Cognition, free will and democracy

Elections are on everyone’s mind today following Labour’s disastrous showing in Glasgow East.


Thinking about the electoral process made me wonder if there was a tension between what we know about cognition and a commitment to democracy.


One of the consistent themes to emerge from a number of behavioural and cognitive sciences in recent years is that the conscious decision-making part of our mind has a lot less primacy than we like to think.


We know that the neurological processes that generate our conscious thoughts are dependent on chemical and electrical reactions in other parts of our brains of which we are completely unaware. More worryingly still, recent research published in Nature found that “the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness”.


What price free decisions then?


But of course democracy is rooted in the idea that we are rational decision-making agents capable of exercising free will.


I’ve referred in an earlier post to the debate about whether neuroscience abolishes free will. This normally finds its way into the public arena in relation to criminal responsibility  – “it wasn’t me m’lud; it was my brain” – but its implications for democracy are even more profound. (Drew Western covers some of this ground in his book the political brain.)


Without free will democracy looks absurd. Of course, it may be the most absurd system except for all the other systems that have been tried, but I think that many of us would feel uncomfortable with the idea that the democratic process is simply a complex way of post-rationalising unconscious and unwilled reactions.


As I’ve said before, I think there are both philosophical and scientific reasons to resist the idea that we have to give up on free will, but I’m not sure the argument is yet won – in any event the relationship between free will and democracy shows us how these debates have very real meaning and are not just academic abstractions…



4 responses to “Cognition, free will and democracy

  1. The whole question of the relationship of Neuroscience and Freewill is fascinating. However suffice it to say that it is perfectly clear that our brains are not wholly deterministic systems. Of course neurology constrains our freewill, but it certainly doesn’t abolish it.

  2. I’ve now read the paper you ref. (minor point, it’s a brief communication in Nature Neuroscience, not a paper in Nature!). Although it is quite interesting what it actually claims is that there is a c.55% chance of predicting a free L/R decision a few seconds before it is consciously made. This is of course entirely consistent with freewill – it would only be a problem if there were a 100% prediction.

  3. Jamie O'Brien

    Many thanks, Jonathan, for raising this interesting theme. I’m reminded of the scene in The Ascent of Man (BBCTV, 1974) where Bronowski is standing in a foggy Icelandic valley to explain how democracy is based upon biological adaptations. Having trained as a mathematicians, Bronowski had been part of the 1945 fallout evaluation delegation to Hiroshima. His horror at the destruction led him to biology in order to explain how humans can both include and banish democratic ideals in their social relations.

    Great apes have never created a democracy; this is an attribute unique to human societies. Great apes, like humans, are capable of both social organisation and of killing their fellow kind. We are genetically very similar to chimps and gorillas, but I doubt that our invention of democracy is a simple matter of ensuring social cooperation, or of avoiding war. A human brain bears important differences to that of an ape’s. However, democracy cannot be explained by the biological differences between our brains and theirs – e.g. that the enlarged prefrontal cortex must have in it something which brings about parliaments and councils.

    I have recently gone back to Terence Deacon’s excellent book ‘The Symbolic Species’ (Penguin, 1997), which is a neurological account of human language and describes many of the biological differences between us and other highly communicative animals. If I can paraphrase Deacon’s argument succinctly, it is that language (hence the social relations that language affords), should be regarded as a sort of semi-alive virus that takes symbiotic advantage of how our brains happen to be formed. This perhaps links in with Gould and Vrba’s notion of ‘exaptation’, by which evolutionary niches are secured by an attribute or behaviour that takes advantage of a biological adaptation for some other condition.

    Advanced social relations such as democracy might well have their origins in biological adaptations, but the link with these adaptations has been lost. As with all aspects of human life, democracy seems to me to be a linguistic, symbolic activity – albeit with direct consequences for our physical well-being. Either that a strain of voters of Glasgow East have developed an SNP gene!

  4. A commentator on my blog sends this link which is a corrective against the neo-phrenology of over-reliance on FMRI.

    And to Jamie O’B – ditch the “virus” metaphor of language which is deeply misleading – a good place to start is my friend Martin Nowak’s book Evolutionary Dynamics and his chapter on language.

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