavour. Nevertheless, the results produced so far, and the ensuing debate, have raised the frightful possibility of people claiming that they are not responsible and thus not accountable for their actions if they were, for instance, abused as a child or grew up in an environment in which violence was the norm.
In fact, attorneys representing perpetrators of murder and mayhem are already testing the courts using similar arguments, painting the perpetrators as victims themselves. Therefore they should have reduced sentences or not be tried at all, in some instances. In light of the significant impact that this debate may have upon the lives of the average citizen, it is incumbent for civil society and the religious bodies to take a serious look at the debate surrounding this issue of free will or the lack of it.
It puts into focus and scrutiny the very foundations upon which civilised societies are based—responsibility and accountability. It involves a review of what is right behaviour and what is not, impacting both religion and law.
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