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…