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Who pushes who about in the careenium?


A fairly short post on a very big topic.  With the way modern neuroscience is moving, such that one can look at a very detailed brain scan of the make-up of a persons brain and detect the differences that make one person a murderer, and another not, Hume’s Fork becomes less of a philosophical debate, and more of a scientific one.

Hume’s Fork is basically a philosophical brain-teaser, along these lines. If an action I perform is a result of a decision I take because of who I am, and who I am is either the result of my genetic make-up (for which I am not responsible) or my childhood upbringing (for which I am not responsible) why am I responsible for my actions?


As a lawyer, part of my intrinsic belief system is that whilst I can understand that an individual is made more likely to do something they shouldn’t because of background or circumstances, there is still ultimately a degree of free will, and thus responsibility, that says “I am more tempted than another person might be to steal that flat-screen TV from a bookies during a riot, but it is up to me whether I actually DO steal it or not”


But the more I read on modern neuroscience, the less I am sure about the reality of free will.

There’s a lovely paradox about free-will versus determinism (the opposite concept that basically, you don’t really make decisions, the decisions you think you are making are just an illusory construct of the various factors beyond your control acting on you, and that you could really do nothing other than what you believe you just decided to do).


It is called Newcombe’s Paradox. In this, a super-intelligent alien, or computer, or God, whatever you feel most comfortable with, says to you “I have put a cheque in these two envelopes, A and B.  And I have also predicted what you will do, when given the choice of just opening A, or opening both A and B.

If I think you will just open A, then there is a cheque for £1,000,000 in envelope A, and a cheque for £10,000 in envelope B.  If I think you will open both envelopes, then there is a cheque for £1 in envelope A, and a cheque for £10,000 in envelope B. 

The cheques are already written, and in sealed envelopes. I don’t go anywhere near them after you make your choice. So, do you want to open Envelope A, or both envelopes?”


Now, depending on whether you believe in free-will or determinism, you’ll have a very strong and clear view as to what you should do. You’ll also have a very clear and strong view that the other option is wrong (unless you’re far too reasonable to be reading a law blog)


The interesting thing is, if you imagine that your best friend goes into the booth and looks inside the envelopes just before they are sealed, they will ALWAYS want you to open both envelopes, because that ALWAYS makes you £10,000 better off.


Anyway, that’s probably fried your mind for a few minutes, and made you argue with anyone else you put this Paradox too.


This blog all inspired by the excellent blog on neuroscience and the law on the Human Rights Blog today, by Rosalind English of One Crown Office Row. I wish I’d written it.


The title of my blog entry today, stolen from Douglas Hofstadter, who was writing about free will and choice and illusion of free will and choice, artificial intelligence, game theory, morality, cooperation, and just about every topic of any consequence in the modern world back in the seventies, and was also the author of the first book ever purchased on Amazon. I could not recommend Douglas Hofstadter more highly to anyone who wants to stretch their mind.

About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

3 responses

  1. So this is where I’m at with it…..if the brain structure changes permanently as a result of early experience (which is looking very likely) such that the parts of the brain that light up and give us nice dopamine induced feelings of joy when we look at our offspring lie dormant and like a wet afternoon in a power cut in Blackpool….can we stop making these parents feel inadequate for failing their kids and think about what biological assistance we could give them to have the sparks flying, or at least enough for a window of joy to expand enough to get them caring enough? Or should we use it to forward Gove’s ethnic cleansing policies? Scan all parents at week 1 of the 26 weeks; if there’s no light in the relevant bit of the brain, advance straight to go collecting £200 on route for ticking the score card?

  2. Isn’t free will a Christian construct and has got into our thinking through that? Free will requires a ‘spirit’ or some kind of homunculus to make the decisions – which is a concept that we might be adult to discard.

    As someone pointed out, thoughts are electro chemically produced in the brain – that’s as much as we know.

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