March 11, 2007

Don't blame me...

Peter Burnett, writing on new ideas in neuroscience that imply that we have no responsibility for what we do...

.....Professor Morse is correct that there is nothing particularly original here. Each new wave of determinist thinking tends to arrive with a splash and claim the idea that our behaviours are influenced by genes, brains, nature, nurture, the stars, the climate or whatever is brand new and a counterpoint to a supposed universal historical belief that humans are independent actors in full control of their lives and equally capable of choosing from an infinite number of possible actions. In fact, the opposite is the case. Almost nobody believes that or ever did. Free will, moral agency and individual responsibility are gifts of monotheism, which holds we have the capacity to rise above our largely determined natures, but not without struggle and not unaided. That belief is the historical exception to the rule and the grounding of the most prosperous, culturally rich and successful civilization in history.

Determinism is the default belief in human history. It defines paganism, which explains why aboriginal peoples and so many African communities cannot break out of endless cycles of poverty and pathology. It defined much of Asia until Asians consciously and expressly rejected their traditions to adopt Western ways. Since about fifty years after the Enlightenment, it has largely defined secularism. Not unlike medieval astrologers, Marx, Freud, Darwin and a host of minor others all argued man is in the grip of forces of which he is unaware and which absolved him of responsibility for his actions and fate. Their popularity was instant and widespread, demonstrating what every lawyer knows–that people will go to the most extreme lengths to find exculpatory explanations for their actions, no matter how heinous or injurious. It is the man who genuinely admits responsibility that is the rare exception....
Posted by John Weidner at March 11, 2007 8:01 PM
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