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Can We Be Free-Willing Robots?

On the Possibility of Free Will in a Deterministic World

8. Mental Illness

Book cover: Free: Why Science Hasn't Disproved Free Will by Alfred R. Mele

The fourth kind of situation that can limit the ability to choose freely is mental illness. This occurs where the mental illness constrains a person's mental capacity to reason and regulate their behaviour, either because of genetic history, accident or disease. Here are a couple of examples in which ordinary folk talk about how a mental illness robbed a person of free will.

1. June experienced hallucinations that commanded her to commit various acts. She wrote:

I find that it is like my free will has been removed and have no alternative but, to obey.

[Symptoms of Schizoid Personality Disorder, Nemade, 2009]

She also linked this feeling of compulsion to the feeling that the voice inside her head 'keeps me from being myself'.

2. In this second example, Herschel Hardin is the father of a child with schizophrenia. He lamented that the illness deprived all those affected by the illness of the capacity for free will by robbing them of rationality and autonomy. As he put it:

Their personalities are subsumed by their distorted thoughts

[Uncivil Liberties, Hardin, 1993]

As these examples show once again, the common themes in the ordinary person's way of thinking about free will are that the exercise of free will requires that a person's character is intact and that they can reason.

I want to talk for a moment about mental illness and the insanity defense. The insanity defense has a long history in jurisprudence. In many legal jurisdictions, the defense applies when it is judged that the accused is dispossessed of their free will. Experts for the defense must testify that the accused is either cognitively incompetent, unable to comprehend the nature of the act and to reason about it, or volitionally incompetent, unable to control their impulses.

What's important to note here is that expert witness for the prosecution is never called upon to demonstrate that the causes of the defendant's transgression were themselves uncaused activities in the brain. Contrary to what the libertarian says, contra-causal brain activity is not required to be proved in a court for the insanity defense to be challenged. For an example of how the absence of free will in the mentally incapacitated works in a legal defense, please refer to the case of Colorado v. Connelly [1986] in my essay. There, you will also find reference to a useful history and critical review of the insanity defense by Julie Grachek [The Insanity Defense in the Twenty-First Century, Indiana Law Journal, 2006].

Copyright © 2018

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