Dennett Discusses Neurobiology and the Law

Tufts University professor Daniel C. Dennett discussed the ways in which neuroscience may impact human understanding of moral and legal responsibility to an overflowing audience in Pound Hall at Harvard Law School yesterday.

The event, titled “Free Will, Responsibility, and the Brain,” was sponsored by the Law School’s Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS), and began with a Dilbert comic strip depicting free will as an ambiguous concept.

“It does justice to our common sense thinking about free will,” he said of the comic strip.

Dennett, who co-directs the Tufts University Center for Cognitive Studies, is best known for his arguments that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes in the brain.

Early in the talk, Dennett asked the audience to flick their right wrists in the next ten seconds, explaining that their brains decided to perform the action a third of second before it actually occurred.

The experiment showed, he said, that unconscious action of the brain precedes the conscious action of an individual.

“Your conscious is out of the loop,” he said. “A voluntary act begins in the brain unconsciously before the person acts consciously.”

Yet Dennett said that the last minute “veto window,” also known as “free won’t,” allows conscious function to affect the final outcome.

Through the discussion, Dennett said he hoped to figure out how to undo the misunderstandings surrounding neuroscience’s implications on human responsibility.

He mentioned the common belief that determinism is incompatible with free will, but quickly dismissed it as a mistake.

The talk was intended to pique interest in understanding the human animal, in accordance with SALMS’s efforts to expose the Law School community to research and concepts from psychology, neuroscience, and other mind sciences, said SALMS President Matthew B. McFeely.

“I hope that attendees of the talk were encouraged to examine a little closer some of commonly held assumptions about people and their behavior,” McFeely said.

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