Neurobiology vs. Free Will

by Ben Cipollini

14 June 2011

Recent Cogsci Graduate Jordan Davison shared the following interview of Nora Volkow (currently the director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse) via Facebook.


In this interview, Dr. Volkow talks about the loss of free will in people with addictive disorders such as alcoholism.  She laments the social marginalization of addicts, explaining that, in most countries, insurance angencies will not reimburse medical expenses related to addressing an addiciton.  She points out that people's ability to choose freely, like anything else, comes from the neurobiology of the brain, and these issues in addiction and breaking them are as physical as other neurological disorders such as depression or ADHD or other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease or lung cancer.

While Dr. Volkow's points are sound, I think they are too narrow and neglect the foundation of our society: while "free will" may just be a fancy label for a biological process, we treat that process as special.  Our "every-day" conception of morality, justice, personality, love... all rest on the sense of agency--the ability for a person to freely and willfully choose their actions.  Without a sense of agency and free will, these concepts take on very different meanings.

One question that Dr. Volkow doesn't address (and that I don't believe she could address) is, if we stop using the concept of free will for addicts, then why would it be OK to use the concept of free will for any other aspect of human behavior?  The inability to handle one's emotions, leading to crimes of passion, is just as biological as addiction.  We certainly believe that, for each individual, there are biological bases for mass murder, pedophilia, and any of the other crimes.  Each of these individuals, in the view explained in Dr. Volkow's interview, would then become a "patient", and should be treated as such.

The same should be true of things outside of crime and justice.  Intelligence, hard work, emotion and art are all biological processes of the brain as well.  Should we celebrate landmark achievements by congratulating individuals for being born into an environment that allowed their genetic composition to produce their end phenotypes that ultimately led to their ability to work hard and achieve?

I'm not voicing opposition to any of these positions; I am only pointing out that, in this interview, Dr. Volkow is crossing the line between two conceptions of the human world without acknowledging it.  I believe we all think in terms of agency and free will, all base our judgment and values of other people on this concept.  Free will as a biological process is a fundamentally different view, one that can also account for the data we see in the world, but one that is incompatible with the "free will" conception we use every day.

I don't believe either one of these views is wrong, only that we must recognize the incompatibility of these views, and not get hung up in which one is "right" or "wrong".  I believe that failure to recognize both the existence of these two conceptions and their mutual incompatiblity leads to fruitless and ultimately unresolvable arguments between scientists focused on data and biological causes, and others who focus on free-will conceptions.  Instead of getting lost in what are essentially illogical fights, we have the opportunity to choose for ourselves how we want to create our conception of the world from the conceptual parts we have available to us.  I say, let's do it! :D

Related tags: drug addiction, free will, neuroethics