A condition for lying is that a speaker states something that they believe to be false, but this in itself is not enough since in the context of tell ing a joke or reporting someone else’s words, a false assertion is not a lie. When in the context of a scientific experiment someone is told to assert false statements it is far from clear whether they can be said to lie. As such any link between the observed neural activity and lying is far from being established.
Another, more complex, example is that of freedom. This concept must face apparently serious challenges coming from the empirical findings of various sciences. In particular the experiments by Libet and Walter where brain activity was measured using an EEG machine found that conscious awareness of decision making is preceded by activity in the brain. Also the social sciences often focus on social factors that determine human choices thus giving the impression that human freedom may turn out to be nothing more than a comforting illusion. What is clear is that here we have another example of the modern problem of how to deal with the apparent tension between theoretical or scientific accounts of human actions and our concrete experience of the same.
The main argument in defence of the reality of freedom is based on our self-experience as an individual who is a free agent and not just an element in a chain of cause and effect. We find it necessary in our social life to assume that people can be held responsible for their actions, whether in the legal sphere or in the context of institutions such as family life, schools, businesses and so on. In each it is necessary to understand human behaviour in terms that are not reducible to cause and effect. However there is an additional issue raised by the kind of experiments done by Libet and Walter which is the actual concept of freedom being assumed. Here, as in many discussions about the freedom of the will, freedom is understood in terms of a decision made at a specific moment in time. The agent who makes the decision is then thought of as somehow being outside the situation controlling what is happening, and so making a free decision which then gets relayed to the body that obeys. While some decisions may be understood in these kinds of terms they are not typical. For example the decision to raise my hand just to demonstrate this kind of freedom can hardly be thought of as a typical expression of human freedom. In most cases my free acts are part of a practice, which itself has been taken up in the light of longer term goals and values, as such they are not isolated events. So freedom is implied in the overall practice and in the overall conduct of my life, and is not only to be located in specific, let alone isolated choices.
These problems are perhaps not insurmountable. Once careful attention is made to the relevant concepts better experiments can be devised. However here a second problem arises. Many of the concepts under discussion involve normative characteristics which in part constitute their meaning. Human actions are normed and so gain their meaning through their response to these norms. A thought can be lucid or equivocal, it could be consistent with or contradicted by other thoughts; brain processes like neurons firing, as viewed from the abstract perspective of neuroscience, cannot have these features. Given that there is this disconnect between the abstract view of brain processes and the normative character of human actions we might conclude that neuro-scientific experiments have no relevance at all to these philosophical questions. To help think about this we can consider an example of what Selim Berker describes as the best-case scenario: “We notice that a portion of the brain which lights up whenever we make a certain sort of obvious, egregious error in mathematical or logical reasoning also lights up whenever we have a certain moral intuition.” Now what should we conclude from this? Do we automatically question the moral intuition? This must depend on the case itself, in the situation where we can see no connection between the moral intuition and the mistaken bit of mathematical reasoning the neurological result can only make us stop and think. We look again at the moral reasoning and see if we can find anything untoward about it, or if we can see an analogy with the mathematical reasoning. In and of itself the neuro-scientific experiment cannot be decisive.
In the absence of any normative connection we are best advised to continue trusting the moral intuition and wait to see if later neuroscientific results are able to make finer distinctions that throw light on the connection between the faulty mathematical reasoning and the moral intuition. To take this further we can give a more specific example, again borrowing from Selim Berker, “Suppose the same part of the brain that lights up whenever we affirm the consequent also lights up whenever we have an intuition that infanticide is impermissible; would you be willing to start killing babies on those grounds?” The point of the rhetorical question is that our moral intuitions can have a strength and decisiveness that should rightly resist the alleged conclusion of complex empirical investigations.
Now we can develop a second scenario where we do come to see that the moral intuition in question rests on the same sort of confusion present in the mistaken bit of mathematical/logical reasoning, then of course we would have good reason to look more critically on the moral intuition, but in that case the neuroscience isn’t playing a direct justificatory role. Further our moral judgement that infanticide is wrong may well rest on more than just the given moral intuition now cast under suspicion. What is the role of the experiment? We can notice that “we might not have thought to link the moral intuition to that sort of mathematical/logical blunder if we hadn’t known the neuroscientific results; but again, once we do link them, it seems that we do so from the comfort of an armchair, not from the confines of an experimental laboratory. It is as if, while trying to prove whether or not some mathematical claim is true, your mathematician friend had said to you, “Why don’t you try using the Brouwer fixed point theorem?” If you end up proving the claim to be true using that theorem, your justification for the claim in no way depends on your friend’s testimony. (After all, she didn’t give away whether she thinks the claim is true or false.) Nonetheless, your friend’s testimony gave you a hint for where to look when trying to prove or disprove the mathematical claim”