The Free Will Debate

Published: 2019/12/04 Number of words: 2772


“He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. Its insincerity was clearly to be seen. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice”
(Burgess, 1962: 94).

After behaviour-altering experimentation Burgess’s anti-hero of A Clockwork Orange finds his world altered, his free will negated, and his moral choice extinguished. If the argument concerning the possible affect brain injury has on criminal activity is to be discussed, further debates have to be pursued. The essence of this argument relates to the idea that a regular person without a brain injury has a higher degree of mental self-control than an individual with a brain injury. This is illustrated by Alex in A Clockwork Orange, whose choice was altered, albeit through mind-altering perceptions forced upon him.

Obviously, for a change in criminal activity as a result of a brain injury, the mental capacity of decision-making needs to have been affected, essentially the nature of response to our actions. This carries any assertion into the argument of determinism. It becomes imperative to ask whether the notion of free will exists. Without free will, our fundamental ability to choose is questioned, given the determined nature of ourselves and the world around us.

Ranging from strict determinism to the dualist position and finally to compatibilism, the mind-body problem shapes into a highly debated area of theory (Gomes, 2007). It will become clear not only why this section is imperative to the debate pertaining to brain injury and behaviour, but also why this area remains so contentious. The concept of strictly determined actions refutes every individual’s idea of what he or she represents; to suggest that free will does not exist affronts the belief that we choose to act, which in effect proposes that we do not live on our own terms (Skinner, 1953).

Strict Determinism

Strawson (2000) defines strict determinism as the ‘no-freedom theory’, perfectly outlining the essence of the argument. The theory states that all actions are determined by the unconscious brain, decided by forces acting upon the will, externally, through past experiences, and internally, through our genetic personality and neurological composition (Gomes, 2007). Whilst an individual may believe that he has decided upon his own actions, in reality our unconscious brain has pre-determined these choices, removing the existence of any free will (Libet, 1999). Whilst strict determinism can sound overly simplistic, an almost computerised nature of existence, it remains a highly complex theory, even within the individual brain.

Within determinism, take the specific notion of criminality, essentially the moral choice of our brains, or as Baron-Cohen (2011) would say, our propensity for empathy. These decisions are taken by the medial prefrontal cortex, dealing with our own behaviours and intentions, and the superior temporal sulcus, dealing with the feelings of others (Frith and Frith, 2003). Whilst these actions are not dealt with by the entire brain, a decision questioning our empathy can involve more than ten interconnecting regions of our brain (Baron-Cohen, 2011).

The predetermined natures of our decisions become far more complex. Whilst this can appear difficult to comprehend, Gomes describes it as an ‘ignorance of causes’ (2007: 224). Strict determinism, taken on a macroscopic level (the level measurable by the naked eye), can be ultimately predictable. Our society has been created from the remnants of the last, and will be the cause of the next (Laplace, 1951). In terms of brain injury, this represents the limit of determinism. Worryingly, humans incapable of choice also lack criminal culpability (Fuller, 1969).

Determinism and Human Limitation

Looking further at causal determinism opens the issue of Laplace’s demon (1951). This theory, relying on the premise of determinism, states that if there were a being who could comprehend all the forces acting for and against every action in the universe, then ‘nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present in its eyes’ (Laplace, 1951: 4). Whilst this is an example of the universal possibilities of determinism, the application of such a theory only shows the limits of human intelligence.

When discussing the brain’s influence on behaviour, an individual’s perceptions of consequence are crucial. Whilst humanity can comprehend the existence of past and future circumstances, it does so with no certainty of consequence. ‘Probability is relative, in part to this ignorance, in part to our knowledge’ (Laplace, 1951: 6). An individual can deduce that only one outcome can prevail, but he remains no closer to knowing which path will be taken. Understanding such information within a single moment was the hypothetical downfall of Laplace’s demon. This was portrayed with surprising ingenuity in one episode of the DC Comics series Animal Man, where Laplace’s demon made a brief appearance (Prosser, 1995). Due to the completely overwhelming task of comprehending the entire universe’s actions, Laplace’s demon could not move or respond, driven insane by his task. This shrewdly signifies not only the boundaries of human comprehension, but also the limit to which individuals can perceive an infinite nature of universe, whether this is on a macroscopic or a microscopic level of probability (Longley, 2006).

