International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will

by Nancey Murphy , Warren S. Brown

Introductory Essay by Malcolm Jeeves

For more than two millennia philosophers and theologians have debated human freedom and determinism. Historically, in the theological domain, St. Augustine’s central concern was with issues of predestination and salvation. Later thinkers focussed on issues such as whether human freedom was reconcilable with divine foreknowledge. Philosophers’ questions were not about merely whether one is able to choose but whether one is able to choose freely.

With the extremely rapid developments in neuroscience where every new advance seems to tighten the links between mind, brain and behaviour, philosophers and  theologians, as well as humanists and scientists have returned to these same questions with a fresh urgency. For example, the recently retired head of the Medical Research Council in Britain joined with a colleague to edit a book entitled The New Brain Sciences: Perils and Prospects (2004).

A similar concern about the wider implications of neuroscience research for our understanding of the human person was evidenced by the largest ever joint consultation by members of the European Union who produced a report on the promises and also threats from developments in neuroscience. It is timely therefore that we now have a book with the title Did My Neurones Make Me Do It ? jointly written by a philosopher and a neuropsychologist. .

The timeliness of this book is captured in its first three lines where the authors write "It is an interesting fact about contemporary Westerners that we have no shared account of the nature of the human person. Even more interesting is the fact that many are unaware of the first fact" [1]. The authors have a clear agenda – to defeat reductionism. They write "Our thesis is that while human reasonableness and responsibility may be explained (partially) by the cognitive neurosciences they cannot be explained away" [2]. In undertaking their task they take on board two important philosophical problems. First, that physicalism cannot account for the meaningfulness of language and second, the causal efficacy of the mental. The central problem dealt with in the book is to answer the question "How can biological organisms be freely and morally responsible?" For the authors, the real problem is not determinism but reductionism.

The authors acknowledge their heavy dependence upon the thinking and writing of Donald Mackay and especially his Gifford lectures Behind the Eye (1991). However, they take us further as they consider the more recent views of philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, Galen Strawson and Peter van Inwagen and systems theorists such as Alan Scrivener.

The debate will continue but, as a guide to the landscape that must be examined, this book is extremely helpful and up-to-date. In due course, no doubt, we shall get responses, not only from philosophers, but also from specialists in systems theory, complexity theory and informatics, all of which are used at times as the authors develop their arguments.