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Workshop on Neuroscience and Responsibility

Gothenburg, November 14, 2015

Does free will exist? The question has fueled heated debates spanning from philosophy to psychology and religion. The answer has major implications, and the stakes are high. To put it in the simple terms that have come to dominate these debates, if we are free to make our own decisions, we are accountable for what we do, and if we aren't free, we're off the hook. There are neuroscientists who claim that our decisions are made unconsciously and are therefore outside of our control. Speakers at this workshop will question this claim.

Venue: Olof Wijksgatan 6, T307

Open for outside participants; let us know if you are interested.


Al Mele (Florida State University)
Gerben Meynen (Tilburg University)
Michael Moore (University of Illinois)
Nicole Vincent (Georgia State University)
Robyn Repko Waller (King's College London)



08:30–09:00 Tea-Coffee-Fruit-Pastries
09:00–10:15 Michael Moore (University of Illinois) ‘Nothing But a Pack of Neurons: Responsible Reductionism About the Mental States that Measure Moral Culpability’
10:15–10:45 Break
10:45–12:00 Gerben Meynen (Tilburg University) ‘Legal Insanity and Neuroscience: Dilemma’s and Debates’
12:00–13:30 Lunch
13:30–14:45 Nicole Vincent (Georgia State University) ‘Why Capacity Matters: The fairness of treating people like that like that for that’
14:45–15:15 Break
15:15–16:30 Robyn Repko Waller (King’s College London) ‘Advancements in the Libet paradigm and implications for free and appraisable agency’
16:30–17:00 Break
17:00–18:15 Al Mele (Florida State University) ‘Free Will and Neuroscience’


Alfred Mele: Free Will and Neuroscience

A major source of scientific skepticism about free will is the belief that conscious decisions and intentions never play a role in producing corresponding actions. I present three serious problems encountered by any attempt to justify this belief by appealing to existing neuroscientific data. Experiments using three different kinds of technology are discussed: EEG, fMRI, and depth electrodes.


Gerben Meynen: Legal Insanity and Neuroscience: Dilemma’s and Debates

The insanity defense is usually considered essential to a fair legal system. Many feel that, at least in some cases, mental disorders may undermine a defendant’s criminal responsibility to the extent that the defendant should not be punished. The defense is available to a large number of defendants worldwide. At the same time, legal insanity is a controversial and much debated element of criminal law. Some states in the US have even abolished the defense, while in Sweden there are currently vivid debates about the possible reintroduction of the defense. Interestingly, those who agree on the availability of the defense, may still strongly disagree on one or more of its central aspects. In fact, across jurisdictions, there is an impressive variety of legal standards defining the criteria for insanity – indicative of profound differences of opinion. The most influential standard for insanity is the M’Naghten Rule, which focuses exclusively on the defendant’s knowledge – and it has been extensively criticized for that reason. It is argued that mental disorders can influence behavior not just by affecting a person’s knowledge, but also by undermining one’s capacity for behavioral control. Formulating a legal standard is just one of the central issues of debate regarding insanity. There are many more thorny topics and some believe that neuroscience will help to solve at least some of them. Others emphasize that neuroscience creates even more problems for legal insanity. In this presentation, I will consider three questions. Firstly, conceptually, why is it that mental disorders may exculpate a person? Secondly, which practical issues have to be taken into account concerning legal insanity and its criteria? Thirdly, to what extent is neuroscience creating and solving problems and dilemma’s regarding legal insanity?


Michael Moore: Nothing But a Pack of Neurons: Responsible Reductionism About the Mental States that Measure Moral Culpabiliy

The talk initially distinguishes four challenges commonly thought to be presented to responsibility by contemporary neuroscience: determinism, epiphenomenalism, physicalistic reductionism, and fallibilism. Only the third is the subject of this talk. Three sub-topics about physicalism are then pursued. First, four forms of physicalism (reductionism, non-reductionist physicalism, componential mechanism, and eliminative materialism) are distinguished, both between themselves and as a group from dualism. Second, the metaphysical plausibility of each is lightly sketched. Third, the implications of these varieties of physicalism for responsibility in law and morals is examined.


Robyn Repko Waller: Advancements in the Libet paradigm and implications for free and appraisable agency

Libet and his colleagues pioneered neuroscientific studies in action production to test the widely accepted claim that conscious (proximal) intentions initiate action. His work spurred a flurry of related studies, on the basis of which some theorists – including Libet himself – have concluded that our conscious intentions never cause our overt actions. If our conscious intentions never cause our actions, it is sometimes claimed, then we lack the control required to act freely and to be morally responsible for our actions. Such studies and claims have been the target of a number of well-developed objections, methodological and otherwise. For instance, one criticism is that past studies failed to address or generalize to intentional actions characteristic of free and morally appraisable conduct, namely those actions that feature deliberation and weighing of moral reasons. The aim of this talk is to survey the very latest developments in this (broadly-defined) paradigm. I will argue that, even given marked improvements in methodology and sharpened conceptual distinctions, we ought to be wary of any denials of free will and moral responsibility that relies on such results.


Nicole Vincent: Why Capacity Matters: The fairness of treating people like that like that for that

The most distinctive feature of the capacitarian compatibilist defence of responsibility from determinism’s alleged threat is the shift of focus from metaphysics to psychology. Responsible people on this account are those who have the right psychology – the mental capacities needed to recognize and respond appropriately to reasons – not those who (e.g.) have the ability to act differently given the actual history and laws of nature. However, this paper argues that although this might faithfully characterize how we distinguish people who are fully responsible from people who are not – by features of their psychology, their mental capacities – it does not actually explain why having the right psychology makes one a legitimate target for blame or punishment. For instance, when a capacitous and sub-capacitous person do the same thing, something that’s wrong and prima facie appears like a legitimate candidate for retributive-style punishment, the capacitous person may be treated more harshly than the sub-capacitous person. I address this problem by offering my own compatibilist account of why psychology matters — why, in my view, we may blame and punish capacitous wrongdoers more than sub-capacitous wrongdoers. On my account, mental capacity matters because of the role it plays in assessments of whether a given system of responsibility would be fair when it treats people like that like that for that. After unpacking the last few words of the previous sentence (also in the title for this talk), the last part of my talk will be devoted to explaining how this approach addresses the challenge that I set up in the first part of my talk, as well as highlighting a few other attractive features of my approach.


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