Tag Archives: free will

Why you shouldn’t blame lying on the brain

The Conversation

Richard Gunderman, Indiana University

The recent finding that telling lies induces changes in the brain has stimulated a number of misrepresentations that may wreak more harm on our understanding than the lies on which they report. CNN’s headline runs, “Lying May Be Your Brain’s Fault, Honestly,” and PBS reports, “Telling a Lie Makes Way for the Brain to Keep Lying.”

These stories are based on a study from University College London using a brain imaging technique called functional MRI. The authors report that as subjects tell lies, activation of the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with emotion and decision making, actually decreases, suggesting that subjects may become desensitized to lying, thereby paving the way for further dishonesty.

Of course the notion that lying breeds dishonesty is nothing new. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested that our character – whether we are brave or cowardly, self-indulgent or self-controlled, generous or mean – is the product of habit. Virtues and vices are not acts but habits, he said, and we become what we accustom ourselves to doing.

What seems to make the University College study novel and newsworthy is the linkage between a pattern of conduct – lying – and changes in patterns of brain activity. The authors offer what they call “a mechanistic account of how dishonesty escalates, showing that it is supported by reduced activity in brain regions associated with emotion.”

Brain not simply a machine

Findings of this sort are subject to misinterpretation in three potentially misleading ways. First, there is the suggestion that a behavior such as lying can be explained “mechanistically.” Saying so implies the brain is a mechanism that can be accounted for in purely mechanistic terms. In fact, however, calling the brain a machine vastly oversimplifies it.

A synapse and neural cells.
From www.shutterstock.com

We know, for example, that the brain contains nearly 100 billion neurons with perhaps 150 trillion synapses. This may sound like an incredibly complex thinking machine, but no analysis of the brain as gray matter, electrical circuitry, or neuro-chemistry makes the leap from machinery to our experience of the world.

As Nobel laureate Charles Sherrington, one of the founders of modern neuroscience, famously declared, natural sciences such as physics and chemistry may bring us tantalizingly close to threshold of thought, but it is precisely at this point that they “bid us ‘goodbye.‘” The language of natural science is inadequate to account for human experience, including the experience of telling a lie.

Consider Mozart’s “A Little Serenade” or Rembrandt’s self-portraits. We can describe the former as horsehair rubbing across catgut, and we may account for the latter as nothing more than pigments applied to canvas, but in each case something vital is lost. As any reader of Shakespeare knows, a lie is something far richer than any pattern of brain activation.

The brain is not the mind

A second dangerous misinterpretation that often arises from such reports is the notion that brain and mind are equivalent. To be sure, altering the chemistry and electrical activity of the brain can powerfully affect a person’s sensation, thought, and action – witness the occasionally remarkable effects of psychoactive drugs and electro-convulsive therapy.

But in much of human experience, the causal pathway works in the opposite direction, not from brain to mind, but mind to brain. We need look no further than the human imagination, from which all great works of art, literature and even natural science flow, to appreciate that something far more complex than altered synaptic chemistry is at work in choices about whether to be truthful.

In fact, our capacity to lie is one of the most powerful demonstrations of the fact that the human mind is not bound by the physical laws that scientists see at work in the brain. As Jonathan Swift puts it “Gulliver’s Travels,” to lie is “to say the thing which is not,” perhaps as profound a testimony as we could wish for free will and the ability of the human mind to transcend physical laws.

Adam and Eve were banished in the Creation Story.
From www.shutterstock.com

In the Genesis creation story, it is after woman and man have tasted the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and hidden their nakedness that God declares that “they have become like us.” To be able to lie is in a sense divine, implying a capacity to imagine reality as it is not yet. If used appropriately, this capacity can make the world a better place.

Blaming the brain

Perhaps the most dangerous misapprehension that can flow from new findings in brain science is reflected in the CNN and PBS headlines: the notion that lying is “your brain’s fault” or that “the brain keeps lying.” The idea, it seems, is that lying is something that happens in and by the brain, much as a dysrhythmia happens in the heart or strangulation happens in the bowel.

