Neuroscience and the Paradox of Free Will

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Duration 01:05:05

Duke University

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Departments of Philosophy and of Psychology and Neuroscience, and the Law School at Duke University. He has received fellowships from the Harvard Program in Ethics and the Professions, the Princeton Center for Human Values, and the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. His most recent books include Neuroscience and Philosophy and Free Will: Philosophers and Neuroscientists in Conversation.



Recent neuroscience has made amazing progress in understanding why people choose to do what they do. Consumers buy certain products, voters support certain candidates, and people fall in love partly because of how their brains function. These insights lead many people to give up on free will and moral responsibility. They accept “My brain made me do it” as an excuse for all kinds of misbehavior in everyday life and criminal law. They ask whether we are justified in punishing addicts who take drugs, pedophiles who molest children, and psychopaths who rape and kill. If not, how should our legal system handle these problems? To address these questions, this class will discuss what neuroscience has discovered, what free will is, which brain conditions undermine moral responsibility, and how criminal law should be updated considering contemporary neuroscience.


Recommended Reading:

Responsible Brains: Neuroscience, Law, and Human Culpability, by William Hirstein, Katrina L. Sifferd and Tyler K. Fagan

What does recent neuroscience tell us about criminal responsibility?, by Maoz & Yaffe, 2015


Discussion Questions:

  1. Do humans ever act of their own free will? When or why not?
  2. Are addicts, pedophiles, or psychopaths morally responsible for what they do? Why or why not?
  3. Does neuroscience suggest that our criminal law system needs to be reformed in any way? How or why not?




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Good stuff!

Great presentation on a classic topic that, in my humble opinion, has not been substantially resolved.

1 year ago
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