by Paul Bloom
Scientists and philosophers argue that human beings are little more than puppets of their biochemistry. Here's why they're wrong.
Aristotle’s definition of man as a rational animal has recently taken quite a beating.
Part of the attack comes from neuroscience. Pretty, multicolored fMRI maps make clear that our mental lives can be observed in the activity of our neurons, and we’ve made considerable progress in reading someone’s thoughts by looking at those maps. It’s clear, too, that damage to the brain can impair the most-intimate aspects of ourselves, such as the capacity to make moral judgments or to inhibit bad actions. To some scholars, the neural basis of mental life suggests that rational deliberation and free choice are illusions. Because our thoughts and actions are the products of our brains, and because what our brains do is determined by the physical state of the world and the laws of physics—perhaps with a dash of quantum randomness in the mix—there seems to be no room for choice. As the author and neuroscientist Sam Harris has put it, we are “biochemical puppets.”
Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, and the author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (2013).