In reality, of course, lying is not the fault of the brain but the person to whom the brain belongs. When someone tells a lie, he or she is not merely incorrect but deceptive. People who lie are deliberately distorting the truth and misleading someone in hopes of gain, placing their purposes above the understanding and trust of the person to whom they lie.

Even in the era of functional neuro-imaging, there is no lie detector that can tell with certainty whether subjects are telling the truth. There is no truth serum that can force them to do so. At the core of every utterance is an act of moral discernment that we cannot entirely account for except to say that it reflects the character of the person who does it.

Lying is not a matter of physical law, but of moral injunction. It is less about chemistry than character. It reflects not merely what we regard as expedient in the moment but who we are at our core. Ironically, while it is less momentous to act well than to be good, we are in the end little more than the sum of all the moral compromises we have made or refused to make.

This is why we abhor the deceptive conduct of narcissists, crooks and politicians, and why we esteem so highly the characters of people who manage to tell the truth even when it is especially inconvenient to do so. Such acts are morally blameworthy or exemplary precisely because we recognize them as the products of human choice, not physical necessity.

The ConversationRichard Gunderman, Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, Indiana University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Epicurean free will

by Tim Harding

Epicurus’ philosophy of mind is perhaps best explained in terms of Epicurean physics.  Epicurus was a materialist who thinks that the natural world is all that exists, so his physics is a general theory of what exists and its nature, including human bodies and minds (O’Keefe 2010: 11-12).

Epicureans thought that there are only two things that exist per se – atoms and void.  Atoms are the indivisible, most basic particles of matter, which move through void, which is empty space (O’Keefe 2010: 11-12).  Objects as we know them are compounds of atoms, and their various natures are explicable in terms of the different properties or attributes of their constituent atoms (Baltzly 2016: 02-1).

When Epicurus refers to the ‘soul’ he means what we today refer to as the mind, so ‘mind’ is the term I shall use here.  He identifies the mind with a compound of four types of atoms – air, heat, wind and a fourth nameless substance (Long and Sedley 1987: 14C).  Because the mind is composed of atoms, it must be corporeal – only the void is incorporeal (Long and Sedley 1987: 14A).  The mind is a part of the body (located in the chest), responsible for sensation, imagination, emotion and memory (Long and Sedley 1987: 14A, 14B, 15D).  Other functions belong to the ‘spirit’ which provides sensory input to, and carries out the instructions of the mind throughout the body (Long and Sedley 1987: 14B).

According to O’Keefe (2010: 62-63), another Epicurean argument for believing that mind is corporeal is as follows:

Premise 1: The mind moves the body and is moved by the body.

Premise 2: Only bodies can move and be moved by other bodies.

Conclusion: Therefore, the mind is a body.

Long and Sedley (1987:107) identify Epicurus as arguably the first philosopher to recognise what we now know as the philosophical Problem of Free Will.  This problem is if it has been causally necessary we should act as we do, it cannot be up to us, therefore we cannot be morally responsible for our actions (Long and Sedley 1987: 20A).  On the other hand, Epicurus notes that ‘we rebuke, oppose and reform each other as if the responsibility lay also in ourselves’ [Long and Sedley 1987: 20C(2)].

According to Cicero, ‘Epicurus thinks that necessity of fate is avoided by the swerve of atoms’ [Long and Sedley 1987: 20E(2)].  Baltzly explains this ‘atomic swerve’ as atoms moving a minimal distance sideways, apparently for no reason at all, from time to time.  This swerve from their natural downward motion results in atomic collisions (Baltzly 2016: F2.2-14).  Although this swerve is not explicitly mentioned by Epicurus himself, Cicero writes that:

‘Epicurus’ reason for introducing this theory was his fear that, if the atom’s motion was always the result of natural and necessary weight, we would have no freedom, since the mind would be moved in whatever way it was compelled by the movement of atoms’ [Long and Sedley 1987: 20E(3)].