Determinism and Probability

He is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinity in which he is swallowed up (Pascal, 2008: 25).

As determinism only exists on a macroscopic level, the notion of choice greatly affects the argument about brain injury influencing behaviour. It is important to understand this when considering the subsequent affects the brain can have on an individual’s criminality. Whether socially, scientifically or mathematically, it remains difficult to discard the existence of the no-freedom theory. Even simple macroscopic events such as tossing a coin are impossible to create a true possibility for.

Consider a biased coin, where we have no information about which way the bias is until we have experimented. At the outset neither a head nor a tail is more likely than the other at the first throw (Jeffreys, 1948: 345).

Although this act may be determined, any finite probability is the ratio of two infinite probabilities, and the result becomes indeterminate. Similar to tossing a coin, committing a crime is a finite decision. Whether committed or not, criminality remains an unconsciously determined choice. Neurologically, a brain injury can drastically change decisions. This strict determinism opposes the traditional view of man as a free agent, and such suggestions are deemed offensive to those who believe in choice (Skinner, 1953).

Although the brain’s functioning may have altered, the issue would remain as to what the ’cause’ of criminality would be, considering the absence of free will. The reason why determinism should be viewed with extreme care is due to another concern, namely the ‘my brain made me do it’ legal defence, where all individual responsibility is abandoned amidst the controversial neuro-determinism theory (Tallis, 2007).


The dualist position provides a greater flexibility of free will and determinism than the no-freedom theory. However, due to the evolving theory of dualism, it must be viewed from two stances, as modern interpretations have become distanced from the classic Cartesian hypothesis.

Cartesian Dualism

Upon a great illumination of the intellect there follows a great inclination of the will (Descartes, 1954: 289).

Cartesian dualism centres on the premise of an entity separate from the brain. Descartes (1954) saw two sides of the human consciousness, both engaged in decision-making, each exhibiting notions of free will and determinism. Whilst Cartesian dualism is largely outdated, it still provides interesting theoretical insights into the possible triggers of evil in the human brain and the possible effects an injury could have on the process. For example, in a decision where one path is preferred, it usually follows that this path, whether ultimately chosen, will remain sought after. Given the constant shift of human desire, these preferred courses will occasionally be forgotten as soon as they pass. Later, such desires are questioned, as the human consciously doubts the reasoning behind the original judgments. When this scenario involves someone with a brain injury, such impulsive decisions can often lead to irrational choices, and whilst later regretted, they have unfortunately occurred.

Descartes describes the doubt of our instinctive desires as a mindful indifference to our internal free will. The will has some power to influence voluntary decisions and it represents one side of the human consciousness, namely volition or ‘the operation of the will’ (Descartes, 1954: 187). The will itself represents desires and the moral questioning of these desires. An individual may be inclined to steal, rape or kill, but he does not act upon these impulses; he enters into a natural contract with others who similarly waive their rights to such immoral desires in favour of peace (Hobbes, 1991). Given his altered behaviour, a brain injury victim may not possess such moral judgment.

The mind, or intellect, represents the cognition form of consciousness, taking experiences from ‘sensation, imagination, and pure intellection’ (Descartes, 1954: 187). These two forms symbolise the internal decision-making process of the human brain, weighing experience and knowledge against desires.

Where Descartes’ theory becomes questionable in the modern era is when discussing acts of evil, obviously a key area when discussing criminality and the brain. The first issue pertains to Descartes’ broad terminology. His stated ‘occasion of sin’ (Descartes, 1954: 290) is similarly described as doing wrong. It remains unclear as to whether Descartes is referring to acts of malicious evil to others or moments of personal mistake or detriment. From either stance, Descartes retains the belief that occasions of sin cannot be committed consciously, because our intellect, and our will, would not proceed: ‘omnis pecans est ignorans1 (Descartes, 1954: 291). Whilst many criminals perhaps attempt to ignore the evils their act causes, to suggest that criminal activity is committed on an entirely unconscious level cannot apply on a widespread scale; this proposal is wholly naïve.

However, where a brain injury has damaged the orbito-frontal cortex (OFC), social judgment can be affected (Beer et al., 2006). This could lead to a scenario where criminal acts may be unforeseen in the individuals’ actions. As will be shown in the case of Bobby Joe Long, there is often little doubt as to whether severe brain injury occurred, only as to its association with crime (Philbin and Philbin, 2009). The modern understanding behind the human consciousness may subsequently affect the relationship between brain injury and criminality.

