free will versus determinism

Most of our philosophical concepts go back to the ancient Greeks. Not the concept of free will.

The Homeric Greeks believed in fate, rather than freedom. They believed that circumstances were beyond their control. In the writings of Plato and Aristotle, there is no term that would naturally be translated as “free will”. The emergence of the concept of free will can be dated to about the 4th Century AD, and was an ingenious solution of Christian theologians to the so-called Problem of Evil. If God is all powerful, and God is all good, how come there is evil in the world? The answer, said Saint Augustine, is that man has free will.

What can a brain scan tell us about free will?“, BBC News Magazine, 13 August 2013.

What if the Saint Augustine was wrong. What if we don’t have free will? If our actions are beyond our control, how we be blamed or punished for them? Consider the following notorious case.

The sudden and uncontrollable paedophilia exhibited by a 40-year-old man was caused by an egg-sized brain tumour, his doctors have told a scientific conference. And once the tumour had been removed, his sex-obsession disappeared. ….

“He wasn’t faking,” says [University of Virginia neurologist Jeffrey] Burns. “But if someone argues that every paedophile needs a MRI, the difference in this case was that the patient had a normal history before he acquired the problem. Most paedophiles develop problems early on in life.” ….

The man, a schoolteacher, began secretly visiting child pornography web sites and soliciting prostitutes at massage parlours, activities he had not engaged in previously. ….

When the man’s wife found out …, he was legally evicted from his house, found guilty of child molestation and medicated for paedophilia.

The judge ruled that he had to pass a … rehabilitation program or face jail time. But the man was expelled after … asking women at the program for sex. ….

After he was remanded to psychiatric care, … a MRI scan revealed an egg-sized brain tumour. ….

[S]even months after the tumour was removed, and after successfully completing the Sexaholics Anonymous program, the man returned home. In October 2001 he complained of headaches and secretly collected pornography once more. But after a MRI scan revealed tumour regrowth and it was removed, the behaviour again disappeared.

Charles Choi, “Brain tumour causes uncontrollable paedophilia“, New Scientist, 21 October 2002.

There is much food for thought here. The BBC news article, which is interesting throughout, provides a link to the New Scientist article.


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