Lucretius presents an argument that the atomic swerve enables free will (Long and Sedley 1987: 20F).  O’Keefe (2010: 74-75) states this argument in the following form:

Premise 1: If the atoms did not swerve, there would not be ‘free will’.

Premise 2: There is free will.

Conclusion: Therefore, atoms swerve.

This argument is logically valid, so if the premises are true the conclusion must be true.  Lucretius spends most of this passage trying to show that Premise 2 is true.  However, even if Premise 2 is true, we do not know that Premise 1 is true.  The atomic swerve introduces a slight element of indeterminacy, but this swerve does not necessarily entail free will, since no mechanism is given to explain the connection between these two concepts.  Indeed, Annas (1991: 87) argues that there is a fundamental problem in thinking of human motivation in terms of only the motion of atoms.  She thinks that occurrence of atomic swerves in ordinary macro-objects has no effect on them (Annas 1991: 96-97).  For this reason, I do not think that the introduction of random atomic swerves solves the Problem of Free Will.

Sedley (1987: 107) agrees that taken in isolation such a solution is ‘notoriously unsatisfactory’.  He offers an alternative explanation in terms of ‘development’ which contributes psychological autonomy and which is distinct from the atoms in a kind of differential or transcendent way (Long and Sedley 1987: 107-18).  In other words, these distinct developments are psychological rather than physical properties of the mind.  In particular, the development of consciousness which is an ‘emergent’ property of complex atomic systems like human beings (Baltzly 2016: F2.2 – 17).

In a later paper, Sedley provides some more detail on what he means by emergent properties:

‘I take Epicurus to be sketching some sort of theory of radically emergent properties.  Matter in certain complex states can, he holds, acquire entirely new , non-physical properties, not governed by the laws of physics’ (Sedley 1988: 323-324).

It is important to note that Sedley is attempting here to make a connection between free will and the atomic swerve.  As Baltzly (2016: F2.2 – 18) puts it, the swerve means that not every motion of the atoms which make up our bodies is determined by those atoms themselves.  Baltzly thinks that the swerve does not introduce an element of randomness or indeterminacy into our free choices:

‘Rather, the swerve leaves a gap where the psychological properties of my soul [mind] can cause something to happen where behaviour of the atoms that make up my soul [mind] leave it open what will happen’ (Baltzly 2016: F2.2 – 18).

My own view is that Sedley and Baltzly provide a plausible explanation of the connection between Epicurus’ atomic swerve and free will.  It is possible that consciousness is an emergent psychological property of the material mind.  Free will could be seen as a manifestation of consciousness.  Whilst we cannot yet fully explain what consciousness is and how is works, there is little doubt that consciousness exists.  If consciousness can exist, then so can free will.  However, where I part company with Sedley is that I find Epicurus’ theory of the atomic swerve unconvincing.  Neither Epicurus nor his followers provide any evidence for the existence of the atomic swerve.  It has been postulated as a kind of ‘retrofit’ in an attempt to solve the problem of free will by introducing an imaginary element of indeterminacy.  I think that Sedley’s idea of emergence could help to explain free will even in the absence of the Epicurean atomic swerve.

I would now like to draw towards a conclusion about Epicurus’ philosophy of mind, by comparing it with the theories of his competitors.  According to O’Keefe (2010: 80-83), these were mainly Carneades (214-129BCE) the head of the skeptical academy; and Chrysippus (c.280-206BCE) the third head of the Stoic school.

The most relevant criticism of Carneades is that positing a motion without a cause, like the atomic swerve, would be beside the point in solving the problem of free will (O’Keefe 2010: 82).  Carneades’ solution is to say that all events, including human actions, have causes   These actions are the result of ‘voluntary motions of the mind’ rather than external causes.  He thinks that there is no reason to posit, in addition, a fundamental indeterminism like the atomic swerve (O’Keefe 2010: 82).  In this way, Carneades was perhaps the forerunner of a compatibilist solution to the problem of free will, allowing both determinism and voluntary choices to co-exist.