Descartes’ first identification of the mind-body problem has been distanced from modern dualism. Giving credence to the suggestion that a detached entity could control a person’s criminality would be to ’embrace a false dichotomy’ (Martell, 2009: 3).

1 In the act of sin a man is always ignorant

Modern Dualism: Libertarianism

Libertarianism, the modern view of dualism, centres on the premise of multiple choices, where the limits of previous experience and internal behaviours cannot specify a definite path (Gomes, 2007). Here, free will is simply thought of as the conscious brain. Whilst there may be many internal and external factors related to decision-making, they do not, in the libertarian view, completely amount to the final choice. Where such a conscious choice exists, brain injury can affect the moral judgment of the individual, as stated by Louise Wilkinson in the primary research.

As Gomes (2007: 223) states, ‘The will causes physical events but it is not caused by physical events’. The Cartesian view entails a mind versus brain scenario. A modern view is of the conscious brain versus the unconscious brain, different sections of the unconscious brain relating to the final choice, which is made consciously.

If free will is a natural entity outside the neural activities of the unconscious brain and it is able to alter physical events of natural causality, then there is no question it is undetermined (Gomes, 2007). Free will, according to this theory, cannot remain as another section of the determined brain if involved in conscious resolutions. Whilst libertarians discard the view of determinism and free will, the theory of compatibilism finds equal credence in both, thus instigating behaviours which could be transformed by brain injury.


Compared to the incompatibilists of determinism and libertarianism, compatibilism provides for a unity of determinism and free will (Nichols, 2007). The result can be, through the denial of totally strict determinism or the existence of free will, a theory that fails to define either system. Leaving its general ideas open to interpretation invokes criticism of compatibilism, with the view of the theory as ‘soft determinism’ (James, 1956: 166) perhaps being nearer its true concept.

Compatibilism maintains that actions are either freely chosen or automatic responses. These two forms of decision-making are entirely different, and they co-exist within all individuals. The causal events that determine neural reactions, if broken, can leave decisions undetermined and open to a freedom of choice (Searle, 2000). Whilst not entirely negated from natural causality, freedom is a conscious decision to start, continue or stop an event or action. Unlike determined actions, the accountability for these conscious intentions lies with the individual, borne from causal events determined by the brain.

Take, for example, the term ‘I had my reasons…’ The ‘I’ is used in an external sense, distant from the conscious decision made (Gomes, 2007). The reasons for the decision, based on desire, have been forgotten, so blame is attached to an unconscious version of ourselves (Descartes, 1954). In the reality of the compatibilist, the ‘I’ was the thought, a determined action that was entirely internal. Thus, the ‘I’ is individual and personal, despite it being a distant, almost unconscious, entity (Gomes, 2007).

From a radical empiricist standpoint, Hume (2000) states that the ‘I’ is only part of the brain. Whilst Hume maintains a determinist view of the brain as passive, he states that humans can ignore these decisions. ‘[I]f we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may’ (Hume, 2000: 66).

Equally, in his explanation of the theory of alternate possibilities, Frankfurt (1969) argues that moral responsibility and determinism can be compatible. Frankfurt (1969: 838) states that ‘a person is not morally responsible for what he has done if he did it only because he could not have done otherwise’. This compatibilist stance takes the determined nature of the unconscious brain and the moral nature of the conscious brain. It then concludes that a decision, when taken wilfully, amounts to moral responsibility. Within the brain injury debate, social perceptions often deem any wilful decision to amount to moral blame, regardless of behavioural changes. This was intimated in Iwan’s contact with the police.

However, when considering the compatibilist position, it remains difficult to have any certainty about the decision-making process. Conclusions are made, although there is little definition. Honderich (1990) argues that compatibilists fail to explain the causality of determinism whilst similarly embracing a system that relies upon it. Whilst compatibilists refuse to accept other theories, they make use of their notions and conclude that decisions are made through the possibility of determinate acts taken by conscious choice.

Theoretical discussions concerning consciousness and autonomy provide a foundation to discuss case examples of brain injury. Viewing possible instances of injury, and their criminality, provides genuine illustrations to support the theoretical debate. However, the following individuals present further discussion, given their indeterminate and occasionally unidentified injuries.

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