Ahead of the annual Francis Bacon lecture, a workshop to discuss in-depth philosophical theories was held throughout the day.
It is being claimed with increasing frequency that neuroscientists have demonstrated that we do not consciously will our seemingly voluntary actions; that they have a cerebral or evolutionary origin; that it is our biology that is calling the shots.
In short, that the discoveries of neuroscience have added weight to the arguments of traditional determinism; that they have demonstrated that we are either not as free as we thought or that we are not free at all; and that, thanks to brain scientists, we now know to be true, on the basis of empirical evidence, what hitherto philosophers and others only feared might be true.
There is something questionable, of course, about the claim that empirical science can address essentially metaphysical questions such as whether or not human freedom is real.
At any rate, if the arguments for determinism were sound, then we would require no data to support them. Be that as it may, some biologists think that what they have discovered about brain activity further supports the case for denying that we have free will. I will show why they are mistaken.
My focus on neurodeterminism is also motivated by this: that a critical examination of it will highlight some of the erroneous assumptions that lie inside determinism tout court and reveal what is often allowed to pass through unchallenged.
It remains popular in some quarters to suppose that many, if not all, of the core capacities of the modern human mind are best understood in terms of inherited, special purpose, domain-specific cognitive devices – viz. modules.
Although there is disagreement in the modularist camp about some of the defining features of mental modules – for example, it is disputed whether modules must be informationally encapsulated – there is fundamental agreement that modules make use of contentful representations.
Arguments are supplied that cast serious doubt the existence of mental representations with the required properties. If such arguments succeed we have reason to rule out certain views about what modern humans could have inherited from our ancient ancestors.
Concluding on a more positive note, the prospects of Sterelny’s (2010) Scaffolded Mind Hypothesis (SMH) as a viable alternative are considered.
Focusing on the special case of ‘theory of mind’ abilities, attention is given to the role that social practices involving public artefacts – such as narratives – might play in engendering these by drawing, in part, upon species common, inherited capacities while nevertheless going significantly beyond them.
Despite a number of powerful critiques, evolutionary psychologists continue successfully to popularise the view that there is a universal human nature to be discovered through reflection on our evolutionary origins.
One central and perhaps insufficiently noted problem with evolutionary psychology is the extent to which it is based on an increasingly obsolete and indefensible understanding of the evolutionary process.
Reflection on recent insights from disparate fields including genomics, epigenetics, and developmental systems theory not only highlights these weaknesses in neo-Darwinism and, consequently, evolutionary psychology, but also offers some suggestions as to a more sophisticated understanding of the relation between evolution and human nature.