Chrysippus criticises Epicurus from the opposite direction.  He shows that causal determinism does not make the future inevitable in a manner that renders action or deliberation futile.  In this way, determinism is compatible with human agency (O’Keefe 2010: 82).

In conclusion, I think that Sedley, Carneades and Chrysippus have pointed the way towards a compatibilist solution to the problem of free will, that does not depend on the dubious Epicurean postulation of the atomic swerve.  I therefore think that their approaches to this problem are more compelling than those of Epicurus.


Annas, J. ‘Epicurus’ Philosophy of Mind’ Companions to Ancient Thought: 2 Psychology, S. Everson, ed. (1991) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baltzly, D. ATS3885: Stoic and Epicurean Philosophy Unit Reader (2016). Clayton: Faculty of Arts, Monash University.

Long A. A. and Sedley, D. N. The Hellenistic Philosophers, Volume 1 (1987). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Keefe, T. Epicureanism. (2010). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sedley D. ‘Epicurean Anti-Reductionism’ in Jonathan Barnes Mario Mignucci (ed.), Matter and Metaphysics. Bibliopolis 295–327 (1988).

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Choosing a compatibilist free will perspective

Scientia Salon

brainby Dwayne Holmes

[This essay is part of a special “free will week” at Scientia Salon. The Editor promises not to touch the topic again for a long while after this particular orgy, of course assuming he has any choice in the matter…]

Despite the question having been around forever, the topic of Free Will (FW) has been pretty hot lately, including several entries at Scientia Salon [1-4]. Personally, I find the philosophical aspect of the topic of Free Will a bit pointless (either we have it or we don’t), but references to questionable “findings” in neuroscience and claims of how FW beliefs impact ethics and social policy do interest me (quite a bit) and force me to beg everyone’s patience for yet another essay on FW.  If you will, think of this as an entry on how not to interpret findings from neuroscience (or biology).

Let’s begin by cutting…

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Book review: Free Will, the Basics

Scientia Salon

71wZXjIRXLLby Massimo Pigliucci

[This essay is part of a special “free will week” at Scientia Salon. The Editor promises not to touch the topic again for a long while after this particular orgy, of course assuming he has any choice in the matter… Also, as part of Scientia Salon’s apparently somewhat controversial “(slight) course correction” we are beginning to publish book reviews and — forthcoming — interviews. Stay tuned.]

Sometimes it’s good, or even necessary, to go back to the basics. This is true of all complex and/or confusing issues, and free will certainly qualifies. Scientia Salon has published a number of essays on free will before [1], and this special “free will week” has begun with a vigorous, neurobiologically based defense of compatibilism and will end (in a couple of days) with a provocative, high-tech, apology for libertarianism!

Yet, underlying all current discussions about the topic is…

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Dennett on philosophers and scientists

Prof. Daniel Dennett (born March 28, 1942) is an American philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist whose research centers on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science.

“The history of philosophy is the history of very tempting mistakes made by very smart people, and if you don’t learn that history you’ll make those mistakes again and again and again. One of the ignoble joys of my life is watching very smart scientists just reinvent all the second-rate philosophical ideas because they’re very tempting until you pause, take a deep breath and take them apart.”  – Daniel Dennett

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Dennett on Consciousness and Free Will


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Searle on free will

What is Free Will? Our host Robert Lawrence Kuhn poses the question to Professor John Searle, in an interview from our series “Closer To Truth,”

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December 20, 2014 · 4:20 pm

Determinism vs ethics

This is a paradox about the relationship between determinism and ethics. Simply stated, the paradox is as follows:

Determinism affords no reason for doing anything, and is therefore ethically irrelevant. Therefore it does not render ethics irrelevant, since if it did, it would be ethically relevant.

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Buridan’s Ass

Buridan’s Ass is the name give to an apparent paradox related to the free will paradox; although there is some debate amongst philosophers as to whether it actually is a paradox (see below).

