Our intuition of choice

Synapse 18: The big question of Free Will

If you’ve been following the last two weeks of Synapse, I’ve been digging deep into the causal events underlying behavior from the five tentpoles (neurobiology, hormones, environment, culture, genes) to their application to the neuroscience of murder. If you’re new here and missed those essays, I encourage you to go back and read them now because they will color our conversation here.

So, of the five tentpoles above, which did you choose? Which are under your conscious control?

I would argue none of them.

You certainly didn’t choose your genes, the society you were born in, or your parents. You didn’t choose how your brain works or how it responds to your environment. You don’t have much control over the hormones in your body.

Questions like this underly an extremely important and vast topic under the purview of philosophy, psychology, and now, neuroscience: free will.

Intuition of choice

We have a strong intuition that our behavior is completely under our conscious control. Maybe you woke up this morning, got dressed, made coffee/tea, opened your phone to check email, etc… If I asked you afterward about your choices you would likely (as would I) claim that you freely chose all of those actions.

However, there may be good reasons to challenge this intuition when it comes to (more consequential) choices, and doing so has a profound impact on how we treat other people in our daily lives and in our criminal justice system.

An excellent, concise book on this topic is Free Will by Sam Harris. In this book, Harris makes the case that free will is entirely an illusion of our mind—that behavior is the result of causal events out of our control and therefore our behavior really isn’t “free.” I should note that this book presents a very particular viewpoint on this subject that has been criticized by other philosophers and scientists. However, I still think it presents a fantastic and approachable introduction to this debate.

The arguments surrounding free will are vast, nuanced, and detailed—some of which will likely to explored in future editions Synapse; however, since we just learned about the neuroscience of murder, I’d like to zoom in on a critical application of free will: moral responsibility. Take the following five scenarios that Harris presents in his book:

  1. A four-year-old boy was playing with his father’s gun and killed a young woman. The gun had been kept loaded and unsecured in a dresser drawer.

  2. A 12-year-old boy who had been the victim of continual physical and emotional abuse took his father’s gun and intentionally shot and killed a young woman because she was teasing him.

  3. A 25-year-old man who had been the victim of continual abuse as a child intentionally shot and killed his girlfriend because she left him for another man.

  4. A 25-year-old man who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met “just for the fun of it.

  5. A 25-year-old man who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met “just for the fun of it.” An MRI of the man’s brain revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball in his medial prefrontal cortex (a region responsible for the control of emotion and behavioral impulses).

In every case, a woman died, but our degree of moral outrage depends heavily on the circumstances surrounding the killing. Our criminal justice system is tasked with sorting between these scenarios every year. Some decisions, I think, are agreeable. For example, in cases 1 and 2, we know that the brain isn’t fully developed and so we aren’t as eager to assign blame on that child. Similarly in case 3 with an obvious and tragic history of abuse.

But here’s where things get messy.

In case 4, we feel fully vindicated in assigning blame to this individual as a psychopath deserving harsh punishment (maybe even capital punishment). However, in case 5, we suddenly are less eager to harshly punish this individual because he has a seemingly obviously biological cause that is outside of his control.

Sam Harris argues, and I agree, that we need to challenge our intuitions when it comes to distinguishing cases 4 and 5. If we didn’t know about the tumor, we would punish cases 4 and 5 the exact same way. What if the causal events underlying case 4 are simply less obvious than a tumor? What if its small contributions of various tentpoles: a gene that makes one prone to violence, some (but not a lot) of childhood exposure to violence, a horribly bad day, and an unlucky, random brain neural event that causes an impulsion to kill that day? I think we would now call the murderer unlucky and not evil—that’s why the science of behavior is so important. From Harris:

Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel.


We can debate the details of free will and how far to extend a deterministic view of choice and behavior, but one thing I think we can all agree on is this: we often take too much credit for our good behaviors and too much blame for our bad ones. The next time someone cuts you off on the highway or treats you poorly at work, I encourage you to remember this essay and consider the unlucky or less-fortunate reasons for this behavior. In many cases “the urge for retribution depends upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior” (Sam Harris).

Thanks for reading.

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📚 Recommendation

This week I’ve started reading former president Barrack Obama’s presidential memoir A Promised Land. It’s very good, insightful, and well-written. One gem so far:

“Looking back, it’s embarrassing to recognize the degree to which my intellectual curiosity those first two years of college paralleled the interests of various women I was attempting to get to know: Marx and Marcuse so I had something to say to the long-legged socialist who lived in my dorm; Fanon and Gwendolyn Brooks for the smooth-skinned sociology major who never gave me a second look; Foucault and Woolf for the ethereal bisexual who wore mostly black. As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless; I found myself in a series of affectionate but chaste friendships (p. 10).”

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