Neuroscience, ethics, and the law
Advances in neuroimaging techniques have the potential for combating crime. Edmund Naylor and colleagues explain the philosophical implications
- By: Edmund Naylor, Daniel Wood, Sheheryar Kabraji, Julian Savulescu
Advances in neuroscience have important implications in a legal setting, adding fuel to a centuries old debate over the nature of free will and offering the possibility of “mind reading” after and even before a crime has been committed. These issues have important ethical consequences.
Libertarian free will—the concept that an individual human can be the “uncaused cause” of their actions—initially appears central to legal responsibility, but its existence has long been controversial. The concept requires acceptance of the dualist belief that mind and brain are separate, implying that the conscious, the “ghost in the machine,” is able to decide on actions independently of external influences.
If one takes the determinist view that the mind is a construct of the brain then libertarian free will is impossible. The brain is a physical object in a physical universe, subject to the laws of causality: thus all neural impulses and eventual decisions