The paradox is named after the French priest and philosopher Jean Buridan (c.1300-1358CE), who studied under William of Ockham.  It refers to a hypothetical situation where a donkey finds itself exactly halfway between two equally big and delicious bales of hay.  There is no way of distinguishing between these two bales – they appear to be identical.  Because the donkey lacks a reason or cause to choose one over the other, it cannot decide which one to eat, and so starves to death. This tale is usually taken as demonstrating that there is no free will.

The corollary to this argument is that if the donkey eats one of the bales of hay, then the donkey is making a choice.  If the donkey is making a choice, then it must have free will, because there is no causal mechanism to make it choose one bale over another. And if donkeys have free will, then so must humans.


Deliberations of Congress (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The paradox actually predates Buridan – it dates to antiquity, being found in Aristotle’s On the Heavens.[2] Aristotle, in ridiculing the Sophist idea that the Earth is stationary simply because it is circular and any forces on it must be equal in all directions, says that is as ridiculous as saying that:

…a man, being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed in between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death.  — Aristotle, On the Heavens, (c.350 BCE)

The 12th century Persian Islamic scholar and philosopher Al-Ghazali discusses the application of this paradox to human decision-making, asking whether it is possible to make a choice between equally good courses without grounds for preference.  He takes the attitude that free will can break the stalemate.

Suppose two similar dates in front of a man, who has a strong desire for them but who is unable to take them both. Surely he will take one of them, through a quality in him, the nature of which is to differentiate between two similar things. — Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Philosophers (c.1100CE)

Professor Hauskeller of Exeter University takes a scientifically sceptical view of this paradox, using the donkey scenario:

If we could find a donkey which was dumb enough to starve between two piles of hay, we would have evidence against free will, at least as far as donkeys are concerned (or at least that particular donkey). But that’s not very likely. No matter how artfully we arrange the situation, a donkey will not hesitate very long, if at all, and will soon choose one of the piles of hay. He doesn’t care which, and he certainly won’t starve. However, even if we conducted thousands of experiments like this, and no donkey ever starved, we would still not have proved the existence of free will, because the reason no donkey ever starves in front of two equally attractive piles of hay may simply be that those piles aren’t really equally attractive. Perhaps in real life there aren’t any situations where the weighted reasons for a choice are equal.[1]

So Hauskeller’s suggested solution to the paradox is that the piles of hay are not equal in practice – the donkey detects a slight difference which causes it to choose one pile over the other. This solution is not very convincing when one considers the hypothetical possibility of the two piles of hay being exactly equal in appearance. It seems that we still have a problem here.

Some proponents of hard determinism have acknowledged the difficulty the scenario creates for determinism, but have denied that it illustrates a true paradox, since a deterministic donkey could recognize that both choices are equally good and arbitrarily (randomly) pick one instead of starving. For example, there are deterministic machines that can generate random numbers, although there is some dispute as to whether such numbers are truly random.


[1] Hauskeller, M. (2010) Why Buridan’s Ass Doesn’t Starve Philosophy Now, London. http://philosophynow.org/issues/81/Why_Buridans_Ass_Doesnt_Starve

[2] Rescher, N. (2005). Cosmos and Logos: Studies in Greek Philosophy . Ontos Verlag. pp. 93–99.

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The free will paradox

The following set of propositions is described by McKenna (2009:1.5)[1] as the classical formulation of the problem of free will:

1)      ‘Some person, at some time, could have acted otherwise than she did.

2)      Actions are events.

3)      Every event has a cause.

4)      If an event is caused, then it is causally determined.

5)      If an event is an act that is causally determined, then the agent of the act could not have acted otherwise than in the way that she did’.

This formulation involves a mutually inconsistent set of propositions, and yet each is consistent with in our contemporary conception of the world, producing an apparent paradox. It is related to another apparent paradox known as Buridan’s Ass.


[1] McKenna, Michael, ‘Compatibilism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/compatibilism/>

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